Friday, July 18, 2014

USSC votes for full (though slightly delayed) retroactivity of new reduced drug guidelines

I just received this early report via a credible source as to what the US Sentencing Commission did this afternoon on the issue of making its new lower guidelines retroactive:

The Commission just voted unanimously to make the "drugs minus 2" amendment retroactive with a single limitation -- no order reducing a sentence can take effect until Nov. 1, 2015.  This is later than the Judicial Conference recommended (they proposed that it effect in May 2015 to give courts and probation time to prepare)....

The Commission predicts that more than 46,000 will be eligible to seek a reduction.  Part of the reason for the delayed effective date is to make sure each inmate is released with a re-entry plan and the opportunity for transitional steps such as halfway houses or home confinement.

UPDATE:  Here is a link to the USSC's official press release about its vote, which starts this way:

The United States Sentencing Commission voted unanimously today at a public meeting to apply a reduction in the sentencing guideline levels applicable to most federal drug trafficking offenders retroactively, meaning that many offenders currently in prison could be eligible for reduced sentences beginning November 2015.

The Commission voted unanimously in April to amend the guidelines to lower the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table across drug types, which may mean lower sentences for most drug offenders going forward.  Today the Commission decided that judges could extend that reduction to offenders currently in prison, but with a requirement that reduced sentences cannot take effect until November 1, 2015.  Under the guidelines, no offender would be released unless a judge reviews the case to determine whether a reduced sentence poses a risk to public safety and is otherwise appropriate.

“This amendment received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission. “It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety.”

Congress has until November 1, 2014 to disapprove the amendment to reduce drug guidelines. Should Congress choose to let the guideline reductions stand, courts could then begin considering petitions from prisoners for sentence reductions, but no prisoners could be released pursuant to those reductions before November 1, 2015.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Here is a link to the official statement in response to this vote from AG Eric Holder, which runs this single paragraph:

“The department looks forward to implementing this plan to reduce sentences for certain incarcerated individuals. We have been in ongoing discussions with the Commission during its deliberations on this issue, and conveyed the department's support for this balanced approach. In the interest of fairness, it makes sense to apply changes to the sentencing guidelines retroactively, and the idea of a one-year implementation delay will adequately address public safety concerns by ensuring that judges have adequate time to consider whether an eligible individual is an appropriate candidate for a reduced sentence. At my direction, the Bureau of Prisons will begin notifying federal inmates of the opportunity to apply for a reduction in sentence immediately. This is a milestone in the effort to make more efficient use of our law enforcement resources and to ease the burden on our overcrowded prison system."

July 18, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Huge reduced drug guideline retroactivity decision expected from US Sentencing Commission on 7/18

As this official public notice reports, on July 18, 2014 at 1pm EDT, the US Sentencing the Commission will hold a public meeting at which "the Commissioners will vote on whether or not to retroactively apply, in whole or in part, [its recent guideline] amendment reducing the drug quantity table by two levels." At the risk of overstating the importance of this vote, I am inclined to assert that it may be the most practically consequential USSC decision in nearly a decade. The (slightly misleading) headlines of these two media discussions of the coming vote helps to highlight why:

It is likely hard for anyone who has not followed federal sentencing very closely for decades to fully appreciate all the dynamic challenges that this vote presents for the US Sentencing Commission (as well as for the US Department of Justice and for all those who work day-to-day the federal sentencing system).  Helpfully, this extended BuzzFeed article by Evan McMorris-Santoro provide a primer on some of the issues swirling around this important USSC vote.  The article's headline highlights its themes: "Despite Rhetoric, Obama Administration Pushes To Keep Thousands Of Felons In Jail Under Old Rules: The Justice Department announced major changes to the way federal drug crimes are punished this year. But the rules for existing convicts might be different — and many White House allies are angry."

Some recent related posts on reduced drug guideline retroactivity:

July 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Lots of notable discussion of yesterday's notable decision striking down California's death penalty

As reported in this prior post, yesterday in a significant ruling in Jones v. Chappell, No. 2:09-cv-02158-CJC (C.D. Cal. July 16, 2014) (available here), U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney declared all of California's death penalty system unconstitutional.  Not surprisingly, this important ruling has already generated considerable traditional media attention, and How Appealing collects some of the major stories here and here.

The heart of the remarkable ruling in Jones v. Chappell turns on (1) the (not disputable) fact that "California’s death penalty system is so plagued by inordinate and unpredictable delay that the death sentence is actually carried out against only a trivial few of those sentenced to death," and (2) the (very disputable) conclusion that allowing any one murderer to "executed in such a system, where so many are sentenced to death but only a random few are actually executed, would offend the most fundamental of constitutional protections — that the government shall not be permitted to arbitrarily inflict the ultimate punishment of death."  I have lots of thoughts about both fact (1) and conclusion (2) that I hope to find time to share in future posts (or future amicus briefs), but for now I figured I would link to some of the early analysis of the opinion I have so far seen elsewhere in the blogosphere:

July 17, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Divided en banc Third Circuit announces new approach to preserving procedural sentencing error claims

Yesterday the Third Circuit issued a relatively short en banc ruling in US v. Flores-Mejia, No. 12-3149 (3d Cir. July 16, 2014) (available here), which reverses its previously-articulated approach to how objections to claimed procedural sentencing error must be preserved.  Here is how the majority opinion, per Judge Roth, gets started:

Jose Luis Flores-Mejia appeals the sentence imposed on him for his conviction of the offense of reentry after deportation. His appeal raises the issue of what a defendant must do in order to preserve a challenge to the procedural reasonableness of a sentence.  At the sentencing hearing,  Flores-Mejia made a mitigation argument, based on his cooperation with the government.  Flores-Mejia contends that his initial presentation of this argument is sufficient, without more, to preserve his claim that the District Court committed procedural error by failing, when it pronounced sentence, to give meaningful consideration to this argument.  The government counters that Flores-Mejia’s failure to object, at a time when the District Court could have promptly addressed it, did not preserve the issue for appeal and leaves his claim subject to plain error review.

We have decided that, to assist the district courts in sentencing, we will develop a new rule which is applicable in those situations in which a party has an objection based upon a procedural error in sentencing but, after that error has become evident, has not stated that objection on the record.  We now hold that in such a situation, when a party wishes to take an appeal based on a procedural error at sentencing — such as the court’s failure to meaningfully consider that party’s arguments or to explain one or more aspects of the sentence imposed — that party must object to the procedural error complained of after sentence is imposed in order to avoid plain error review on appeal. Our panel holding in United States v. Sevilla, 541 F.3d 226 (3d Cir. 2008), differs from our holding today and is superseded. 

A group of five Third Circuit judges signed on to a spirited dissent authored by Judge Greenaway, and here is how it gets started:

In our system of jurisprudence, we examine our principle, consider the facts and the law and make decisions.  The venerable principle of stare decisis requires reexamination not when we come up with a better mouse trap but when there is a principled basis for change.  See Arizona v. Rumsey, 467 U.S. 203, 212 (1984) (“[A]ny departure from the doctrine of stare decisis demands special justification.”); Planned Parenthood of Se. Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 854 (1992) (“The obligation to follow precedent begins with necessity, and a contrary necessity marks its outer limit. . . . At the other extreme, a different necessity would make itself felt if a prior judicial ruling should come to be seen so clearly as error that its enforcement was for that very reason doomed.”). Indeed, “the very point of stare decisis is to forbid us from revisiting a debate every time there are reasonable arguments to be made on both sides.”  Morrow v. Balaski, 719 F.3d 160, 181 (3d Cir. 2013) (Smith, J., concurring).  

Our Court, in a unanimous precedential opinion, adopted a procedure for district courts to follow at sentencing a scant six years ago.  See United States v. Sevilla, 541 F.3d 226, 230 (3d Cir. 2008).  Now, without intervening Supreme Court precedent and without a majority of our sister courts, we not only reexamine but indeed create a new procedure that flies in the face of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 51, with no compulsion or mandate to do so.

In its attempt to promote judicial economy, the majority ignores the plain language of Rule 51, misreads the state of the law of our sister circuits, and invokes a fundamental change to our sentencing procedures that is both unwarranted and difficult to square with the Supreme Court’s post-Booker jurisprudence.  For this reason, I respectfully dissent.

July 17, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Newt Gingrich saying again that "backing sensible and proven reforms to the U.S. criminal-justice system is a valuable conservative cause"

I have long stressed my belief that many federal sentencing reform efforts can and should be viewed as a cause that ought to attract politicians and people with true conservative principles.  This recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, headlined "An Opening for Bipartisanship on Prison Reform," authored by Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan echoes this point. Here are excerpts:

Several states have passed meaningful reforms, including expanding drug courts to order mandatory drug treatment programs, increasing funding for drug and mental-health treatment, and limiting costly prison beds to violent and serious repeat offenders. These state reforms passed in part thanks to conservative support.

Right on Crime, a national organization founded in 2010 that we both belong to, is helping spread the word that backing sensible and proven reforms to the U.S. criminal-justice system is a valuable conservative cause.

On a panel at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in March in National Harbor, Md., Texas Gov. Rick Perry explained how reform worked in his state. In 2007, Texas scrapped plans to build more prisons, putting much of the savings into drug courts and treatment. The results have been impressive: Crime in Texas is at the lowest rate since 1968. The number of inmates has fallen by 3%, enabling the state to close three prisons, saving $3 billion so far. What inspired the reform, Gov. Perry said, was this: "Being able to give people a second chance is really important. That should be our goal. The idea that we lock people up, throw them away, never give them a chance at redemption is not what America is about."

In 2010, South Carolina followed Texas' example, toughening penalties for violent criminals while creating alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. These included providing community drug treatment and mental health services for lower-level lawbreakers—mostly drug and property offenders—who made up half of the state's prison population. South Carolina also increased funding for more agents to supervise offenders in the community. Three years later, the prison population has decreased by 8%, and violent offenders now account for 63% of the inmate population. South Carolina's recidivism rates also are much improved and the state has closed one prison.

Other states—Ohio, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Mississippi—have adopted similar reforms. As is so often the case, the states are showing the way. Congress should apply these common-sense reforms to the federal prison system.

The reforms have developed in the states, as conservatives tend to prefer. But now that there is proof that prison reform can work, the debate has gone from an ideological discussion to evidence-based changes that can be applied to the federal system.

Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, who have seen the benefits firsthand in Texas, have been joined by Republican Senate colleagues such as Rob Portman, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, Jeff Flake and Ron Johnson in backing one or more prison-reform bills. Two bills, the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act (S. 1675) and the Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410) have already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and await action by the full Senate.

In the House, Republican Reps. Jason Chaffetz, Raúl Labrador, Trey Gowdy and others are backing similar legislation. This push for reforming the federal prison system has support on the other side of the aisle as well. Such liberal stalwarts as Sens. Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy and Sheldon Whitehouse, and Reps. John Conyers, Bobby Scott and Jerrold Nadler have signaled their backing.

July 17, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Recalibrating Justice: A Review of 2013 State Sentencing and Corrections Trends"

The title of this post is the title of a notable new report from the Vera Institute of Justice. The report, available via this link, checks in at less than 50 pages and provides a terrific accounting of state-level reforms nationwide. This one-page summary provides these highlights:

In 2013, 35 states passed at least 85 bills that largely eschew the tough-on-crime policies of the past.  Lawmakers exhibited a willingness to pursue change consistent with the growing body of research that demonstrates carefully implemented and well-targeted community-based programs and practices can produce better outcomes at less cost than incarceration.  In particular, states enacted legislation to:

> Reduce prison populations and costs.  States repealed or narrowed mandatory sentencing schemes, reclassified offenses, or altered sentencing presumptions. States also sought to expand access to early release mechanisms — such as good time credits —designed to accelerate sentence completion.

> Expand or strengthen community-based sanctions.  States introduced or strengthened community corrections programs proven to reduce recidivism.  Some states expanded eligibility for diversion programs — a sentencing alternative through which charges will be dismissed or expunged if a defendant completes a community-based program or stays out of trouble for a specified period.  States also expanded community-based sentencing options, including the use of problem-solving courts.

> Implement risk and needs assessments. Several states focused on the use of validated risk and needs assessments as the basis for implementing individualized offender case plans.  These states passed laws requiring assessments of an offender’s risk of recidivism as well as his or her criminogenic needs — characteristics, such as drug addiction and mental illness — that when addressed can reduce that risk.  States incorporated these assessments at different points in the criminal justice process — at the pre-trial stage, at the pre-sentencing stage, or to inform supervision and programming, whether in prison or in the community.

> Support the reentry of offenders into the community.  States passed laws to mitigate the “collateral consequences” of criminal convictions — such as restrictions on housing and social benefits and exclusion from employment.  In some states, legislators sought to clarify, expand, or create ways to seal or expunge criminal records from the public record. Others focused on helping offenders transition from prison or jail back into the community by increasing in-prison and post-release support.

> Make better informed criminal justice policy.  A number of states sought a deliberate discussion about the purpose and impact of proposed sentencing and corrections legislation and looked to external groups to debate proposals, collect and analyze data, and formulate policy recommendations. Some states even passed legislation requiring fiscal or social impact statements in order to help legislators consider the ramifications of proposed criminal justice reforms.

July 16, 2014 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Federal district judge declares California's death penalty unconstitutional under Eighth Amendment

An notable new opinion by a (Republican-appointed) federal district judge in California is sure to be the talk of the death penalty community for the forseeable future and is also sure to be the basis for a intriguing coming appeal to the Ninth Circuit (and perhaps the Supreme Court). The opinion in Jones v. Chappell, No. 2:09-cv-02158-CJC (C.D. Cal. July 16, 2014) (available for download below), is authored by a GWB-appointee Cormac Carney, and it is described by the judge as an "ORDER DECLARING CALIFORNIA’S DEATH PENALTY SYSTEM UNCONSTITUTIONAL AND VACATING PETITIONER’S DEATH SENTENCE." Here is how the 29-page opinion start and ends:

On April 7, 1995, Petitioner Ernest Dewayne Jones was condemned to death by the State of California.  Nearly two decades later, Mr. Jones remains on California’s Death Row, awaiting his execution, but with complete uncertainty as to when, or even whether, it will ever come. Mr. Jones is not alone. Since 1978, when the current death penalty system was adopted by California voters, over 900 people have been sentenced to death for their crimes. Of them, only 13 have been executed. For the rest, the dysfunctional administration of California’s death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution. Indeed, for most, systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death. As for the random few for whom execution does become a reality, they will have languished for so long on Death Row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.

That is the reality of the death penalty in California today and the system that has been created to administer it to Mr. Jones and the hundreds of other individuals currently on Death Row. Allowing this system to continue to threaten Mr. Jones with the slight possibility of death, almost a generation after he was first sentenced, violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment....

When an individual is condemned to death in California, the sentence carries with it an implicit promise from the State that it will actually be carried out. That promise is made to the citizens of the State, who are investing significant resources in furtherance of a punishment that they believe is necessary to achieving justice. It is made to jurors who, in exercise of their civic responsibility, are asked to hear about and see evidence of undeniably horrific crimes, and then participate in the agonizing deliberations over whether the perpetrators of those horrific crimes should be put to death. It is made to victims and their loved ones, for whom just punishment might provide some semblance of moral and emotional closure from an otherwise unimaginable loss. And it is made to the hundreds of individuals on Death Row, as a statement their crimes are so heinous they have forfeited their right to life.

But for too long now, the promise has been an empty one. Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the State. It has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed. And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose. Such a system is unconstitutional. Accordingly, the Court hereby VACATES Mr. Jones’s death sentence.

Full opinion:  Download Jones Cal DP opinion

July 16, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

"Volunteers for Execution: Directions for Further Research into Grief, Culpability, and Legal Structures"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper I just came across via SSRN authored by Meredith Martin Rountree.  Here is the abstract:

About 11% of those executed in the United States are death-sentenced prisoners who sought their own execution.  These prisoners are commonly called “volunteers,” and they succeed in hastening execution by waiving their right to appeal their conviction and sentence. Certain interpretations dominate.  Those who oppose a condemned prisoner’s request for execution often cite the prisoner’s history of mental instability and frame the prisoner’s decision as a product of suicidal depression.  Related to this narrative is one that links death row conditions to the prisoner’s decision to hasten death.  Conditions, in this account, contribute to the decision to abandon appeals by wearing the prisoner down to the point that he loses the will to live, or by contributing to “death row syndrome,” an evolving (and controversial) psychiatric diagnosis describing a mental condition that some prisoners develop as a result of living under a death sentence in highly socially isolating and stark conditions of confinement.  Other narratives focus on ideas of rational choice and personal autonomy.  This account emphasizes prisoners’ desire to control their own destiny and the civic virtue of respecting autonomy and choice, even for the least among us.

The empirical support for these explanations is sparse, and this article emerges from a larger effort to test the hypothesis that prisoners who seek execution resemble those who take their own lives in prison.  The prison suicide literature has identified certain characteristics — such as race, sex, age, mental illness, and prison conditions — as increasing the risk of suicide behind bars.  My research on Texas volunteers generally suggests many, but not all, of those traits characterize that volunteer population as well. This article focuses on findings that point to areas for future research not only on volunteers but also on larger questions of processes of hopelessness and culpability among criminal offenders, and how the criminal justice system may influence life-ending decisions. 

July 16, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Latest polling shows rich, white, midwestern guys aged 30-44 most likely to favor pot legalization

As this press release details, the "latest research from YouGov shows that most Americans (51%) support legalizing marijuana, while 37% oppose it."  And, as the title of this post highlights, I find especially interesting the demographics of which groups of persons are most in favor of legalization as reflected in these detailed breakdowns:

Male: 54% to 36%

Age 30-44: 60% to 28%

Democrat: 62% to 27%

White: 52% to 37%

Income $100+: 57% to 32%

Midwest: 55% to 31%

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

July 16, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Careful examination of California's "mixed" record with realignment

14069-prisons_petersiliaEvery serious criminal law and criminology researcher knows and respects (or should know and respect) the work of Joan Petersilia.  Consequently, what she has to say about California's prison realignment realities necessarily garners my attention, and it is set forth in this Sanford Report headlined "California's prison realignment plan needs adjustments, Stanford law professor says."  Here are excerpts:

When California embarked on a sweeping prison realignment plan in 2011, The Economist described it as one of the "great experiments in American incarceration policy." The challenge was to shift inmates from overcrowded state prisons to jails in California's 58 counties.

At this point, the results are mixed and the "devil will be in the details" as tweaks to the original legislation are urged, according to new research by a Stanford law professor.

"Only time will tell whether California's realignment experiment will fundamentally serve as a springboard to change the nation's overreliance on prisons," wrote Stanford Law School Professor Joan Petersilia, a leading expert on prison realignment, in her article in the Harvard Law and Policy Review. "It is an experiment the whole nation is watching."...

"If it works, California … will have shown that it can downsize prisons safely by transferring lower-level offenders from state prisons to county systems. … If it does not work, counties will have simply been overwhelmed with inmates, unable to fund and/or operate the programs those felons needed, resulting in rising crime, continued criminality and jail overcrowding," wrote Petersilia, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.

In an interview, she noted that the 2008 economic crisis prompted state and local governments to cut costs and find efficiencies in their prison and jail systems. Plus, people are now thinking differently about punishment. "The public no longer believes that prisons are the answer for lower-level offenses [drug crimes, minor thefts], and also is more aware of the hugely damaging effects [inability to get a job] of imposing prison terms on those who really aren't dangerous," said Petersilia, who also has forthcoming research on prison policy.

Petersilia's research for the Harvard Law and Policy Review article consisted of interviews with 125 people in law enforcement, courts, probation departments, victim service agencies and offenders themselves. These sessions were conducted in the second year of the realignment. Subjects were asked how realignment was working and what fixes were needed. "The findings illustrate that realignment gets mixed results so far," wrote Petersilia, who described counties as struggling heroically to carry out an initiative seemingly imposed on them overnight.

Probation officials were the most optimistic about realignment, the interviews revealed. They believed that mental health agencies and the courts could reduce recidivism, but that it will take time to coordinate and implement rehabilitation programs that do not compromise public safety.

Though most participants agreed that realignment is spurring greater collaboration and innovation on how to efficiently incarcerate criminals, problems exist, according to the research. For example, counties are now dealing with more sophisticated criminals, lack of space and concern that the state's problem of overcrowding could become local problems as well. Finally, some prosecutors were disappointed in the "deep jail discounts" — reduced time behind bars — given to arrestees due to the crowded jails, she said....

Petersilia urges legislative revisions to California's realignment plan (some are now under discussion in the legislature). Suggestions include:

  • Requiring that all felony sentences served in county jail be split between time behind bars and time under supervised release (probation), unless a judge deems otherwise
  • Allowing an offender's entire criminal background to be reviewed when deciding whether the county or state should supervise them
  • Capping county jail sentences at a maximum of three years
  • Allowing for certain violations, such as those involving domestic restraining orders or sex offenses, to be punished with state prison sentences
  • Creating a statewide tracking system for all offenders
  • Collecting data at the county and local level on what is and is not working in realignment

    "These recommendations should reduce the burden realignment has placed on counties," wrote Petersilia. She said several counties are taking advantage of split sentencing with promising results. Still, only 5 percent of felons in Los Angeles County have their sentences split. She called this type of flexibility "extraordinarily important" to realignment, as it would lessen space and cost burdens for counties. "Most county officials believe realignment can work – if the state will work with them to tweak the flaws in the original legislation," she wrote.

The full Harvard Law and Policy Review article, which is titled "California Prison Downsizing and Its Impact on Local Criminal Justice Systems," is available via this link.

July 15, 2014 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, July 14, 2014

"Moneyball Sentencing"

The title of this post is the great title of this interesting-looking new article by Dawinder Sidhu now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Sentencing is a backward- and forward-looking enterprise. That is, sentencing is informed by an individual’s past conduct as well as by the criminal justice system’s prediction of the individual’s future criminal conduct.  Increasingly, the criminal justice system is making these predictions on an actuarial basis, computing the individual’s risk of recidivism according to the rates of recidivism for people possessing the same group characteristics (e.g., race, sex, socio-economic status, education).  The sentencing community is drawn to this statistical technique because it purportedly distinguishes with greater accuracy the high-risk from the low-risk, and thereby allows for a more efficient allocation of sentencing resources, reserving incarceration for the truly dangerous and saving the low-risk from needless penal attention.

Despite these asserted benefits, risk-assessment tools are exogenous to the theories of punishment, the very foundation for sentencing in Anglo-American jurisprudence.  This Article reviews the legality and propriety of actuarial predictive instruments, using these theories and governing constitutional and statutory law as the touchstone for this analysis.  This Article then applies these normative and legal principles to seventeen major characteristics that may comprise an offender’s composite risk profile.  It argues that risk-assessment instruments are problematic for three reasons: they include characteristics that are prohibited by constitutional and statutory law; subject the individual to punishment for characteristics over which the individual has no meaningful control; and presume that the individual is a static entity predisposed, if not predetermined, to recidivate, thereby undermining individual agency and betting against the individual’s ability to beat the odds.

July 14, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Fourth Circuit to reconsider en banc its Whiteside ruling concerning reconsideration of guideline errors in 2255

As noted in this prior post, titled "Fourth Circuit deepens (via dramatic split opinion) circuit split over fixing sentencing problems via 2255 motions," a split panel of the Fourth Circuit back in April allowed a federal inmate to use a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion to challenge a sentence that was based on the career offender enhancement under the United States Sentencing Guidelines when subsequent case law revealed the enhancement was inapplicable to him.  The ruling in Whiteside v. US, No. 13-7152 (4th Cir. Apr. 8, 2014) (available here), included both a spirited marority and dissenting opinion.   

Now, thanks to a helpful reader and this unpublished order, I have learned that the full Fourth Circuit has decided to rehear this matter en banc.  I am not to surprised by this news, though I am perhaps a bit disappointed that it does not seem as though the Fourth Circuit has invited amicus invovement at this stage.  As regular readers know, I think sentencing finality concerns raise distinct issues and I have written at length on this subject recently.  Perhaps I should be grateful that the Fourth Circuit has not solicited amicus briefs in Whiteside, as it is much easier and much more efficient for me to share some of my perspective at this stage just to linking to my series of recent prior posts about sentence finality here:

July 14, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Former Rep. (and former felon) Duke Cunningham now says "my Democrat colleagues were right and I was wrong on some issues as far as criminal justice"

The old criminal justice saw says that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged and a liberal is a conservative who has been indicted.  The latest evidence of how personal experiences can change one's perspective on criminal justice issues comes from this recent Huffington Post piece headlined "It Took This Former Congressman Years Behind Bars To See The Need For Drug War Reform."  Here are excerpts:

A former Republican member of Congress is ready to join the fight for sentencing reform and rolling back harsh mandatory minimums for drug crimes. Only this one has a bit more experience with the federal prison system than a typical politician does.

Former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), 72, is now a free man after a federal judge ended his supervised release early following seven years in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons on corruption charges. He had served in Congress from 1991 to 2005. In a letter he sent to the media when he was still behind bars in 2011, Cunningham said he planned to dedicate his life to prison reform and Justice Department reform....

Cunningham told The Huffington Post in a phone interview from his home in Arkansas' Hot Springs Village -- which is believed to be the largest gated community in the U.S. -- that he's made time to push his criminal justice reform ideas on his former colleagues back in Washington, D.C. "I'm not going to give you their names, but I've already called some Republican and Democrat friends of mine and told them that I would make myself available to testify..." Cunningham told HuffPost....

"Unfortunately, some of my Democrat colleagues were right and I was wrong on some issues as far as criminal justice," Cunningham said, specifically regretting votes for mandatory minimums for drug crimes that take discretion away from federal judges and give federal prosecutors a tremendous amount of leverage over defendants. "We have taken out of the judge's hands the ability to be merciful in some reasons or to do the right thing," Cunningham said. "I've heard case after case where the judges have said, 'I wish I could help you, but my hands are tied.' I want to untie the hands of our judges."

"I saw kids in there who are 19 to 30. They go into prison, they maybe got caught with cocaine or rock or something like that, and they give them 10 years minimum. What do they do when they get out?" Cunningham said. "There's a lot of very nice guys that got caught up."

Cunningham's new outlook on criminal justice after a prison term puts him in the same camp as former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who has also advocated for reform after his own stint in federal prison. Even outside of those serving for drug crimes, Cunningham said, he met plenty of people behind bars who didn't deserve to be there....

Cunningham said he's still catching up on the details of some of the sentencing reform proposals floating around on the hill, and also thinks the medical care for federal prisoners needs an overhaul. "Prison medical is worse than Obamacare, and I'm not a fan of Obamacare," Cunningham said. He said three people he knew died behind bars, including a man named Felix who was only given aspirin for a pain in his side. He was later found to have pancreatic cancer, was taken out and died two weeks later.

Cunningham said he's done a "180 turn" on criminal justice, and wishes he could take back many of the votes he made back when he was a member of Congress. "My Democrat colleagues would support the lawyers. We'd support the prosecutors," he said. "I think I'd vote more with my Democrat colleagues today."

July 14, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, July 13, 2014

USSC Chair reiterates Commission's sentencing reform message to House Judiciary Committee

This past Friday, US Sentencing Commission Chair, Chief Judge Patti Saris, testified at this hearing of Over-Criminalization Task Force of the Committee on the Judiciary of the US House of Representatives.  Her lengthy written testimony is available at this link, and here is a summary paragraph from the Chair's discussion of recommended mandatory minimum reforms:

Based on [our] analysis, the Commission continues to recommend unanimously that Congress consider a number of statutory changes. The Commission recommends that Congress reduce the current statutory mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking. We further recommend that the provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which Congress passed to reduce the disparity in treatment of crack and powder cocaine, be made retroactive. Finally, we recommend that Congress consider expanding the so-called “safety valve,” allowing sentences below mandatory minimum penalties for non-violent low-level drug offenders, to offenders with slightly greater criminal histories than currently permitted.

Republican and Democratic members of this Task Force and others in Congress have proposed legislation to reform certain mandatory minimum penalty provisions. The Commission strongly supports these efforts to reform this important area of the law.

Notably, as this official press release highlights, Judge Irene Keeley, chair of the Judicial Conference Criminal Law Committee, echoed similar messages in he testimony to the House Task Force:

A representative of the Judicial Conference today told a House Judiciary Task Force that policy initiatives curbing over-federalization of criminal law, reforming mandatory minimum sentences and amending the Sentencing Guidelines have the support of the Judicial Conference, but that the Judiciary currently lacks the resources to shoulder resulting increased workload.

“Policy-makers must not create a new public safety crisis in our communities by simply transferring the risks and costs from the prisons to the caseloads of already strained probation officers and the full dockets of the courts,” said Judge Irene Keeley, chair of the Judicial Conference Criminal Law Committee. “Lasting and meaningful solutions can be attained only if the branches work together to ensure that the correct cases are brought into the federal system, just sentences are imposed, and offenders are appropriately placed in prison or under supervision in the community.”

July 13, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 12, 2014

"An NTSB for Capital Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new essay by Adam Gershowitz now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

When a fatal traffic accident happens, we expect the local police and prosecutors to handle the investigation and criminal charges. When a fatal airplane crash occurs however, we turn instead to the National Transportation Safety Board.  The reason is that air crashes are complicated and the NTSB has vast expertise.  Without that expertise, investigations falter. We need look no further than the mess made by Malaysian authorities in the search for Flight 370 to see the importance of expertise in handling complicated investigations and processes.

It is easy to point to a similar series of mistakes by local prosecutors and defense attorneys in many death-penalty cases around the country.  If we are to continue utilizing capital punishment in the United States, the death-penalty system should follow air crash model, not the car crash model.  Capital cases should be handled by an elite nationwide unit of prosecutors and investigators who travel to capital murder sites the way the NTSB travels to airplane and other catastrophic crashes.  As the number of death sentences dwindles each year, states have incentive to enter into an NTSB model that allows them to continue using capital punishment without having to handle the complicated cases themselves.  This symposium essay argues that capital punishment as currently conducted at the local level is failure, but that the death penalty can be justified if carried out by an elite, national team of lawyers and investigators. 

July 12, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"4 Reasons Conservatives Are Embracing Prison Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary piece by Christian Piatt appearing in Time which includes a religious perspective as well as a political one. Much of the discussion will be familiar to regular readers, but here are a few excerpts of not: 

Criminal sentencing certainly has been one of those divisive social issues among Christians, with many progressives calling for more leniency on nonviolent crimes, and conservatives embracing a “zero tolerance” ethos....

Only recently have the number of incarcerated people within our borders begun to decline, and it’s in part due to a shift in the way those who have championed a hard-nosed approach to sentencing are reframing their thinking. In some respects, the reasons are logistical and economic; for others, the change of heart is informed particularly by their understanding of scripture and the mandates of the Gospel....

[H]ere are four ideas around which Christians – and non-Christians – from both the left and right are coming together.

Reform makes good financial sense. ...

Reform reduces government’s role in our lives. ...

Second Chances are Biblical. ...

Thinking on “paying our debt to society” is shifting....

Warehousing nonviolent offenders is still big business in the United States, which means that people with significant influence are intent on keeping things more or less as they already are. And certainly not all on the political and religious right agree with the points above. But enough conservatives are breaking rank to begin to form coalitions with the center and left, so that real reform becomes an increasing possibility.

July 12, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles grants execution eve clemency to witness killer

As reported in this Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, "hours before he was to be executed for a murder 23 years ago, Tommy Lee Waldrip was granted clemency." Here are the details:

The state Board of Pardons and Paroles made the rare decision to commute a condemned man’s sentence to life without parole Wednesday even as state and federal courts had turned down his appeals. Waldrip’s execution was set for 7 p.m. Thursday for the murder of Keith Evans, a college student who was about to testify against Waldrip’s son in a re-trial of an armed robbery case.

The board’s decision came several hours after members heard pleas for mercy from relatives, friends and Waldrip’s lawyers, and then from prosecutors and members of the Evans family who wanted the execution carried out.

The board does not give a reason for its decision. Members vote individually and only the chairman, who collects the ballots, knows how each one decided. The decision required a simple majority, three out of five members.

But one issue raised before the board was that the sentences for Waldrip, his son and Waldrip’s brother, all convicted of murdering Evans on April 13,1991, were not proportional. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty against Howard Livingston, Waldrip’s brother, but they did in the cases against Tommy Lee Waldrip and his son John Mark Waldrip. The three men were tried separately. Only Tommy Lee Waldrip was sentenced to die. John Mark Waldrip and Livingston are serving life sentences....

This was the fifth time since 2002 that the board has commuted the sentence of a death row inmate. The most recent one was on April 12, 2012, when the board commuted the death sentence of Daniel Greene.

Notably, one of the recent cases in which the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles refused to grant clemency was the high-profile Troy Davis case. Notably, for those focused on racial dynamics in this context, it is perhaps notable that Tommy Lee Waldrip is white and that Daniel Greene is black. Ergo, since Troy Davis was denied clemency, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has granted clemency to one black and one white convicted murderer.

July 10, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Split Michigan Supreme Court rejects retroactivity of Miller for hundreds of juve lifers

MichThough I am on the road and behind on a number of blogging fronts, a number of helpful readers made sure I did not miss an important state Miller application from Michigan.  This local article, headlined "Michigan Supreme Court denies parole hearings to juvenile lifers," provides these basics:

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled 4-3 Tuesday that juveniles given automatic life-without-parole sentences aren’t eligible for parole — even though the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2012 that such sentences were unconstitutional. The ruling involved three of what some estimates say are at least 350 Michigan “juvenile lifers” — the highest number in any state — who are seeking parole hearings....

A four-justice majority, in a decision written by Justice Stephen Markman, said the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling does not apply retroactively to these Michigan inmates, under either federal or state court precedents.

Attorney General Bill Schuette, who has argued that parole for any of the juvenile lifers would be disrespectful to murder victims and heart-wrenching to their families, hailed the decision. “Today the Michigan Supreme Court upheld the rights of crime victims and their families,” he said....

Kary Moss, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, called the decision “heartbreaking.”

“Here we have a practice that the U.S. Supreme Court has said violates the Eighth Amendment as cruel and unusual punishment ... yet the Michigan Supreme Court is unwilling ever to give the 350 juvenile lifers currently in Michigan’s prisons a parole hearing in their lifetime,” Moss said. She said the ACLU is reviewing its options for a further federal legal challenge. “We are not letting this issue drop,” Moss said....

Neither the Eighth Amendment nor the state Constitution “categorically bars the imposition of a sentence of life without parole on a juvenile homicide offender,” the court’s majority said.

Justices Mary Beth Kelly, Bridget Mary McCormack and Michael Cavanagh dissented and said the court should have ruled in favor of parole hearings. They noted that state lawmakers this year passed a juvenile sentencing law that “significantly altered Michigan’s sentencing scheme for juvenile offenders convicted of crimes that had previously carried a sentence of life without parole.”

Under the new law, judges can impose 40- to 60-year sentences in cases where prosecutors don’t ask for life-without-parole for murder and other heinous crimes....

The Michigan Catholic Conference said the decision is disappointing. “We call upon the Legislature to pass a measure that will allow for juveniles sentenced to a life term before the (2012 U.S. Supreme Court) decision to have the opportunity for a parole hearing at some point during their sentence,” said a statement issued by spokesman David Maluchnik....

State Rep. Joe Haveman called the Michigan Supreme Court’s ruling disappointing and said individuals incarcerated as juveniles “deserve a hearing to re-evaluate their case.”

“It is baffling how this can be considered equal treatment under the law,”said the Holland Republican. “I said before, and I still believe, that the Supreme Court of the United States needs to revisit this issue and clarify whether the intent was for their original ruling to apply retroactively. .... If a juvenile sentence without the opportunity for parole is cruel and unusual punishment going forward, it is also cruel and unusual punishment for those who entered prison as children, who don’t have even the faintest glimmer of hope that even if they completely change who they are, they will ever walk free. It is further cruel and unusual punishment for the judge who didn’t want to hand down a mandatory life sentence, and wanted to consider mitigating factors, but wasn’t allowed to, and now must live with the guilt of sending a child to prison for their entire adult life.”

The fully lengthy Michigan Supreme Court ruling in this matter runs 120+ pages and covers more ground than just Miller retroactivity.  The full ruling is available at this link, and I hope to have a chance to blog about the substance of both the lengthy majority and dissenting opinions in the days and weeks ahead.  

For now, I will simply assert that the Supreme Court no long has any good reason or justification for continuing to refuse to take up the issue of Miller retroactivity that has split state courts nationwide.  Now that just about every state with a large number of mandatory juve LWOPers has ruled on this issue, this matter has plainly "percolated" more than sufficiently and the resulting jurisprudential split has profound consequences for many hundreds of juve lifers in many states.    

A few (of many) prior posts on Miller retroactivity:

 

July 10, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Following the money behind sustaining pot prohibition

Nat potThe Nation has this fascinating new investigative report with a  headline and subheadline that highlights its themes: "The Real Reason Pot Is Still Illegal: Opponents of marijuana-law reform insist that legalization is dangerous — but the biggest threat is to their own bottom line." Here are excerpts from the start of a lengthy article:

Taking the stage to rousing applause last February, [Patrick] Kennedy joined more than 2,000 opponents of marijuana legalization a few miles south of Washington, DC, at the annual convention of the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America (CADCA), one of the largest such organizations in the country....

Given that CADCA is dedicated to protecting society from dangerous drugs, the event that day had a curious sponsor: Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxy-Contin, the highly addictive painkiller that nearly ruined Kennedy’s congressional career and has been linked to thousands of overdose deaths nationwide.

Prescription opioids, a line of pain-relieving medications derived from the opium poppy or produced synthetically, are the most dangerous drugs abused in America, with more than 16,000 deaths annually linked to opioid addiction and overdose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more Americans now die from painkillers than from heroin and cocaine combined. The recent uptick in heroin use around the country has been closely linked to the availability of prescription opioids, which give their users a similar high and can trigger a heroin craving in recovering addicts....

People in the United States, a country in which painkillers are routinely overprescribed, now consume more than 84 percent of the entire worldwide supply of oxycodone and almost 100 percent of hydrocodone opioids. In Kentucky, to take just one example, about one in fourteen people is misusing prescription painkillers, and nearly 1,000 Kentucky residents are dying every year.

So it’s more than a little odd that CADCA and the other groups leading the fight against relaxing marijuana laws, including the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids (formerly the Partnership for a Drug-Free America), derive a significant portion of their budget from opioid manufacturers and other pharmaceutical companies. According to critics, this funding has shaped the organization’s policy goals: CADCA takes a softer approach toward prescription-drug abuse, limiting its advocacy to a call for more educational programs, and has failed to join the efforts to change prescription guidelines in order to curb abuse. In contrast, CADCA and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids have adopted a hard-line approach to marijuana, opposing even limited legalization and supporting increased police powers.

A close look at the broader political coalition lobbying against marijuana-law reform reveals many such conflicts of interest. In fact, the CADCA event was attended by representatives of a familiar confederation of anti-pot interests, many of whom have a financial stake in the status quo, including law enforcement agencies, pharmaceutical firms, and nonprofits funded by federal drug-prevention grants....

The opponents of marijuana-law reform argue that such measures pose significant dangers, from increased crime and juvenile delinquency to addiction and death. But legalization’s biggest threat is to the bottom line of these same special interests, which reap significant monetary advantages from pot prohibition that are rarely acknowledged in the public debate....

[B]oth CADCA and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids are heavily reliant on a combination of federal drug-prevention education grants and funding from pharmaceutical companies. Founded in 1992, CADCA has lobbied aggressively for a range of federal grants for groups dedicated to the “war on drugs.”  The Drug-Free Communities Act of 1997, a program directed by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, was created through CADCA’s advocacy.  That law now allocates over $90 million a year to community organizations dedicated to reducing drug abuse.  Records show that CADCA has received more than $2.5 million in annual federal funding in recent years.  The former Partnership for a Drug-Free America, founded in 1985 and best known for its dramatic “This is your brain on drugs” public service announcements, has received similarly hefty taxpayer support while advocating for increased anti-drug grant programs.

The Nation obtained a confidential financial disclosure from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids showing that the group’s largest donors include Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, and Abbott Laboratories, maker of the opioid Vicodin. CADCA also counts Purdue Pharma as a major supporter, as well as Alkermes, the maker of a powerful and extremely controversial new painkiller called Zohydrol.  The drug, which was released to the public in March, has sparked a nationwide protest, since Zohydrol is reportedly ten times stronger than OxyContin. Janssen Pharmaceutical, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary that produces the painkiller Nucynta, and Pfizer, which manufactures several opioid products, are also CADCA sponsors.  For corporate donors, CADCA offers a raft of partnership opportunities, including authorized use of the “CADCA logo for your company’s marketing, website, and advertising materials, etc.”

July 9, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

"States Push For Prison Sentence Overhaul; Prosecutors Push Back"

The title of this post is the headline of this new NPR story highlighting who is at the forefront of efforts to thwart sentencing reforms these days.  Here are excerpts:

Some red states like Louisiana and Texas have emerged as leaders in a new movement: to divert offenders from prisons and into drug treatment, work release and other incarceration alternatives. By most counts, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country. In recent years, sentencing reformers in the capital, Baton Rouge, have loosened some mandatory minimum sentences and have made parole slightly easier for offenders to get.

But as reformers in Louisiana push for change, they're also running into stiffening resistance — especially from local prosecutors. It's all happening as the number of Americans behind bars has started to decline. There are multiple reasons for that, including crime rates that have been dropping since the 1990s, as well as the impact of the Supreme Court's 2011 requirement that tough-on-crime California reduce its prison population.

And there's another factor: a growing bipartisan consensus for sentencing reform. Local politicians are getting political cover for those efforts from conservative groups like Right on Crime. "It is a growing consensus on the right that this is the direction we want to be going," says Kevin Kane, of the libertarian-leaning Pelican Institute for Public Policy in Louisiana. "Most people will point to, 'Well, it's saving money, and that's all conservatives care about.' But I think it goes beyond that."

Kane says libertarians are interested in limiting the government's power to lock people away, while the religious right likes the idea of giving people a shot at redemption — especially when it comes to nonviolent drug offenders.

Still, not everyone is embracing these ideas. In some places, there's been considerable pushback — especially when the idea of eliminating prison time for drug offenders arises....

Liz Mangham, a lobbyist, has represented the conservative sentencing reformers in Baton Rouge. While they've made progress, she says they appeared to cross a red line this spring with a bill to step down Louisiana's stiff penalties for possession of marijuana. Under current law, possession is a felony on the second offense. A third may get you as much as 20 years in prison. Mangham recalls the scene when the bill came up for a crucial hearing.

"The Judiciary Committee room was full. The anteroom across the hall, which is twice the size, was full, and the halls were full ... of [district attorneys] and sheriffs coming down to oppose the bill," she says. The bill died on the spot. In Louisiana and other parts of the South, district attorneys and sheriffs — who Mangham calls "the courthouse crowd" — have a lot of political clout at the state level. She says it's understandable why most sheriffs opposed the bill, because they house state prisoners in parish jails and every prisoner represents a payment from the state.

"So when you're making money to warehouse prisoners, why on earth would you be in favor of sentencing reform?" Mangham says.

But the district attorneys' opposition is more complex — and interesting. And it's emblematic of a growing conflict that's taking place nationally between sentencing reformers and prosecutors.

The vast majority of criminal cases in America are resolved through plea bargains. Defendants plead guilty out of fear of getting a worse sentence if they don't. Plea bargains jumped above 90 percent in the 1980s and '90s, in part because a wave of harsh new sentences for drug offenses strengthened prosecutors' hands when bargaining with defendants.

"For a DA to have the ability to dangle over someone's head 10, 20 years in jail, that provides them with tremendous leverage to pretty much get whatever they want," says Louisiana State Sen. J.P. Morrell, a Democrat from New Orleans and former public defender.

Morrell was one of the sponsors of the marijuana sentencing reform bill that failed in Baton Rouge. He says one of the benefits of that reform would have been a reduction in the power of prosecutors to, as Louisiana courthouse slang puts it, "bitch" a defendant. A reference to Louisiana's habitual offender law, it refers to a DA threatening to use past convictions — often for marijuana possession — to multiply the length of a defendant's potential sentence.

But what Morrell sees as a problem, prosecutors regard as a necessary tool. That's because many states are now considering similar reductions to mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and Congress is considering a similar move for federal drug charges. Prosecutors insist they use the threat of harsh sentences responsibly but say it's a tool they can't do without. Last fall, at a hearing in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, the then-executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, Scott Burns, warned against rolling back drug sentences.

"Why now? With crime at record lows, why are we looking at sweeping changes?" Burns said. He endorsed "smart on crime" reforms such as drug courts, but he cautioned against depriving prosecutors of "one of our most effective sticks."

John de Rosier, the district attorney of Calcasieu Parish, La., says "we have people all the time that we know have been involved in robberies, rapes and murders. We haven't been able to prove our cases, but we're in court with them for second-offense possession of marijuana. What do you think we're going to do?"

That's commonly referred to as "prosecutorial discretion," and it's an argument that alarms sentencing reformers like Morrell. "That level of discretion ought to be terrifying to people," Morrell says. "If you cannot convict someone of a murder, of a robbery, whatever, the fact that you have a disproportionate backup charge to convict them anyway kind of defeats the purpose of due process."

July 9, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack