Sunday, January 25, 2015

Will this week's confirmation hearings for AG nominee Loretta Lynch produce any fireworks?

This new National Law Journal article suggests the answer to the question in the title of this post may actually be no. The piece is headlined "Nominee Isn't Drawing a Crowd: Loretta Lynch hasn't inspired the passions that Eric Holder Jr. did — but that might be by design." Here are excertps:

Since Loretta Lynch's nomination on Nov. 8 for attorney general, the Senate Judiciary Committee has received about a dozen letters supporting her — a volume that starkly contrasts with the outpouring Eric Holder Jr. inspired six years ago.

That may not be a bad start for a nominee whose Senate hearings are scheduled to begin on Jan. 28. But by the time Holder's confirmation hearings began on Jan. 15, 2009, the committee had received more than 100 letters from law enforcement, victims' rights and civil rights organizations — among other groups and individuals — weighing in on Holder's fitness for the job.

A former White House lawyer who worked on previous Obama administration nominations told the NLJ that the dearth of formal submissions concerning Lynch is less about a lack of enthusiasm for her than the fact her work in the law hasn't generated sharp, easily defined divisions on Capitol Hill.

Lynch's critics so far haven't pointed to any particular moment in her career that raises questions about her fitness to serve as the nation's top law enforcement officer. Indeed, some Republicans intend to challenge Lynch as a proxy for the Obama administration at large — with a focus on the president's executive action on immigration....

As of press time, the Judiciary Committee had posted 13 letters addressing Lynch's nomination. Lynch's public support, so far, represents a cross-section of federal prosecutors, district attorneys, in-house corporate attorneys, African-American lawmakers and law enforcement officers. She has the formal support of general counsel at Alcoa Inc. and Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officers, the Federal Bar Council, the Congressional Black Caucus and the National District Attorneys Association....

From almost as soon as Obama nominated Lynch, some Senate Republicans signaled they wouldn't stand in her way. In November, for example, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Lynch "looks good to me." Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called her a "solid choice." That does not mean there won't be opposition. The difference between 2009 and 2015 in the political climate and the Senate's composition — now with the Republicans in control — may mean Lynch will be confirmed by a narrower margin than Holder's 75-21 tally, which included 19 Republican "yea" votes. "The pattern of recent confirmations has been that nominees will get just enough to get through," Gorelick said.

Gun Owners of America intends to voice its concerns to the judiciary committee for those senators looking for reasons to vote "no" against Lynch. In a proposed letter, the group said Lynch has "no real paper trail." The letter tied her to justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, as well as to Holder, each of whom the Gun Owners of America calls "a committed anti-gun radical." "She's kind of like Eric Holder in a skirt," organization president Larry Pratt told the NLJ. Although Lynch has made her name as a longtime prosecutor, Pratt's letter highlights sustained criticism of Holder as an activist attorney general.

Prior related posts:

January 25, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"The Politics of Mercy: Is clemency still the third rail? We may find out."

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy piece by Ken Armstrong at The Marshall Project. Here are excerpts:

For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that clemency equals danger. Any governor who grants pardons or commutations to convicted felons invites political risk – with no potential benefit. In Massachusetts, Mitt Romney signed not a single pardon, a record he later touted.

But when [Robert] Ehrlich was governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007, he made clemency a priority, dedicating lawyers to screen requests and meeting monthly with senior aides to review applications.  In the end, Ehrlich granted clemency more than 200 times. And should he run for president, he plans to hold up that record as a signature achievement, arguing that it shows he is someone who leads instead of cowers.... The GOP field could also include other candidates who have resisted convention, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has commuted the death sentences of five condemned inmates since 2011.

Is it possible that a willingness to grant clemency might now offer some political benefit? “I would give it a qualified yes,” says P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill., and editor of the Pardon Power blog. “I think increasingly there’s a sense that it’s a nebulous plus if you at least appear to be someone who takes the Constitution seriously and isn’t stuck in the 1980s, pushing the Willie Horton button.”...

Ehrlich says there has since been a cultural shift, with growing concern about harsh sentencing laws — for example, mandatory minimums — and a realization that “the drug epidemic is more appropriately viewed as a health issue than as a criminal justice issue.” The country’s booming prison population “is impacting so many people, so many families, so many careers, so many parents,” Ehrlich says.  “It crosses every line.”...

Margaret Love, who served as U.S. Pardon Attorney under presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush, says,  “This is a function of the justice system that should not be subject to these political whims.  I get sort of annoyed whenever I see it treated as a sort of holiday gift-giving. That’s not what it is. It’s part of the system, or at least ought to be.”

On Thursday, Love wrote a post on the website for the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, noting the symbolism of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s recent summoning of the media to watch him sign a conditional pardon for an autistic inmate.  “There may be no more telling sign that the ‘soft on crime’ label is losing its power over elected officials than McAuliffe’s decision to publicize this bedside act of mercy,” she wrote.

In the next campaign, no candidate would test the power of that label more than Mike Huckabee, who this month left his Fox News show to consider running.  In his decade as Arkansas governor, Huckabee granted clemency more than 1,000 times.  On Thursday, BuzzFeed published an unaired ad that Mitt Romney’s campaign had prepared during the 2008 race, tying Huckabee to the early release of a serial rapist who, once freed, committed murder.  Romney’s campaign ultimately balked at using the ad.

Since then, Huckabee has become an even more inviting target.  In 2009, in Washington state, a former Arkansas inmate named Maurice Clemmons shot and killed four police officers in a coffee shop.  Nine years before, Huckabee had commuted Clemmons’s prison sentence, making him eligible for parole.

It might seem that advocates for clemency would cringe at the prospect of a Huckabee candidacy in 2016, given his vulnerability to Willie Horton-type attacks.  But Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, says, “I’ve told people for the last few years that one of the best things for clemency would be for Huckabee to run.”

What Osler and others see in Huckabee is an opportunity for an open discussion of what clemency is – and is not. “It does not lead to perfection, in the same way the jury system does not lead to perfection,” Osler says.  “With clemency you have an independent moral actor who is unpredictable — and that’s the person receiving clemency.  You can never guarantee that that person will not commit another crime.”

Clemency advocates believe Huckabee, an ordained minister, can make a persuasive case for mercy, particularly given how he links clemency to his Christian faith and to his belief in what he calls “restorative justice.”...

Ehrlich, unlike Huckabee, has not had any grants of mercy come back to haunt. And when talking about his embrace of clemency, he’s found support among dramatically different audiences, from a dinner co-hosted by the Charles Koch Foundation to a forum sponsored by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations.  “So it’s hard right and hard left, but the audiences have generally the same view on this issue,” he says.  In a speech three years ago, Ehrlich boiled his motives for making clemency a priority down to this: “Because it's the right thing to do. It's really not that complicated.”...

The field of potential presidential candidates also includes governors at the opposite end of this spectrum.  Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, has refused to grant any pardons, portraying them as an undermining of the criminal justice system, rather than as a way to recognize someone’s rehabilitation or help check an unduly harsh law or ill-conceived prosecution.  To Ruckman, Walker is “on the wrong side of history. He’s a dinosaur on this one.”

January 25, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Another remarkable exoneration thanks only to NC Innocence Inquiry Commission

3a47dbc6b83315036c0f6a70670038b2On this blog, I typically do not extensively cover or frequently discuss exonerations and criminal appeals based on actual innocence claims because, as some may know, I fear guilt/innocence concerns can at times distort sentencing procedures and policy debates focused only on indisputably guilty persons.  But this new amazing story out of North Carolina, headlined "After 36 years, Joseph Sledge's unfamiliar feeling: normal," seemed especially blogworthy for various reasons.  

Most significantly, I think, is that this remarkable NC story highlights the unique benefits resulting if (and perhaps only when) a jurisdiction has a special institution and special procedures for  dealing specifically with innocence claims. Here are the basic of one remarkable story that is embedded in the broader realities of North Carolina's unique approach to innocence concerns:

Joseph Sledge looked out across Lake Waccamaw on Friday afternoon, shivering against a cold January rain and trying to embrace an unfamiliar feeling: normal. Sledge walked out of jail Friday for the first time in 36 years without the burden of handcuffs and shackles.

He is finally free. The state had been wrong about him in 1978, and in all the years since; he is no killer. At 70, he will begin again. “I’m full up on freedom,” Sledge said shyly, leaning over a menu at Dale’s Seafood, a lakeside restaurant in rural Columbus County.

Sledge is the eighth man freed through a unique process that forces the state to deal with prisoners’ claims of innocence. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, created in 2006, examined Sledge’s innocence claim over the last 18 months, and in December, it voted that his case merited a possible exoneration.

On Friday afternoon, a trio of judges did just that. Jon David, the Columbus County district attorney, made their decision swift and easy; David told judges he had become convinced that Sledge was innocent.

As Superior Court Judge Tom Lock announced Sledge’s exoneration, a dozen photographers and reporters rushed toward Sledge and his attorneys. Sledge smiled slightly as his attorneys, Christine Mumma and Cheryl Sullivan of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, pulled him close. Applause erupted....

Sledge ... stole some T-shirts from a department store in the early 1970s. A judge sentenced him to four years in a prison camp in rural Eastern North Carolina. In 1976, with just a year left in his sentence, he escaped from the White Lake Prison Camp one night after a beef with another inmate.

That very night, not 5 miles away, someone brutally murdered Josephine and Ailene Davis, a mother and daughter, who lived together in rural Bladen County. That horrible coincidence set the course for Sledge’s life.

Sledge’s exoneration is bittersweet. It comes after dozens of mistakes and casual dismissals of his pleas for help. David, the district attorney, ticked through the justice system’s blind spots in Sledge’s case. The system wasn’t what it is now, he said. No DNA testing was available. The best it had – microscopic hair comparison – could only determine that Sledge’s pubic hair was consistent with pieces left on one victim’s exposed torso. Sledge’s escape and the wild testimony of two jailhouse informants made it all seem too obvious during the 1978 trial, which had been moved to Columbus County.

David said Friday that he regretted the system’s weaknesses and any part that court officials played in it. “There’s nothing we regret more to our values as prosecutors than to believe an innocent person is in prison,” David said. He offered Sledge an apology.

Mumma, who first encountered Sledge’s case a decade ago, has had a hard time swallowing all of the ways the criminal justice system failed Sledge – and the amount of time it took to make it right. Clues that should have sent investigators to other suspects were disregarded. None of the nearly 100 fingerprints taken from the crime scene matched Sledge’s. Investigators also collected head hairs from the victims’ bodies, but Sledge had always shaved his bare.

During two decades, Sledge sent dozens of letters to judges, police officials and prosecutors asking that they find and test evidence from his case for DNA. Yet it took nearly 20 years for a clerk to find hairs that would prove his innocence. By happenstance, a Columbus County clerk climbed a ladder in late 2012 while cleaning the evidence vault; she found an envelope flat on the top shelf with the missing hairs. The clerks had been ordered to search for that evidence as far back as 2003.

Without the state’s new apparatus for testing innocence claims, Sledge might have remained in prison. The Center on Actual Innocence and the Innocence Inquiry Commission interviewed dozens of people, testing memories that had faded over decades.  Commission staff discovered crime scene evidence and investigators’ notes that local sheriff’s deputies had said for years had been lost or destroyed.  The commission spent $60,000 on forensic testing.

January 24, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Friday, January 23, 2015

Seven years after Baze, Supreme Court takes up another lethal injection challenge

As reported in this new USA Today piece, taking up a "case that could have broad implications for hundreds of death row inmates, the Supreme Court will consider whether a drug protocol used in recent lethal injections violates the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment."  Here is more:

The justices agreed Friday to consider a case originally brought by four death-row inmates in Oklahoma -- one of whom was put to death last week, after the court refused to block his execution with a combination of three drugs that has caused some prisoners to writhe in pain.

Because the court's four liberal justices dissented from the decision to let that execution go forward, it presumably was their votes in private conference Friday that will give the issue a full hearing in open court. Only four votes are needed from the nine-member court to accept a case. It will likely be heard in April, though it could be held over until the next term begins in October.

Lawyers for Charles Warner and three other convicts set for execution in Oklahoma over the next six weeks sought the Supreme Court's intervention after two lower federal courts refused their pleas. While the court's conservatives refused to stop Warner's execution, the request for a full court hearing had been held for further consideration.

The lawyers claim that the sedative midazolam, the first drug used in the three-drug protocol, is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a general anesthetic and is being used in state executions virtually on an experimental basis. They say inmates may not be rendered unconscious and could suffer painfully as the other drugs in the protocol are administered.... "States now experiment with various drug formulations that have resulted in multiple malfunctioning executions — indeed, spectacles — over the past year," the challengers' brief says....

The court's four liberal justices -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan -- voiced deep concern about the three-drug protocol in their eight-page dissent last week. They also dissented last September when the court rejected a stay application from a Missouri inmate executed with the same drug.

I presume this cert grant will halt all scheduled executions in Oklahoma until the Supreme Court rules.  Left unclear, however, is whether other states will be able to move forward with executions while this case is pending.  This DPIC page with scheduled executions suggest that at least a half-dozen states have more than a dozen serious execution dates scheduled before the Supreme Court is likely to resolve this new case from Oklahoma.

I am sure that these states will try to move forward with executions, especially if their protocols are dissimilar to what Oklahoma does in executions. But I am also sure that death row defendants and their lawyers will urge states to postpone all execution until the Supreme Court rules in this new case (as happened when the Supreme Court first took up this issue eight years ago in Baze v. Kentucky). In short, here we go again!

Recent related posts:

January 23, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

US Sentencing Commission essentially giving up on fixing definition of "crimes of violence"

As noted in prior posts here and here, the US Sentencing Commission earlier this month publish proposed guideline amendments with some modest but significant possible revisions to the federal fraud sentencing guidelines.  One reason these modest proposed guideline changes could be the most consequential reform coming from the Commission this year is because, as noted at the very end of these remarks at by the USSC Chair Patti Saris, it appears the Commission has given up its effort to seek to improve the doctrinal problems surrounding another big part of the federal sentencing guidelines:

I did want to briefly address an issue that does not appear in the proposed amendments.  As I announced at the last public meeting, the Commission held a roundtable discussion this fall on the definition of “crimes of violence” and related terms.  We had hoped that we would be positioned to publish some proposals today as an outgrowth of that very informative roundtable, and we conducted considerable follow up work after that event. But ultimately, after much consideration of this issue internally and consultation with leading experts, the Commission concluded that, given the existing statutory scheme, any attempts by the Commission at this time to clarify these definitions or establish more consistency within the guidelines would likely only lead to more confusion and renewed litigation.  We are currently considering whether it would be helpful for the Commission to issue a report on this issue with recommendations for legislative fixes.

I am a bit disappointed and troubled that the USSC thinks the best way now to deal with all the confusion and litigation over some key guideline terms is just to give up trying to fix these terms. But I also understand the challenge the USSC faces given that these terms are so significant in federal statutes that the Commission cannot itself amend.  And, perhaps usefully, the Commission's struggles here might further embolden the Supreme Court to declare part of the Armed Career Criminal Act unconstitutionally vague as it reconsiders the pending Johnson case (as discussed here).

January 23, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 22, 2015

NACDL explains the massive work behind Clemency Project 2014

Download (1)As noted in this prior post, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley last week sent this letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking a number of questions about the relationship between the Justice Department and outside groups working on "Clemency Project 2014." Though AG Holder has not yet, to my knowledge, late last week one of the key groups involved in Clemency Project 2014 described its work and the broader project.

Specifically, the NACDL on Friday sent around this lengthy news release (which I believe was a joint statement by all of the groups working together on this project) titled "Clemency Project 2014: A Historically Unprecedented and Wholly Independent Volunteer Effort By the Nation's Bar." The release merits a full read for those following closely the current activities surrounding federal clemency, and here is an excerpt:

An army of volunteer lawyers are diligently working on behalf of thousands of prisoners who have requested free legal assistance in drafting and submitting clemency petitions. This unprecedented, wholly independent effort by the bar, facilitated by the organizations which make up Clemency Project 2014, seeks to achieve justice for those prisoners. It reflects these organizations' shared commitment to the highest calling of the legal profession.

At its core, Clemency Project 2014 is a vehicle through which attorneys, responding to the Department of Justice's call for the bar to offer free assistance to potential petitioners, may participate in this important initiative.  The Project has not been delegated any responsibility or authority by the Department of Justice.  The Project expects the Department of Justice to treat these petitions as they would any other well-reasoned petition in making its recommendations to the President, who is the sole authority for granting clemency.  Many prisoners have applied directly to the Department of Justice for clemency without using the lawyers working with Clemency Project 2014, and/or are using counsel they identified and retained outside of the Project.

Since its conception less than a year ago, Clemency Project 2014 created a training and case management infrastructure to prepare an army of volunteer lawyers. Indeed, in just a handful of months, the Project:

  • Provided volunteer support from each of the entities to organize a mechanism for outreach to inmates and attorneys, and to develop a technological infrastructure;

  • Received critical funding from the ACLU and supplemental funding from the Foundation for Criminal Justice to fund and recruit three critical staff positions to oversee the effort;

  • Obtained donated office space and technological infrastructure from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL);

  • Enabled Project administrators to efficiently review, sort, and assign prisoner requests, and created and implemented an electronic database to efficiently organize detailed prisoner requests for assistance that at last count numbered more than 26,000;

  • Developed and deployed an extensive, multi-hour legal education training program (available on demand to any interested attorney at no charge) to ensure that all volunteer lawyers, from any practice background, will be equipped with the tools necessary to evaluate and prepare petitions for submission to the Office of Pardon Attorney for its review and consideration;

  • Responded to a legal memorandum issued by the Administrative Office of the Courts that opined that federal public defenders may not provide representation in clemency matters, by recruiting additional volunteer attorneys to fill the void while federal defenders continue to assist in gathering documents on behalf of former clients, and to provide administrative support for the Project;

  • Worked with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to recruit more than 50 large firms, bringing hundreds of additional lawyers to the process;

  • Established and implemented a multi-tier process to assist volunteer lawyers in identifying potentially eligible applicants and preparing petitions for submission to the Office of Pardon Attorney for consideration....

  • Assigned 5,310 cases to volunteer attorneys;

  • Provided individual notice to several thousand applicants with a sentence of less than ten years, a disqualifying factor under the Justice Department's criteria;

  • Established a website with information for the public, including family members; and

  • Offered ongoing, individual legal support, resource materials, and on demand training to more than 1,500 volunteer attorneys.....

This endeavor has brought in lawyers from vastly diverse practice backgrounds, more than 50 of the nation's largest and most prestigious law firms and law clinics, leading not-for-profit organizations, and the criminal defense bar to answer the call made last year by Deputy Attorney General James Cole before the New York State Bar Association.

Some prior related posts:

January 22, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Speculating about how new California Supreme Court will now handle capital cases

This new Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Brown appointees to Supreme Court renew hopes in death penalty cases," reviews reasons why some think that new California Justices might mean a new type of California capital justice. Here are excerpts from the piece:

In the long run, the new composition [of the California Supreme Court] could affect an array of cases, including medical malpractice and medical marijuana, but probably will be most felt in the criminal arena. The court, long dominated by former prosecutors, has affirmed about 90% of the death sentences it has reviewed. Criminal defendants rarely win.

"Brown certainly seems to have reshaped this court in a fairly dramatic way," said Jan Stiglitz, a co-founder of the California Innocence Project, which is representing a client in a case before the newly constituted court. Instead of appointing former prosecutors, Stiglitz said, "Brown has brought in not just people from the outside but people who don't have this background that sort of predisposes them to be cynical in criminal cases."

But little experience in criminal law also can be a handicap, critics said. Former prosecutors have "stared evil in the face and know what it looks like," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty. None of the Brown appointees have had prior judicial experience. "The academic view of criminal law is what produces bad decisions," Scheidegger said.

[Mariano-Florentino] Cuellar, the court's only Latino, is a former Stanford law professor. [Leondra] Kruger, the only African American justice, has worked primarily in Washington, where she represented the federal government in cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Goodwin Liu, Brown's first appointee last term, was a law professor at UC Berkeley....

Legal analysts expect the Brown justices may form a new majority with Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, a moderate to liberal Republican appointee.  Unlike the other Republican appointees, she was never a prosecutor.  She worked for the federal government on civil rights matters and as staff attorney on appellate courts.

January 21, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Should a court hearing be required anytime a registered sex offender seeks entry to a public school?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable article from Virginia headlined "ACLU questions new sex offender bill." Here are the details:

Their faces and address are already public, now one Virginia lawmaker wants registered sex offenders to face public hearings before going inside schools.  To have access to Virginia public schools, House Bill 1366 would require violent sex offenders to pay for a newspaper ad publicizing a personal court hearing.  It would run once a week for two weeks. Then anyone could attend the hearing and testify against them.

The bills author, Delegate Jeff Campbell, says it’s about safety, but the ACLU says it crosses the line of civil rights.  “The public hearing is simply an invitation for an angry mob to gather at a school and get in the way of a parent’s right to be involved in the education of his or her child,” said ACLU of Virginia’s Executive Director Claire Gastanaga.

Gastanaga said there is no real proof that registries and restrictions like this keep kids safer. He said the most direct impact of the bill would be on parents with kids in school who want to go and meet with the kids’ teachers.

Delegate Campbell disagrees: “I disagree totally, what it does is it gives parents of the other children a say in who is around their children.”... “The public’s right to know who is around their children and to have a say in whether they agree in that or not trumps that individual’s right to free access to the school,” he said.

Currently, sex offenders must inform school superintendents before they go inside a Virginia school. Delegate Campbell said there was an incident last year in Wise County where a parent did that and got permission to attend sporting events, but then started showing up to school at other times. Parents got upset and that is the reason for his bill.

A subcommittee unanimously passed the bill on Monday, but there is no set date yet for it to go before the full committee.

Because Virginia's court system is surely already pretty crowded, the burden this bill will create for state court personnel strikes me as significant and notable. A bit of research revealed that there are about 20,000 registered sex offenders in Virginia. Even if only 10% of that group has good reason to go to a public school each year, the Virginia court system is going to have to handle 2000 more annual hearing to consider (and supervise?) any school visit.

January 21, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A (too) brief 2015 State of the Union mention of criminal justice issues

At the tail end of a lengthy speech mostly focused on economic issues and foreign affairs, President Barack Obama in his 2015 State of the Union Address mentioned a few matters that should intrigue those focused on federal criminal justice issues.  Here are the passages from this CNN text of the SotU speech that caught my attention:  

As Americans, we have a profound commitment to justice -- so it makes no sense to spend three million dollars per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit.  Since I've been President, we've worked responsibly to cut the population of GTMO in half.  Now it's time to finish the job. And I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It's not who we are....

We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can't walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won't rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift. Surely we can agree it's a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America's criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.

The absence of anything more substantive or substantial about federal criminal justice reform confirms my sense and fear that President Obama is more content simply to support criminal justice reforms pushed by others from behind rather than committed seriously to leading reform efforts from the bully pulpit.

January 20, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Hoping for (but not expecting) some mention of sentencing reform in 2015 State of the Union

For criminal justice and especially sentencing fans, the most notable aspects of President Obama's State of the Union addresses have been the absence of any discussion of anything having to do with sentencing or criminal justice.  Notably, the Obama era SOTU silence on sentencing issues contrasts with President George Bush's discussion of reentry and capital defense in his 2004 and 2005 SOTU speeches.  

Calling America "the land of second chance," President Bush in his 2004 State of the Union Address spotlighted prisoner re-entry issues and proposed "a four-year, $300 million prisoner re-entry initiative to expand job training and placement services, to provide transitional housing, and to help newly released prisoners get mentoring, including from faith-based groups."  And asserting that in America "we must make doubly sure no person is held to account for a crime he or she did not commit," President Bush in his 2005 State of the Union Address said he was going to send "to Congress a proposal to fund special training for defense counsel in capital cases, because people on trial for their lives must have competent lawyers by their side." 

I am expecting that President Obama in his 2015 State of the Union Address scheduled for tonight may finally say something about criminal justice issues, in part because I think he will want to say something about race and policing issues in the wake of Ferguson and his creation of a Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  But, as the title of this post reveals, I am not really expecting to hear tonight any discussion of sentencing law and policy  issues even though many in Congress and throughout the nation are concerned about the modern status quo and prospects for federal reforms.

On this front, Andrew Cohen at The Marshall project put together this terrific new piece headlined "‘My Fellow Americans …’: Reimagining the president's State of the Union speech," in which he got "a group of people who think deeply and regularly about criminal justice to share what they would like President Obama to say."   I was honored to be one of the people who Andrew Cohen asked to share my thoughts, though I find most notable what Senator Patrick Leahy, (D-Vt.) had to say:

The biggest issue facing our justice system today is our mass incarceration problem. The president has said before that we should enact laws that ensure “our crime policy is not only tough, but also smart.”  But tonight, while he has the attention of every member of Congress and the American people, I want to hear the president say that he supports an end to all mandatory minimum sentences, as I do.  Mandatory minimums are costly, unfair, and do not make our country safer.  For too long they have served as an easy way to score cheap political points: Want to prove you're tough on crime? Just add another mandatory minimum to the law. No need to bother with evidence that they do not make us safer; they make a nice talking point. That policy fallacy is one of the reasons we have the largest prison population in the world. And why $7 billion – nearly a third of the Justice Department’s budget – goes to the Bureau of Prisons instead of to community policing, victims services, or prison diversion programs that would make us safer and save taxpayers money.

Reagular readers will not be surprised to hear that I support the substance of what Senator Leahy is saying here.  But I am personally a bit surprised that the a ranking member (and former Chair) of the Senate Judiciary Committee is saying he think it is important for an executive branch official to say he opposes a legislative sentencing problem that Congress itself created and seems unable or unwilling to address dynamically. 

January 20, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

SCOTUS rules in favor of prisoner's RLUIPA claim and capital defendant's AEDPA contention

The Supreme Court handed down a few opinions this morning, and two of them involve notable victories for criminal defendants (and notable reversals of the Eighth Circuit).  

Via a unanimous ruling in Holt v. Hobbs, No. 13- 6827 (S. Ct. Jan 20, 2015) (available here), the Court explains why a rigid prison beard policy wrongfully infringes religious rights. Here is how the opinion, per Justice Alito, gets started:

Petitioner Gregory Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, is an Arkansas inmate and a devout Muslim who wishes to grow a 1⁄2-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. Petitioner’s objection to shaving his beard clashes with the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy, which prohibits inmates from growing beards unless they have a particular dermatological condition. We hold that the Department’s policy, as applied in this case, violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 114 Stat. 803, 42 U. S. C. §2000cc et seq., which prohibits a state or local government from taking any action that substantially burdens the religious exercise of an institutionalized person unless the government demonstrates that the action constitutes the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.

We conclude in this case that the Department’s policy substantially burdens petitioner’s religious exercise.  Although we do not question the importance of the Department’s interests in stopping the flow of contraband and facilitating prisoner identification, we do doubt whether the prohibition against petitioner’s beard furthers its compelling interest about contraband.  And we conclude that the Department has failed to show that its policy is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests.  We thus reverse the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

Via a summary reversal in Christeson v. Roper, No. 14-6873 (S. Ct. Jan 20, 2015) (available here), the Court explains why lower federal courts were too quick to preclude a capital defendant from arguing a habeas deadline ought to be tolled.  Here is how the Court's per curiam decision gets started:  

Petitioner Mark Christeson’s first federal habeas petition was dismissed as untimely. Because his appointed attorneys — who had missed the filing deadline — could not be expected to argue that Christeson was entitled to the equitable tolling of the statute of limitations, Christeson requested substitute counsel who would not be laboring under a conflict of interest.  The District Court denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit summarily affirmed. In so doing, these courts contravened our decision in Martel v. Clair, 565 U. S. ___ (2012).  Christeson’s petition for certiorari is therefore granted, the judgment of the Eighth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.

Notably, in Holt, Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor concurred in a little separate opinion to provide a bit of their own spin on RLUIPA.  And in Christeson, Justices Alito and Thomas dissent from the summary reversal because they would have preferred full briefing concerning a "question of great importance" regarding "the availability of equitable tolling in cases governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)."

January 20, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Should we be concerned about the economic or human costs of Colorado's efforts to get Aurora killer James Holmes on death row?

The question in the title of this post is my first reaction to this lengthy Denver Post piece discussing what to expect now that jury selection is about to begin in the Colorado's high-profile capital trial of Aurora theater shooter James Holmes.  The piece is headlined "Aurora theater shooting trial could strain limits of jury service," and here are some excerpts:

After 50 days of testimony and deliberations, the jurors who decided the fate of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh emerged haunted. "Have you ever seen 12 people cry?" one juror told reporters about deliberations for the 1997 verdict, handed down in a federal courtroom in Denver.  "I'm 24," another said, "But I don't feel 24 anymore."

Pummeled with horrific accounts of the attack, freighted with finding justice amid tragedy, the jurors had been pushed to near shattering. "I personally felt subject to the same sort of trauma that some of the victims and survivors went through," another said.

Now, imagine if that trial had lasted twice — even three times — as long.  The trial of Aurora movie theater gunman James Holmes, which starts Tuesday with jury selection, is expected to be so lengthy and arduous that it could strain the very process of justice it seeks to uphold.

Nine thousand potential jurors — one of the largest pools in American history — have been summoned for the case.  If picked, jurors will be ordered to serve for as long as five straight months, longer than any state criminal trial in memory in Colorado. They will weigh whether Holmes was sane in July 2012, when he killed 12 people inside the Century Aurora 16 movie theater and tried to kill 70 others, and, if they find he was, they will decide whether he should be executed.

For their service, they will be guaranteed a wage of only $50 a day, a rate that could plunge their income to near the federal poverty level.  Even harder, during what will likely be the most stressful time of their lives, they will be forbidden from talking to anyone about the experience — not their family or fellow jurors or counselors.  Until deliberations begin sometime late this year, the jurors will bear that stress in silence, despite a growing body of research that shows jury service on traumatic cases can lead to mental and physical illness and impact jurors' decision-making....

Since the 1930s, perpetrators of public mass shootings nationwide are more likely to die at the scene than to be captured, according to research by Minnesota Department of Corrections official Grant Duwe.  Of the 45 percent who were arrested, only a fraction ever faced a jury.  And even fewer of those were charged with killing in an attack as devastating to the community as Holmes is for the Aurora theater shooting.

William Bowers, a researcher for the Capital Jury Project at the State University of New York in Albany, likens the theater shooting trial to that currently taking place for one of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers.  "There's nothing really comparable to these cases in modern experience, in terms of duration of the trial and effect on the jury," Bowers said....

But, at its most extreme limits, jury service can become less of a duty and more of an ordeal, legal experts say.  Studies have shown that jurors in traumatic trials can suffer from insomnia, anxiety, anger and depression.  One study documented cases of jurors who broke out in hives, developed ulcers or increased their alcohol consumption while serving at trials. And after the trial is over, some jurors have said they experienced flashbacks....

In recognition of the strains of jury service, courts across the country increasingly offer counseling to jurors. Jon Sarche, a spokesman for the Colorado Judicial Branch, said counseling will be made available to jurors in the theater shooting case once the trial is over.  But — because judges routinely order jurors not to talk about the case with anyone, to protect the trial's integrity — counseling is almost never available to help jurors manage stress during the case.

While this piece effectively highlights some economic and human costs to be borne the jurors in this case, the question in the title of this post also suggests thinking about the economic and human costs sure to burden the lawyers and the court system throughout this case.  And, as the question in the title of this post is meant to highlight, these costs are all endured in service now only to having Holmes sentenced to death; inevitable appeals and other factors will likely mean Holmes is unlikely ever actually to be executed by Colorado for his crimes.

I suspect these kinds of costs and uncertainties explain (and clearly justify?) why the feds were willing to cut LWOP plea deals for other mentally-challenged mass killers like Ted Kaczynski (the Unibomber) and Jared Lee Loughner (the Tucson shooter).  But Colorado prosecutors in this case appear quite committed to enduring all these costs in service to trying to get James Holmes sentenced to death. 

Recent and older related posts (with lots of comments):

January 20, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Highlighting that most prisoners in Wisconsin now sent there for parole or probation violations

B99420782z.1_20150117211308_000_g199j1go.1-0This lengthy Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel article highlights the interesting reality of just who gets sent to prison in the Badger State and how. The piece carries this headline and subheading: "No new conviction, but sent back to prison; Re-incarceration for rule, parole violations costs taxpayers millions." Here is how the article starts:

More than half of the nearly 8,000 people sent to Wisconsin's prisons in 2013 were locked up without a trial — and they weren't found guilty of new crimes.  Some were punished for violating probation or parole by doing things such as accepting a job without permission, using a cellphone or computer without authorization, or leaving their home county. Some were suspected of criminal activity, but not charged.

Re-incarcerating people for breaking the rules costs Wisconsin taxpayers more than $100 million every year. The process that forces violators back behind bars relies largely on the judgment of individual parole agents, which can vary widely. Once accused of violations, people on parole can be sent back to prison for years without proof beyond a reasonable doubt — and they are left with little chance of a successful appeal.

Hector Cubero's agent, for example, recommended he be returned to prison on his original sentence of life with the possibility of parole after he inked a tattoo on the shoulder of a 15-year-old boy. The tattoo featured a cross and a quote from peace activist Marianne Williamson: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure."

Cubero maintains the teen lied about his age. Had Cubero been found guilty of tattooing a minor, a city ordinance violation, he would have been ticketed and fined $200. If he had been convicted of tattooing without a license, a misdemeanor, he could have been fined $500 and faced a maximum of 30 days in jail. But because he was on parole at the time, Cubero, 52, has served more than two years — with no guarantee he will ever go home.

Cubero already had spent more than 27 years behind bars for being a party to the crimes of first-degree murder and armed robbery. Court records show Cubero, 18 at the time of the offense, did not plan the robbery or fire the shots that killed the victim, a Milwaukee dentist.

Until the parents of the 15-year-old complained about the tattoo, Cubero had never violated parole, according to Corrections Department records. During the four years he'd been free, he passed all his drug tests, paid his restitution and court costs and worked fairly steadily. Nonetheless, Cubero's parole agent recommended he be sent back to prison. The agent, with cooperation from a prison social worker, also blocked his fiancée, Charlotte Mertins of Delafield, and her three children, all in their 20s, from visiting him.

January 18, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Saturday, January 17, 2015

"If crime is falling, why aren’t prisons shrinking?"

Cbpp_statesThe title of this post is the headline of this notable Boston Globe commentary. Here are some excerpts:

The prison population in Massachusetts has tripled in size since 1980. That’s faster than the state economy has grown and even faster than the rise in obesity. Massachusetts is hardly alone in this. Prison populations have mushroomed all across the United States, occasionally reaching rates far higher than anything seen here.  But while many states are now experimenting with approaches that ease criminal penalties, Massachusetts has taken few steps in this direction.
How many people are in prison? About 165 of every 100,000 people in Massachusetts are currently serving prison sentences of a year or longer. That number used to be a lot lower. In the late 1970s, just 50 of every 100,000 people were in state prisons.  You can find this same upward trend most everywhere in the United States; across the country, roughly 430 of every 100,000 people are in state prisons.
 Why has the prison population grown so rapidly? Initially, the growth in prison populations was a response to the surge in crime that shook American cities in the ’60s and ’70s. Faced with eruptions of violence, states everywhere began to put more people in prison and to increase the length of prison sentences.
Despite the fact that crime rates have declined dramatically since the early 1990s, those policing techniques and sentencing laws stayed in place. As a result, the prison population remains elevated....
Liberal and conservative states alike have begun to reassess the efficacy of their incarceration policies.  Partly, that’s about the strain on state budgets — building and maintaining prisons has proved extremely costly. But it’s also because of new research showing that it’s possible to loosen criminal penalties and reduce crime at the same time.
Over the last few years, the states that made the biggest reductions to their prison populations, including New Jersey and Connecticut, have also seen some of the biggest drops in crime.
Since 2008, 29 states have seen both lower crime rates and smaller prison populations. “Justice reinvestment” is the term being used to describe this effort, and what it involves is a careful cost-benefit analysis to see how states can simultaneously keep people out of prison, reduce crime, and save money. Among other things, states are experimenting with:
Looser drug laws. Over a dozen states, from California to Maine, have stopped sending people to prison for possessing small amounts of marijuana. And even with more serious drugs, it can be more effective — and cheaper — to help people get treatment. Texas has invested millions of dollars in treatment programs for drug offenders.
Electronic monitoring. Only recently has it become possible to effectively monitor people without putting them in prison. For those awaiting trial or struggling to keep up with the conditions of their parole, an ankle monitor can be a relatively inexpensive alternative to confinement. New Jersey is one of the states making use of this technology.
Therapy. Some forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy have been shown to keep one-time criminals from becoming two-time criminals, which is good for the public and good for state budgets. Dozens of different states have experimented with these therapies.
What reforms are being tried in Massachusetts? Given that the prison population in Massachusetts is far smaller than elsewhere in the United States, there’s less urgency around issues of reform.  Still, Massachusetts devotes about 3 percent of its budget — over $1 billion each year — to corrections. That’s twice what we spend on early education and roughly the same amount that we devote to higher education....
During his time in office, Governor Patrick had said he hoped this new information would revitalize the state’s sentencing commission, but it’s a big step from data-gathering to policy-making.  For now, other states seem to be taking the lead in the effort to find targeted reforms that can safely reverse the decades-long increase in prison populations.

January 17, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

SCOTUS takes up a few small criminal justice case along with big marriage questions

As highlighted by this Lyle Denniston post at SCOTUSblog, yesterday's big Supreme Court news was its decision to finally grant cert to consider the legal and constitutional status of same sex marriage.  But this same post also notes that SCOTUS also granted review on four other cases, three of which have criminal justice elements:

In addition to the same-sex marriage cases, the Court agreed on Friday to hear four other new cases, all of which are also expected to be argued in April.  Here, in summary, are the issues in those other cases:

In Mata v. Holder, the Court will be ruling on the authority of federal appeals courts to delay a deadline for a non-citizen to seek reopening of a deportation case with a claim that his lawyer was ineffective.

In Horne v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Court agreed to decide whether an unconstitutional seizure of part of a California raisin crop occurs when the federal government requires the private grower to take it off the market to help keep raisin prices up....

In McFadden v. United States, the issue is whether federal prosecutors must prove that an individual accused of distributing a substance actually knew that the material was a substitute for (an “analogue” of) an illegal narcotic drug.

In Kingsley v. Hendrickson, the Court will clarify when the police use of force against an individual who is being held awaiting a criminal trial is unconstitutionally excessive.

January 17, 2015 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Friday, January 16, 2015

AG Holder announces notable new limits on civil forfeitures to fund local police

As reported in this Washington Post article, headlined "Holder limits seized-asset sharing process that split billions with local, state police," the out-going Attorney General today announce a notable new policy that ought to take some of the economic incentives out of some drug war enforcement activities. Here are the basics:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without proving that a crime occurred. Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.

Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing. The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. The program allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds of the adopted seizures, with the rest going to federal agencies.

“With this new policy, effective immediately, the Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons,” Holder said in a statement. Holder’s decision allows some limited exceptions, including illegal firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography, a small fraction of the total. This would eliminate virtually all cash and vehicle seizures made by local and state police from the program.

While police can continue to make seizures under their own state laws, the federal program was easy to use and required most of the proceeds from the seizures to go to local and state police departments. Many states require seized proceeds to go into the general fund. A Justice official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the attorney general’s motivation, said Holder “also believes that the new policy will eliminate any possibility that the adoption process might unintentionally incentivize unnecessary stops and seizures.”

Holder’s decision follows a Washington Post investigation published in September that found that police have made cash seizures worth almost $2.5 billion from motorists and others without search warrants or indictments since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

January 16, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Political scientist highlights how Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden helped produce modern mass incarcertation

Murakawa2014I first spotlighted in this prior post the fascinating new book by Princeton Professor Naomi Murakawa titled The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America.  I now see that The Marshall Project has published this great piece by Dana Goldstein with a brief overview of the book and a potent Q&A with its author.  Here is how the piece starts and some of my favorite excerpts:

Are liberals as responsible for the prison boom as conservatives?

That’s the thesis of a new book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America.  It has begun to attract reviews and debate from across the political spectrum.  Princeton political scientist Naomi Murakawa seeks to upend assumptions about the politics of crime and punishment.  She argues that conservatives, playing the politics of racial animus, helped quadruple the incarceration rate, but they were not alone.  Rather, she points to “liberal law and order” ideas first expressed by Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, and even the NAACP.  These liberals believed that federalizing crime policy would “professionalize” the justice system and prevent racial bias.  But in fact, federal funding and federal oversight of courts, sentencing, and policing helped build what Murakawa calls a “carceral state” that disproportionately punishes people of color.

Murakawa and I talked about her book and its implications for criminal justice reform today, especially the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the Obama administration’s policing reforms....

Q: Your book aims to expose the liberal roots of the prison boom.  But Democrats did not create the Willie Horton ad.  It was Richard Nixon who expanded the drug war by claiming that drug use was “the common denominator” that explained lawlessness among hippies, inner-city blacks, and antiwar protestors.  Is it important to distinguish between the different motives of conservatives and liberals?

A: I think it’s important to stay focused on outcomes in terms of how they affect people’s day-to-day lives. I do discount stated intentions quite a lot.  I do this in part because I have a feeling that for those being sentenced under punitive sentencing guidelines it doesn’t make a difference to them that Sen. Ted Kennedy was liberal and overall had a good voting record.  It doesn’t make the brutality of living in a cage any less violent.

Kennedy promulgated this idea of sentencing guidelines.  It was his baby.  He ushered it through the Senate at first as guidelines that were rigid but would have been somewhat anti-carceral.  They became guidelines that were rigid and more carceral.  And Reagan signed this legislation, in 1984. Kennedy had the rest of his life to say, “The sentencing guidelines have had a terrible impact. This is not what I meant.”  Not once did he introduce legislation to reform the guidelines.  Not once did he apologize or try to change it.  When I look at that kind of history, that’s where I feel like it’s fair to hold liberals responsible.

Q: Joe Biden played an interesting role in what you call Democrats “upping the ante” to outbid conservatives on being tough on crime.  Can you talk about Biden’s history?

A:  He was really pivotal in leading the Senate in worsening all of the provisions of Clinton's 1994 Omnibus Crime Act, which expanded the death penalty and created new mandatory minimum sentences.  Biden was truly a leader and worked very closely and very happily with conservative senators just to bid up and up and up.  There’s a tendency now to talk about Joe Biden as the sort of affable if inappropriate uncle, as loudmouth and silly.  But he’s actually done really deeply disturbing, dangerous reforms that have made the criminal justice system more lethal and just bigger.

That 1994 act is overwhelmingly, incredibly punitive.  One of the ways Biden brokered it was by making it such a huge bill that it had something for everyone.  It provided political coverage for everyone who wanted to vote for it.  There were certain liberal members who might have been opposed to mandatory minimums, but they were also getting the Violence Against Women Act.  The Congressional Black Caucus opposed the death penalty expansions, but the bill also did include some modest money for rehabilitation programs. Everyone got goodies through the criminal justice system.

Prior related post:

January 15, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

"Are Pardons Becoming More Politically Acceptable?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new Governing article. The piece has the subheadline, "Gubernatorial pardons have been in decline since the 1980s, but that appears to be changing as views evolve on rehabilitation and drug offenses." And here are excerpts:

Last Friday, on his last full business day in office, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn pardoned 232 ex-offenders. That same day, in neighboring Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence issued three pardons -- the first during his two years in office.

Which governor’s actions were standard? Until recently, it would have been easy to pick Pence. For decades now, governors have been sparing with pardons, not wanting to be perceived as lenient and worrying about the political risks that can come with pardoning people who go on to commit further crimes.

But gubernatorial pardons may be about ready to start making a comeback. As part of the broader rethinking of criminal justice strategies, in which concerns about rehabilitation, exonerations and expungement of records have become part of the mix, more governors seem willing to embrace their historic role of offering clemency to those who have earned it.

Quinn offered 43 additional offenders clemency during his last minutes in office on Monday, bringing his career total well above 1,000. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued nearly 50 pardons during his first year in office, while California’s Jerry Brown gave out more than 100 on Christmas Eve.

Those sorts of numbers still stand out. The number of gubernatorial pardons has dropped dramatically in recent decades, according to legal experts. Plenty of governors these days only offer a few pardons a year, if that many. But governors offering a regular flow of pardons are no longer the outliers that they would have been just a few years ago. "I do have a sense that people like Quinn represent the future," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist at Rock Valley College in Illinois and editor of the Power Pardon blog. "There is kind of a different mindset."

One telltale sign of that, Ruckman points out, is that some new governors, including Larry Hogan of Maryland and Bruce Rauner of Illinois, talked during the campaign last year about the importance of taking the pardon power seriously in office. "That wouldn’t have happened in the 1980s,” Ruckman said....

States that have either independent pardoning boards or entities whose recommendations are necessary for a governor to issue a pardon, such as Connecticut and Georgia, have been more active on the clemency front than governors acting alone. A number of those states routinely grant upwards of 200 pardons per year.

Still, governors from both parties, such as Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York and Republican Scott Walker of Wisconsin have offered either few or no pardons. There’s still a “political fear quotient” involved in pardoning someone who might go on to commit a heinous crime, noted former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich. "Unfortunately, we only talk about pardon policy when something goes wrong," said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

That’s why governors need to be careful, Ehrlich said, putting regular review processes in place and not bunching up all their decisions at holidays or as they leave office. That's the approach outgoing Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe has taken, reviewing applications on a monthly basis throughout his tenure. Ehrlich has made pardons something of a personal cause, speaking frequently about the responsibility governors have regarding clemency. He runs a program to delineate best practices at Catholic University and offers advice to incoming governors....

“One thing that will be interesting to watch is that President Obama” -- who has issued the fewest pardons of any president since Dwight Eisenhower -- “has a clemency project that may or may not result in hundreds of sentences being commuted,” said Osler. “Maybe that will embolden some of these more liberal governors as well.”

January 15, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Over dissent of four Justices, SCOTUS lets Oklahoma execution go forward (... and Florida executes around the same time)

As reported in this USA Today article, a "sharply divided Supreme Court refused Thursday to block the execution of an Oklahoma inmate over concerns about a drug protocol that has caused problems in the past."  Here is more:

The court's five conservative justices denied the request for a stay of execution without comment.  But the four liberal justices issued an eight-page dissent in which they questioned whether the drug protocol.

"The questions before us are especially important now, given states' increasing reliance on new and scientifically untested methods of execution," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote. "Petitioners have committed horrific crimes and should be punished.  But the Eighth Amendment guarantees that no one should be subjected to an execution that causes searing, unnecessary pain before death.  I hope that our failure to act today does not portend our unwillingness to consider these questions."

Warner's execution was to come within hours of another in Florida, where Johnny Shane Kormondy, 42, was awaiting death for killing a man during a 1993 home invasion. Both executions were to use the same combination of three drugs.

Lawyers for Warner and three other convicts set for execution in Oklahoma over the next seven weeks had sought the Supreme Court's intervention after two lower federal courts refused their pleas.

Justice Sotomayor's eight-page dissent, which was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan, is available at this link and it ends with these two paragraphs:

I am deeply troubled by this evidence suggesting that midazolam cannot constitutionally be used as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection protocol.  It is true that we give deference to the district courts.  But at some point we must question their findings of fact, unless we are to abdicate our role of ensuring that no clear error has been committed.  We should review such findings with added care when what is at issue is the risk of the needless infliction of severe pain.  Here, given the evidence before the District Court, I struggle to see how its decision to credit the testimony of a single purported expert can be supported given the substantial body of conflicting empirical and anecdotal evidence.

I believe that we should have granted petitioners’ application for stay. The questions before us are especially important now, given States’ increasing reliance on new and scientifically untested methods of execution.  Petitioners have committed horrific crimes, and should be punished.  But the Eighth Amendment guarantees that no one should be subjected to an execution that causes searing, unnecessary pain before death.  I hope that our failure to act today does not portend our unwillingness to consider these questions.

Not long after this decision was handed down, Oklahoma finally was able to carry out the death sentence imposed on Charles Warner for him murder of his girlfriend's 11-month-old daughter way back in 1997.  This AP report suggests that this Oklahoma execution, as well as another one taking place at roughly the same time in Florida with the same combination of drugs, were completed "without incident."  Consequently, I hope Justice Sotomayor feels at least some relief that these two murderers, roughly two decades after they killed, apparently were seemingly not "subjected to an execution that causes searing, unnecessary pain before death."

UPDATE:  This CBS News story suggests that I may have been too quick to assume that the Oklahoma execution was without incident.  Here is what the CBS News story reports about what unfolding in Oklahoma:

The execution lasted 18 minutes.

"Before I give my final statement, I'll tell you they poked me five times. It hurt. It feels like acid," Warner said before the execution began. He added, "I'm not a monster. I didn't do everything they said I did."

After the first drug was administered, Warner said, "My body is on fire." But he showed no obvious signs of distress. Witnesses said they saw slight twitching in Warner's neck about three minutes after the lethal injection began. The twitching lasted about seven minutes until he stopped breathing.

January 15, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

With interesting 6-3 split, SCOTUS gives habeas petitioner a little win on appeal

The Supreme Court this morning handed down a notable habeas procedure opinion today in Jennings v. Stevens, No. 13-7211 (S. Ct. Jan. 14, 2015) (available here). Here is the start and conclusion of the majority opinion by Justice Scalia:

Petitioner Robert Mitchell Jennings was sentenced to death for capital murder. He applied for federal habeas corpus relief on three theories of ineffective assistance of counsel, prevailing on two. The State appealed, and Jennings defended his writ on all three theories. We consider whether Jennings was permitted to pursue the theory that the District Court had rejected without taking a crossappeal or obtaining a certificate of appealability....

Because Jennings’ Spisak theory would neither have enlarged his rights nor diminished the State’s rights under the District Court’s judgment, he was required neither to take a cross-appeal nor to obtain a certificate of appealability. We reverse the judgment of the Fifth Circuit and remand the case for consideration of Jennings’ Spisak claim.

Justice Thomas, joined by Justices Kennedy and Alito, authored a dissenting opinion that starts this way:

The Court holds today that a prisoner who obtains an order for his release unless the State grants him a new sentencing proceeding may, as an appellee, raise any alternative argument rejected below that could have resulted in a similar order. In doing so, the majority mistakenly equates a judgment granting a conditional-release order with an ordinary civil judgment. I respectfully dissent.

Off the top of my head, I cannot think of another recent criminal case with this particular combination of Justices in the majority and in the dissent. Except for those involved in complicated habeas proceedings, the line up of the Justices is arguably the most notable aspect of this ruling.

January 14, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack