Tuesday, July 28, 2015

More talk that all the talk about federal sentencing reform is about to produce some action

As July winds down and as more opponents of sentencing reform have become more vocal, I was coming to believe that all the talk (and more talk) of bipartisan efforts to finalize a federal sentencing reform bill was going to end up as another example of inside-the-Beltway sound and fury signifying nothing.  But this new New York Times article, headlined "Push to Scale Back Sentencing Laws Gains Momentum," has me wanting to believe that optimism is still more justified than cynicism on this sentencing reform front. Here are excerpts:

For several years, a handful of lawmakers in Congress have tried to scale back tough sentencing laws that have bloated federal prisons and the cost of running them.  But broad­based political will to change those laws remained elusive.

Now, with a push from President Obama, and perhaps even more significantly a nod from Speaker John A. Boehner, Congress seems poised to revise four decades of federal policy that greatly expanded the number of Americans — to roughly 750 per 100,000 — now incarcerated, by far the highest of any Western nation.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who has long resisted changes to federal sentencing laws, said he expected to have a bipartisan bill ready before the August recess.  “It will be a bill that can have broad conservative support,” said Mr. Grassley, who as recently as this year praised the virtues of mandatory minimums on the Senate floor....

Of the 2.2 million men and women behind bars, only about 207,600 are in the federal system, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  But because the federal system has grown at the fastest rate of any in the country, many on the left and the right say they believe it exemplifies the excesses of America’s punitive turn. “If we can show leadership at the federal level,” Mr. Durbin said,  “I think it will encourage other states to open this issue up for debate.  The notion that we can create a bipartisan force for this really has value.”...

The dynamic is similar to the fight this year over changes to the Patriot Act when younger, more libertarian members — again supported by Mr. Boehner and Mr. Obama — worked with Democrats to change the law and eventually even won over a reluctant Mr. Grassley.

July 28, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Federal authorities grant parole to spy Jonathan Pollard after 30 years in prison

As reported in this new New York Times story, headlined "Jonathan Pollard, Spy for Israel, to Be Released on Parole in November," a high-profile defendant who committed his crimes before the federal system abolished parole has now benefited from the reality that life sentences in the past frequently just meant a long period before parole eligibility. Here are the details:

Jonathan J. Pollard, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1985 for passing classified documents to the Israeli government, will be released on parole in November after 30 years in prison, a government panel decided on Tuesday. Mr. Pollard’s lawyers announced the decision of the United States Parole Commission on Tuesday afternoon, and officials at the Department of Justice confirmed that Mr. Pollard had been granted parole.

Mr. Pollard, 60, had been scheduled for mandatory parole in November, but could have been kept in prison for years longer if the United States government had objected to his release, citing concerns about an ongoing threat to national security.

Last week, officials for the Department of Justice signaled that they would not object to Mr. Pollard’s release if the United States Parole Commission determined that he should leave the prison in North Carolina where he is being held. “The Department of Justice has always maintained that Jonathan Pollard should serve his full sentence for the serious crimes he committed, which in this case is a 30-­year sentence, as mandated by statute, ending Nov. 21, 2015,” Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for the department, said in a statement....

White House officials have denied that Mr. Pollard’s imminent release — something that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and others in the country have demanded for years — is an attempt to placate the Israelis in the wake of the Iran deal. “Mr. Pollard’s status will be determined by the United States Parole Commission according to standard procedures,” Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said last week. “There is absolutely zero linkage between Mr. Pollard’s status and foreign policy considerations.”

July 28, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Can a Public Defender Really Handle 700 Cases a Year?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this Mother Jones piece, which carries this subheadline: "A new ACLU lawsuit takes on a California county where 60 public defenders work 42,000 cases every year." Here is how the piece starts:

After being charged with burglary in 2013, Peter Yepez waited in the Fresno County, California, jail for a month before his assigned public defender came to talk to him.  This delay was a sign of what was to come: Between arraignment and sentencing Yepez spent more than a year being shuffled between nine different Fresno County public defenders, who he says told him they did not have time to work his case.  By then he'd missed his daughter's graduation and his young son's memorial service, and had fallen into depression.

Though he was originally accused of a domestic burglary, during those many months prosecutors added additional charges to his case, alleging that a victim had been present during burglary even though a police report filed at the time of the crime had claimed no one was there.  The new allegations would bump his original charge to a violent felony. Still, Yepez's public defender advised to him to accept all the charges and the punishment that would come — and so he did.  Now Yepez's record reflects a felony conviction.

Today Yepez is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed recently by the American Civil Liberties Union. The lawsuit, intended to expose the deficiencies in Fresno County's public defense system was filed against Fresno (a county in which close to a quarter of the population lives below the federal poverty line), the state of California, and its governor, Jerry Brown, for  systematic issues that the  ACLU claims led to thousands of poor defendants to be denied their constitutional right to adequate representation.  All of this, the ACLU says, has perpetuated greater racial inequalities in the criminal-justice system.

According to the ACLU's complaint:

  • With an annual caseload of 42,000 and fewer than 100 people on staff, the Fresno County Public Defender's Office is unable to keep up.

  • The American Bar Association and the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommends caseload caps at 150 felony cases or 400 misdemeanor cases per full time attorney.  But the 60 public defenders on Fresno's staff carry caseloads of more than four times that amount.

  • The county's public defenders office has high turnover rates — 50 attorneys quit between 2010 and 2014 — and new hires are often inexperienced.

  • Minorities make up about 70 percent of those arrested in Fresno.  The ACLU claims that immigrants are often instructed to plead guilty without being told how it might affect their immigration status.

July 28, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Obama Administration talking up restoring Pell grants for incarcerated

As reported in this Wall Street Journal article, the "Obama administration plans to restore federal funding for prison inmates to take college courses, a potentially controversial move that comes amid a broader push to overhaul the criminal justice system." This strikes me as big (and potentially controversial) news, and here are more of the details:

The plan, set to be unveiled Friday by the secretary of education and the attorney general, would allow potentially thousands of inmates in the U.S. to gain access to Pell grants, the main form of federal aid for low-income college students. The grants cover up to $5,775 a year in tuition, fees, books and other education-related expenses.

Prisoners received $34 million in Pell grants in 1993, according to figures the Department of Education provided to Congress at the time. But a year later, Congress prohibited state and federal prison inmates from getting Pell grants as part of broad anticrime legislation, leading to a sharp drop in the number of in-prison college programs. Supporters of the ban contended federal aid should only go to law-abiding citizens....

A 2013 study by the Rand Corp. found that inmates who participated in education programs, including college courses, had significantly lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who didn’t. Some congressional Democrats have proposed lifting the ban. Meanwhile, administration officials have indicated they would use a provision of the Higher Education Act that gives the Education Department the authority to temporarily waive rules, such as the Pell-grant ban, as part of an experiment to study their effectiveness.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch are expected to announce the program, which likely would last three to five years to yield data on recidivism rates, at a prison in Jessup, Md., on Friday. Key details aren’t yet clear, such as which institutions and what types of convicts would be allowed to participate.

An Education Department spokeswoman declined to comment. Asked Monday whether the agency would restore Pell grants for prisoners, Mr. Duncan told reporters, “Stay tuned.”

Stephen Steurer, head of the Correctional Education Association, an advocacy group, said two Education Department officials told him at a conference early this month the agency was moving to restore Pell grants for prisoners and allow many colleges and universities to participate. Money from the grants would directly reimburse institutions for the cost of delivering courses in prisons rather than go to prisoners, Mr. Steurer said.

“It will be substantial enough to create some data and to create enough information for some evaluation,” said Rep. Danny Davis (D., Ill.), who is co-sponsoring a bill with Rep. Donna Edwards (D., Md.) to permanently restore Pell grants for prisoners. “I think the political landscape has actually changed since the 1990s,” said Ms. Edwards. “We haven’t really been able to get a handle on recidivism. We have to present some training and opportunities. These are programs that work.”

She said her bill would cost relatively little up front—in the tens of millions of dollars—while having the potential to cut societal costs over the long term by reducing recidivism rates. Maryland spends nearly $40,000 a year per prisoner, she said.

But spending tax dollars on college for prisoners strikes many as an affront to families that have borrowed heavily in recent years to cope with skyrocketing college costs, causing student debt to soar to $1.3 trillion. “If we really want to keep people out of prison, we need to promote education at younger ages,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R., N.Y.).

Last year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo tabled a plan to use state dollars on in-prison college courses because of opposition from lawmakers. But in California, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation in June that includes $12 million to promote statewide priorities, including college classes in state prison, said state Sen. Loni Hancock, whose 2014 bill paved the way for an agreement between California corrections officials and the chancellor of the state’s community colleges. Ms. Hancock said classes could begin as soon as this fall.

July 28, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, July 27, 2015

"On the Argument That Execution Protocol Reform is Biomedical Research"

The title of this is the title of this notable and timely new piece by Paul Litton now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Regardless of whether the Supreme Court rightly upheld Oklahoma’s execution protocol in Glossip, Oklahoma officials had inadequate reason to choose midazolam as the anesthetizing agent in its procedure.  Their decision is one example illustrating Seema Shah’s point that death penalty states are engaged in “poorly designed experimentation that is not based on evidence.”  Shah argues that “an important factor” causing the high rate of botched executions is that lethal injection reform is a type of human subjects research that is going unregulated.  Shah argues that research requirements, such as informed consent and IRB review, are necessary to render the research permissible.

Part I of this essay grants Shah’s conclusion that death penalty states are engaged in human subjects research.  However, it argues that if protocol reform amounts to research, it is unethical for lacking social value, even if capital punishment is justified. The purpose of this “research” is to make executions palatable to the public and, thereby, maintain support for the death penalty.  (Its purpose is not to find a painless means of killing; we already have that knowledge).  However, the state disrespects its citizens by attempting to influence public opinion by a means that has nothing to do with reasons to support its policies.

Part II provides reasons to doubt that the law and ethics of research should govern protocol reform.  Contrary to Shah’s hopes, the application of the law and ethics of research to executions will not help ensure less suffering for the condemned.  Finally, Part III argues that describing lethal injection reform as human subjects research fails to add moral or legal reasons to condemn the way in which states have conducted recent executions.  The basic problem is not that protocols represent “poorly designed experimentation,” but rather that they are poorly designed.

July 27, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday funnies: Let's imagine who might be on Prez Donald Trump's SCOTUS shortlist

In the midst of having a serious discussion with a serious lawyer concerning of the possible future direction of some serious Supreme Court criminal justice jurisprudence, a somewhat silly (and ridiculous?) topic came up: if somehow Donald Trump were to be our next President, just who might he appoint to fill the next few Supreme Court opennings?

Of course, thinking about who the next President might appoint to the Supreme Court is anything but a silly topic.  This is especially true because there is a real chance the next President, if he or she serves for two full Terms, could have as many as four SCOTUS seats to fill.  The seemingly silly part come from imagining Donald Trump is the one who actually has the constitutional power to fill those spots.

The lawyer I was talking too quickly came up with one seemingly fitting name: Mark Cuban.  Might dear readers enjoy suggesting some others?

July 27, 2015 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Mr. Chairman, the president’s clemency power is beyond dispute"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary published in The Hill authored by Samuel Morison, who formerly served as a staff attorney in the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney.  The piece responds to the curious letter sent by House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte and fellow Republican committee to AG Lynch (discussed here) expressing "deep concern" for how the President has (finally) started to make serious use of his constitutional clemency powers.  Here are excerpts (with links included):

Goodlatte and his colleagues are certainly entitled to take issue with Obama’s decision to grant a measure of relief to persons sentenced under a set of laws that are widely viewed to have been, in practice if not by design, racially discriminatory and unjust.  But their constitutional claims are so illiterate that it is difficult to tell whether they expect the attorney general to take them seriously. 

The chairman’s criticism ignores settled practice stretching back to the beginning of the Republic.  Throughout American history, presidents have granted executive clemency to “specific classes of offenders” on dozens of occasions, from George Washington’s pardon of the Whiskey Rebels in 1795 to George H.W. Bush’s pardon of the Iran-Contra defendants in 1992.  Perhaps more to the point, in the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson commuted the sentences of several hundred prisoners serving mandatory minimum sentences under the Narcotics Control Act of 1956, without objection by Congress.

The historical lack of controversy shouldn’t be surprising.  Under our tripartite system of government, an act of executive clemency in no sense “usurps” legislative or judicial authority.  Rather, in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, it “is a part of the Constitutional scheme.  When granted it is the determination of the ultimate [executive] authority that the public welfare will be better served by inflicting less than what the judgment fixed.”  The president’s pardoning authority is therefore limited only by the text of the Constitution itself, not by the transitory terms of the criminal code.  Indeed, that was the Framers’ point in giving the power to the president in the first place, to act as a check on the other branches.

To be sure, the president’s systematic exercise of the pardon power to benefit “specific classes of offenders” has not gone entirely unchallenged by Congress.  But the Supreme Court long ago resolved this dispute in favor of Obama’s authority to redress the injustices entrenched by the current federal sentencing regime.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson issued a series of amnesty proclamations that restored the civil rights of former Confederate sympathizers.  This was enormously controversial at the time, not least because it undermined the Radical Republican’s designs for the post-war reconstruction of Southern society.

In the ensuing legal battle, the Supreme Court repeatedly struck down Congress’s attempts to constrain the president’s pardoning authority.  In 1866, the Court held, without qualification, that “[t]his power of the President is not subject to legislative control.  Congress can neither limit the effect of his pardon, nor exclude from its exercise any class of offenders.  The benign prerogative of mercy reposed in him cannot be fettered by any legislative restrictions.” 

The Court also rejected the effort to draw a false distinction between pardons granted to specific individuals on a case-by-case basis and a pardon granted to a class of persons by means of an amnesty proclamation, precisely the claim that House Republicans are making against Obama.  The president is therefore authorized to grant a general amnesty without congressional sanction, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

Finally, there is no reason to doubt that the president can grant clemency because of his own policy judgment about a particular law.  As one conservative federal judge recently opined, it is a “settled, bedrock principle of constitutional law” that “the president may decline to prosecute or may pardon because of the president’s own constitutional concerns about a law or because of policy objections to the law.” 

The historical irony, of course, is that a presidential power forged in a bitter political dispute over the property rights of Confederate rebels is now being used to afford a measure of justice to federal drug offenders, who are disproportionately African-American.  Turnabout, I suppose, is fair play.  But the president’s power is beyond dispute.

A few prior recent related posts:

July 27, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Could brain implants "make the death penalty obsolete"?

The technocorrections question in the title of this post is drawn from this intriguing Motherboard article authored by futurist Zoltan Istvan, headlined "How Brain Implants (and Other Technology) Could Make the Death Penalty Obsolete."  For those who believe (as I do) that technology could well become the most important (and mist disruptive) force in how we look at crime and punishment, this full piece is a must-read (and I am very grateful to the reader who sent this my way).  Here are excerpts:

The death penalty is one of America’s most contentious issues.  Critics complain that capital punishment is inhumane, pointing out how some executions have failed to quickly kill criminals (and instead tortured them).  Supporters of the death penalty fire back saying capital punishment deters violent crime in society and serves justice to wronged victims....

Regardless of the debate — which shows no signs of easing as we head into the 2016 elections — I think technology will change the entire conversation in the next 10 to 20 years, rendering many of the most potent issues obsolete.

For example, it’s likely we will have cranial implants in two decades time that will be able to send signals to our brains that manipulate our behaviors.  Those implants will be able to control out-of-control tempers and violent actions — and maybe even unsavory thoughts.  This type of tech raises the obvious question: Instead of killing someone who has committed a terrible crime, should we instead alter their brain and the way it functions to make them a better person?

Recently, the commercially available Thync device made headlines for being able to alter our moods.  Additionally, nearly a half million people already have implants in their heads, most to overcome deafness, but some to help with Alzheimer’s or epilepsy.  So the technology to change behavior and alter the brain isn’t science fiction.  The science, in some ways, is already here — and certainly poised to grow, especially with Obama’s $3 billion dollar BRAIN initiative, of which $70 million went to DARPA, partially for cranial implant research.

Some people may complain that implants are too invasive and extreme.  But similar outcomes — especially in altering criminal’s minds to better fit society’s goals — may be accomplished by genetic engineering, nanotechnology, or even super drugs.  In fact, many criminals are already given powerful drugs, which make them quite different that they might be without them.  After all, some people — including myself — believe much violent crime is a version of mental disease.

With so much scientific possibility on the near-term horizon of changing someone’s criminal behavior and attitudes, the real debate society may end up having soon is not whether to execute people, but whether society should advocate for cerebral reconditioning of criminals — in other words, a lobotomy.  Because I want to believe in the good of human beings, and I also think all human existence has some value, I’m on the lookout for ways to preserve life and maximize its usefulness in society.... 

Speaking of extreme surveillance — that rapidly growing field of technology also presents near-term alternatives for criminals on death row that might be considered sufficient punishment.  We could permanently track and monitor death row criminals. And we could have an ankle brace (or implant) that releases a powerful tranquilizer if violent behavior is reported or attempted.

Surveillance and tracking of criminals would be expensive to monitor, but perhaps in five to 10 years time basic computer recognition programs in charge of drones might be able to do the surveillance affordably.  In fact, it might be cheapest just to have a robot follow a violent criminal around all the time, another technology that also should be here in less than a decade’s time.  Violent criminals could, for example, only travel in driverless cars approved and monitored by local police, and they’d always be accompanied by some drone or robot caretaker.

Regardless, in the future, it’s going to be hard to do anything wrong anyway without being caught.  Satellites, street cameras, drones, and the public with their smartphone cameras (and in 20 years time their bionic eyes) will capture everything.  Simply put, physical crimes will be much harder to commit.  And if people knew they were going to be caught, crime would drop noticeably.  In fact, I surmise in the future, violent criminals will be caught far more frequently than now, especially if we have some type of trauma alert implant in people — a device that alerts authorities when someone’s brain is signaling great trouble or trauma (such as a victim of a mugging).

Inevitably, the future of crime will change because of technology.  Therefore, we should also consider changing our views on the death penalty.  The rehabilitation of criminals via coming radical technology, as well as my optimism for finding the good in people, has swayed me to gently come out publicly against the death penalty.

Whatever happens, we shouldn’t continue to spend billions of dollars of tax payer money to keep so many criminals in jail.  The US prison system costs four times the entire public education system in America.  To me, this financial fact is one of the greatest ongoing tragedies of American economics and society.  We should use science and technology to rehabilitate and make criminals contribute positively to American life — then they may not be criminals anymore, but citizens adding to a brighter future for all of us.

July 26, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Saturday, July 25, 2015

"Federalism and Retroactivity in State Post-Conviction Proceedings"

The title of this post is the title of this notable article authored by Stephen R. McAllister appearing in the latest issue of The Green Bag. Here are excerpts from the introduction:

This article builds on an amicus brief I drafted for Kansas in Danforth v. Minnesota several years ago, and considers whether the federal retroactivity doctrines are binding on the states when it comes to the states’ own post-conviction proceedings.  The article does not take issue with the well-settled propositions that Supreme Court decisions issued before state criminal cases become “final” are binding on the states and their courts, and that the federal courts will apply Teague retroactivity principles in federal habeas proceedings.

My conclusion is that there is no federal constitutional bar to the states developing their own retroactivity doctrines for state postconviction proceedings, whether those doctrines are broader or stricter than a federal habeas counterpart such as Teague.  So long as state legislatures and state courts make that decision as a matter of state law, there is no federal constitutional principle at stake, and no federal interests are harmed.  That said, Montgomery v. Louisiana does not seem a proper case in which to decide the issue.

July 25, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thanks to death penalty, one of worst racist mass murderers gets one of best defense lawyers

Download (7)One aspect of the modern death penalty that always irks me is the all-too-common reality that some of the very worst-of-the-worst murderers often get the help of some of the very best-of-the-best defense lawyers (and almost always at taxpayer expense).  As I write this post, there are literally tens of thousands of federal drug prisoners desparate to get the help of any lawyer to help them prepare a decent clemency petition.  But, as this local article highlights, white supremacist mass murderer Dylann Roof now is going to be represented in federal court by one of the very best defense lawyer in nation:  

Legendary death penalty lawyer David Bruck, who has more than 35 years of experience in South Carolina and around the nation representing people accused of heinous killings, has been appointed lead defense lawyer for alleged white supremacist killer Dylann Roof, according to federal court records....

Roof, 21, of the Columbia area, is charged with killing nine African-Americans in June during a prayer meeting at a historic downtown Charleston church, “Mother” Emanuel AME. Evidence against him includes a purported confession, an alleged online manifesto in which he announced his intention to start a race war by going to Charleston and Internet photos on his alleged website of him and his gun.

A federal grand jury in Columbia indicted Roof on Wednesday on 12 counts of committing a hate crime against black victims, 12 counts of obstructing the exercise of religion and nine counts of the use of a firearm to commit murder....

Bruck, 66, has the kind of experience Roof needs, lawyers familiar with death penalty cases said Thursday. “He’s the total package, versed in the law and quick on his feet at trial. He never screams or yells — he’s a methodical, intentional kind of guy,” recalled Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian, who as 5th Circuit prosecutor won a death penalty case over Bruck in a 1990s trial, only to lose to Bruck in oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in the same case.

Columbia defense attorney Jack Swerling, who has tried a dozen death penalty cases, said he has consulted Bruck on most of them.  “He’s my go-to guy,” said Swerling, known as one of South Carolina’s best criminal defense lawyers.  “He’s formidable, brilliant, and he is a passionate advocate against the death penalty.  He truly believes it’s not appropriate in any case.  That is his heart and soul.”

The Canadian-born Bruck, who graduated from the University of South Carolina law school and got his start defending S.C. death penalty cases in the early 1980s, helped win a life sentence in the nationally publicized 1995 case of child killer Susan Smith, now in state prison for drowning her children in a Union County lake.  He recently helped defend Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber who was sentenced to death in May....

But his record shows that few of his clients are acquitted by juries.  Instead, Bruck concentrates on either getting life sentences during the punishment phase of a capital case, or getting a death penalty overturned on appeal.  Over the years, Bruck has been involved in hundreds of death penalty cases across the country, either as a lawyer or adviser.

Since 2004, Bruck has been director of Washington & Lee University’s death penalty defense clinic, the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse.  Before that, Bruck practiced criminal law in South Carolina for 28 years, specializing in death penalty cases....

Most of the crimes Roof has been charged with in both state and federal arenas are death penalty eligible. However, a formal decision to seek the death penalty has not been announced by either state or federal prosecutors.  Death penalty cases are so complex that federal judges appoint defense lawyers knowledgeable in capital punishment law and trials well before a case has been formally declared a death penalty case.

“Judges don’t want to wait on the Justice Department,” said Columbia attorney Johnny Gasser who has prosecuted the only three federal death penalty cases in South Carolina’s modern era. “Judges want to go ahead ... to ensure that the accused is appointed the best legal representation possible.”

Of course, as critics of modern death penalty are right to highlight, not every capital defendant gets great (or even competent) defense representation. In fact, the sad reality in most state capital prosecutions is that poor representation has historically been much more common than top-flight lawyering. But, as we have now seen due to the mass murders committed by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Dylann Roof, when federal prosecutors get involved in a capital case, it is far more likely for some of the best lawyers in the country to be involved on the defense side. (This reality is one reason I quite seriously contend that capital punishment should be the (almost) exclusive province of federal prosecutors, and also a reason I half-jokingly suggest murderers should be sure to kill in a way that garners federal attention and triggers federal jurisdiction.)

July 25, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Friday, July 24, 2015

"Convicted Republicans Plead for Mandatory Minimums Changes"

The title of this post is the hedline of this notable new Roll Call piece.  Here are excerpts:

Kevin Ring, the lobbyist who was sentenced in 2011 to 20 months in federal prison for his role in a corruption scheme, was pitching to GOP aides gathered in the Rayburn House Office Building on an effort to overhaul mandatory minimum requirements. Ring, who has been working in downtown Washington, D.C., since his April prison release, wanted the staffers to understand that current guidelines more often send low-level dealers and addicts to prison, not drug kingpins....

Two other convicted Republicans who served time in federal custody joined Ring for the lunchtime forum aimed at building support for a proposal sponsored by Republican Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Democrat Robert C. Scott of Virginia. Red states are leading the way, and now it is “time that the federal government catches up,” Sensenbrenner, a former House Judiciary Committee chairman, said during his brief talk to staffers as they munched on Chick-fil-A lunches.

Despite positive feedback from Speaker John A. Boehner, Sensenbrenner acknowledged it would be tough to prod his bill forward. House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., is not on board. Sensenbrenner also suggested he may have “worn out my welcome” in the Senate, during the recent debacle over reauthorizing the Patriot Act, though a separate effort is gaining momentum in that chamber on a bipartisan basis.

Some federal prosecutors have expressed opposition to executive branch efforts to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, arguing they are an essential tool to dismantling drug rings.

Former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, disgraced in 2004 when he was forced to withdraw from his nomination to head the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, said it was “incumbent” that the next White House administration tackle mandatory minimums. Kerik pulled out of consideration after admitting he had not paid taxes for a domestic worker who may have been an illegal immigrant, and later pleaded guilty to eight felony charges, including tax fraud and lying under oath. He was sentenced to 48 months in federal prison.

Knitting, chess and checkers were offered as adult continuing education classes to inmates at the federal prison camp in Cumberland, Md., where Ring and Kerik served their sentences. “You can teach an inmate real estate or accounting, but that federal conviction will keep them from getting a license,” Kerik said.

“Idle hands are the devil’s playground,” echoed Pat Nolan, who served 15 years in the California State Assembly before he was nabbed accepting an illicit campaign contribution as part of an FBI sting. He pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering and served 29 months in federal custody.

Twenty-four hours earlier, in the same room, House Judiciary Democrats unveiled legislation that would end mandatory life imprisonment for incarcerated youth, as part of a package of bills focused on sentencing and incarceration. Ranking member John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, also introduced a measure aimed at increasing police accountability in the wake of high-profile deadly encounters between officers and black citizens.

“It is clear that improved national standards are necessary to address the ever-growing catalogue of incidents such as the case of Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas, where a routine traffic stop led to an arrest and a death in custody 72 hours later,” Conyers stated Wednesday. “It is critical that we adopt smarter approaches to dealing with those involved with the criminal justice system.”

Among Republicans, the blame was on the Justice Department. Nolan fired off at U.S. attorneys, saying their jobs are “entirely political” and driven by numbers. They have the tools to protect the public and keep the streets clean, he said, “but there’s no restraint.”

July 24, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Many notable passages in recent sentencing reform speech by DAG Yates

Images (5)Earlier this week in this post, I noted that US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates has been saying a lot of interest and import in support of federal sentencing reform efforts.  Of particular note, DAG Yates on Wednesday delivered these significant remarks at the Bipartisan Summit on Fair Justice.  The full speech should be read by all those interested in federal sentencing reform debates, and these passages struck me as worth highlighting:

[I]t’s because I’m a prosecutor that I believe so strongly in criminal justice reform.  I have seen firsthand the impact that our current system and particularly our federal drug sentencing laws, can have on communities, families, the public fisc and public confidence in our criminal justice system.  And it’s because of that I believe that we can and we must do better....

I’ve been a prosecutor for 26 years.  I believe in holding people accountable when they violate the law and I believe that some people are dangerous and need to go to prison, sometimes for a very long time.  But our system of justice must be capable of distinguishing between the individual that threatens our safety and needs to be imprisoned, versus the individual for whom alternatives to incarceration better serve not only that individual, but also make our communities safer....

While the country’s population has grown by about a third since 1980, our federal prison population has grown by 800 percent, due in large part to the influx of drug defendants. And today, under the current sentencing regime, our mandatory minimum laws do not calibrate a defendant’s sentence to match the threat that he or she poses to our safety.  At its core, one of the basic problems with our mandatory minimum system is that it’s based almost exclusively on one factor — drug quantity.  And so we have a hard time distinguishing the cartel leader who needs to be in prison for a long time from the low level mope who doesn’t.  As a result, we have some defendants serving far more time in prison than necessary to punish and deter and instead, in the words of former Attorney General Holder, sometimes we warehouse and forget.  This comes with great costs.  Costs to operate our prison system, costs to our families and communities and costs to the public’s confidence in their system of justice.

From a dollars and cents standpoint, prisons and detention now account for roughly one-third of the department’s budget.  Every dollar that we spend incarcerating non-violent drug offenders is a dollar that we can’t spend investigating today’s emerging threats, from hackers to home-grown terrorists.  These costs are swallowing up funds that would otherwise be available for state and local law enforcement, victims of crime and prevention and reentry programs....

Some states have been great innovators in criminal justice reform.  I met just yesterday with the National District Attorneys Association and I learned of many programs, from drug courts to recidivism reduction programs going on across the country designed to shift from incarceration as the only answer to prevention as the first response.  And many states, red states and blue states, like Texas, Ohio, North Carolina and my home state of Georgia, faced with exploding prison costs, have enacted bold criminal justice reform not only reducing the size of their prison populations, but also and this is the important part, reducing crime rates as well.  In the 29 states that have enacted laws limiting mandatory minimum sentences, shifting funds from incarceration to prevention, virtually every state has experienced a reduction in violent crime as well.

Despite all of this, there are some who want to keep things as they are.  One of the most common concerns that I hear expressed about eliminating or reducing mandatory minimums is that long sentences for low level defendants is the only way to secure cooperation against the worst criminals.  Not only is this inconsistent with my personal experience as a prosecutor, it is inconsistent with the data we have gathered since the Department of Justice recalibrated our drug charging policy two years ago.  As I expect you know, under former Attorney General Holder’s smart on crime policy, prosecutors were directed not to charge mandatory minimums for lower level, non-violent drug offenders and our use of mandatory minimums decreased by 20 percent.  Although some feared that defendants would stop pleading guilty and stop cooperating, our experience has been just the opposite. In fact, defendants are pleading guilty at the same rates as they were before we instituted the new policy.  So the fear that not charging mandatory minimums would prevent us from being able to work our way up the chain just hasn’t been borne out....

I am here in part because I believe that sentencing reform will make prosecutors and law enforcement officers more effective, not less.  Our ability to do good in this world — to advocate for victims, to hold wrongdoers accountable, to seek justice in all its forms — depends on public confidence in the institutions we represent.  It’s based on a hard-earned reputation for fairness, impartiality and proportionality that has forever been the bedrock of our criminal justice system.

As prosecutors, it is our obligation to speak out against injustices and to correct them when we can.  That’s why the Department of Justice is so engaged on this issue and I why I look forward to working with members of both parties as we seek a more proportional system of justice. Our nation and its citizens deserve nothing less.

Related recent prior posts:

July 24, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Looking ahead to SCOTUS 2015 Term's sentencing cases on its criminal docket

Over at SCOTUSblog, Rory Little has this terrific new post highlighting that 11 of the 35 cases already on the Supreme Court's docket for its next Term involve criminal law cases. Here is an except from the start of this post, along with the description of a few of the coming SCOTUS cases that have at least one sentencing fan especially revved up:

Eleven of the cases in which review has already been granted for the next Term are criminal-law or related (under my generous standards).  The Eighth Amendment portends to be a particular focus: four cases involve the death penalty, and a fifth involves juvenile life without parole.  The other interesting note is that, so far, not a single case granted for next Term involves the Fourth Amendment.  I can’t recall a prior Term where that was true at the end of the prior Term.

 Finally, five of the eleven cases in which review has been granted are from state supreme courts, suggesting that at least some of the Justices realize that waiting for a criminal case to come to them via a later federal habeas petition can obscure the legal question presented, due to the highly deferential standards now embodied in the federal habeas statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (the 1996 AEDPA amendments).

Here are brief descriptions of the criminal-law questions presented in the cases granted so far:

1. Hurst v. Florida:  Whether Florida’s death sentencing scheme, which permits a judge to find aggravating factors to impose death (and which does not require a jury to determine mental disability or to be unanimous in their findings or sentence) violates the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment in light of Ring v. Arizona.  (Florida Supreme Court)...

3. Montgomery v. Louisiana:  Whether Miller v. Alabama, which prohibits mandatory life without parole for juveniles convicted of homicide, applies retroactively. (Louisiana Supreme Court)

4 & 5.  Kansas v. Carr (along with another case with the same caption but a different case number) and Kansas v. Gleason:  (1) Whether the Eighth Amendment requires that a capital-sentencing jury be affirmatively instructed that mitigating circumstances “need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” as the Kansas Supreme Court ruled; and (2) whether the trial court’s decision not to sever co-defendants for sentencing in a capital case violates an Eighth Amendment right to “individualized sentencing.”  (Kansas Supreme Court)....

8. Lockhart v. United States:  Whether 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2), requires a mandatory minimum ten-year prison term for a defendant convicted of possessing child pornography if he “has a prior conviction … under the laws of any State relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward,” is triggered by a prior conviction under a state law relating to “aggravated sexual abuse” or “sexual abuse,” even though the conviction did not “involv[e] a minor or ward.” (Second Circuit)

July 24, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Federal prosecutors group propounds "The Dangerous Myths of Drug Sentencing 'Reform'"

The National Association of Assistant US Attorneys (NAAUSA) has recently prepared this white paper "to inform the public discourse about our current federal drug sentencing system and the most dangerous myths of drug sentencing 'reform'." Here is the paper's introduction to its list and discussion of seven most dangerous myths:

Congress is considering legislation that would dramatically change how we sentence drug traffickers in our federal courts.  These legislative proposals, including one euphemistically named the “Smarter Sentencing Act” (SSA), would slash federal minimum sentences for trafficking in all dangerous drugs by at least half and would make thousands of federal prisoners convicted of serious drug trafficking crimes eligible for early release without regard to their criminal history, violent background, or ties to gangs, drug trafficking organizations, or even international drug trafficking cartels.

Proponents also gloss over the significant changes in federal sentencing guidelines that have already and will continue to result in the early release of thousands of convicted drug traffickers.  These sentencing reductions and early prisoner releases have occurred and will continue to occur regardless of whether Congress enacts the SSA or other sentence reduction proposals.  The impact of these early releases is certain to inflict greater strains upon law enforcement efforts to preserve safety and dismantle gangs and drug trafficking organizations.  If the Smarter Sentencing Act or similar proposals are enacted, they will only aggravate and compound these harms.  Congress will have made our country less safe and contributed toward the reversal of a 20-year period of reduced crime in our nation.

It is critical that Congress avoid this path and understand the mistruths propounded by advocates of sentencing “reform” through the following seven myths.

In some subsequent posts I hope to find time to discuss some of the NAAUSA's discussion of at least some of these "most dangerous myths."

July 23, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Is it a big concern when a Prez candidate gets "big money" from private prison companies?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local story from Florida headlined, "Marco Rubio is Getting Big Money from For-profit Prison Companies." Here are excerpts:

According to Open Secrets, the second-largest for-profit prison operator in the country, GEO Group, is one of the top contributors to Marco Rubio's presidential campaign. Between 2013 and 2014, GEO Group gave Rubio $41,500, more than any other presidential candidate. The group is the ninth highest contributor to Rubio's campaign.

Is that a problem? Prison reform advocates think so, pointing to Rubio's actions as an elected official that have helped for-profit prisons — including a $110 million state contract that went to GEO back when he was Speaker of the Florida House.

"On a system that makes them wealthier the more people there are in jail, the only reason they would lobby these sort of things is because they expect their money to have a financial return," says Paul Kruger, executive director of Florida's chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, a prison reform advocacy group....

The presidential contender's ties to the for-profit industry are not new. And prison reform activists have always been wary of the lucrative connection between for-profit prisons and politics. But Rubio's ties are gaining steam online thanks to a petition demanding that Rubio cut ties with GEO Group for good now that he's running for president.

"Your ties to the prison industry go back to your years in the Florida state legislature and they’re disturbingly close," the petition states. "A presidential candidate should not be associated with imprisoning people for profit. You must break ties with the for-profit prison industry."

The for-profit prison industry is big business, raking in almost $3 billion a year nationally. Boca Raton-based GEO Group operates prisons throughout the southeast and since 2009 have added 7,600 new prison beds and grown by 10 percent.

Advocates point out that that Rubio's ties go beyond just taking donations. Back in 2006, Rubio hired Donna Arduin as an economic consultant. She's a former trustee for GEO Group. In 2011, after being elected a Florida state senator, Rubio hired Cesar Conda as his chief of staff. Conda is the co-founder of Geo Group's main lobbying firm, Navigators Global. While working under Rubio, Conda was still earning $150,000 from Navigators Global from a stock buyout agreement. In 2014, Conda went to lead Rubio's PAC, Reclaim America. It was during Conda's management that GEO Group became one of Rubio's top-10 contributors. Now, Conda is working back at Navigators Global....

Kruger contends that the companies are fueling a prison-industrial complex as they funnel big bucks into politics. He believes that Rubio — or any elected official in politics — shouldn't accept money from for-profit prison groups. "They don't do it because the guy is handsome," Kruger says. "They want to decide who goes to jail and for how long."

July 23, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Federal Sentencing in the States: Some Thoughts on Federal Grants and State Imprisonment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by John Pfaff now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

As the movement to reduce the outsized scale of US incarceration rates gains momentum, there has been increased attention on what federal sentencing reform can accomplish. Since nearly 90% of prisoners are held in state, not federal, institutions, an important aspect of federal reform should be trying to alter how the states behave. Criminal justice, however, is a distinctly state and local job over which the federal government has next to no direct control.

In this paper, I examine one way in which the federal government may be driving up state incarceration rates, and thus one way it can try to alter them: not directly through its criminal code, but through the millions of dollars in grant money it provides. A strong predictor of state prison growth is state fiscal health: states with more money spend more on everything, including prisons. And federal grants bolster state fiscal capacity. So perhaps one way that the federal government could change state sentencing would be to help prop up corrections spending less.

My final conclusion, while quite tentative, is also somewhat surprising. Contrary to my expectations I held when I started work on this paper, it does not seem as if federal spending is bolstering state spending on incarceration to a significant degree. So cutting back on federal funding for criminal justice activities may not have much impact on state decisions about incarceration. Which, perhaps somewhat ironically, may suggest we want the federal government to spend more, not less, but to allocate the money in ways that encourage states to adopt reforms that push back against excessive incarceration.

July 23, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Do gubernatorial moratoria on executions impact securing of death sentences?

The question in the title of this post is raised by the start of the capital phase of the death penalty trial of Aurora theater shooter James Holmes and is discussed in this interesting Los Angeles Times article.  The article is headlined "Death penalty is sought against James Holmes, but governor stands in the way," and here are excerpts:

When the jury found James E. Holmes guilty, Marcus Weaver cried. For his friend Rebecca Wingo, who died beside him in the Aurora, Colo., multiplex. For the dozens of victims in the 2012 rampage during a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises." For the families of the dead and wounded. Then he cautioned that last week's verdict "is just a stepping stone" on the path to justice.

The next step, Weaver hoped, would be the death penalty. But even if the jury decides to sentence Holmes to death in the penalty phase of his trial, which begins Wednesday, there are some questions about whether the sentence will be imposed. In the time since the Aurora shooting case got underway, Gov. John Hickenlooper has made it his policy that no one in Colorado will be executed as long as he is in office....

Juries across the U.S. continue to hand down death sentences, and prosecutors continue to seek them. But the effective moratorium in Colorado — no capital punishment can be carried out unless the governor signs the death warrant — is part of a political retreat that is gaining momentum. The number of U.S. executions has dropped dramatically since 1999, along with the number of death sentences handed down by juries.

Governors in four states, including Hickenlooper, have declared that they will not sign death warrants during their terms, citing the uneven way the punishment is carried out. This year, for the first time since these policies were adopted in Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Pennsylvania, major capital trials are taking place in two of those states that are testing juries' willingness to carry out the ultimate punishment. "What's the role of these reprieves? I don't think there's an independent effect, but it's part of an overall drift away from the death penalty," said Michael Radelet, a University of Colorado sociology professor who has studied the punishment for 35 years.

Although a gubernatorial moratorium will undoubtedly spur debate about a critically important issue, death penalty critics worry that the policies ultimately could end up changing nothing. Once the governors leave office, their replacements could decide to go back to signing death warrants. Anyone whose execution was on hold could again be sent to the death chamber....

In Washington state, 15 months after Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a death penalty moratorium, a Seattle jury in May refused to sentence Joseph McEnroe to death for killing six of his then-girlfriend's relatives on Christmas Eve 2007. The victims spanned three generations of Michele Anderson's family, including a 5-year-old girl and her 3-year-old brother. Anderson, also charged in the killings, goes on trial in September.

The Holmes case is the first death penalty trial in Colorado since Hickenlooper announced in 2013 that he would grant an "indefinite reprieve" to Nathan Dunlap, who killed four people at a suburban Denver Chuck E. Cheese's pizza restaurant in 1993 and was sentenced to death three years later.

The reprieve was granted as Dunlap's execution date neared and will last as long as the Democrat remains in office. Hickenlooper, who campaigned in 2010 as a death penalty supporter, has since said he is against capital punishment.

The political pushback was swift. Moments after the governor announced Dunlap's reprieve from the rotunda of the Capitol in Denver, Arapahoe County Dist. Atty. George Brauchler denounced Hickenlooper from the Capitol steps. Brauchler called Dunlap's execution "a no-brainer," according to the Denver Post, and said the governor refused "to make any hard decision today.... This is inaction. This is shrugging. This is not justice."

Brauchler is the same district attorney who said he would seek the death penalty against Holmes. He also turned down Holmes' offer to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison without a chance of parole, and he is leading the prosecution case against the gunman.

Still, a sitting governor's ability to veto a death penalty appears to be absolute in Colorado. And though many argue that such moratoriums are political posturing with no lasting effect, others say such gubernatorial declarations are a force for change.

"I think it's impactful when the governor of your state says your state should never be involved in killing anyone," said Craig Silverman, a former Denver chief deputy district attorney. "However, in the Holmes case we have jurors who are all death qualified, meaning they have committed to following Colorado law, which includes capital punishment, but we have a governor who is not."

July 22, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

DAG Yates: "our thinking has evolved on [drug sentencing], it’s time that our legislation evolved as well."

Download (6)I have noticed lots of good crime and punishment reporting at BuzzFeed lately, and this new lengthy piece discussing an interview with US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates is the lastest must-read. It is headlined "Justice Department: You Don’t Need Mandatory Prison Sentences To Put The Right Drug Criminals In Jail," and here are excerpts:

The central argument against the sweeping changes to the war on drugs proposed by the Obama administration and others goes like this: If you take away stringent mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, prosecutors can no longer use the fear of prison to flip drug criminals. If they can’t flip drug criminals, they can’t go after more powerful and dangerous drug criminals. And if they can’t go after those criminals, they can’t hope to make a dent in the illegal drug trade.

This was the governing principle of the prosecutors fighting the war on drugs for decades. Just a year or so ago, under the direction of former Attorney General Eric Holder, prosecutors changed the way they charged some drug criminals, avoiding charges carrying mandatory minimums when possible. Some prosecutors worried they’d lose their ability to net the biggest fish.

Sally Quinlan Yates, a career federal prosecutor now leading Obama administration efforts to reduce or eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences on Capitol Hill, says the old system was all wrong, and she can prove it. “There were some out there who were saying, and I understand this, ‘We’ll never get another defendant to cooperate with us, they’re not going to plead guilty, they’re not going to cooperate with us. We’ve lost our leverage, we won’t be able to work our way up the ladder,’” Yates, the deputy attorney general, told BuzzFeed News. “But that’s turned out just not to be true. In fact, the rate of guilty pleas has stayed exactly the same as it was prior to our new mandatory minimum policy and in fact the rate of cooperation is the same or has gone up slightly.”

Yates has been saying for years that mandatory minimums — which don’t apply in the vast majority of cases federal prosecutors coerce cooperation from all the time — aren’t necessary to put high-level drug offenders behind bars. Now she’s overseeing the process by which prosecutors move away from mandatory minimums, and she’s one of the leading advocates in the administration push to eliminate mandatory minimums altogether in most cases.

It’s a fundamental change to the way prosecutors think about their work when it comes to drug cases. Getting convictions without relying on mandatory minimums is a key legacy of Holder’s term as Attorney General, and now it’s a central part of Yates’ argument to lawmakers that it’s time to change the nation’s sentencing laws.

As real momentum builds on Capitol Hill to rewrite sentencing laws with the goal of refocusing prosecution and lowering the prison population — an issue of prime importance President Obama in the final months of his presidency — Yates is among the top administration aides helping the process along on Capitol Hill. She meets regularly with the members of the Senate in both parties attempting to hash out a bipartisan criminal justice compromise they can pass before the end of the year.

As that effort continues, Yates will continue to be among the most prominent administration faces pushing the Obama team position. On Wednesday, she’ll speak at a bipartisan criminal justice policy summit that organizers hope will solidify momentum and help keep the ball rolling in Congress.

Yates has drawn the praise of advocacy groups who say she’s able to connect with Republicans in a way the Justice Department often wasn’t able to when Holder was in charge, due in part to GOP rhetoric that cast Holder as the biggest villain in the Obama administration. Criminal justice is a top policy goal for Holder’s successor, Loretta Lynch, and Yates also works closely with top department officials to help push unilateral changes to prosecution procedure set down by first by Holder and now by Lynch. She also spends a lot of time talking to working prosecutors, the group that has expressed the greatest skepticism toward the sweeping changes pushed by criminal justice advocates and the administration.

“People get used to doing things a certain way. You ask folks to do something differently, there’s naturally some discomfort with that among certain prosecutors, I think,” she said. “So change is hard.” Yates knows how to speak their language. On paper, she is basically the prototypical tough-as-nails federal prosecutor....

Changes implemented by Holder as part of his smart on crime iniative — which guided prosecutors away from throwing the book at low-level nonviolent drug offenses — led to a reduction in prosecutions.  Yates is now in charge of implementing the new approach. She says most prosecutors welcome the changes, but Obama’s recent round of clemencies for nonviolent offenders sentenced under the old rules put into perspective how much of a culture change is still under way at the Justice Department.

“There are cases now that I see when I review clemency petitions and I see cases that were charged under different statutes, different laws at the time, and different policies [at the Justice Department] that certainly trouble me from a fairness perspective,” she said. “The prosecutors who were involved, they were following the department policies that were in place at the time. And so I’m not suggesting they were doing anything improper or unethical. But our thinking has evolved on this. And it’s time that our legislation evolved as well.”

Yates says prosecutors are open to changes, and she’s got the statistics to keep pushing those who are still skeptical. In the end she thinks the Justice Department will be continue to make the changes it can to the way the war on drugs is fought even if Congress can’t.

For Yates, the movement is a personal one. “At the risk of sounding really corny now, I’m a career prosecutor. I’ve been doing this for a very long time. And I believe in holding people responsible when they violate the law,” she said. “But our sole responsibility is to seek justice. And sometimes that means a very lengthy sentence, for people how are dangerous and from which society must be protected. But it always means seeking a proportional sentence. And that’s what this sentencing reform is really about.”

UPDATE: The speech that DAG Yates delivered today on these topics is available at this link. I will likely highlight a few notable passages in a later post.

July 22, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tough-on-crime crowd making the case for modern mass incarceration

The folks who blog at Crime & Consequences are among the most effective and eloquent advocates for the modern size, scope and operation of the American criminal justice system, and they have been especially active of late lamenting the ever-growing number of politicians calling the current system broken and urging reduced reliance on incarceration.   Here are links to just some of the major posts in this vein from C&C in the last few weeks (some of which link to others criticizing sentencing reform efforts):

July 22, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Monday, July 20, 2015

Local coverage of compelling realities to be at heart of Aurora shooter penalty phase

Not suprisingly, the Denver Post now has especially fullsome coverage of the key issues to surround the upcoming penalty phase following the capital conviction of James Holmes last week.  Here are two pieces (and their extended headlined) that caught my eye:

July 20, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Notable talk of bringing back the death penalty in two nearby US states

Two states that recently repealed their death penalty are now having folks discussing, as detailed in these two new media pieces, bringing back the ultimate punishment:

While the capital reform story in Nebraska has received broad coverage, I have not seen too much discussion on this topic from New Mexico. Here are excerpts from the capital story from the Land of Enchantment:

State leaders, including Governor Susana Martinez, discussed possible solutions to New Mexico's beleaguered justice system in the wake of an investigation about the state's 'boomerang thugs.'

KOB revealed how there are only 12 officers tasked with locating roughly 1,700 absconders and learned many criminals charged with child sex crimes have mastered the art of receiving sweetheart plea deals.

Commit a violent crime, there should be expectations -- courtrooms, fines and handcuffs. However, the system that's supposed to uphold those expectations, and keep the worst of the worst criminals locked up, has fallen apart. "So, the problem isn't throwing people in jail, or sending people to prison, it's who we send to prison," Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said....

Maestas said the system is backwards when it comes to prosecuting drug crimes versus violent crimes. He said drug users are demonized, in need of help, as violent criminals go free. "To prosecute violent crimes, it is very labor intensive," Maestas said. "You have to build a relationship with the alleged victim, and that's just not being done."...

Corrections Department Secretary Gregg Marcantel is just as frustrated as the 12 people on his fugitive task force unit responsible for trying to round up the absconders. "It's a never-ending game, a revolving door," one of them said. That comes as Secretary Marcantel struggles to keep people working in the state's prisons. "I hate to admit this, but I compete with McDonald's in Santa Fe for my staff," he said. Marcantel said some prospective employees to corrections facilities in Santa Fe would prefer to flip burgers for the city's minimum wage of $10.84 rather than earn slightly more, $12.35, to be a corrections officer cadet.

KOB approached Governor Martinez, a longtime prosecutor, to hear her thoughts on a justice system that seems badly broken. Last year, she supported a pay raise for some corrections officers, which helped reduce job vacancies in one office from 50 percent to five percent. Her office said it improved the career ladder and offered promotion opportunities for probation and parole officers. Martinez also wants to beef up the fugitive task force unit to send a message to absconders....

She said lawmakers should step in for once to make laws and penalties tougher while allocating more resources to the Corrections Department on the whole. Martinez also said she wants lawmakers to reinstate the death penalty in New Mexico, which was abolished in 2009. She said, in her experience, criminal offenders feel more compelled to cooperate with investigators when confronted with it.

July 19, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

"Prosecutors Rally Against Sentencing Reform, Say Build More Prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new piece in U.S. News & World Report. Here are excerpts:

Nervous federal prosecutors attempted to rally opposition Friday to criminal sentencing reform in response to President Barack Obama’s week of issuing commutations and making pro-reform speeches....

“The federal criminal justice system is not broken,” Steve Cook, the association's president, said at a lightly attended event in the nation's capital. “What a huge mistake it would be,” he said, to change sentencing laws.

Cook predicted the crime rate would rise and prosecutors would lose a tool to extract information if laws were made more lenient. He also denounced reform proponents for saying nonviolent offenders are being ensnared by tough Clinton-era drug laws. “They have misled the public every time they say, 'We’re talking about nonviolent drug offenders,'” he said. “Drug trafficking is inherently violent. … If you’re not willing to engage in violence [then] you will be out of the business quickly, or worse.”

Cook said the small number of inmates whose sentences have been shortened by Obama – the president has issued 76 drug crime commutations total, 46 of them this week – shows there’s not much of a problem with people serving unreasonably long sentences.

Rather than focus on reducing sentences, he said, the government should consider building more prison facilities. “Do I think it would be a good investment to build more [prisons]? Yeah, no question about it!” he said....

Molly Gill, government affairs counsel at the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, says Cook’s assertion the crime rate would rise after sentencing reform is a “demonstrably false claim and a shameful scare tactic.” In Michigan, New York and other states, she says, crime rates did not spike after mandatory minimums were repealed....

Cook, who was joined by two other federal prosecutors, made much of his speech Friday about societal ills associated with drug addiction, from babies going through withdrawal to people stealing from their families and dying from overdoses and car accidents. “There’s a pyramid of individuals who are affected by [drug dealers],” he said. “Many view [drug trafficking] as more serious than murder.”

He declined to say if state-legal recreational marijuana businesses and regulators in Colorado and Washington state should face marijuana-related mandatory minimums for breaking federal law.

Cook’s colleagues did not speak at the news conference. He described the event as the first of its kind by the group, which claims to represent 1,500 assistant U.S. attorneys, about 30 percent of the total.

Former President Bill Clinton, one of the leaders responsible for establishing inflexible penalties, this week said doing so led to the imprisonment of a lot of "minor actors for way too long." The association views his reversal as “misinformed,” Cook said: “We think he was right before.”

July 18, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Is Prez Obama truly "close" to opposing the death penalty?

The question in the title of this of this post is prompted by this recent Washington Post Wonkblog posting, which gets started this way:

A long-time associate and mentor to President Obama says the president is "close" to opposing the death penalty but not quite there yet -- and needs to be pushed to do it.

"He's not there yet, but he's close, and needs some help," said Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., a law professor at Harvard University and prominent death penalty opponent who taught the president and First Lady Michelle Obama when both were students there. The legal scholar said he was planning on meeting with his former student next month and would confront him about the issue then.

As Obama has increasingly confronted racial disparities in the criminal justice system and in American society in in his second term -- including on Tuesday before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- Obama has committed to doing more to address these issues in his final year-and-a-half. This week alone, he commuted the sentences of more than 40 low-level offenders, and is visiting a prison in Oklahoma today, becoming the first president to visit a federal penitentiary.

Obama, who has said he supports executions in some circumstances but raised concerns about the application of capital punishment, has not yet focused in this new push on racial disparities in capital trials -- the most serious cases before any criminal court. Now, just as he publicly changed his opinions on other major social issues in which public opinion changed, like gay marriage, some have wondered whether the president will change his perspective. As the charts below show, support for the death penalty, for decades strong in the United States, has been declining in recent years, just as support for gay marriage has increased.

Ogletree predicted that the president will eventually have no choice but to oppose the death penalty, confronted with the data on racial disparities in capital punishment, as well as on the costs of litigating capital cases and on the number of defendants who are eventually exonerated. "Even if he doesn't change his mind in the next year and a half, I think the public's point of view is going to influence him," Ogletree said. "As a citizen, he can have an enormous amount of influence."

July 18, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, July 17, 2015

Gov Christie joins growing chorus of GOP leaders urging reform of "broken" criminal justice system

Download (15)As highlighted by this Politico report, headlined "Chris Christie calls for ‘fresh approach’ to criminal justice," the only GOP presidential candidate with a long history as a federal prosecutor has now joined the ever-growing group of mainstream Republican voices advocating for significant criminal justice reform. Here are the basics of what the New Jersey Governor has to say on this front:

Chris Christie, decrying the large number of Americans in prison, on Thursday said it’s time to fix what he called “a broken criminal justice system.”

“Today, our prisons contain more people than any other nation in the world – 25 percent of the world’s prisoners,” the New Jersey governor and 2016 presidential candidate said in a speech in Camden, New Jersey. “I believe in American exceptionalism, but that’s not an achievement I think any of us want.”

Christie’s call for action came almost at the same time as President Barack Obama’s tour of a federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma on Thursday as part of his administration’s push for criminal justice reform.

In recent months, a series of deaths of unarmed black men by white law enforcement officers, and resulting riots, has sparked a national discussion about racial tensions, policing, and the U.S. prison system. It’s given a boost to a rare bipartisan push on justice reform, especially mandatory minimum sentences that disproportionately affect minority communities.

On Thursday, Christie talked about the importance of getting violent criminals off the streets, but he said harsh prison sentences don’t solve everything. “Peace on our streets is more than just the absence of violence. Justice isn’t something we can jail our way to. Justice is something we have to build in our communities,” Christie said.

He also framed his argument in terms of conservative values. “I happen to be pro-life, and I believe very strongly in the sanctity of life,” Christie said. “But I believe that if you’re going to be pro-life, then you ought to care about life beyond the womb. An unborn child is life. But life is also that 16 year-old addict lying on the floor of the county lockup.”

Specifically, Christie pointed to his own record in New Jersey as a path forward. He said New Jersey’s drug court program works, calling it a policy that keeps people out of prison and saves money. He said if he becomes president he will replicate it on the national level.

“Drug court is about making every one of our citizens long-term productive members of society again – because we should want that for everyone,” Christie said. He said that first time offenders of non-violent crimes should get treatment and non-custodial sentencing options. He also said that when people are put behind bars there needs to be a plan for rehabilitation for when they get out.

I am particularly intrigued to hear a GOP Presidential candidate with a long history as a federal prosecutor (and whose campaign slogan is "telling it like it is") now calling our criminal justice system broken. Another long-time former federal prosecutor, Bill Otis, has frequently taken to Crime & Consequences to complain when former Attorney General Eric Holder said our current system is broken. And in a comment dialogue following his latest posting in this arena, Bill seemed to suggest that some establishment Republicans may only be pretending that they share such a view in order to get campaign dollars from the Koch brothers. But given Gov. Christie's personal background and campaign themes, I would be really surprised if he would now be saying the system is broken if he did not really believe it.

July 17, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

You be the federal judge: should tax cheating former rep Michael Grimm go to prison?

As previewed by this AP article, headlined "Ex-NY Congressman Grimm Faces Sentencing in Tax Case," a high-profile white-collar defendant is due to be sentenced in federal court today. Here are the basics about the case to enable answering the question posed in the title of this post:

Lawyers for former U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm have asked a judge to spare him a prison term at his sentencing, while prosecutors argue he deserves at least 2 years behind bars for tax evasion. The sentencing Friday in federal court in Brooklyn before U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen follows Grimm's guilty plea late last year to aiding in filing a false tax return — a charge that stemmed from an investigation into the Staten Island Republican's campaign financing.

Prosecutors say the tax fraud began in 2007 after Grimm retired from the FBI and began investing in a Manhattan eatery called Healthalicious.  An indictment accused him of underreporting more than $1 million in wages and receipts to evade payroll, income and sales taxes, in part by paying immigrant workers, some of them in the country illegally, in cash.

Grimm, 45, won re-election in November while fighting the charges, but later resigned. In court papers asking for a sentence of probation, defense lawyers called Grimm's offense "an aberration in an otherwise remarkable life in selfless service of his country," including a stint in the Marine Corps.  They also argued that losing his career in Congress was punishment enough.

Grimm "is tremendously remorseful over his offense," they wrote.  "He understands that his tax violation is not something to be taken lightly, and he is anguished over his wrongdoing and will live with the shame of it the rest of his life."

Prosecutors countered by telling the judge Grimm's record of "falsely minimizing his criminal conduct and impugning anyone who questions him is indicative of an individual who has not come to terms with his own crimes."  The government papers cite a news conference last year outside the courthouse where Grimm called the case "a political witch hunt."  The papers also refer to an episode in which Grimm threatened to throw a local cable TV news reporter off the balcony of the capitol for asking about the campaign financing inquiry.

If there was a formal sentencing enhancement for acting like a pompous ass, I might expect Grimm to be heading to the federal pen. But I would guess that Grimm's ultimate willingness to plead guilty and resign from Congress will help him secure a nonprison punishment in this case.

UPDATE: This local article details that I was wrong in my guess that Grimm would not be sentenced to prison; as the headline explains, "Michael Grimm gets 8 months in prison at sentencing."

July 17, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"John Boehner Says Many People In Prison 'Really Don't Need To Be There'"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Huffington Post report which highlights that a very important GOP member of Congress has expressed his support for significant federal sentencing reform.  Here are the highlights: 

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said on Thursday that there were many people in prison "that really don't need to be there," telling reporters that he wants bipartisan legislation proposing criminal justice system reform to come to the House floor. "I've long believed that there needed to be reform of our criminal justice system," Boehner said. "Some of these people are in there under what I'll call flimsy reasons."

Boehner made the remarks while stating his support for the SAFE Justice Act, legislation introduced by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) last month that would implement a wide range of criminal justice reforms, including narrowing the use of mandatory sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders.

Among other measures, the bill would favor alternative sentences "in limited circumstances, in which the defendant is a first-time, low-level, nonviolent offender who is capable of being supervised by probation and has not been convicted of a crime of violence," or other serious offenses. The bill is currently sitting in the House Judiciary Committee.

Boehner's support is encouraging, both Sensenbrenner and Scott told The Huffington Post. “Chairman Sensenbrenner and I have been working for months to put together a bill that includes bipartisan, evidence-based, state-tested solutions to reduce crime and save money," Scott said in a statement. "I am encouraged by Speaker Boehner’s endorsement of the SAFE Justice Act and hope that his support will help us continue to build bipartisan momentum to make these changes law.”

Prior related posts:

July 17, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Previewing the penalty phase after James Holmes found guilty on all charges

This article, headlined "After the guilty verdict: What happens next in theater shooting case to decide James Holmes' fate?," provides a preview of what will define the penalty phase for the Colorado mass shooter after his conviction on multiple murder counts on Thursday. Here are the basics:

Now that the gunman has been found guilty on all 165 counts, the court is preparing to move to the part of the trial where a sentence will be determined. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for James Holmes, who on Thursday was found guilty of murdering 12 people, injuring 70 others and assembling incendiary booby-traps inside his Aurora apartment....

In the first portion of the penalty process, the prosecution must prove to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the crimes included at least one statutory aggravating factor. There are several such factors in Colorado, but these are the ones that might apply to this case:

  • The defendant committed the offense in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner
  • In the commission of the offense, the defendant knowingly created a grave risk of death to another person in addition to the victim of the offense
  • The defendant intentionally killed a child who has not yet attained twelve
  • The defendant unlawfully and intentionally, knowingly, or with universal malice manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life generally, killed two or more persons during the commission of the same criminal episode

Based on the defense team's statements in court Thursday evening, that phase of the case is only expected to last a few hours but the jury does have to deliberate and agree to move on.

If they do move to the next phase, jurors will be asked to hear mitigating factors presented by the defense. At this point, they're likely to hear from family and friends of the convicted shooter who could testify about his life. They are also likely to present information about his mental illness. Mitigating factors under Colorado law that could be included in this case are:

  • The defendant's capacity to appreciate wrongfulness of the defendant's conduct or to conform the defendant's conduct to the requirements of law was significantly impaired, but not so impaired as to constitute a defense to prosecution
  • The defendant was under unusual and substantial duress, although not such duress as to constitute a defense to prosecution; or
  • The emotional state of the defendant at the time the crime was committed
  • The absence of any significant prior conviction
  • The extent of the defendant's cooperation with law enforcement officers or agencies and with the office of the prosecuting district attorney
  • The good faith, although mistaken, belief by the defendant that circumstances existed which constituted a moral justification for the defendant's conduct
  • The defendant is not a continuing threat to society
  • Any other evidence which in the court's opinion bears on the question of mitigation.

After hearing those presentations, the jury needs to deliberate again to decide if the mitigating factors outweigh the aggravating factors. If they do, the case will move to the third phase.

In that third and final phase, the jury will be asked to judge the defendant's character against his crime. They need to decide if the prosecution has proven beyond a reasonable doubt if the death penalty is the appropriate penalty.

If at any point in the process the jury decides not to move to the next phase, the gunman would be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  Also, the vote must be unanimous to deliver a death sentence.

July 17, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Prez Obama makes history, and reflects, as he visits federal prison in Oklahoma

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This New York Times article, headlined "Obama, in Oklahoma, Takes Reform Message to the Prison Cell Block," provides a report on the President's historic visit to a federal corrections institute, FCI Reno:

They opened the door to Cell 123 and President Obama stared inside.  In the space of 9 feet by 10, he saw three bunks, a toilet with no seat, a small sink, metal cabinets, a little wooden night table with a dictionary and other books, and the life he might have had.

As it turns out, there is a fine line between president and prisoner.  As Mr. Obama became the first occupant of his high office to visit a federal correctional facility, he said he could not help reflecting on what might have been.  After all, as a young man, he had smoked marijuana and tried cocaine. But he did not end up with a prison term, let alone one lasting decades. “There but for the grace of God,” Mr. Obama said after his tour. “And that is something we all have to think about.” ...

Mr. Obama came here to showcase a bid to overhaul America’s criminal justice system in a way none of his predecessors have tried to do, at least not in modern times. Where other presidents worked to make life harder for criminals, Mr. Obama wants to make their conditions better.

With 18 months left in office, he has embarked on a new effort to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders; to make it easier for former convicts to re-enter society; and to revamp prison life by easing overcrowding, cracking down on inmate rape and limiting solitary confinement.

What was once politically unthinkable has become a bipartisan venture.  Mr. Obama is making common cause with Republicans and Democrats who have come to the conclusion that the United States has given excessive sentences to too many nonviolent offenders, at an enormous moral and financial cost to the country.  This week, Mr. Obama commuted the sentences of 46 such prisoners and gave a speech calling for legislation to overhaul the criminal justice system by the end of the year.

He came to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution on Thursday to get a firsthand look at what he is focused on.  Accompanied by aides, correctional officials and a phalanx of Secret Service agents, he crossed through multiple layers of metal gates and fences topped by concertina wire to tour the prison and talk with some of the nonviolent drug offenders he says should not be serving such long sentences.

The prison was locked down for his visit.  He was brought to Cell Block B, which had been emptied for the occasion.  Only security personnel were outside on the carefully trimmed grass yards.  The only inmates Mr. Obama saw were six nonviolent drug offenders who were selected to have a conversation with him recorded by the news organization Vice for a documentary on the criminal justice system that will air on HBO in the fall.

But those six made an impression.  “When they describe their youth and their childhood, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different from the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made,” Mr. Obama told reporters afterward.  “The difference is, they did not have the kind of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.”

He added that “we have a tendency sometimes to take for granted or think it’s normal” that so many young people have been locked up for drug crimes. “It’s not normal,” he said.  “It’s not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things.  What is normal is young people who make mistakes.” If they had the same advantages he and others have had, Mr. Obama added, they “could be thriving in the way we are.”

Still, he made a distinction between nonviolent drug offenders like those he was introduced to here and other criminals guilty of crimes like murder, rape and assault. “There are people who need to be in prison,” Mr. Obama said. “I don’t have tolerance for violent criminals; many of them may have made mistakes, but we need to keep our communities safe.”

More than 2.2 million Americans are behind bars, and one study found that the size of the state and federal prison population is seven times what it was 40 years ago. Although the United States makes up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it has more than 20 percent of its prison population. This has disproportionately affected young Hispanic and African-American men. And many more have been released but have convictions on their records that make it hard to find jobs or to vote.

In visiting El Reno, Mr. Obama got a look at a medium-security prison with a minimum-security satellite camp, housing a total of 1,300 inmates. He said the facility was an “outstanding institution” with job training, drug counseling and other programs, but had suffered from overcrowding. As many as three inmates have been kept in each of the tiny cells he saw.

“Three full-grown men in a 9-by-10 cell,” Mr. Obama said with a tone of astonishment. Lately, the situation has improved enough to get it down to two per cell. But, he said, “overcrowding like that is something that has to be addressed.”

Advocates said no president had ever highlighted the conditions of prisoners in such a fulsome way. “They’re out of sight and out of mind,” Cornell William Brooks, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., said in an interview. “To have a president say by his actions, by his speech, by his example, ‘You’re in sight and in mind of the American public and of this democracy,’ it’s critically important.”

But the president is not the only one these days. Republicans like Senators John Cornyn of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah have been working with their Democratic counterparts to develop legislation addressing such concerns.

Though I am not really expecting it, I would love for this kind of presidential visit to a prison to become a regular habit and something of a tradition. As President Obama stressed in his recent speech to the NAACP, most of the persons behind bars "are also Americans" and all presidents should be committed to serving all Americans, even those who are incarcerated.

July 16, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Lots of justified attention for Judge Alex Kozinski's new article, "Criminal Law 2.0"

Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski can gather the attention of lawyers and law professors for lots of reasons.  He is doing so these days because of his authorship of this provocative preface to the Georgetown Law Journal's 44th Annual Review of Criminal Procedure.

The piece is a must-read for everyone interested in criminal justice and criminal justice reform, and bloggers at Above the Law and at The Volokh Conspiracy are doing us the favor of highlighting especially interesting passages. Here are links to the bloggy Kozinski coverage so far:

12 reasons to worry about our criminal justice system, from a prominent conservative federal judge

Why Judges and Prosecutors Don’t Care If They’re Right

Kozinski On Juries, Sentencing, and Justice

Judge Kozinski on juries

July 16, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

New talk of abolishing the death penalty in Ohio spurred by pro-life conservative

As reported in this local piece, headlined "Renewed Effort Underway To Abolish Ohio's Death Penalty," talk of death penalty abolition is afoot again in the Buckeye State. Here are the details:

One state lawmaker is finding new allies in her fight to get rid of the death penalty. State Rep. Nickie Antonio has been down this road before. The Democratic lawmaker from Lakewood has tried several times to pass a bill that would eliminate the death penalty. “The state of Ohio needs to take the compassionate pragmatic and economically prudent step to abolish capital punishment,” Antonio said.

But while Antonio’s bill has stalled every session, this time she has picked up some support  — from freshman legislator Niraj Antani, a Republican from Miamisburg.  He says capital punishment is too expensive and represents the epitome of big government.  “To me there can be no bigger government with no bigger power than the right to execute its own citizens,” said Antani.

Antani is alarmed that about a dozen people on death row in Ohio have had their sentences commuted or exonerated. He calls on his fellow pro-life conservatives to side with him in getting rid of the death penalty. “I believe that — just the chance that an innocent individual could be put to death is reason enough to repeal it,” Antani added.

But other Republicans disagree. State Rep. John Becker who represents a portion of Clermont County says there are criminals such as mass murderers and serial killers who deserve execution. “So part of it is the inability to rehabilitate and part of it is simply punishment and it would be reserved for the most heinous of crimes,” said Becker.

There’s another issue at play when it comes to capital punishment in Ohio. The state has delayed executions until next year due to questions over the drugs used for lethal injections. Last year, death row inmate Dennis McGuire took an unusually long time to die during his execution and was reportedly seen struggling for air.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it’s okay for states to use certain combinations of drugs, but Ohio must still find suppliers and manufacturers. And Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections Director Gary Mohr has said the state is having problems getting those drugs because international companies don’t want to sell them for lethal injections and pharmacists don’t want to create them for executions.

Antonio and Antani use this as a reason to steer clear of executions but State Rep. John Becker makes a different argument and says it doesn’t have to be death by injection. “Frankly I like the idea of giving people choices they can have death by firing squad—death by hanging—death by guillotine," Becker said. "I’m not really sure I care how they die and they can choose their own method for all I care.”

Becker and other death penalty supporters have used another argument is support of capital punishment. They say prosecutors can use the threat of execution as a bargaining chip for plea deals.

July 16, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Fascinating new drug guideline resentencing opinion from Judge Jack Weinstein

Judge Jack Weinstein is a justifiably legendary federal judge (whom, I must note, will be turning 94 in a few weeks).  Among the reasons Judge Weinstein is justifiably legendary is his ability to author remarkable (and remarkable long) opinions on an array of federal legal subjects.  Today I learned of his latest such opinion in in US v. Alli-Balogun, 92–CR–1108 (E.D.N.Y July 15, 2015) (available for download below).  Here is how the opinion starts:

The case is a remarkable one.  Though the drug case was nasty, the long-term imprisonment, by today’s standards, was excessive.  Defendant has served 273 months in prison while his wife and children established high status employment in banking and medicine.  See Hr’g Tr., July 15, 2015. Throughout his incarceration, he has maintained close contact with his family. Id. This resentence provides an opportunity to rectify, in modest degree, an unnecessarily harsh sentence imposed in crueler times.

Download Weinstein § 3582(c)(2) OPINION on RESENTENCING

The next 70+ pages goes on to discuss (and break a little new ground) the defendant's motion for a reduction of sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) and his challenge to his his conviction under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. (For the record, the defendant bats .500 in his efforts.)

July 15, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Politico article suggests real federal sentencing reform poised to become a reality

Almost exactly two years ago, in this July 2013 post reflecting frustration hearing lots of federal sentencing reform talk and relatively little major sentencing reform action, I speculated that the GOP gaining control of the US Senate along with the House might actually make the enactment of some significant federal sentencing reform more likely before the end of the Obama era.  Thus today, thanks to this Politico article reporting on where developments in the GOP-controlled Congress stand, has me feeling a bit clairvoyant:

As President Barack Obama on Tuesday evening called on Congress to take up criminal justice reform, a bipartisan group on Capitol Hill was putting the final touches on a sentencing overhaul deal to be announced as soon as next week. Their message to the president: You’re preaching to the choir. Story Continued Below

“We’ve actually been working on it for quite a while,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of the key negotiators of a package being hashed by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “You may see some legislation here in the next week or so. This is active. … [W]e’re close.”...

Right now, the prospects for such legislation seem good, given that lawmakers from both parties have been wrangling with a reform bill for months. Tuesday, for example, the House Oversight Committee became at least the third congressional panel to highlight problems in the justice system, inviting two governors, a handful of senators, House members and experts to discuss a path forward for reducing the number of inmates in federal prisons.

Hours later, the House officially formed the Congressional Criminal Justice and Public Safety Caucus, which will include justice reform supporters. And across the Capitol, Cornyn joined Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I) for a public dialogue that emphasized the importance of reform.

The biggest announcement is just around the corner: Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told POLITICO on Tuesday that his panel is close to announcing a deal on the bipartisan package his panel has been working on for months. Only about four outstanding issues remain, he said, predicting the package will be unveiled before August recess.

July 15, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

GOP House members request AG Lynch to provide accounting of Prez Obama's commutations

As reported via this official press release, it would appear that some GOP House members, seemingly concerned with how President Obama is now using his clemency powers, have decided to question Attorney General Loretta Lynch about what her boss is doing.  Here is what the press release explains (along with the full-text of letter, which is also available at this link): 

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and 18 Republican Members of the House Judiciary Committee today pressed for answers about the Obama Administration’s unprecedented clemency program for certain federal drug offenders in a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Although the Justice Department’s own manual states that commutation of sentence is “an extraordinary remedy that is rarely granted,” the Obama Administration last year announced a clemency program for certain federal drug offenders and asked the defense bar to recruit candidates for executive clemency.  To date, 89 federal offenders have received sentence commutations, with the vast majority of those commutations going to federal drug offenders.

Here some key language from the letter, which I find curious and questionable in a variety of respects (especially the language I have emphasized below):

As Members of the Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Department of Justice, including the functions performed by the Office of the Pardon Attorney, we are deeply concerned that the President continues to use his pardon power to benefit specific classes of offenders, or for political purposes. No one disputes that the President possesses the constitutional authority to grant pardons and commutations. However, as the Department’s own U.S. Attorney’s Manual states, commutation of sentence is “an extraordinary remedy that is rarely granted.”

Additionally, the fact that the Department’s clemency initiative is focused solely on federal drug offenders continues this Administration’s plainly unconstitutional practice of picking and choosing which laws to enforce and which to change. This is not, as the Founders intended, an exercise of the power to provide for “exceptions in favour of unfortunate guilt,” but instead the use of the pardon power to benefit an entire class of offenders who were duly convicted in a court of law – not to mention a blatant usurpation of the lawmaking authority of the Legislative branch.

The parts of the letter I have stressed strike me as curious and suspect because they seem to have little legal or factual foundation (though they track quite closely to comments made a day earlier by Bill Otis at Crime & Consequences):

1.  Legally, there is no clear constitutional or other legal restriction on the President deciding, if he so chooses, to use his "pardon power to benefit specific classes of offenders, or for political purposes."  Indeed, the constitutional history of the pardon power, buttressed by comments in the Federalist Papers (see No. 74 and this Heritage memorandum), suggests that broad clemency power was preserved by the Framers in part to enable the Prez to be able to use this power to benefit specific classes of offenders, or for political purposes, when desired.  To this end, Pardon historian P.S. Ruckman rightly calls out this portion of the letter for "a very special kind of stupidity and ignorance."

2.  Factually, the current Obama clemency/commutation initiative, extending so far to just reduce the extreme prison sentence of 89 of roughly 100,000 current federal drug prisoners, in absolutely no way involves "picking and choosing which laws to enforce and which to change" nor does it somehow amount to a "blatant usurpation of the lawmaking authority of the Legislative branch."   Perhaps these assertion would make some sense if the President did in fact really grant full pardons to 100% (or even 75% or even 51%) of all federal drug prisoners/offenders and thereby wiped out entirely the convictions and sentences of truly an "entire class of offenders who were duly convicted in a court of law." But, so far, President Obama has merely shortened the extreme prison sentences of significantly less than .1% of current federal drug prisoners.

I could go on, but I will stop here by highlighting that this letter shows ways in which the current polarization of DC and the extreme disaffinity of the GOP for the current Prez necessarily impedes on the ability for folks inside the Beltway to move forward effectively with sound, sober and sensible sentence reforms.  Signing this suspect letter are a number of House GOP members who have recently spoken in favor of significant federal sentencing reform to reduce undue reliance on excessive terms of incarceration for federal drug offenders. But when Prez Obama actually does something in service to all the reform talk in Washington, his political opponents (perhaps spurred on by Bill Otis and others who oppose any and all criminal justice reforms) cannot resist the political instinct to complain.

July 15, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Missouri completes first post-Glossip execution

As reported in this National Law Journal article, headlined "Supreme Court Rejects Plea to Strike Down Death Penalty," not a single US Supreme Court Justice seemed at all interested in re-considering the basic consitutionality of the death penalty as Missouri moved forward with the first US execution since the Supreme Court's Glossip ruling upheld the basic consitutionality of the death penalty.  Here are the details:

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday night turned away a full-scale challenge to capital punishment in the case of a convicted murderer in Missouri set for execution at 6 p.m. Without comment or dissent, the court rejected multiple appeals from David Zink’s lawyers.  Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon also denied clemency for Zink, who was found guilty in the brutal 2001 murder of a 19-year-old woman.

Lawyers for Zink had earlier invoked U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s recent death penalty dissent in seeking a stay. Some commentators saw Zink's case as an opportunity for the full court to reexamine the constitutionality of the death penalty, as Breyer urged in the dissent.  But the court’s action late Tuesday dashed those hopes.

Zink’s execution by lethal injection was the first since the high court issued Glossip v. Gross on June 29.  In Glossip, a 5-4 majority upheld the use of a controversial drug in lethal injections.  Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote a lengthy dissent questioning whether capital punishment, as it is now carried out, is constitutional....

Richard Sindel of Sindel, Sindel & Noble in Clayton, Missouri, another of Zink’s lawyers, said in an interview Tuesday that the legal team decided to cite Breyer’s dissent because it reflected his and Ginsburg’s long experience in dealing with the death penalty.  “They’ve been at it a long while,” Sindel said.  Unlike the late justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan Jr. who dissented from the death penalty “as a matter of course,” Sindel said Breyer’s dissent was “a different animal,” full of detailed analysis and detail on why capital punishment is not working.

Late Tuesday morning, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster filed a brief with the Supreme Court urging it to reject Zink's appeal as "meritless" and procedurally flawed. Addressing the Glossip dissent, the brief stated, "A two-justice dissent does not establish a new rule of constitutional law made retroactive to cases on collateral review."...

On Monday, a federal judge considering Zink’s appeal also made short shrift of the Breyer dissent.  U.S. District Judge Beth Phillips in the Western District of Missouri wrote: “The court is not inclined to rely on the dissenting opinion in Glossip to declare the death penalty unconstitutional when the majority opinion clearly states that the death penalty is constitutional.”

July 15, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Live-blogging President Obama's big criminal justice reform speech to NAACP

After having waited a few hours for Prez Obama to finally make it to the podium at the NAACP's 106th National Convention, he is finally now, just short of 5pm ET, getting start with a widely-anticipated speech about the need for crimnal justice reform.  After sitting here waiting, I will do some live-blogging just to make the wait feel worthwhile:

Speech starts with praise for NAACP's work and then turns to problems and deficiencies facing minority youth, "our children, America's children."  But today, says Prez Obama, he wants to focus on our criminal justice system and the impact it has on minority populations and the "long history of inequity in the criminal justice system in America."

Notes that the "eyes of more Americans have been openned" to truths about America's criminal justice system.  Notes that "our incarceration rate is four times higher than China's" and that our prison poluation has quadrupled since 1980.  But "we need to be honest that ... there are some folks who need to be in jail .... murderers, predators, drug kingpins."  Not evidence that tougher sentences have contibuted to crime decline, but that it reaches a point of diminishing return.  Focus on distinguishing violent offenders from non-violent, drug offenders.

States "in far too many cases, the punishment does not fit the crime."  And we are spending $80 billion on incarceration --- an amount that would allow universal preschool or doubling the salary of all teachers.  "For what it costs in incarceration for one year, we could eliminate cost of tuition at all the public universities and colleges."  Praise for Rand Paul saying we spend too much on non-violent drug offenders with no public safety benefit.

There are cost that cannot be measured in dollars and cents, says Obama, as he turns to a discussion of racial disparities and the impact on communities of color.  This is not just anecdote, statistics bear out disparities at every stage of criminal justice processing.

"Mass incarceration makes our country worse off and we need to do something about it!"  The good news is that Republicans and Democrats agree on the need for reform, with "Van Jones and Newt Gingrich" and "NAACP and Koch Brothers" working on reforms.

Finishing speech by laying out basic principles in three areas: (1) in the community, (2) in the courtroom, and (3) in the cellblock.  

In the community: if we make investments early in our children, we save money in the future on criminal justice costs.  Investing in our community saves taxpayer money if we are consistent about it.  Stresses that we need to treat kids in community equally, remembering that "kids are different" so we do not "tag them as future criminals, but reach out to them as future citizens."

In the courtroom: we need to lower or eliminate entirely mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses.  We need to invest in alternatives to prison, which can save taxpayers thousands each year.  Congress should pass a sentencing reform act this year.

In the cellblock: notes he will be first sitting Prez to visit a federal prison on Thursday, and I am going to shine a spotlight on this issue.  People in our prisons, though they have made mistakes, they are also Americans and we need to "increase the possibility they can turn their lives around."  If somebody in the midst of imprisonment recognizes the error of their ways, we have to make sure they are in a position to make the turn.  We should not be tolerating overcrowding, gang activity or rape in prison.  "These things are unacceptable!"  I have asked my attorney general to investigating to overuse of solitary confinement.  Prisons shoudl train people to find a job, not train them to be more hardened criminals.

UPDATE: The Marshall Project provides here a review of key passages from Prez Obama's NAACP speech on criminal justice reform. It sets up its review this way:

Whether or not you agree with President Obama about the need for criminal justice reform, it is undeniable that the speech he delivered in Philadelphia on Tuesday to the annual convention of the NAACP broke new ground.  Many presidents have spoken before, and some with great ardor, about law and order.  But no sitting president has ever publicly spoken at such length and in such detail as Obama now has about the persistent problems of crime and punishment in this country.

July 14, 2015 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

NYU Law creates Clemency Resource Center, a "pop-up, pro-bono law office to submit petitions"

Download (1)I was very excited to learn via a press release that NYU School of Law has just "announced the launch of the Clemency Resource Center (CRC), a pop-up law office within the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law (CACL)."  Via the CACL's website, here is what this important new "pop-up law office" is all about and what it is planning to do:

The CRC will exist for one year, with the sole purpose of preparing and submitting federal clemency petitions at no cost to prisoners.  Beginning with a staff of seven attorneys, the CRC will work closely with Clemency Project 2014, an ongoing initiative designed to identify and find counsel for worthy clemency candidates, and will provide pro bono assistance to federal prisoners who likely would have received shorter sentences had they been sentenced today.

The CRC was co-founded by Rachel Barkow, Segal Family Professor of Regulatory Law and Policy at NYU Law, and Mark Osler, who holds the Robert and Marion Short Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of St. Thomas.  Erin Collins, a former public defender and acting assistant professor at NYU Law, serves as executive director.  Generously funded by Open Society Foundations, the CRC will begin work in August.

The CRC is unique in that it addresses an immediate short-term opportunity.  President Obama has clearly signaled his intent to use the constitutional tool of clemency to address over-incarceration.

Clemency Project 2014 aims to identify all federal inmates who seek help and meet criteria released by the US Department of Justice.  The project relies entirely on the help of pro bono attorneys to review and submit petitions.  “Too many non-violent prisoners are serving unduly harsh prison terms based on repudiated laws and policies.  That means we have quite a bit of work ahead,” said Cynthia Roseberry, project manager for Clemency Project 2014.  “This is an all-hands-on-deck situation and we welcome the support of the Clemency Resource Center.”

“The CRC isn’t a clinic, or a conventional legal aid organization, or an advocacy group. It is a factory of justice,” said Osler, a former federal prosecutor.

CACL has worked on clemency cases and reform of the pardon process since 2013 as part of the Mercy Project, an initiative that pursues commutations for federal prisoners who are serving very long sentences for typically non-violent drug crimes.

“The Clemency Resource Center is the latest step in our efforts to improve criminal justice in the United States and to help correct past miscarriages of justice,” said Barkow, faculty director for CACL.

During its year of operation, the CRC will utilize the talents of CACL student fellows as well as of CACL executive director Deborah Gramiccioni, a former federal prosecutor in New Jersey and at the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC.

I adore the notion of this new Clemency Resource Center as a "factory of justice," and I am pleased to learn that this factory is being backed by Open Society funding and will be focused on churning out (surely top-notch) federal clemency petitions for the next year. That said, I hope that everyone realizes that we desperately need many more factories of justice working on not just federal clemency petitions, but also state clemency petitions and also lots and lots of aggressive state and federal criminal justice reform litigation.

July 14, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

In praise of GOP Rep. Sensenbrenner making the moral case for sentencing reform

Download (5)Most long-time federal sentencing reform advocates likely have long shared my concern that Wisconsin GOP Representative James Sensenbrenner was a significant impediment to achieving significant federal sentencing reform.  Indeed, as noted in this prior post, as recently as two years ago, Rep. Sensenbrenner was defending federal mandatory minimum statutes on very dubious grounds.  

But now that Rep Sensenbrenner has been working for a couple years on bipartian federal criminal justice reform, he is a co-sponsor of the important SAFE Act  (details here) and today delivered this potent testimony to the GOP-controlled House to support his call for significant sentencing reform.  Here is an excerpt from the testimonty I found especially notable and important (with my emphasis added):  

Over the past three decades, America’s federal prison population has more than quadrupled — from 500,000 in 1980 to more than 2.3 million today.  Prison spending has increased by 595 percent, a staggering figure that is both irresponsible and unsustainable.

And yet, this increased spending has not yielded results.  More than 40 percent of released offenders return to prison within three years of release, and in some states, recidivism rates are closer to 60 percent. Several studies have found that, past a certain point, high incarceration rates are counterproductive and actually cause the crime rate to go up.

Especially among low risk offenders, long prison sentences increase the risk of recidivism because they sever the ties between the inmate and his family and community.  These are the ties we need to help reintegrate offenders as productive members of society.

These severed ties are also at the heart of the moral case for reform.  It’s not just the people in prison who are paying the punishment for their crimes.  Mass incarceration tears families apart and deprives children of their fathers and mothers.  It likely means a loss of job, possibly home, and any support he or she had within the community.

And that’s where we are with our sentencing policy — we’re spending more, getting less, and destroying communities in the process.  The system is broke, and it’s our job to fix it.

It is remarkable and a true sign of the modern sentencing times that this reform rhetoric, which sounds more like a passage from an opinion or article by Wisconsin District Judge Lynn Adelman, is coming from GOP Rep. Sensenbrenner. And the adjectives I have stressed in the quoted passage are, in my view, at the heart of the most compelling case for federal reforms and a broad response to modern mass incarceration: the current system is broken and counterproductive, irresponsible and unsustainable, but even beyond any data-driven, cost/benefit analysis, there is a powerful "moral case for reform" that resonates with the commitment to liberty, family, community and limited government that triggered the American Revolution.

Prior related post:

July 14, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Highlighting why dozens of commutations barely move the mass incarceration needle

President Obama's action to commute the sentences of 46 drug offenders yesterday (basics here) merits the label historic.  But, as two recent commentaries highlight, the decision seems more compelling than it is truly consequential given the massive size of the federal criminal justice population.  Here are links to and snippets from the pieces that provide important (and somewhat depressing) context for what the Prez did yesterday:

From Margy Love at The Crime Report, "Clemency is Not the Answer":

[T]he problem of unjust sentences is simply too large to deal with through the clemency mechanism. When Lyndon Johnson commuted 200 drug sentences in the 1960s, almost everyone then in prison who deserved relief got it, thanks to the staffing efforts of the Bureau of Prisons. Today, given the massive number of people prosecuted for federal drug crimes in the past 25 years, and the fundamental rethinking of federal drug sentences now underway, potentially deserving prisoners are legion.

Between 1990 and 2007, nearly 10,000 people were sentenced to prison terms of 30 years or more for crimes involving drugs or firearms. Twice that number received sentences of at least 20 years. Trying to produce useful and reliable advice for the President about more than a token number of these individuals is too great a burden for the DOJ’s Justice Department’s tiny pardon staff. But the President cannot be expected to put his reputation on the line on the basis of anything less.

In addition to the practical problems raised by trying to force so many prisoner petitions through an administrative bottleneck onto a busy President's plate, there are institutional reasons why executive clemency is the wrong tool for dealing with systemic problems in the penal system.

From Steven Nelson at U.S. News & World Report, "Obama's 46 Commutations Barely Scratch the Surface: Thousands more may die in prison for nonviolent crimes":

Obama said 14 of the people he’s granting freedom would have otherwise died behind bars. Precise numbers are unclear, but in 2013 the American Civil Liberties Union reported at least 3,278 people were serving life without the possibility of parole for nonviolent crimes. More than 2,500 of those cases involved drug crimes.

"[T]here still remain thousands of Americans languishing in prisons serving sentences that have been repudiated by both Congress and the president," said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., a leading supporter of drug law reform. "I hope the president continues this push for justice for all of them.”

Beth Curtis profiles 14 other people on her website LifeforPot.com who are serving life sentences for nonviolent marijuana convictions, none of whom received clemency Monday. She vetted each to ensure they had no previous convictions involving violence or other drugs. Other sources have higher estimates for marijuana-specific life sentences. The Clemency Report says there were 54 sentences of life without parole between 1996 and 2014.

“Frankly, my belief is that there is no place for life without parole for any nonviolent drug offender,” says Curtis, whose brother John Knock is serving life in prison for a marijuana dealing conviction. “It's not fiscally responsible and the sentence doesn't fit the crime.” Michael Collins, policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, echoed other reformers, saying he welcomes the new commutations, but “we need much more action."

Prior recent related posts:

July 14, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Start of big two-day House hearings on criminal justice reform

Images (4)Though President Obama will capture most of the headlines with his emphasis on criminal justice reform in speeches and activities this week, Congress is where the reform action need to take place for there to be real, long-term hope and change.  Consequently, I will be keeping an eye on the the two days of hearings on criminal justice reform taking place before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. This morning's Part I of the hearings can be followed via this webpage, and here is how the hearings are set up there:

HEARING PURPOSE:

  • To share lessons on criminal justice reform from states that have successfully implemented new policies. 
  • To hear from a diverse panel of experts regarding emerging areas of reform at both the state and federal levels, including existing and forthcoming bills before the House and Senate.
  • To broaden the conversation on criminal justice reform.

HEARING BACKGROUND:

  • Prison populations have grown precipitously over the past thirty years:
  • From 1940 to 1980: the population remained stable at about 24,000 federal prisoners.
  • 1980-1989: it more than doubled to about 58,000 prisoners.
  • 1990-1999: it more than doubled again to about 134,000 prisoners.
  • 2000-2010: it increased by another 45 percent to about 210,000 prisoners.
  • 2013: we now have more than 219,000 federal prisoners (nearly 40 percent above rated capacity).

 Spending on federal prisons has skyrocketed:

  • From 1998 to 2012, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) budget increased from $3.1 to $6.6 billion–from 15 to 24 percent of the Department of Justice (DOJ) budget. 
  • The 2013 budget request for the BOP totaled $6.9 billion, an increase of $278 million over the FY 2012 budget. 
  • The BOP is now consuming 25 percent of the DOJ budget. 

Criminal justice reform efforts typically fall into one of three categories, each of which will be discussed in the hearings:

  • “Front end” measures address how people end up in prison in the first place and the length of sentences they will receive.  Reform of mandatory minimums, for example, attempts to reduce prison populations and recidivism by allowing judges to impose shorter sentences on nonviolent offenders.
  • “Behind the wall” reforms attempt to change the operations of the prisons themselves.
  • “Back end” changes focus on the circumstances of release from prison, including serving portions of sentences in an alternative custody arrangement and rehabilitation programs.

July 14, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 13, 2015

"Some major U.S. religious groups differ from their members on the death penalty"

FT_15.07.13_deathPenaltyReligionsThe title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new piece via the Fact Tank blog from the Pew Research Center.  Here are excerpts:

When the Nebraska Legislature voted in May to ban the death penalty in the state – overriding the governor’s veto – supporters of the ban shared some of the credit with religious leaders who had spoken out on the issue, including several Catholic bishops. In fact, many large religious groups have taken positions in opposition to the death penalty even though that stance is sometimes at odds with the opinions of their adherents.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the death penalty is acceptable if it is “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives.” In recent years, however, both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Pope Francis have spoken firmly against capital punishment.

They are not the only religious leaders to take this position; when it comes to the official teachings of large U.S. religious groups, opposition to the death penalty is more common than support for capital punishment. This is in contrast with public opinion: A majority of U.S. adults (56%) still favor the death penalty, although support has been dropping in recent years.

There also is a disparity between religious groups’ positions and the views of their adherents, particularly among mainline Protestants. Two-thirds of white mainline Protestants (66%) favor the death penalty, but several of the biggest mainline churches are against it. This includes the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the American Baptist Churches USA, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and many others. Roughly half of U.S. Catholics (53%) – including a majority of white Catholics (63%) – also favor the death penalty, in contrast with church leaders’ stance.

Seven-in-ten white evangelical Protestants in the U.S. (71%) support the death penalty, a position held by many of their churches. Two of the largest U.S. evangelical denominations – the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod – teach that the death penalty is acceptable. The Assemblies of God, a major Pentecostal denomination, does not have an official stance on the issue, although the church’s website cites a “common interpretation that the Old Testament sanctions capital punishment.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon church) also does not take an official position on the death penalty. Neither does the National Baptist Convention, the largest historically black Protestant denomination, although most black Protestants (58%) oppose the death penalty (in contrast with the U.S. public overall)....

Among non-Christian faiths, teachings on the death penalty vary. The Reform and Conservative Jewish movements have advocated against the death penalty, while the Orthodox Union has called for a moratorium. Similarly, Buddhism is generally against capital punishment, although there is no official policy.

Hinduism also does not have a clear stance on the issue. In Islam, the death penalty is widely seen as acceptable (based on the Quran), and Islamic courts in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran routinely hand down death sentences. Some U.S. Muslim groups, however, have spoken out against the death penalty; for example, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has called for a moratorium.

Religiously unaffiliated Americans – atheists, agnostics and those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” – are split on the death penalty, with 48% in favor and 45% opposed.

July 13, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Prez Obama commutes sentences for 46 federal drug prisoners (with a video message)

Neil Eggleston, Counsel to the President, has this new White House Blog posting titled "President Obama Announces 46 Commutations in Video Address: 'America Is a Nation of Second Chances'." Here is the text of the posting, with links worth following:

As a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and criminal defense attorney, I'm well acquainted with how federal sentencing practices can, in too many instances, lead nonviolent drug offenders to spend decades, if not life, in prison.  Now, don't get me wrong, many people are justly punished for causing harm and perpetuating violence in our communities.  But, in some cases, the punishment required by law far exceeded the offense.

These unduly harsh sentences are one of the reasons the President is committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy unfairness in our criminal justice system.  Today, he is continuing this effort by granting clemency to 46 men and women, nearly all of whom would have already served their time and returned to society if they were convicted of the exact same crime today.

In a video released today, the President underscored the responsibility and opportunity that comes with a commutation.

The President also shared his thoughts in a personal letter written to each of the 46 individuals receiving a commutation today.

In taking this step, the President has now issued nearly 90 commutations, the vast majority of them to non-violent offenders sentenced for drug crimes under outdated sentencing rules. 

While I expect the President will issue additional commutations and pardons before the end of his term, it is important to recognize that clemency alone will not fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies.  Tune in tomorrow as the President shares additional thoughts on how, working together, we can bring greater fairness to our criminal justice system while keeping our communities safe in an address to the NAACP.

A list of the 46 lucky individuals receiving clemency today can be found here. A too quick review of the list suggests that the vast majority of those receiving clemency today were convicted of crack offenses, though I did notice a couple of marijuana offenders in the group. 

July 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Prez Obama with big plans (finally!!) to prioritize criminal justice reform efforts

Images (11)Way back in 2007, then-Prez-candidate Barack Obama on the campaign trail made much of the need for nationwide (and especially federal drug sentencing) criminal justice reform in a speech to Howard Univesity (which I discussed in this 2010 law review article).  In that speech, candidate Obama promised that as President he would be "willing to brave the politics" to help engineer criminal justice reforms.  As long-time readers know from my commentary here and elsewhere, I have long been disappointed that Prez Obama has left us waiting a long time for the reality of his policy work to match the rhetoric of his first political campaign.  

But now, roughly eight years after making campaign proimises at Howard Univesity (and, tellingly, after the conclusion of every significant nation election in which Prez Obama is the most significant player), it appears that Prez Obama is finally poised to invest his political muscle and capital on crimnal justice reform.  This effective Bloomberg Politics article, headlined "Obama to Push U.S. Sentencing Change Backed by Koch Brothers," explains how and provides effective context:

The White House is preparing to seize advantage of bipartisan concern over the burgeoning U.S. prison population and push for legislation that would reduce federal sentences for nonviolent crimes.

President Barack Obama will champion sweeping reform of the criminal justice system during a speech to the NAACP annual convention on Tuesday in Philadelphia, press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday. Obama will present ideas to make the system “safer, fairer and more effective,” Earnest said.

Later in the week, Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison when he goes to a medium-security facility in El Reno, Oklahoma.  He’ll also sit for an interview with Vice News for an HBO documentary on the criminal justice system, Earnest said.

Obama came to office promising to reduce the number of Americans imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses, and in 2010 he signed a law reducing disparities in sentences for possession of crack and powder cocaine. Some Republicans and police organizations criticized the moves as too lenient, but now a bipartisan coalition that includes Obama’s chief political antagonists, billionaires Charles and David Koch, have joined him to support relaxing federal sentencing guidelines.

Key lawmakers from both parties have been invited to the White House next week to discuss strategy. And Obama is expected to soon issue a spate of commutations for nonviolent drug offenders identified by a Justice Department program launched last year. Top officials from the department, including Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, have recently met with members of Congress to express support for sentencing-reform legislation.

“Engagement with the president has been lacking for the past six years, but this is one topic where it has been refreshingly bipartisan,” Representative Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who heads the House Oversight Committee, said in a telephone interview....

Chaffetz said he was optimistic that a package of bills would advance because of a diverse coalition of supporters lined up behind it. The president dubbed the legislation “a big sack of potatoes” in a meeting with lawmakers in February, Chaffetz said. The composition of the legislation isn’t final.

The Koch brothers, who are major Republican donors, support a bill introduced last month by Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, and Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, that would encourage probation rather than imprisonment for relatively minor, nonviolent offenses and improve parole programs in order to reduce recidivism.

The Sensenbrenner-Scott bill is modeled on state efforts to reduce incarceration. While the federal prison population has grown 15 percent in the last decade, state prisons hold 4 percent fewer people, according to Sensenbrenner’s office. Thirty-two states have saved a cumulative $4.6 billion in the past five years from reduced crime and imprisonment, his office said in a report....

Representative Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, held a meeting in late June to listen to proposals from lawmakers in both parties. And Chaffetz, who described the Republican leadership in the House as “very optimistic and encouraging,” scheduled hearings on the issue by his committee for July 14 and 15. “I don’t normally do two days of hearings; we’re giving it that much attention,” Chaffetz said. “So it has more momentum than anybody realizes.”

There is a significant obstacle on the other side of the Capitol: Senator Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs his chamber’s Judiciary Committee.... But supporters of the House legislation have reason for optimism: Last month, Grassley announced he would work on a compromise in the Senate.

While Grassley has indicated a willingness to reduce penalties for some crimes, he wants to increase mandatory minimum sentences for other offenses, a Senate Republican aide said. The person requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. That could make sentencing changes an easier sell to tough-on-crime voters, but endanger the support of lawmakers who see mandatory minimums as bad policy. “There does appear hope for a bipartisan compromise,” Earnest said Monday. “We obviously welcome that opportunity.”

Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who has long championed criminal justice reform, is leading negotiations with Grassley. He’s backed by Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on Grassley’s committee, and Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate.

The talks remain sensitive. During a Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Leahy -- admitting he already knew the answer -- asked Yates, who was testifying before the panel, to restate her support for sentencing reform. “I was born at night, but not last night,” Grassley interjected. “And I know that question was in reference to me, and I want everybody to know that we’re working hard on getting a sentencing-reform compromise that we can introduce. And if we don’t get one pretty soon, I’ll probably have my own ideas to put forward.”

July 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Seventh Circuit panel affirms as reasonable probation sentence for tax dodging Beanie Babies billionaire

Late Friday, a Seventh Circuit panel rejected the government's claim that a probation sentence given to a high-profile tax cheat was unreasonable.  The lengthy opinion in US v. Warner, No. 14 -1330 (7th Cir. July 10, 2015) (available here), gets started this way:

Defendant H. Ty Warner, the billionaire creator of Beanie Babies, evaded $5.6 million in U.S. taxes by hiding assets in a Swiss bank account.  He pled guilty to one count of tax evasion, made full restitution, and paid a $53.6 million civil penalty.  The Sentencing Guidelines provided a recommended 46- to 57-month term of imprisonment, but the district judge gave Warner a more lenient sentence: two years’ probation with community service, plus a $100,000 fine and costs.  The government claims his sentence is unreasonable because it does not include a term of incarceration.  

In a typical case, we might agree.  But this is not a typical case.  The district judge found Warner’s record of charity and benevolence “overwhelming.”  Indeed, the judge remarked that Warner’s conduct was unprecedented when viewed through the judge’s more-than-three decades on the bench.  In the district court’s opinion, this and other mitigating factors — including the uncharacteristic nature of Warner’s crime, his attempt to disclose his account, his payment of a penalty ten times the size of the tax loss, and the government’s own request for a sentence well below the guidelines range — justified leniency.  District courts enjoy broad discretion to fashion an appropriate, individualized sentence in light of the factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).  The court here did not abuse its discretion.  Rather, it fully explained and supported its decision and reached an outcome that is reasonable under the unique circumstances of this case.  We therefore affirm Warner’s sentence.

Though the panel stresses unique factors applying only in this case to support its reasonableness ruling, white-collar practitioners (especially those in the Seventh Circuit) will find a lot of broader interest and potential value in this opinion.

Prior related posts:

July 12, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

The Marshall Project covers parole realities (and life without it)

The Marshall Project has a series of notable new piece about modern parole realities, and this lead one carries the headline "Life Without Parole: Inside the secretive world of parole boards, where your freedom may depend on politics and whim." Here is an excerpt:

America's prisons hold tens of thousands of people ... primarily confined not by the verdicts of a judge or a jury but by the inaction of a parole board. Michigan is one of 26 states where parole boards are vested with almost unlimited power to decide who gets out of prison when, and why.

With more than 1.5 million people behind bars, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and the financial costs are staggering. As politicians from both parties seek alternatives to mass imprisonment, the parole process has emerged as a major obstacle.

A months-long Marshall Project investigation reveals that, in many states, parole boards are so deeply cautious about releasing prisoners who could come back to haunt them that they release only a small fraction of those eligible — and almost none who have committed violent offenses, even those who pose little danger and whom a judge clearly intended to go free.

A recent revision of the Model Penal Code, an influential document written by legal scholars, declared parole boards "failed institutions."

"No one has documented an example in contemporary practice, or from any historical era, of a parole-release system that has performed reasonably well in discharging its goals," a draft of the document says....

Parole boards are vested with almost unlimited discretion to make decisions on almost any basis. Hearsay, rumor and instinct are all fair game.  In New Mexico, the law directs the board to take into account "the inmate's culture, language, values, mores, judgments, communicative ability and other unique qualities."

The boards' sensitivity to politics stems in part from the heavy presence of politicians in the ranks of board members.  At least 18 states have one or more former elected officials on the board.  In 44 states, the board is wholly appointed by the governor, and the well-paid positions can become gifts for former aides and political allies.

While some state laws require basic qualifications, these statutes are often vaguely worded, with language that is easily sidestepped. Many states have no minimum requirements at all. And unlike politicians, who are bound by open records and disclosure laws and are accountable to their constituents, parole boards often operate behind closed doors. Their decisions are largely unreviewable by courts — or anyone else.

"Not only are they closed, they're paranoid closed," said Janet Barton, the former operations manager of Missouri's parole board. "Closed to the extreme."  Few others in the criminal justice system wield so much power with so few professional requirements and so little accountability.

Here are the other pieces in the series so far:

July 12, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

DA planning to charge Boston Marathon bomber with murder under Massachusetts law

As reported in this new Reuters article, a "Massachusetts district attorney plans to bring state murder charges against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has been sentenced to death in a federal trial for a deadly bomb attack on the 2013 Boston Marathon, her office said on Saturday." Here is why:

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said she would charge Tsarnaev with murdering MIT police officer Sean Collier and for other crimes in the aftermath of the marathon attacks. Ryan said a guilty verdict in Massachusetts could keep Tsarnaev in prison if he successfully appeals his federal convictions.

"When you come into Middlesex County and execute a police officer in the performance of his duties and assault other officers attempting to effect his capture, it is appropriate you should come back to Middlesex County to stand trial for that offense," Ryan said in a statement.

July 12, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Would a Prez Hillary Clinton lead to the judicial abolition of the death penalty in the US?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new opinion piece by Scott Lemieux headlined "How a President Hillary Clinton could help end the death penalty." The whole piece is worth a full read, and here are excerpts:

Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a separate dissent [in the Supreme Court's recent Glossip ruling] concluded: "I believe it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment." Breyer's dissent is important, leading some to even conclude that the Supreme Court might actually rule that way in the near future. But this probably won't happen unless a Democratic president replaces one of the Republican-appointed justices on the court, which is another reason the Supreme Court will be a top issue in the 2016 presidential race.

A majority of the Supreme Court has never held that the death penalty is categorically unconstitutional — indeed, there have never been more than two justices at any one time who supported this view. In the 1972 case Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court suspended executions, but three of the five justices in the majority held that the death penalty would be constitutional if applied fairly. Only two justices — William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall — held that the death penalty was always unconstitutional, a position they held for the rest of their tenures.

Two other justices, Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, wrote opinions shortly before their retirement suggesting that the death penalty might be unconstitutional. But otherwise every justice has supported the compromise the court reached in 1976: The death penalty is constitutional if applied in a more fair and rational manner. It is possible that Breyer's opinion will be seen as a fraying of this compromise and a crucial step towards a ruling that the death penalty is unconstitutional. But if so, it is likely to be a process that plays out over a fairly long period.

At Slate, Robert J. Smith gives the most optimistic reading of Breyer's dissent from the perspective of death penalty opponents, suggesting that there might be five votes on the current court to abolish the death penalty. His argument is superficially persuasive ...[but] fails to withstand scrutiny.... Glossip itself provides powerful evidence against this possibility. Among other things, Justice Samuel Alito's majority opinion represents a sort of obscene gesture to death penalty opponents: "If you use legal methods to prevent states from carrying out a particular form of execution, it therefore has the right to carry out less humane ones." This is nothing less than a justification for torture. It is very hard to imagine someone who opposes the death penalty in principle joining this opinion, which is exactly what Kennedy did.

It is thus vanishingly unlikely that this court will hold the death penalty unconstitutional. The interesting question is what might happen should a justice nominated by a Democrat become the median vote of the court. In a recent paper, the University of Maryland legal scholar Mark Graber suggests that we are about to see a much more polarized Supreme Court that, rather than hewing towards centrist opinions, swings well to the left or right depending on who has the fifth vote.

The death penalty is one area where this may be most evident. Unless popular opinion shifts strongly in favor of the death penalty, Breyer's opinion may very well reflect the default position of Democratic nominees, even the most conservative ones. If President Hillary Clinton can replace one of the Republican nominees on the court, we could ultimately see a decision declaring that the death penalty violates the Eight Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments.

But there's a dark side to the polarized court from the perspective of death penalty opponents. If President Scott Walker or Marco Rubio replaces Justice Ginsburg and/or Breyer, states might aggressively expand the death penalty to encompass homicides committed by minors or the sexual assault of children — and these laws would likely be upheld.

Breyer's dissent does not reflect a court that is going to rule the death penalty unconstitutional in the short term. But it does suggest that it is a medium-term possibility — and that the stakes of future presidential elections are about to get even higher, with control of the median vote of the Supreme Court accruing a greater policy impact than it's ever had.

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July 11, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Friday, July 10, 2015

Pennsylvania Attorney General calls Governor's execution moratorium an "egregious violation" of the state constitution

As reported in this local article, headlined "Kane asks court to end Wolf's death-penalty ban," the top lawyer and prosecutor in Pennsylvania does not think much of her Governor's decision earlier this year to declare a moratorium on executions. Here are the details on the latest chapter concerning the continuing constitutional commotion over capital punishment in the Keystone state:

Calling Gov. Wolf's moratorium on the death penalty "an egregious violation" of the state constitution, Pennsylvania's top prosecutor is asking its Supreme Court to clear the path for the state's first execution in more than a decade.

In a filing Wednesday, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane asked the court to allow the execution of Hubert L. Michael Jr., who confessed to murdering a York County teenager two decades ago. Kane argued that it is "blatantly unconstitutional" for Wolf to stay all death sentences, and that allowing Wolf's moratorium to stand would effectively grant him the authority to ignore any laws with which he does not agree.

"In this case, it would allow him to negate a death sentence authorized by the General Assembly, imposed by a jury, and subjected to exhaustive judicial review . . . based on nothing more than personal disapproval and personal public policy beliefs," said the 25-page brief, filed by the attorney general and two of her top deputies. It added: "The governor must execute laws, not sabotage them."...

Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said the governor had no immediate comment but would soon be "responding to the filing." Wolf in February imposed a moratorium on executions until he receives the report of a task force studying the future of capital punishment, unleashing a new round of praise and criticism. At the time, 183 men and women were on death row, confined to their cells 23 hours a day. Michael, of Lemoyne, Cumberland County, was awaiting execution for the 1993 kidnapping of Krista Eng, 16. His death warrant has been signed four times. Another convict spared by Wolf's moratorium is Terrance Williams, 48, a former star quarterback at Germantown High School sentenced to death for the 1984 murder of Amos Norwood, a 56-year-old Germantown church volunteer. He was to be executed in March.

Kane's brief asked the high court for "extraordinary relief," arguing Wolf only has constitutional power to issue reprieves of specific sentences - not an entire class of sentences - and under certain circumstances can grant a commutation or pardon. Reprieves, she argued, are meant to be temporary - usually to allow inmates to pursue legal remedies. When Wolf announced his moratorium, he wrote that he would lift it after seeing the report's recommendations and after "all concerns are addressed satisfactorily."

"What constitutes the point at which 'all concerns are addressed satisfactorily?' What are the concerns? Who is going to determine whether and when they are satisfactorily addressed?" said the filing, signed by Lawrence M. Cherba, who heads the office's criminal division, and Amy Zapp, who oversees the appeals section. "In law and in reality, the governor . . . seeks to replace judicial review of capital sentencing with his own review based on his own personal standard of satisfaction, namely an infallible judicial process that can never be attained," it argued. "Such a roadblock to death-sentence executions is impermissible."

Some prior related posts:

July 10, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, July 09, 2015

ACLU and Koch reps make pitch for SAFE Act and federal sentencing reforms

This notable new Politico commentary advocating for federal criminal justice reform is authored by Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries. The piece is headlined "A New Beginning for Criminal Justice Reform," and here are excerpts:

The U.S. criminal justice system is in a state of crisis — and Congress is finally moving to address it. On June 25, Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) introduced the bipartisan Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective Justice Act. Known as the SAFE Justice Act, the legislation is an important step in addressing America’s ballooning, costly and ultimately unjust federal sentencing and corrections system, which needlessly throws away lives and decimates entire communities.

The criminal justice system’s problems are evident all around us.  Over the past three decades, Congress has steadily increased the size and scope of the federal criminal code, ensnaring people who have no business being behind bars, without a corresponding benefit to public safety.  From 1980 to 2013, the federal criminal code increased from 3,000 crimes to approximately 5,000 crimes.  Over the same period, our federal prison population skyrocketed from 24,000 to 215,000 — a 795 percent overall increase — while federal spending on prisons also soared from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion — a 595 percent increase.

While we have a good handle on how much taxpayers’ money we’ve wasted on over-criminalization and mass incarceration, the cost in human lives is incalculable.  Almost every single federal prisoner serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses has one thing in common: a drug offense that resulted in a de facto death sentence. This excessive reliance on punitive sentencing destroys individual lives, families and communities. It is not clear it makes communities any safer.  In addition, it is fiscally irresponsible and morally repugnant.

This points to a simple conclusion: The criminal justice system must be reformed. It must be dramatically altered to maximize public safety, minimize its cost to taxpayers and ensure that justice is served — for the victims of crimes, the individuals who commit them and for society at large....

The SAFE Justice Act would incorporate lessons learned in [reform] states and apply many of them at the federal level. It seeks to address several specific issues with the current criminal justice system. Four areas of reform are particularly promising: First, it begins the process of reversing over-criminalization and the over-federalization of the criminal code.  The act forces the federal government to disclose the creation of new criminal offenses — a common-sense action that would clarify just how large the criminal code is and how fast it has grown.  It also empowers the victims of federal over-criminalization to seek redress via the Office of the Inspector General.  It also contains various reforms to protect against wrongful conviction, reduce pre-trial detentions, and eliminate federal criminal penalties in state jurisdictions, including penalties for actions such as drug possession.

Second, it would reform sentencing.  Today, mandatory minimums force too many people to plea to lengthy prison sentences — punishments that may not fit the crime.  The act seeks to undo this broken system by encouraging judges to offer probation to low-level offenders, while increasing pre-judgment probation.  It also would restrict mandatory minimums to specific categories of people — such as high-level members of drug-trafficking organizations rather than street dealers — as originally intended by Congress.

Third, it would reduce recidivism. Too often, the criminal justice system’s flaws turn federal prisons into revolving doors for repeat offenders.  The legislation proposes to address this problem with a number of reforms, including shorter sentences for people who participate in specific educational and vocational programs.  These reforms can ensure that people who leave federal prison are better equipped to rejoin their communities and contribute to society.

Fourth, it would increase transparency.  The bill would require that federal agencies issue regular reports on recidivism rates, prison populations and other key statistics. It also would require that cost analyses be presented to judges prior to sentencing to help them make prudent decisions.

This is only a partial list of the reforms proposed in the SAFE Justice Act. They are a good start — but they are not enough to reverse the damage, financially and in terms of human lives, caused by decades of misguided policies.  In particular, members of Congress from both parties should continue to devote particular attention to ensuring that criminal laws penalize only the people who intend to commit crimes, an important distinction that many new federal criminal laws miss.  More broadly, they must identify and pass targeted policies that are smarter on crime, rather than just tougher.

Prior related post:

July 9, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

"Retribution is a valid societal interest" says local DA in advocacy for death penalty

Download (4)The quote in the title of this post is from Louisiana District Attorney Dale Cox, who is profiled in this interesting front-page New York Times article.  The piece is headlined "The Prosecutor Who Says Louisiana Should ‘Kill More People’," and here are excerpts:

Within Louisiana, where capital punishment has declined steeply, Caddo [Parish] has become an outlier, accounting for fewer than 5 percent of the state’s death sentences in the early 1980s but nearly half over the past five years. Even on a national level Caddo stands apart. From 2010 to 2014, more people were sentenced to death per capita here than in any other county in the United States, among counties with four or more death sentences in that time period.

Caddo ... has bucked the national trend in large part because of one man: Dale Cox. Mr. Cox, 67, who is the acting district attorney and who secured more than a third of Louisiana’s death sentences over the last five years, has lately become one of the country’s bluntest spokesmen for the death penalty. He has readily accepted invitations from reporters to explain whether he really meant what he said to The Shreveport Times in March: that capital punishment is primarily and rightly about revenge and that the state needs to “kill more people.” Yes, he really meant it.

And he has been willing to recount his personal transformation from an opponent of capital punishment, a belief grounded in his Catholic faith, to one of the more prolific seekers of the death penalty in the nation. “Retribution is a valid societal interest,” Mr. Cox said on a recent afternoon, in a manner as calm and considered as the hypothetical he would propose was macabre. “What kind of society would say that it’s O.K. to kill babies and eat them, and in fact we can have parties where we kill them and eat them, and you’re not going to forfeit your life for that? If you’ve gotten to that point, you’re no longer a society.”

Mr. Cox later clarified that he had not seen any case involving cannibalism, though he described it as the next logical step given what he at several points called an “increase in savagery.”...

Mr. Cox’s personality has been under scrutiny here since he returned to being a prosecutor after two decades in insurance law. Lawyers who knew him as a congenial and adroit trial lawyer said that in recent years he had become sullen and solitary. They also have described him as becoming increasingly aggressive in the courtroom, in some cases even threatening defense lawyers with criminal contempt for filing opposing motions.

“It’s such a dramatic change,” said Ross Owen, a former Caddo prosecutor and assistant United States attorney who now practices defense law in Shreveport. “The behavior in and of itself might not be a big deal,” he said. But given Mr. Cox’s position, and the fact that the defendants in most of these capital cases are poor and black in a part of the state with a deep history of racism, Mr. Owen added, “He’s got a loaded gun and he’s pointing it at a lot of people.”

Several said this was not so much Mr. Cox as the culture of the office. They point to a historical racial disparity in the application of the death penalty in Caddo. Or they cite an incident in 2012, when two senior assistant district attorneys, both of whom continue to prosecute capital cases elsewhere in the state, were forced to resign from the office after they obtained machine guns from a military surplus program through what an inspector general found to be falsified applications. The men had belonged to a group of prosecutors who participated in firearms exercises as part of a unit known as the Caddo Parish Zombie Response Team, sporting arm patches around the office and specialty license plates on their trucks.

Mr. Cox, who rose from first assistant to acting district attorney after his boss died unexpectedly in April, was never part of that group and disapproved of it. But he did not dispute that the work he does had changed him and left him more withdrawn.

He describes this as a natural result of exposure to so many heinous crimes, saying that “the nature of the work is so serious that there’d be something wrong if it didn’t change you.” He went on to describe violent child abuse, murders and dismemberments in extended detail, pointing to a box on his desk that he said contained autopsy photographs of an infant who was beaten to death. He volunteered that he took medication for depression.

“The courts always say, ‘Evolving standards of decency tell us we can’t do this or that,’ ” he said in an interview at his office, where he had been considering whether to seek death in one case and preparing to seek it in two others. “My empirical experience tells me it’s not evolving decently. We’ve become a jungle.”

The number of murders in Shreveport has decreased by more than 67 percent since the early 1990s. But Mr. Cox insisted that if the numbers were down, the nature of crimes had become more depraved and that it demanded a different approach.

Defense lawyers conceded that the approach was different. Mr. Cox had refused even to entertain pleas of life without parole in homicide cases for which he deemed death the only fitting remedy. In other cases, the office has prosecuted people for ancillary crimes even after they had made plea agreements. After a man was convicted in 2014 of smothering his infant son, a case that hinged almost entirely on differing interpretations of complicated forensic evidence, Mr. Cox wrote that the man “deserves as much physical suffering as it is humanly possible to endure before he dies.”

Alluding to Rousseau and Shakespeare, Mr. Cox remained unapologetic, insisting that he believed what he was doing was right. But he was not entirely untroubled. “I am humble enough and fearful enough,” he said, considering the biblical commandment not to kill and his own place in the afterlife, “that my God may say to me, ‘I meant what I said, and you’re out.’ ”

July 8, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Sixth Circuit holds Ohio condemned must have his Atkins claim properly considered

As reported in this local AP piece, headlined "Death row inmate wins appeal in Warren murder case," a Sixth Circuit panel yesterday issued a notable federal capital habeas rulin in Williams v. Mitchell, Nos. 03-3626/12-4269 (6th Cir. July 7, 2015) (available here). Here are the basics via the press report: 

A Warren man on death row for the brutal beating of an elderly couple may get his chance to escape the death penalty. An appeals court ruled that Andre Williams can continue to appeal his sentence claiming he was mentally disabled at the time of the 1988 crime.

George Melnick was killed and his wife Katherine was blinded in the attack.

The U.S. 6th District Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that state courts failed to properly apply federal law governing claims of mental disability in capital punishment cases. The federal court said a lower court ruled improperly when it refused to recognize evidence of the 48-year-old Williams’ disabilities dating to when he was a teenager.

July 8, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)