Thursday, June 09, 2016

Unpacking the (never-simplistic and never-certain) stories of state crimes and incarceration levels

This new Atlantic story, headlined "Crime Is Down, Sort Of: New stats on U.S. imprisonment rates suggest a complicated future for criminal-justice reform," provides a usefully nuanced account of this new Brennen Center report titled simply "Update: Changes in State Imprisonment Rates." Here first is what the Brennan Center sets up its report: 

Today, there are 2.3 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails — a 500 percent increase over the last forty years. With almost one in 100 American adults behind bars, our incarceration rate is the world’s highest. This fact sheet provides an update to findings on state imprisonment trends originally outlined in The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act. It analyzes data from all 50 states on imprisonment and crime from 2006 (as bipartisan criminal justice reforms generally began around 2007) through 2014 (the most recent year of data).

Two overarching findings:

1. Many argue that increased incarceration is necessary to reduce crime.  Yet the data shows the opposite.  Over the last ten years, 27 states have decreased both crime and imprisonment.  Not only is this trend possible, it’s played out in the majority of states. Nationally, imprisonment and crime have fallen together, 7 percent and 23 percent respectively since 2006.  Crime continued its downward trend while incarceration also decreased.

2. In recent years, states in the South have seen some of the largest decreases in imprisonment.  Yet, they also remain the largest incarcerators in the country.  Mississippi reduced imprisonment by 10 percent but still has the nation’s 5th highest incarceration rate.  Texas has reduced imprisonment by 15 percent yet still has the 7th highest imprisonment rate in the country.

And here is a snippet from the Atlantic's discussion of the report:

Many Americans might make a basic mathematical error in looking at the country’s criminal-justice system: They assume more people in jail or prison always equals less crime, and more crime necessarily calls for putting more people behind bars. Both conclusions are wrong. A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice provides some illuminating data on this point.

The report’s most fascinating finding is that imprisonment and overall crime rates were down 7 percent and 23 percent, respectively, from 2006 to 2014. “States will continue to decrease imprisonment slowly; we might perhaps see crime leveling out,” Chettiar said. “Criminologists say we have reached an all-time low in crime. I expect we’ll continue to see low crime and lowered imprisonment rates.”...

In the analysis, high achievers included Rhode Island, New Jersey, Hawaii, Nebraska, Connecticut, California, Colorado, and South Carolina. All saw double-digit drops in their rates of imprisonment per 100,000 residents. That does not necessarily indicate a dramatic drop in the actual number of people behind bars—an overall decrease in the rate at which a state imprisons people can result from many factors, including the release of current inmates, diversion efforts to keep those arrested out of jail, and the reclassification of low-level crimes that may let some offenders bypass custody....

In terms of overall crime, Vermont, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Illinois, Maryland, and Louisiana reduced their rates most. Each saw a decrease of 30 percent or more in their crime rates per 100,000 residents. States such as New Hampshire, North Dakota, and South Dakota each saw big increases in their in crime rates, all 30 percent or higher.

As policymakers are paying increased attention to the shortcomings of the criminal-justice system and more citizens seem to accept the need for policy changes, these facts suggest reform will look very different in different states—and above all, it will be complicated.

June 9, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, National and State Crime Data, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

NY Times debates "Should an Unpopular Sentence in the Stanford Rape Case Cost a Judge His Job?"

The Room for Debate section of the New York Times has this new set of notable commentaries discussing whether the judicial recall effort in the controversial Standford sexual assault sentencing case is a good idea.  Here is the section's set up:

A California judge sentenced Brock Allen Turner to only six months in jail for raping an unconscious woman after a Stanford University fraternity party, despite her angry, eloquent, courtroom denunciation of the way she and other rape survivors are treated.  In response, a petition was started to hold a recall election to throw him off the bench.

But should judges be subject to recall because of an unpopular sentence or would that impede their independence?

Here are the contributions, with links via the commentary titles:

June 9, 2016 in Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Sixth Circuit on the drug war, immigrant crime, ineffective assistance, jury nullification, Alexander Hamilton and a circuit split all in seven pages

Long-time readers likely realize I do not cover federal circuit court rulings in this space nearly as much as I did in the early days after Blakely and Booker, largely because many of the federal sentencing issues that now occupy circuit have become of late much more settled (or, at times, just much more borring).  But a great little  new Sixth Circuit panel ruling today in Lee v. US, No. 14-5369 (6th Cir. June 8, 2016) (available here), reminded me of why I still make a regular habit of, and can sometime be greatly rewarded by, taking the time to see what the circuit courts are saying in criminal appeals.  As the title of this post highlights, there is a lot of "there there" in the short panel opinion in Lee, and I hope these snippets (with some cites omitted) will encourage everyone to check out the full opinion:

The case against him was very strong.  A government witness was prepared to testify that he had purchased ecstasy from Lee on a number of occasions, dozens of pills were discovered during a lawful search of Lee’s home, and Lee himself admitted not only that he had possessed ecstasy, but also that he had distributed the drug to his friends. In light of this, Lee’s trial attorney advised him to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Here’s the wrinkle: even though he has lived in the United States for decades, Lee, unlike his parents, never became an American citizen, and though he did eventually plead guilty, he did so only after his lawyer assured him that he would not be subject to deportation — “removal,” in the argot of contemporary immigration law.  This advice was wrong: possession of ecstasy with intent to distribute is an “aggravated felony,” rendering Lee deportable.  Lee understandably does not want to be deported, and he filed a motion to vacate his conviction and sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, contending that he received ineffective assistance of counsel....

[T]he district court’s conclusion that the evidence of guilt was “overwhelming” is not clearly erroneous, and deportation would have followed just as readily from a jury conviction as from a guilty plea. Thus, aside from the off chance of jury nullification or the like, Lee stood to gain nothing from going to trial but more prison time. On the other hand, for those such as Lee who have made this country their home for decades, deportation is a very severe consequence, “the equivalent of banishment or exile,” as the Supreme Court memorably put it.  As a factual matter, we do not doubt Lee’s contention that many defendants in his position, had they received accurate advice from counsel, would have decided to risk a longer prison sentence in order to take their chances at trial, slim though they were.

But would such a decision be “rational”? Several courts, including this circuit, have said “no”: being denied the chance to throw “a Hail Mary” at trial does not by itself amount to prejudice.... Others have reached the opposite conclusion....  We have no ability, of course, as a panel, to change camps. A nd in that sense, this is a straightforward case. In Pilla we held that no rational defendant charged with a deportable offense and facing “overwhelming evidence” of guilt would proceed to trial rather than take a plea deal with a shorter prison sentence.   Lee finds himself in precisely this position, and he must therefore lose. But given the growing circuit split (which, as best we can tell, has gone unacknowledged), we think it worthwhile to explain why we are convinced that our approach is the right one and to set out the role that we believe deportation consequences should play in evaluating prejudice under Strickland.

We begin, however, by giving the other side its due. As the Seventh Circuit noted in DeBartolo, strong evidence of guilt does not strip a defendant of his right to a jury trial, nor does it guarantee a guilty verdict.  The second point is especially true for defendants such as Lee, since it is well documented that many jurors are willing to acquit those charged with a first-time, non-violent drug offense, despite evidence of guilt. See id. (quoting Lawrence D. Bobo & Victor Thompson, Racialized Mass Incarceration: Poverty, Prejudice, and Punishment, in Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century 343 (Hazel R. Markus & Paula Moya eds., 2010)).

This possibility, at least according to many of this nation’s founders, is not a defect, but a feature of the jury system.  See, e.g., 2 John Adams, The Works of John Adams 254–55 (1850) (“It is not only [the juror’s] right, but his duty . . . to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court.” (Diary Entry, February 12, 1771)).  Indeed, the unreviewable power of juries to acquit, despite strong evidence of guilt, was perhaps the central reason why the right to a jury trial in criminal cases was enshrined in the Constitution.  See Rachel E. Barkow, Criminal Trials, in The Heritage Guide to the Constitution 340, 340–41 (David F. Forte & Matthew Spalding, eds. 2nd ed. 2014).  For the framers and ratifiers, the memory of how King George III had prevented colonial juries from nullifying unpopular English laws by “expand[ing] the jurisdiction of nonjury courts” was still fresh. Id. at 340.  And one of the grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence was that the King had “depriv[ed] us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury.”  Declaration of Independence para. 20 (U.S. 1776).  It is thus not surprising that nearly all commentators active during the time of the founding favored the inclusion in the new Constitution of the right to a jury trial. See, e.g., The Federalist No. 83, at 432–33 (Alexander Hamilton) (The Gideon ed., George W. Carey & James McClellan eds., Liberty Fund 2001) (“The friends and adversaries of the plan of the convention, if they agree in nothing else, concur at least in the value they set upon the trial by jury.”).

June 8, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Florida Supreme Court grapples with post-Hurst hydra and state's new capital punishment procedures

Download (1)As reported in this local article, headlined "Justices Try To Sort Out Death Penalty Law," the top judges in the Sunshine State yesterday heard oral argument in a case that requires them to find some clarity in the dark uncertainty concerning the constitutional requirements for death sentencing in the wake of the Supreme Court's Hurst ruling. Here are the details:

The Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in a case focused on whether the state’s new death penalty law is constitutional, and, if so, whether it applies to cases already in the pipeline when the law passed in March.

Tuesday’s hearing was the latest in the court’s months-long scrutiny prompted by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in January that struck down Florida’s death-penalty sentencing process because it unconstitutionally gave too much power to judges, instead of juries.

But the arguments Tuesday in the case of Larry Darnell Perry, who was convicted in the 2013 murder of his infant son, did little to clear up the murky situation surrounding the January ruling, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, or the new law, hurriedly crafted by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Rick Scott in response to the decision.

“Clearly at this stage in our jurisprudence, we want to make sure that the statute is construed in a constitutional manner so that we don’t have another 15 years of death penalty — if the state wants the death penalty, which apparently it does — in flux,” Justice Barbara Pariente said.

Under Florida’s old law, jurors by a simple majority could recommend the death penalty. Judges would then make findings of fact that “sufficient” aggravating factors, not outweighed by mitigating circumstances, existed for the death sentence to be imposed. That system was an unconstitutional violation of the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in an 8-1 ruling.

Florida’s new law requires juries to unanimously determine “the existence of at least one aggravating factor” before defendants can be eligible for death sentences. The law also requires at least 10 jurors to recommend the death penalty in order for the sentence to be imposed.

Of nearly three dozen states that have the death penalty, Florida is one of just three — including Alabama and Delaware — that do not require unanimous recommendations for a sentence of death. The lack of a unanimous recommendation — a flashpoint for lawmakers, prosecutors and defense lawyers during debate on the new law — was the focus of much of Tuesday’s hearing in the Perry case.

Because Florida’s Constitution requires that jury verdicts be unanimous for convictions, defense lawyers have argued that the death penalty should require a unanimous jury recommendation. Prosecutors, including Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office, disagree.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga honed in on the issue Tuesday morning. “As you know, 32 states in our country have the death penalty. There are three states who are outliers in this country, Alabama, Delaware and Florida that only require something less than unanimous. … What is the history of Florida in requiring a unanimous verdict?” Labarga asked Martin McClain, a lawyer who has represented more than 250 defendants condemned to death and who made arguments Tuesday as a “friend of the court.” “It’s always been that way in Florida. Since before it was a state, Florida required unanimity in criminal cases for convictions,” McClain replied.

Since the Jan. 12 Hurst ruling, Florida’s high court indefinitely put on hold two executions and heard arguments in more than a dozen death penalty cases, repeatedly asking lawyers on both sides about the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decision. The Florida court has yet to rule on whether the Hurst decision should be applied retroactively to all, or even some, of Florida’s 390 Death Row inmates.

Perry’s case, meanwhile, hinges on whether the new law should apply to defendants whose prosecutions were underway when the new law went into effect.  While Perry’s lawyer, J. Edwin Mills, argued that the new law should not apply in his client’s case, other defense lawyers are split on the issue. Mills contends his client should receive a life sentence.

Adding more pressure to the justices — who spend much of their time considering appeals in capital cases — lower courts have delayed hearings or decisions in death penalty cases while waiting for Florida Supreme Court to rule, both on the impact of the Hurst decision and on the Perry case.  “Until we get moving forward again, and get a determination from this court as to what Hurst actually means, everything is just sort of up in the air, which is not a good solution for anybody,” Assistant Attorney General Carol Dittmar told the justices Tuesday.

June 8, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

"The Eighth Amendment's Lost Jurors: Death Qualification and Evolving Standards of Decency"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Aliza Plener Cover now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The Supreme Court’s inquiry into the constitutionality of the death penalty has overlooked a critical “objective indicator” of society’s “evolving standards of decency”: the rate at which citizens are excluded from capital jury service under Witherspoon v. Illinois due to their conscientious objections to the death penalty.  While the Supreme Court considers the prevalence of death verdicts as a gauge of the nation’s moral climate, it has ignored how the process of death qualification shapes those verdicts.  This blind spot biases the Court’s estimation of community norms and distorts its Eighth Amendment analysis.

This paper presents the first quantitative study of Witherspoon strikes in real capital cases, measuring the strike rate in eleven Louisiana trials resulting in death verdicts from 2009 to 2013.  Of the 1,445 potential jurors questioned, 325 individuals (22.5%) were excluded from service on the basis of their opposition to the death penalty.  These exclusions had a considerable impact on the racial composition of the jury pool: In the trials for which individualized data on race was available, one-third of black venire members were struck under Witherspoon, and nearly 60% of those struck on this basis were black.  These findings underscore the profound impact of death qualification upon the composition of capital juries and the outcomes of capital trials.  Particularly in the wake of Justice Breyer’s recent call for reconsideration of the death penalty’s constitutionality, there is an urgent need for (a) systematized, ongoing data collection on Witherspoon strikes, and (b) formal consideration of the effect of death qualification in future Eighth Amendment analysis.

June 7, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Minnesota survey suggests marijuana reform can help with opioid issues ... and other recent highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Anyone interested and concerned about the so-called "war on drugs" or the relationship between criminal justice reform and public health has to be concerned these days with the national opioid problems.  And one of many reasons I am a supporter of state experiements with various forms of marijuana reform is my hope that such reforms might be one of many ways to try to address opioid problems.  Consequently, I was very intrigued to see the details of a lengthy report on a survey done by the Minnesota Department of Health (here in full) showing that a number of health care practitioners reported that some medical patients were able to decrease their use of prescription opioids.   I report on this report in the first of the links below providing recent highlights from my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog: 

June 7, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

New York Times editorial calls for "federal oversight of prosecutors’ offices that repeatedly ignore defendants’ legal and constitutional rights"

This new New York Times editorial, headlined "To Stop Bad Prosecutors, Call the Feds," call for improving state criminal justice systems by having more federal oversight of those system. Here is the full editorial, concerning which I am eager to hear reactions:

Prosecutors are the most powerful players in the American criminal justice system.  Their decisions — like whom to charge with a crime, and what sentence to seek — have profound consequences.  So why is it so hard to keep them from breaking the law or violating the Constitution?

The short answer is that they are almost never held accountable for misconduct, even when it results in wrongful convictions.  It is time for a new approach to ending this behavior: federal oversight of prosecutors’ offices that repeatedly ignore defendants’ legal and constitutional rights.  There is a successful model for this in the Justice Department’s monitoring of police departments with histories of misconduct.

Among the most serious prosecutorial violations is the withholding of evidence that could help a defendant prove his or her innocence or get a reduced sentence — a practice so widespread that one federal judge called it an “epidemic.”  Under the 1963 landmark Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors are required to turn over any exculpatory evidence to a defendant that could materially affect a verdict or sentence.  Yet in many district attorneys’ offices, the Brady rule is considered nothing more than a suggestion, with prosecutors routinely holding back such evidence to win their cases.  

Nowhere is this situation worse than in Louisiana, where prosecutors seem to believe they are unconstrained by the Constitution.  This month, the Supreme Court will consider the latest challenge to prosecutorial misconduct in Louisiana in the case of David Brown, who was one of five men charged in the 1999 murder of a prison guard.  Mr. Brown said he did not commit the murder, but he was convicted and sentenced to death anyway.  Only later did his lawyers discover that prosecutors had withheld the transcript of an interview with another prisoner directly implicating two other men — and only those men — in the murder.  This is about as blatant a Brady violation as can be found, and the judge who presided over Mr. Brown’s trial agreed, throwing out his death penalty and ordering a new sentencing.  But the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed that decision, ruling that the new evidence would not have made a difference in the jury’s sentence.

David Brown’s case is a good example of how every part of the justice system bears some responsibility for not fighting prosecutorial misconduct.  State courts often fail to hold prosecutors accountable, even when their wrongdoing is clear.  Professional ethics boards rarely discipline them.  And individual prosecutors are protected from civil lawsuits, while criminal punishment is virtually unheard of.  Money damages levied against a prosecutor’s office could deter some misconduct, but the Supreme Court has made it extremely difficult for wrongfully convicted citizens to win such claims.

This maddening situation has long resisted a solution. What would make good sense is to have the federal government step in to monitor some of the worst actors, increasing the chance of catching misconduct before it ruins peoples’ lives. The Justice Department is already authorized to do this by a 1994 federal law prohibiting any “pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers” that deprives a person of legal or constitutional rights.

The department has used this power to monitor police departments in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Detroit and Seattle, among other municipalities with a history of brutality, wrongful arrests, shootings of unarmed civilians and other illegal or unconstitutional practices.  For the most part, the results have been positive.  Since prosecutors are also “law enforcement officers,” there is no reason they and their offices should be immune from federal oversight.

Of course, many district attorneys’ offices will balk at being put under a federal microscope.  But nothing else has worked to prevent misconduct by prosecutors, and the Justice Department is uniquely equipped to ferret out the worst actors and expose their repeated disregard for the law and the Constitution.

Because I do not closely follow local police practices or federal oversight of local police departments, I am not in a position to question (or concur with) the editorial's assertion that "for the most part, the results have been positive" from DOJ's monitoring of some big-city police departments. But even if DOJ has been generally successful at supervising problematic police practices, I am not certain that this means that it could or would be successful at supervising problematic prosecutorial practices. At the same time, there is good reason to be concerned that, at least in some local jurisdictions, it does seem that "nothing else has worked to prevent misconduct by prosecutors."

Personally, I would generally favor a "sunlight is the best disenfectant" approach to dealing with forms of significant lawyer misconduct: how about the feds calling for states to maintain public on-line registries of all public lawyers (both prosecutors and defense attorneys) who clearly have been found guilty of unconstitutional/unethical behavior. I suspect all criminal lawyers now know just how troublesome it can be to have an "on-line record," and so maybe the threat of such a record of misconduct will help deter such behavior in the first instance.

June 7, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Is SCOTUS essentially telling Alabama its capital punishment process in unconstitutional through Hurst GVRs?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new local article headlined "For third time in 5 weeks, Supreme Court tells Alabama to reconsider death row case." Here are excerpts:

For the third time in five weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court has told an Alabama appeals court to reconsider an Alabama death row inmate's appeal in light of the Supreme Court's ruling earlier this year striking down Florida's capital punishment scheme.

Two Alabama attorneys said Monday that the moves by the high court indicate justices may be looking at striking down Alabama's death sentencing scheme as unconstitutional. "Personally, I think its crystal clear the Supreme Court has real concerns about the constitutionality of our current death penalty and is clearly putting us on notice of that fact," said Birmingham attorney John Lentine.

Bryan Stevenson, executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, also stated in an email to AL.com on Monday that "we believe it's now very clear that the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes that Alabama's death penalty scheme is called into question following the Court's ruling in Hurst v. Florida earlier this year. There have been serious flaws in Alabama's process of imposing the death penalty for several years and state courts are going to have to now confront these problems."

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday remanded the case of Alabama Death Row inmate Ronnie Kirksey back to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals for reconsideration of his appeal in light of the Hurst v. Florida decision in January.  The U.S. Supreme Court last month had also ordered the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider its decision in the appeals of Corey Wimbley and Bart Johnson in light of the Florida case....

At issue with Alabama's death penalty scheme is that Alabama permits judges to override a jury's recommendation for a life sentence and impose death. Alabama was one of only three states that allowed such an override. The others were Florida and Delaware. Legislators in Florida's legislature re-wrote its capital punishment sentencing law this spring.

Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tracie Todd in March ruled in four of her capital murder cases that Alabama's capital punishment sentencing scheme is unconstitutional based on the Hurst case. The Alabama Attorney General's Office has appealed Todd's ruling. The decision was spurred by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in January that Florida's sentencing scheme allowing judges to override juries in death penalty cases is unconstitutional. Alabama has a similar sentencing scheme.

A number of attorneys around the state have challenged on behalf of their clients the constitutionality of Alabama's capital murder sentencing scheme based on the Florida ruling. All but Todd, however, denied those requests.  District attorneys and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange have said Alabama's law is not the same as Florida's.

First, Alabama's sentencing scheme was ruled constitutional in 1995 by the U.S. Supreme Court, state prosecutors say. They also have pointed out that the high court held in the Florida case that a jury must find the aggravating factor in order to make someone eligible for the death penalty. Alabama's system already requires the jury to do just that, according to an Alabama Attorney General's statement.

A few prior related posts:

June 7, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

GOP Rep Labrador predicts "we’re going to see some of the greatest reforms in a generation" emerging from Congress

Raul-LabradorSomeone should be collecting all the big talk we have heard from elected officials and pundits about the ground-breaking criminal justice reforms that are purportedly soon to happen in Congress (and, so far, just never quite seem to happen).  As noted in this prior post, at least one notable commentatory was saying in summer 2013 that "momentum for sentencing reform could be unstoppable."  Three years later, as reported in this local article discussing comments at a sentencing reform symposium, one notable member of Congress is still talking about momentum continuing to build:

Idaho GOP Rep. Raul Labrador says momentum is building in Congress for major criminal justice reforms aimed at reversing decades of focus on long prison terms that hit even nonviolent and first-time offenders. “I believe that we’re going to see some of the greatest reforms in a generation,” Labrador told a criminal justice reform conference at Concordia University School of Law in Boise on Monday. “Momentum is building for reform. This Congress alone, I’ve already met with President Obama twice. … This is actually one area that I think I can work with the president.”

Labrador, a Republican and tea party favorite, last year co-sponsored major, bipartisan reform legislation, but it didn’t advance. This year, a less ambitious bill is pending in both houses that includes some of the same provisions, including giving judges more discretion on whether to impose mandatory minimum sentences. “We only have 5 percent of the world’s population in the United States, and the U.S. is home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population,” Labrador said. “We should not be proud of that.”

That bill and several others have cleared the House Judiciary Committee, Labrador said, “and House Speaker Paul Ryan has expressed his support for the movement and has promised me to bring a reform package to the floor for a vote this year.”

It hasn’t happened yet, and Labrador acknowledged that hopes are fading as more of the year passes by. “It’s a little bit watered down,” he said. “They had to look at the political reality, what can pass in the Senate and the House.”

Still, he pledged to continue to push the issue, one that Labrador, an immigration and criminal defense attorney, said he started work on as soon as he arrived in Congress.

Here are some more quotes of note that emerged from this Concordia University School of Law sentencing conference:

“Eighty percent of federal drug prisoners have no history of violence, and more than 25 percent have no criminal history at all,” said Alex Kreit, professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and an expert and textbook author on controlled substances and marijuana regulation. “This, in a nutshell, is what is driving interest in federal drug sentencing reform.” Half of the federal prison population consists of drug offenders, Kreit said, though they comprise only a quarter of those admitted each year. “Part of that is the lengthy drug sentences that we have.”

Though some reforms have happened, notably congressional action in 2010 to reduce the disparity between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine sentences, federal drug sentencing laws remain largely unchanged. “I think there are a lot of people coalescing around the idea that what we have been doing hasn’t worked in the way we wanted it to work, said Wendy Olson, U.S. Attorney for Idaho. “I think all of us in criminal justice have an obligation to look at that.”

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill said his 28 years on the bench have shown him that the war on drugs has been “an abysmal failure – we certainly have not reduced drug consumption. Whatever has happened, it has not been worth the price that we have paid.”

He said its casualties have largely been low-level drug offenders who were associated with large quantities of drugs – couriers, truck drivers, addicts hired to unload trucks. “Kingpins are almost immune, in the same way that generals and commanders in chief are typically immune during wars,” Winmill said, “and if they are brought down, what happens is that they’re immediately replaced.”

Plus, though African-Americans and Hispanics use drugs at about the same rate as the general population, Winmill said, “The incarceration rate for African-Americans and Hispanics is off the charts. Now, is that implicit bias? Is it overt bias? Is it a result of a policy from Congress that reflects bias? I don’t know. But I think it certainly is something we need to think long and hard about.”

June 7, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, June 06, 2016

Lots of seemingly justifiable outrage after lenient California sentencing of privileged man convicted of three felony counts of sexual assault

The recent lenient sentencing late last week of Stanford University student convicted of multiple counts of sexual assault has become a very big story today, and lots of folks across the political spectrum seem justifiably troubled by it.  This new New York Times article, headlined "Outrage in Stanford Rape Case Over Light Sentence for Attacker and Statement by His Father," provides some of the basics about the case and reactions to it:

A sexual assault case at Stanford University has ignited public outrage and a recall effort against a California judge after the defendant was sentenced to six months in a jail and his father complained that his son’s life had been ruined for “20 minutes of action” fueled by alcohol and promiscuity. In court, the victim had criticized her attacker’s sentence and the inequities of the legal process.

The case has made headlines since the trial began earlier this year but seized the public’s attention over the weekend after the accused, Brock Allen Turner, 20, a champion swimmer, was sentenced by Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky of Santa Clara County to what many critics denounced as a lenient stint in jail and three years’ probation for three felony counts of sexual assault.

The next day, BuzzFeed published the full courtroom statement [available here and recommended reading] by the woman who was attacked. The statement, a 7,244-word cri de coeur against the role of privilege in the trial and the way the legal system deals with sexual assault, has gone viral. By Monday, it had been viewed more than five million times on the BuzzFeed site. One of those readings happened live on CNN on Monday, when the anchor Ashleigh Banfield spent part of an hour looking into the camera and reading the entire statement live on the air.

The unidentified 23-year-old victim was not a Stanford student but was visiting the campus, where she attended a fraternity party. In the statement, she described her experience before and after the attack.

She argued that the trial, the sentencing and the legal system’s approach to sexual assault — from the defense lawyer’s questions about what she wore the night she was attacked to the light sentence handed down to her attacker — were irrevocably marred by male and class privilege. The trial privileged Mr. Turner’s well-being over her own, she said, and in the end declined to punish him severely because the authorities considered the disruption to his studies and athletic career at a prestigious university when determining his sentence....

If Mr. Turner and his defenders wanted to rebut that argument, a statement read to the court by his father, Dan Turner, and posted to Twitter on Sunday by Michele Dauber, a law professor and sociologist at Stanford, certainly did not help.

In the statement, Mr. Turner’s father said that his son should not do jail time for the sexual assault, which he referred to as “the events” and “20 minutes of action” that were not violent.  He said that his son suffered from depression and anxiety in the wake of the trial and argued that having to register as a sex offender — and the loss of his appetite for food he once enjoyed — was punishment enough. Brock Turner also lost a swimming scholarship to Stanford and has given up on his goal of competing at the Olympics.  “I was always excited to buy him a big rib-eye steak to grill or to get his favorite snack for him,” Dan Turner wrote.  “Now he barely consumes any food and eats only to exist. These verdicts have broken and shattered him and our family in so many ways.”

The Santa Clara, Calif., district attorney, Jeff Rosen, did not agree with Dan Turner’s assessment of the situation.  In a statement, he said the sentence “did not fit the crime” and called Brock a “predatory offender” who refused to take responsibility or show remorse. “Campus rape is no different than off-campus rape,” Mr. Rosen said. “Rape is rape.”

The editorial board of The San Jose Mercury News agreed, calling the sentence “a slap on the wrist” and “a setback for the movement to take campus rape seriously” in an editorial.

Professor Dauber said Monday that she was part of a committee that was organizing a recall challenge to Judge Persky, whose position is an elected one.  The professor said he had misapplied the law by granting Mr. Turner probation and by taking his age, academic achievement and alcohol consumption into consideration.

Professor Dauber might think about reaching out to Bill Otis for support for her effort to recall Judge Persky, as Bill now has these two notable posts up at Crime & Consequences about this case:

As the titles of these posts suggest, Bill seems right now more eager to go after the defense bar rather than the sentencing judge in this case, but I have an inkling he will be bashing on the judge soon, too.  (Bill has never been disinclined to attack judges or others whom he thinks are failing to do what he thinks they should be doing).  What strikes me as particularly notable and disconcerting, though, is that the elected state sentencing judge involved in this case was, according to this webpage, "a criminal prosecutor for the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office, where [he was called upon to] prosecute sex crimes and hate crimes" right before he became a judge.

I am not familiar with the particulars of California criminal procedures as to whether a prosecutor is able to appeal a sentence considered unjustifiably lenient.  If so, then perhaps this sentence can be scrutinized and perhaps rectified on appeal; if not, we have another example of why I generally think allowing both sides to appeal a sentence for unreasonableness is a good idea. 

June 6, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24)

SCOTUS grants cert two notable Texas capital cases

Those eager to see SCOTUS continue to question the operation of the death penalty in the US have some news to celebrate from the court via this new order list: the Justices this morning granted certain two capital cases from Texas, Moore v. Texas and Buck v. Stephens. Over at SCOTUSblog, Amy Howe has already provided this quick response to a question as to whether these Cases are notable:

They are both reasonably interesting.  Moore v. Texas includes both a question about the standard for determining whether an inmate is intellectually disabled and the question whether executing an inmate after a long stay on death row violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Buck case is about an expert witness for the defense (!) testifying that Buck was likely to be more dangerous and thus more a candidate for death sentence because he is black.

In other words, high-salience issues concerning race, mental disabilities and delays before execution are all before the Court in these cases. Among other likely echo effects from these grants, I suspect this means there will be lots and lots of (mostly abolitionist) commentary about these cases in the weeks and months to come, and also that hearings for the next SCOTUS nominee (whenever they might occur) will include some significant focus on the constitutionality of capital punishment.

UPDATE:  This revised version of the SCOTUS order list indicates that in Moore the Justices will only be considering the way Texas handles application of its Atkins intellectual disability limit on who can be eligible for the death penalty.  Still, as this SCOTUSblog post by Lyle Denniston details, these two cases will still provide plenty of grist for the capital case controversy mill.

June 6, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Looking into the Wisconsin case looking into the use of risk-assessment tools at sentencing

The Wall Street Journal has this effective new article discussing the case now before the Wisconsin Supreme Court considering a defendant's challenge to the use of a risk assessment tool in the state's sentencing process.  The article's full headline notes the essentials: "Wisconsin Supreme Court to Rule on Predictive Algorithms Used in Sentencing: Ruling would be among first to speak to legality of risk assessments as aid in meting out punishments." And here is more from the body of the article:

Algorithms used by authorities to predict the likelihood of criminal conduct are facing a major legal test in Wisconsin.  The state’s highest court is set to rule on whether such algorithms, known as risk assessments, violate due process and discriminate against men when judges rely on them in sentencing.  The ruling, which could come any time, would be among the first to speak to the legality of risk assessments as an aid in meting out punishments.

Criminal justice experts skeptical of such tools say they are inherently biased, treating poor people as riskier than those who are well off. Proponents of risk assessments say they have elevated sentencing to something closer to a science. “Evidence has a better track record for assessing risks and needs than intuition alone,” wrote Christine Remington, an assistant attorney general in Wisconsin, in a legal brief filed in January defending the state’s use of the evaluations.

Risk-evaluation tools have gained in popularity amid efforts around the country to curb the number of repeat offenders.  They help authorities sort prisoners, set bail and weigh parole decisions. But their use in sentencing is more controversial.

Before the sentencing of 34-year-old Eric Loomis, whose case is before the state’s high court, Wisconsin authorities evaluated his criminal risk with a widely used tool called COMPAS, or Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions, a 137-question test that covers criminal and parole history, age, employment status, social life, education level, community ties, drug use and beliefs.  The assessment includes queries like, “Did a parent figure who raised you ever have a drug or alcohol problem?” and “Do you feel that the things you do are boring or dull?”  Scores are generated by comparing an offender’s characteristics to a representative criminal population of the same sex.

Prosecutors said Mr. Loomis was the driver of a car involved in a drive-by shooting in La Crosse, Wis., on Feb. 11, 2013. Mr. Loomis denied any involvement in the shooting, saying he drove the car only after it had occurred. He pleaded guilty in 2013 to attempting to flee police in a car and operating a vehicle without the owner’s consent and was sentenced to six years in prison and five years of supervision.  “The risk assessment tools that have been utilized suggest that you’re extremely high risk to reoffend,” Judge Scott Horne in La Crosse County said at Mr. Loomis’s sentencing.

Mr. Loomis said in his appeal that Judge Horne’s reliance on COMPAS violated his right to due process, because the company that makes the test, Northpointe, doesn’t reveal how it weighs the answers to arrive at a risk score. Northpointe General Manager Jeffrey Harmon declined to comment on Mr. Loomis’s case but said algorithms that perform the risk assessments are proprietary. The outcome, he said, is all that is needed to validate the tools.  Northpointe says its studies have shown COMPAS’s recidivism risk score to have an accuracy rate of 68% to 70%. Independent evaluations have produced mixed findings.

Mr. Loomis also challenged COMPAS on the grounds that the evaluation treats men as higher risk than women.  COMPAS compares women only to other women because they “commit violent acts at a much lower rate than men,” wrote Ms. Remington, the state’s lawyer, in her response brief filed earlier this year in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Having two scales — one for men and one for women — is good science, not gender bias, she said.

The parties appeared to find common ground on at least one issue. “A court cannot decide to place a defendant in prison solely because of his score on COMPAS,” Ms. Remington acknowledged, describing it as “one of many factors a court can consider at sentencing.” Her comments echoed a 2010 ruling by the Indiana Supreme Court holding that risk assessments “do not replace but may inform a trial court’s sentencing determinations.”

June 5, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Might SCOTUS soon (finally!) take up the constitutionality of solitary confinement?

Way back in March 2009, I asked via this post "Why isn't there more constitutional litigation over the 'hellhole' that is extended solitary confinement?".  And last year, as noted this post, Justice Anthony Kennedy essentially asked the same question via a remarkable (off-point) concurrence in the SCOTUS ruling in Davis v. Ayala.  Consequently, I was intrigued to see this new Mother Jones article headlined "The Supreme Court Might Finally Take On Solitary Confinement: The court could announce Monday whether it will consider the long-term solitary confinement of a death row inmate." Here is how the piece gets started:

Bobby Moore has been on death row in Texas for more than 35 years, for a murder he committed in 1980 at the age of 20.  He's come close to dying twice; once, he was hours away from execution before a court intervened.  For the past 15 years, he's been in solitary confinement nearly 23 hours a day, unable to interact with other inmates, in a type of cell described in legal filings as "virtual incubators of psychoses."

The Supreme Court is now considering Moore's claim that his solitary incarceration and the long delay between his conviction and execution are violations of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  Moore's petition has been pending for nearly a month, but a decision on whether the Supreme Court will hear it could come on Monday.  If the court takes up the case, its ruling could have profound implications for the nation's nearly 3,000 death row inmates, who are often confined to solitary cells and await execution for an average of more than 15 years.  If Moore wins, not only could he get off death row, but many inmates in his position could follow.

The high court has repeatedly refused to hear cases challenging an excessive delay of an execution as unconstitutional, and it's never directly confronted solitary confinement on death row.  But there are signs that the justices are seriously considering Moore's case.  The court grants only about 70 petitions a year, out of 9,000 filings, so most cases are dismissed quickly.  But it has relisted Moore's case for its weekly review conference three times, an unusual move.

Some of the court's liberal justices have spoken out about long solitary stays on death row for a long time.  Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired in 2010, was a notable advocate for the position that extended incarceration for capital offenders was a clear constitutional violation, one he first embraced more than 20 years ago.  Stevens gained an ally in Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote in 1999, "It is difficult to deny the suffering inherent in a prolonged wait for execution."  Breyer cited these long waits in a lengthy dissent last year, in which he declared his view that capital punishment in any form is unconstitutional — a dissent joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Last month, he objected to the court's refusal to take up a California death row case raising the issue, arguing that "unconscionably long delays...undermine the death penalty’s penological purpose."

The conservative justices, though, have been less sympathetic — that is, until 2014, when almost out of the blue, Anthony Kennedy, a Ronald Reagan appointee and the court's frequent swing vote, expressed concern about solitary confinement during oral arguments in a case.  He has since shown more signs that he could eventually be a decisive vote in forcing the court to confront the issue at last.

For various reasons, I would like to see the Supreme Court take up the constitutionality of extended solitary confinement in a non-capital case. But, obviously, that has not happened yet so I suppose my perspective now is that taking up the issue in a capital case is good enough for SCOTUS work.

Some of many prior related posts:

June 5, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Could criminal defendants try to use GOP Prez candidate Trump's bias claims to bollix up prosecutions?

160601-trump-curiel-mn-1130_27cbe2a864fffd0c78aefb18f60a06c9I always try to stay open-minded about all people's political and personal perspectives, and I have thus to date been disinclined to think the worst about GOP Prez candidate Donald Trump and the prospect of him becoming the next President of the United States.  But I am quite troubled by Trump's recent attacks on a federal judge, and those attacks prompt the provocative question in the title of this post.  This new NPR piece, headlined "Trump Presses Case That 'Mexican' Judge Curiel Is Biased Against Him," provides the basic backstory:  

Donald Trump is intensifying his attacks on the federal judge presiding over fraud lawsuits against Trump University. On Friday the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, dismissing criticism from legal experts on the right and left, pressed his case against U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, saying the Indiana-born judge is biased against him because "he's a Mexican.  We're building a wall between here and Mexico."

Trump made the remarks, and others like it, repeatedly, in interviews with CNN and The Wall Street Journal, referring to Judge Curiel variously as "of Mexican heritage" or just "Mexican."  But the message was always the same, that the judge had what Trump called "a conflict" because of his ethnicity.

At a rally in San Diego last week, Trump characterized the judge as "a hater of Donald Trump, a hater. He's a hater." And "they ought to look into Judge Curiel."  In public, Trump has called repeatedly for the judge to recuse himself, but his lawyers in fact have not made any such request.

That is undoubtedly because court precedents are unanimous in holding that race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation are not themselves grounds for disqualifying a judge.  If they were, lethal ethicists observe, the legal system would fall into chaos because no judge would be free from taint.  The five Supreme Court justices who are Catholic could not rule on a case in which the Catholic church participated, but neither could the other justices who are not Catholic.

Moreover, while Trump is free to say anything he wants about the judge, the lawyers in the case are bound by the professional rules of conduct and could be sanctioned for making such charges about Curiel without actual evidence of bias.  Legal ethics expert Stephen Gillers notes in addition that litigants may not wait to seek a judge's disqualification; they must move to recuse the judge as soon as they know there is a conflict.

Trump's lawyers, from the prestigious O'Melveny & Myers firm, however, have not done that. Indeed, some observers argue that the judge did the candidate a big favor by postponing the trial in the case until after the election. And Trump did not become bellicose about Curiel until the judge, at the request of news organizations, ordered the unsealing of documents in the case — documents that have proved embarrassing for the GOP presumptive nominee.

"This is not really about rebutting accusations that Trump University defrauded its students," said NYU's Gillers. Rather, it is a kind of dog whistle to supporters, "a way to keep the subject of illegal Mexican immigration on the front page."

Judge Curiel, appointed to the federal bench by President Obama, was born in Indiana, the son of Mexican-American immigrants. He served for 17 years as a federal prosecutor in California, rising to chief of narcotics enforcement in the southern district. In 1997 he was believed to be the target of an assassination attempt from a Mexican drug cartel, was put under 24-hour watch by the U.S. Marshall Service for a year, was moved to a military base and eventually to Justice Department headquarters in Washington, D.C.

I am not aware of any criminal defendants who have successfully sought disqualification of a judge (or a prosecutor) based solely on the basis of that judge's race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation.  That said, I certainly have heard criminal defendants assert, like Donald Trump, that a prosecutor or a judge is biased on one of the bases.  And if repeatedly making such claims in public to serve a political or personal agenda is good enough for the GOP's Prez nominee, why couldn't a criminal defendant unhappy with how a prosecution is moving forward start making similar claims to serve his hew own agenda?

June 4, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"What Do Criminals Deserve?"

The title of this post is the title of this new book chapter authored by Douglas Husak now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

I attempt to specify the precise role played by desert in a justification of state punishment.  To this end, I contrast the questions that must be resolved from those that need not be addressed at all or cannot be answered to anyone's satisfaction.  I argue that much can be learned about the justification of state punishment by focusing on situations in which persons react appropriately to culpable wrongdoing perpetrated by non-state actors.  I conclude that the greatest difficulty for desert theorists is to explain why the deprivations and stigma legitimately inflicted by victims should take the form of hard treatment and censure imposed by the state.  I offer a few inconclusive suggestions about how this latter problem might be solved.

June 4, 2016 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 03, 2016

Weldon Angelos, poster child for need to reform federal mandatory minimums, apparently released after serving 12 years of 55-year sentence

Images (2)Regular readers likely know the name Weldon Angelos and likely recall some of the details of his 55-year mandatory minimum federal sentence based on his convictions for low-level marijuana dealing and firearm possession.  And regular readers likely will also be intrigued and heartened to read this new Washington Post story, headlined "Utah man whose long drug sentence stirred controversy is released," indicating that Weldon was released earlier this week.  Here are the (somewhat mysterious) details:

One federal inmate who was released — but not under Obama’s clemency initiative — is Weldon Angelos, 36, a father of three from Utah who was sentenced in 2004 to a 55-year mandatory minimum prison term in connection with selling marijuana.

The specific circumstances of Angelos’s release are unclear because court records in his case are sealed. But after a long campaign from his supporters, including Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Angelos was quietly released Tuesday after a federal court granted him an immediate reduction in sentence. He was able to immediately go home to his family without serving three months in a halfway house, as those who receive clemency are required to do. The release allowed Angelos to see the son he left at age 7 graduate from high school Thursday.

Angelos is one of the nation’s most famous nonviolent drug offenders and became a symbol of what advocates said was the severity and unfairness of mandatory sentences. His case was championed by the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, former FBI director Bill Sessions, conservative billionaire Charles Koch and others. Three years ago, more than 100 former judges and prosecutors, former elected and appointed government officials, and prominent authors, scholars, activists and business leaders signed a letter urging Obama to grant Angelos commutation.

In February, former federal judge Paul G. Cassell, who sentenced Angelos, wrote a letter asking Obama to swiftly grant him clemency. Cassell said that the sentence he was forced to impose was “one of the most troubling that I ever faced in my five years on the federal bench” and that it was one of the chief reasons he stepped down as a judge.

But Obama never granted clemency to Angelos. The granting of mercy instead came from the Salt Lake City prosecutor who charged him in the case, according to his lawyer. “After three and half years of inaction on Weldon’s clemency petition, he is free because of the fair and good action of a prosecutor,” attorney Mark W. Osler said. “He returns to citizenship because of the actions of one individual — just not the individual I was expecting. Weldon’s freedom is a wonderful thing but remains just one bright spot among many continuing tragedies.”

A White House spokeswoman said that the White House cannot respond with details about any individual clemency case. Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, called the release of Angelos “fantastic news and past due.”

I am inclined to guess, absent hearing any details to the contrary, that the Utah federal prosecutor agreed to what some have come to call a Holloway motion: a motion first engineered by former Judge John Glesson in the case of Francios Holloway (discussed here) by urging prosecutors to move to undo stacked federal gun charges that had resulted in acrazy-long mandatory minimum prison term.

A few of many prior related posts on Angelos and Holloway cases:

June 3, 2016 in Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Prez Obama commutes 42 more federal prison sentences

Chart_060316_commutations[1]As reported in this AP piece, this afternoon "President Barack Obama is commuting the sentences of 42 people convicted of drug-related offenses." Here is more:

Obama's latest round of clemency brings to 348 the total number of sentences Obama has commuted since taking office. The pace has increased substantially as Obama approaches the end of his presidency. Roughly half of the 42 receiving commutations Friday were serving life sentences. Most are nonviolent offenders, although a few were also charged with firearms violations.

Obama's commutation shortens their sentences, with most of the inmates set to be released October 1.

White House counsel Neil Eggleston says Obama will keep using his clemency power to give deserving individuals a second chance. Obama has pushed to overhaul the criminal justice system but a bipartisan effort has struggled to maintain momentum.

Via this blog post (which provides the graphic reprinted here), Prez Obama's counsel notes that that "President Obama Has Now Commuted the Sentences of 348 Individuals" and highlights that now "the President has commuted the sentences of more individuals than the past 7 presidents combined." Here is more from the blog posting:

Today, the President announced 42 additional grants of clemency to men and women serving years in prison under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws. The individuals receiving a presidential commutation today have more than repaid their debt to society and earned this second chance.

To date, the President has commuted the sentences of 348 individuals -- more than the previous seven Presidents combined. He remains committed to using his clemency power throughout the remainder of the Administration to give more deserving individuals that same second chance....

Despite these important efforts, only legislation can bring about lasting change to the federal system. There remain thousands of men and women in federal prison serving sentences longer than necessary, often due to overly harsh mandatory minimum sentences. That is one reason it is critical that both the House and the Senate continue to cooperate on a bipartisan basis to get a criminal justice reform bill to the President's desk.

June 3, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Conservatives should celebrate Obama’s commutations"

Institute_for_Policy_Innovation_1313374The title of this post is the headline of this new Dallas Morning News commatary.  The piece is authored by Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, a group that explains its focus to be "on approaches to governing that harness the strengths of individual liberty, limited government, and free markets." Here are excerpts:

The White House recently announced that 58 federal inmates, mostly non-violent drug offenders, would have their sentences shortened through commutation.  This brings the total number of commutations during the Barack Obama years to 306, more than any recent administration.  And word out of the White House is that there will be more to come during President Obama’s final months in office.

Many conservatives will be initially inclined to see Obama’s commutations as the act of a liberal who is soft on crime.  But conservatives should celebrate President Obama’s commutations. In fact, as people who prize liberty and individual rights, and who are skeptical about government power, conservatives need to do a rethink on criminal justice.

It’s becoming clear that something has gone very wrong with the justice system in the United States.  Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  Too many crimes have been federalized, as opposed to being handled more locally by state and local courts.  Excessive punishments are being meted out for non-violent crimes because of mandatory sentencing requirements.  And it’s dawning on people that the justice system is plagued by the same careerism and corruption that characterize other branches of government....

Taking reasonable discretion away from judges was a mistake, and it caused a shift in power from judges to prosecutors, who can select and “stack” charges involving mandatory minimums.  While judges are appointed or elected to consider both sides of a case, prosecutors are hired to convict.  It should trouble conservatives that the government side of the equation has been awarded such disproportionate power, which has clearly led to abuses.

Consider the case of Weldon Angelos, who at age 24 was arrested in Utah for selling marijuana and possessing a firearm.  Because of stacked charges with mandatory minimums, Federal Judge Paul Cassell had no choice but to sentence him to 55 years in prison.  Judge Cassell has ever since been pleading for a commutation to Angelos’ sentence, pointing out that far worse crimes, such as hijacking, rape, and second-degree murder, have lighter sentences.  But the judge, who clerked for Antonin Scalia, was appointed by President George W. Bush, and who favors the death penalty, was powerless in the face of a prosecutor armed with federal mandatory minimum sentences.

Yes, our justice system should be about public safety first. But all too often it is about careerism, government revenue and corruption.  Stephanos Bibas, professor of law and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, reminds us that “the criminal justice system and prisons are big-government institutions.  They are often manipulated by special interests such as prison guard’s unions, and they consume huge shares of most states’ budgets.”

Social conservatives should understand the need for criminal justice reform, since we believe that every human life has inherent dignity and value, and we believe in the possibility of redemption.  Non-violent offenders can be punished and make restitution while keeping families intact and offenders productive.  Economic conservatives should recognize that non-violent offenders are better deployed working in the private sector than incarcerated in expensive government facilities.  And libertarians — well, libertarians already get it.

There are many pieces to the justice reform movement, including giving judges more sentencing leeway, eliminating civil asset forfeiture, and prioritizing drug treatment and in-home monitoring of incarceration.  But commuting sentences for non-violent offenders that are far in excess of the crime is a great place to start.

June 3, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Appellate judges certify to Florida Supreme Court whether state sentencing scheme violates Due Process Clause or Eighth Amendment

A helpful reader alerted me to a remarkable decision handed down earlier this week by the Florida's Fourth District Court of Appeals. The reader provided this helpful summary that I could reprint here (with my emphasis added):

The Fourth District Court of Appeal wrote a decision that (in essence) asks our Supreme Court to revisit the constitutionality of our sentencing scheme, a scheme that gives judges complete discretion to sentence a defendant anywhere between a calculated "lowest permissible sentence" and the statutory maximums stacked end to end. This system of nearly unlimited sentencing discretion is everything Judge Frankel decried, and the sentence the court reviewed is a case in point: the defendant was 55 years old, he had no prior record, and his "lowest permissible sentence" was 23.7 months in prison.  For trying and failing to steal three boat motors he was sentenced to 35 years in prison (the statutory maximums stacked end to end), effectively a life sentence.

Judge Gross wrote a thoughtful and scholarly concurring opinion that begins with the history of sentencing in Florida, talks about the evils of unfettered sentencing discretion, and ends with Judge Frankel and his modest proposal that judges be required to explain their sentencing decisions (at present they need say nothing).

Here is the question the court certified to Florida Supreme Court as one of great public importance:

Does a sentence within the statutory maximum under the Criminal Punishment Code violate either the Due Process Clause or Eighth Amendment when it is significantly greater than the lowest permissible sentence on the defendant’s scoresheet or the offered plea and grossly disproportionate to the median sentence imposed for similar crimes within the jurisdiction?

Alfonso-Roche v. Florida, No. 4D13-3689 (Fla. 4th DCA June 1, 2016) (available here).

I do not know enough about Florida's appellate procedures to know if the Florida Supreme Court will now have to, or at least is now very likely to, take up these important constitutional issues.  But for anyone and everyone working in state or federal systems worried about the exercise of unfettered sentencing discretion, this Alfonso-Roche decision is today's must-read.

June 3, 2016 in Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Former House Speaker (and future Trump running-mate?) Newt Gingrich helps make the case for "raising the age" for adult prosecutions

Regular readers know that Newt Gingrich has become a notable and frequent "right on crime" commentator calling for all sorts of criminal justice reforms in all sorts of settings.  And here we have another example:  this new commentary authored by Gingrich and Pat Nolan, headlined "Don’t train kids to be felons in adult jails," makes the case for limiting the prosecution of teenagers as adults in Louisiana.  Here are excerpts: 

The noted “tough on crime” criminologist John Dilulio once commented that “jailing youth with adult felons under Spartan conditions will merely produce more street gladiators.” Louisiana should heed Dilulio’s caution against locking up young petty criminals alongside violent adult criminals. The Bayou State is one of only nine states that prosecutes 17-year-olds as adults, often for the most minor of crimes (stealing a bag of potato chips, for instance).

We all can agree that breaking the law is wrong and that these teens deserve to face consequences for their actions. But tossing them into adult jails with hardened criminals just makes those bad situations worse. The research and data are clear: Adult jails are no place for teenagers, who with the help and guidance of parents are likely able to turn their lives around.

Placing youngsters in adult jails makes them more likely to be victims of rape and assault, and more likely to commit suicide. They also are likely to learn a lot more about leading a life of crime from the hardened criminals. There is a lot of truth in the notion that jails and prisons are graduate schools of crime.

In addition, the damage of this policy continues long after they are released. By treating teens differently from the majority of the country, Louisiana makes it harder for them to grow into successful adults....

Fortunately, the Legislature is working on a bill to “Raise the Age” of juvenile jurisdiction. It would assign most 17-year-olds who commit offenses to the juvenile justice system, where they would be held accountable, continue their schooling, learn critical skills and be prepared to live productive and healthy lives as law-abiding members of society. Prosecutors still would be free to choose to prosecute youth accused of more serious offenses as adults....

Raising the age would make society safer and stronger by doing away with the destructive “one-size-fits-all punishment” system we have now. Adult jails and prisons can turn teens into career criminals, and taxpayers are stuck with the bill. By raising the age of how we punish and reform young people who make minor mistakes, Louisiana will help these kids turn their lives around, will make neighborhoods safer and in the process will save taxpayers money. This is being smart on crime.

As the headline of this post highlights, I think Gingrich's continued advocacy for all sort of criminal justice reform is especially notable and important in light of the fact that he name is being brought up repeatedly as a possible running mate for GOP Prez nominee Donald Trump.  As detailed in a number of posts linked below, Gingrich has had his name on many commentaries in the last few years vocally supporting a wide array of modern state and federal sentencing reform efforts.  If Trump were in fact to select Gingrich as his running mate, I would have to rethink my belief (and fear) that the Trump campaign will be actively opposing most criminal justice reform efforts.

Prior related posts about Gingrich's criminal justice reform advocacy:

June 3, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, June 02, 2016

FreedomWorks explains why GOP opposition to federal sentencing reform is "unreasonable"

Writing at FreedomWorks, Jason Pye has this lengthy posting headlined "The Unreasonable Opposition to Justice Reform in the Senate," which gets started this way (with links in the original):

Recently, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) gave a speech at the Hudson Institute in Washington, in which he offered his case against the justice reform effort in Congress led by conservatives like Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho).  Apparently unaware of the efforts of more than 30 states, including several traditionally Republican states, Cotton ridiculously labeled the federal push as "criminal leniency."

FreedomWorks has already responded to some of Cotton's hyperbolic statements on justice reform. Unfortunately, even after proposed legislation was improved to address the concerns of a handful of senators, Cotton doubled down on his opposition in his speech. Some of the more egregious comments from his speech are in italics below, immediately followed by a response to set the record straight.

"These policies are not merely wrong. They are dangerous. They threaten a return to the worst days of the 1990s, when law-abiding citizens lived in fear of their lives. Indeed, we may be living through the leading edge of a new crime wave. Over the last two years, murders across 56 of our largest cities are up 17 percent. The numbers are even more shocking in some cities. In Chicago, murders jumped 70 percent in the first quarter of this year alone. In Las Vegas, 81 percent. In Long Beach, 125 percent."

These are deceptive words, to say the least. As Cotton mentioned, crime rates have declined significantly since the early 1990s. Pew Research found that gun-related homicides, including suicides, declined by 31 percent between 1993 and 2014. Excluding suicides, the figure is closer to 49 percent. Over the same period, the nonfatal firearm crime victimization rate declined by nearly 75 percent. A separate report released in 2013 noted that the public was largely unaware that violent crime was on the decline.

There has been much made of a "new crime wave," but it is difficult for anyone to make such a statement based on a short-term look at the data. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) publishes annual reports on crime data that offers more context and insight, rather than anecdote. Even in the midst of the decline in crime rates, the United States experienced two consecutive years in which homicide rates increased, 2005 and 2006. In 2007, the homicide rate began to decline again.

According to the last two full-year reports, crime continued to decline, almost across the board. In 2013, crime, including homicides and other violent crime, was down. The downward trend continued in 2014. The FBI hasn't released data for all of 2015; the report is not due for a few more months. The Brennan Center released a preliminary analysis of crime rates in 2015 and found that the "new crime wave," as Cotton puts it, does not exist. But even if the overall crime rate increased, it does not mean that there is some new crime wave. Again, 2005 and 2006 proved to be outliers, and 2015, if the crime rate does rise, may be just that.

June 2, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Are there really now lots more conservatives in lots of states "starting to question the cost and legality of capital punishment"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new short Governing article with this full headline: "The Death Penalty’s New Skeptics: In states across the country, conservatives are starting to question the cost and legality of capital punishment."  Here are excerpts from the article:

It’s a government program that is prone to error, marred by long delays and far more expensive than alternative policies.  So it may be little wonder that the death penalty keeps attracting new opposition. But it’s surprising where some of that opposition is coming from. 

Over the past decade, the death penalty has been abolished in seven states. Most of those are dominated by Democrats. But the most recent is deeply conservative Nebraska, where lawmakers overrode Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of an abolition bill last year.  Other red states are revisiting the issue as well.   A bill to abolish the death penalty fell short by a single vote in a Kentucky House committee this year, while similar legislation actually passed the Utah Senate before failing in the House.  Last year, the Montana House killed an abolition bill on a tie vote.  A few months later, a judge there imposed a moratorium on executions, citing the difficulty of obtaining appropriate drugs for lethal injection -- an issue that has put capital punishment on hold in several states.  Litigation over delayed or botched executions compounds problems with meting out the penalty.  “Our death penalty is a joke,” Republican state Rep. Clayton Fiscus said during the debate.

The average death row inmate can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year more to house than run-of-the-mill criminals.  Prisoners who are executed can cost upward of $1 million more than those sentenced to life without possibility of parole.  “This is a program that’s so bad, the left and right can actually agree on it,” says Marc Hyden, a former field representative with the National Rifle Association who now works for an advocacy group called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty....

[I]t’s indisputable that the growing corps of death penalty skeptics now includes many conservatives.  There are enough Republican legislators in Washington state ready to join with Democrats that a repeal measure there could pass, if a key committee chair would allow it to come to a vote.  “Many of us conservatives don’t trust government to launch a health-care program or fill potholes, let alone carry out life and death,” Hyden says.  “It’s the quintessential broken big-government program.”

I would not dispute that a few prominent GOP elected officials in a few states that have never had a long history of active and effective use of the death penalty may ultimately conclude (as did some in the Nebraska legislature) that it makes more sense to end rather than try to mend a rarely-applied punishment. But I do not believe any of the 17 persons who sought the GOP nomination for Prez this year had ever expressed any reservation about the death penalty either in theory or in practice.

June 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Correctional Control: Incarceration and supervision by state"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new data-rich report from the fina folks at the Prison Policy Initiative. Here are excerpts from the text at the start of the report (with links from the original):

Prisons are just one piece of the correctional pie. When states are judged solely on their incarceration rates, we are ignoring the leading type of correctional control: probation. In fact, some of the states that appear to be least punitive are the most likely to put their residents under some other form of correctional control. Other states are making changes to their criminal justice systems that shift large numbers of people from one part of the correctional pie to another.

For the first time, this report aggregates data on all of the kinds of correctional control: federal prisons, state prisons, local jails, juvenile incarceration, civil commitment, Indian Country jails, parole and, lastly but importantly, probation.  We make the data accessible in one nationwide chart and 100 state-specific pie charts.

Incarceration rates do not always tell the complete story of the criminal justice system in each state.  Notably, some of the states that are the least likely to send people to prison, such as Rhode Island and Minnesota, are among the most punitive when other methods of correctional control are taken into account.  Other states that rank in the bottom half of incarceration rates nationwide, such as Ohio and Idaho, end up surpassing Louisiana — the state notorious for being the global leader in incarceration — in rates of correctional control.  Georgia is punitive from any angle, as the only state that is both a top jailer and leader in probation.

We find that this tremendous variation between the states is largely driven by differences in the use of probation, which is the leading form of correctional control nationally. A majority (56%) of people under the control of the American criminal justice system are on probation. Despite receiving little public attention, probation is a significant component of each state’s criminal justice system. While states vary when it comes to their use of prisons and jails, there is far greater variation in their use of probation. For example, in Nevada, 31% of the people under correctional control are on probation whereas in Georgia, a whopping 78% of people under correctional control are on probation.

Georgia’s rate of probation is more than double every other states’ rate of probation and greater than every other states’ total rates of correctional control. One reason why Georgia’s use of probation has ballooned to these levels is that the state uses privatized probation, which unnecessarily puts Georgia residents with extremely minor offenses on probation.

Parole (a type of conditional release from prison) makes up 11% of the correctional population nationally and also varies widely between states, sometimes in ways unrelated to the size of the state prison population.  We find that for every 100 people incarcerated in a state prison in that state:

  • Maine has 1 person on parole.
  • Florida has 4 people on parole.
  • Arkansas has 117 people on parole.
  • Pennsylvania has 198 people on parole.

June 1, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Is "geography" really an "arbitrary feature" of a capital prosecutions?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this passage today in Justice Breyer's dissent from the denial of certiorari in Tucker V. Louisiana (with my emphasis added):

Lamondre Tucker shot and killed his pregnant girlfriend in 2008.  At the time of the murder, Tucker was 18 years, 5 months, and 6 days old, cf. Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 578 (2005) (“The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed”), and he had an IQ of 74, cf. Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 321 (2002) (execution of the intellectually disabled violates the Eighth Amendment). Tucker was sentenced to death in a Louisiana county (Caddo Parish) that imposes almost half the death sentences in Louisiana, even though it accounts for only 5% of that State’s population and 5% of its homicides. See Pet. for Cert. 18.

Given these facts, Tucker may well have received the death penalty not because of the comparative egregiousness of his crime, but because of an arbitrary feature of his case, namely, geography.  See Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S. ___, ___–___ (2015) (BREYER, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 12–14).  One could reasonably believe that if Tucker had committed the same crime but been tried and sentenced just across the Red River in, say, Bossier Parish, he would not now be on death row.

I do not dispute that Tucker might not have been sent to death row if he had committed the same murder, and had been tried and sentenced, in another county. Indeed, one can certainly assert that had Tucker committed the same murder in, say, Michigan, a state without te death penalty, he definitely would not be on death row.  But, I do not think it quite right to call this geographic reality "an arbitrary feature of his case."  Arbitrary means "not based on reason," but there are many (seemingly sound) reasons why geography often will define and influence how a capital prosecution proceeds.

Most obviously, a criminal being capitally prosecuted has generally picked where his murder took place, and he typically will be (and some times only can be) prosecuted in a particular locality due to his own homicidal choices.  Moreover, the locality where a murder is committed necessarily experiences the impact of the crime most directly, and local decision-makers ought to be most responsive to local concerns as to how best to respond to that murder.  And, a locality's prosecutors and judges and jurors have all been selected to be respresentative of local community views and judgments.  (Indeed, in his concurring opinion in Ring v. Arizona, Justice Breyer made much of a "community’s moral sensibility" in the resolution of capital cases and the importance of a jury's role in reflecting "a community’s sense of capital punishment’s appropriateness in a particular case.")

In other words, to parrot a newly popular SCOTUS term, I think it is nonsense to call geography an "arbitrary feature" of a criminal case. And while lots of abolitionists complain about the impact of geography on the adminstration of capital punishment, I have never found this complaint to be conceptually convincing or nearly as compelling as other arguments against the modern administration of the death penalty.

May 31, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

"Marijuana Enforcement Disparities In California: A Racial Injustice"

The title of this post is the title of this new short new data reprt/analysis released by the Drug Policy Alliance and the ACLU of California. Here are excerpts from the start and end of this little report:

Effective January 1, 2011, California reduced the penalty for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction.  Subsequently, misdemeanor marijuana arrests plummeted by 86 percent.  Although the penalty does not include jail, the offense is still punishable by up to a $100 fine plus fees, making the actual cost of an infraction much higher.  This can be a substantial burden for young and low-income people.  According to original research presented here, enforcement of marijuana possession — and the economic burden it entails — falls disproportionately on black and Latino people. The disparity is particularly acute for black people and young men and boys....

Infraction data are hard to come by in California.  The demographic profile of people issued marijuana possession infractions in Fresno and Los Angeles, however, demonstrates that enforcement continues to fall disproportionately on black and Latino people, particularly young men and boys.  In Los Angeles and Fresno 90% and 86% of marijuana possession infractions respectively were issued to men or boys.

These findings demonstrate that reducing penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana does not go far enough.  There are still substantial costs associated with an infraction, such as legal fees, court costs, and lost time at school or at work — and the burden of these costs most heavily impact young black men and boys.  While reducing marijuana possession to an infraction has dramatically decreased the number of marijuana arrests in the state, it has not sufficiently reduced the disparate manner in which marijuana laws are enforced.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

May 31, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Highlighting just some of the ways that "Democratic Leadership Is Missing In Action on Mass Incarceration"

Election_donkey3The quoted portion of this post's title comes from this new commentary at The Nation authored by Inimai Chettiar and Ames Grawert. The piece carries the subheading "Sentencing reform will be a compromise between moderate and conservative Republicans, unless Democrats finally come to the table," and here are extended excerpts:

Even though it now looks like Americans will be deprived the drama of a contested Republican convention, the gathering in Cleveland could hold at least one surprise.  The Republicans are set to vote on an RNC resolution to reduce mass incarceration.  The measure asks for “reforms for nonviolent offenders at the state and federal level” and urges “state legislators and Congress to…provide substance abuse treatment to addicts, emphasize work and education, and implement policies that cut costs while obtaining better outcomes.”

Finally, Democrats may say, Republicans have woken up to mass incarceration as a 21st-century civil-rights struggle, joining what has for years been a progressive fight.  Not so fast. If the Republican Party makes criminal justice reform a priority, they’ll be the first major party to do so, ever.  Democrats need to catch up. Adding ending mass incarceration to their own platform would mark a significant step, boldly breaking with their past politics.

So what have the Democrats said about criminal justice?  Recent Democratic platforms haven’t merely been silent; they have actually called for policies creating more imprisonment, and then applauded the result.  Mentions of progressive alternatives are hard to find.

In 1992, Democrats supported alternatives to incarceration, such as “community service and boot camps for first-time offenders.” But four years later the platform went in the opposite direction. It praised mandatory “three-strikes-you’re-out” laws, truth-in-sentencing provisions that limited earned early release, and “$8 billion in new funding to help states build new prison cells.”  At the turn of the century, the party still championed “tougher punishments” as a way to fix “an overburdened justice system that lets thugs off easy,” and applauded federal funding for “new prison cells” as a major success story (a clear nod to the 1994 Crime Bill, which paid states to increase imprisonment).

More recently, in 2008 and 2012, the DNC approved language supporting “local prison-to-work programs” aimed at “making citizens safer and saving the taxpayers money,” and noting the importance of “fight[ing] inequalities in our criminal justice system.” But neither platform made any mention of sentencing reform, or reducing the number of criminal laws, even as the US incarceration rate topped the world and some states reversed course on their “tough-on-crime” policies.

This year’s Democratic presidential candidates have broken with this legacy. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have prominently featured prison reform in their campaigns and vocally noted that the 1994 Crime Bill, which they both supported, went too far.

Yet Democrats still lag behind. Today’s movement to end mass incarceration has largely been led by Republicans. If the federal Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act passes Congress, advocates will have Republican Senators Mike Lee (Utah) and John Cornyn (Texas) to thank for courting support for the bill and hammering out compromises with the party’s most conservative members. At the state level, Republican Governors Rick Perry in Texas and Nathan Deal in Georgia fought for and signed laws that led to sharp reductions in the prison population. In Ohio, Governor John Kasich championed and signed legislation in 2011 to expand the use of treatment in lieu of prison.

In announcing the Republican National Committee resolution to end mass incarceration, RNC member Tom Mechler claimed that “Republicans are the ones that have taken the lead on this.” That’s no idle boast — he’s right. So where are the Democrats?

A few Democrats have stepped up to champion the cause, such as Senators Dick Durbin, Corey Booker, and Patrick Leahy. But the senior party leadership — Senator Harry Reid, Representative Nancy Pelosi, and DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz — have largely been mum. Other influential party voices, including Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer, have done the same. To be sure, Democrats may still be haunted by the ghost of Willie Horton and the fear of being branded as “soft on crime.” And some may believe that stoutly maintaining a belief in “law and order” will secure votes.

But times have changed. Now Democrats can point to Republicans such as Lee, Cornyn, Perry, and Kasich. Even law enforcement supports reform. These conservative voices now give Democrats cover to come out strongly on the issue. And, in the wake of a national protests to reform policing, Clinton and Sanders have energized parts of Democratic electorate — African-American communities and white liberals alike — on the issue. The consensus to reduce unnecessary imprisonment has arrived. But we will never see true reform until Democrats provide a solid left flank, so that compromise lands at the center, instead of to the right.....

Criminal justice reform should be a simple step for a party that believes in progress, equality, and inclusion. It was the Democrats who fought for civil rights in the last century. If the Democrats do not raise their voice, history will record that it was the Republicans who led the civil-rights struggle in this one.

Though I am pleased to see this piece calling out failings of Democratic Party leaders like Senator Harry Reid, Representative Nancy Pelosi, and DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz, this commentary still strikes me as many days too late and many dollars short. First and foremost, where is the needed criticisms of the Clintons and the Obamas, who are and seem likely to remain for some time the four most important Democratic leaders? Regular readers know I lay particular blame on the Clintons not only for consistently moving to the right on criminal justice issues for crass (and racialized) political benefits in the 1990s, but particularly for not being involved in helping to swinging the pendulum back when mass incarceration became an obvious problem in the following decade and Justice Reinvestment movements could have used an extra boost from the mainstream left. But I also blame the Obamas: the Prez (and lawyer and constitutiuonal scholar) certaintly could have and should have invested more time, energy and political capital on an array of "low-hanging" federal sentencing reform opportunities during his first Term; the First Lady (also a lawyer) perhaps could have and should have incorporated discussion of criminal justice reform into her advocacy for healthy families, service members and their families and higher education.

Second, as especially critical right now, this piece (and many others) ought to be aggressively attacking Prez Obama and other Democrats for being resistent to the federal mens rea reform that Republicans want to see included in sentencing reform efforts. I continue to be both annoyed and deeply disappointed that an issue like mens rea reform, which should be a cause championed by true liberals, has become a critical impediment to getting a sound and needed federal sentencing reform bill through Congress. I have long suspected and feared that sentencing reform would not get done this year absent Prez Obama and other Democrats being willing to work toward sound and needed mens rea reform, and yet it does not appear any real efforts are being made by anyone on the D side of the aisle.

And do not get me started on the failure of federal Democratic Leadership to see the extraordinary opportunities that state-level marijuana reforms has created in recent years for remaking the modern federal war-on-drugs narrative.  As long time readers may know, I consider effective federal and state marijuana reforms to be a critically important front in the battle against mass incarceration, and one that should have even more long-term potential and impact than modest federal sentencing reforms discussed in Congress.  But, short-sighted and fixed in their own dated views of political realities, establishment Democrats have now an impressively long record of mistakes and missed opportunities in this arena.  Sigh.

May 31, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

SCOTUS order list inclludes a couple notable criminal appeal summary reversals

The Supreme Court returned from the long weekend with this long order list, which includes a few long per curiam decision in an habeas case from the Ninth Circuit (Johnson v. Lee) and a capital case from Arizona (Lynch v. Arizona). In addition, the Court denied cert in Tucker v. Louisiana, a case in which the constitutionality of the death penalty was directly challened and Justice Breyer (joined by Justice Ginsburg) dissented in an opinion that calls again for taking up this question.

Notably, the Ninth Circuit (and the criminal defendant) is the loser in Lee, whereas the capital defendant prevails in Lynch.  There was not dissent from the ruling in Lee, but Justice Thomas (joined by Jusice Alito) dissented from Lynch.

May 31, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Intriguing capital case tussle between South Carolina and feds in Dylann Roof prosecution

As noted in this prior post, last week federal prosecutors finally decided that they will seek the death penalty for racist mass murderer Dylann Roof.  That decision, as reported in this recent local article, now creates some novel issues in light of South Carolina's parallel capital prosecution plan.  The article, headlined "Dylann Roof prosecution entering ‘uncharted waters’ of legal history," includes these passages:

Authorities will have two chances to see that Dylann Roof meets the same fate as his victims.

But never in modern times have both state and federal prosecutors sought someone’s execution at the same time. How they will manage two death penalty cases could break legal ground and offer some lessons.

“We are in completely uncharted waters,” said Chris Adams of Charleston, an experienced capital defender. “The federal government’s decision (to seek the death penalty) creates many more questions than it does answers.”...

Scheduled for Jan. 17, the state’s trial is on a faster track. Wilson also sent a letter to [U.S. District Judge Richard] Gergel, asking him to set the federal trial later. The judge could finally set a trial date at a June 7 hearing.... The possibilities are daunting. “It just creates logistical chaos,” Adams said. Officials must sort out subpoenas being filed in two different courts, he said. Prosecutors in each case also must give the defense all exculpatory evidence, or information used to fend off a guilty verdict or to mitigate a sentence. If some evidence is missed in the first trial only to be discovered when it’s turned over in the second trial, that might be grounds for an appeal in the first...

State and federal authorities rejected Roof’s offer to plead guilty and serve life in prison. “Now what we’re going to have is ... possibly two very public, very painful trials and unquestionably a decade of appeals,” [DPIC executve director Robert] Dunham said. “The families will have to deal with Dylann Roof getting all the attention.” But Dan Simmons Jr., whose father was slain in the attack, said prosecutors have made him well aware of that. The Virginia resident has attended most hearings in the two courthouses that sit across the street from each other. “It’s been more than overwhelming,” he said. “But it’s not an overnight thing. ... It’s going to open up some wounds. But we will endure.”...

The state ran out of its supply of the fatal drug [used in executions] in 2013. Citing ethics, all major manufacturers have cut off the states, whose stashes soon expired or were seized as illegal imports. And the federal government has been reviewing its injection methods since 2010, effectively halting executions. There is no indication that either government is in a better position to obtain the supplies now, Dunham said. State prisons spokeswoman Stephanie Givens said, “Officials continue to research solutions and alternatives but have been unsuccessful in acquiring lethal injection drugs.” So even if a jury condemns Roof to death, experts said, the 22-year-old could live a long life in prison — unless he voluntarily opts for South Carolina’s alternative execution method: the electric chair.

I cannot at this point resist highlighting that I flagged the possibility of a double capital prosecution in this post about the case back in June 2015.

A few prior related posts:

May 31, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, May 30, 2016

New Vera Institute report reviews trends in state sentencing and corrections

Download (3)The folks at The Vera Institute of Justice's Center on Sentencing and Corrections released last week a terrific report on state sentencing developments under the title "Justice in Review: New Trends in State Sentencing and Corrections 2014-2015." The full 72-page report (with lots of charts) is available at this link; a short summary is available here and includes this text: 

Prompted by dissatisfaction with stubbornly high rates of return among those released from prison, and encouraged by public opinion polls that show a majority of the electorate believes that prison growth has yielded insufficient public safety gains, there is an emerging consensus across the political divide that America’s over-reliance on prison has been too costly and ineffective. Driven by the need to find better solutions, policymakers over the past several years have embraced decades of research and analysis examining what works in corrections to reduce recidivism and improve public safety.

Informed by this research and analysis, 46 states in 2014 and 2015 enacted at least 201 bills, executive orders, and ballot initiatives to reform at least one aspect of their sentencing and corrections systems. These included laws to

  • create or expand opportunities to divert people away from the criminal justice system: States increased the use of alternative case dispositions, such as deferred adjudication programs, which allow people with first-time or low-level charges to avoid entering a guilty plea or ending up with a record of conviction if they serve a crime-free probationary period. States also expanded or strengthened the use of problem-solving courts that channel people with specific treatment needs, such as mental illness or substance abuse issues, into alternative judicial settings that provide intensive supervision in the community and treatment in lieu of prosecution or sentencing. Still other states passed laws that empower arresting officers to divert certain defendants—especially those with an identified mental health need—into treatment instead of detention;

  • reduce prison populations: States enacted laws to reduce or contain prison populations by 1) making certain offenses eligible for community-based sentences; 2) reducing the length and severity of custodial sentences by redefining or reclassifying crimes or repealing mandatory penalties; 3) shortening lengths of stay in prison by expanding opportunities to earn sentence credits, which shave off time in custody and advance parole eligibility; and 4) reducing the influx of people into prison for violations of community supervision by implementing evidence-based practices such as graduated responses to violations; and

  • support people’s successful reentry into the community: To reduce recidivism, states changed their reentry systems to provide better coordination between prisons and community supervision agencies and to increase programming and treatment. In addition, states are supporting family relationships by facilitating family visitation, supporting relationships between incarcerated parents and their children, and ensuring that children of incarcerated people receive care and support. States are also helping people who are justice-involved obtain benefits, state identification, and exercise their voting rights; improving employment prospects by limiting bars on professional licenses and providing certificates of rehabilitation and employability; waiving fines and fees that often create economic obstacles to reintegration; and making it easier for people to expunge prior convictions and more difficult for private entities to disseminate criminal-records data.

May 30, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Making the case for "Why Latinos Should Invest in Sentencing Reform"

Three notable advocates recently penned this notable Huffington Post commentary that has as its headline the quoted portion of this post's title. Here is how the piece starts and ends:

Partisan gridlock has halted many important policies from becoming realities. One of the promising policies, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, is currently stalled in the Senate. If enacted, the legislation will have a colossal effect on Latinxs. Once incarcerated, Latinxs face limited economic opportunity, family trauma, turmoil, and deportation — consequences that do not in any way reflect reasonable punishment for the often minor infractions that occur.

Rita Becerra is one of those Latinxs. Rita, who was a single mother of two children and a new grandmother in 1994, was arrested and sentenced to 27 years behind bars for drug charges stemming from her live-in boyfriend’s involvement in the drug trade. Prior to that, Rita had never even had a traffic ticket. Although Rita had never touched any drugs or delivered them, she was charged with conspiracy with intent to distribute. Rita’s boyfriend was able to reduce his sentence to 9 years because he provided details about criminal activities to the prosecution. Yet, Rita could not plea bargain because the only information she knew of concerned her boyfriend’s illegal enterprises and the prosecution already had that knowledge.

This dilemma, where those most involved with a crime possess the lion’s share of information and can bargain for time off while those who may have little involvement — and thus little knowledge of crimes — receive a full sentence, is a frustratingly common occurrence. Rita’s story is as tragic and unjust as it is commonplace. Women are the fastest growing group of prisoners, boasting an incarceration rate almost double that of men leaving more than one million women behind bars.

Another alarming trend is that Latinxs are unjustly targeted because of policies and practices that perpetuate their involvement in the criminal legal system and immigration system. Consequently, Latinxs are twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites and are over-represented in state prisons in 31 of the 50 U.S. states. They are also overrepresented in the federal system, where Latinxs—who are 17.4 percent of the U.S. population—make up 33.8 percent of the incarcerated population in federal prisons. Indeed, today, 1 in every 6 Latino men and 1 in every 45 Latina women can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. As a result, 1 in 28 Latinx children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent compared to 1 in 57 white children. Research shows that children who grow up with an incarcerated parent are more likely to go to prison themselves, in addition to suffering from a host of long-term effects and disabilities like attention deficits, mental illness, and physical health issues such as obesity, trauma, depression, and anxiety....

Make no mistake: criminal justice reform is a Latinx issue. But more importantly, it is a human rights issue of epic proportions that touches the lives of many people just like Rita. It demands our immediate attention and Congress’ immediate action.

May 30, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, May 28, 2016

"To Save Our Justice System, End Racial Bias in Jury Selection"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times op-ed authored by one of my favorite former bosses, US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit Judge Jon O. Newman. Like all writing by Judge Newman, this piece is astute and sensible, and it provides a sound and simple recommendation forimproving the operation of our modern criminal justice system. Here are excerpts:

The Supreme Court ruled correctly on Monday when it found that Georgia prosecutors in Foster v. Chatman had illegally barred African-Americans from serving as jurors in a death penalty trial. But the decision does not end racial discrimination in jury selection.  The best way to do that is to limit the number of jurors that lawyers can strike for no reason at all to just one or two per side.

Both prosecutors and defense lawyers can exclude any number of prospective jurors for legitimate reasons — if a juror knows the defendant, has formed an opinion about the case or is unlikely to be impartial. But lawyers can also dismiss several more potential jurors simply because they do not want them — without explaining why. In federal felony trials, the prosecutor has six peremptory challenges and the defense usually has 10.  In federal death penalty cases, each side has 20.  State numbers vary.

In the Foster case, which dates from the 1980s, the prosecutors eliminated people simply because of race.  Timothy Foster, a black man, stood accused of killing an elderly white woman when he was a teenager.  The prosecutors worked conscientiously to exclude the potential black jurors; they marked their names with a “B” and highlighted each black juror’s name in green on four different copies of the juror list. Those jurors were ranked against one another in case, one member of the prosecutorial team said, “it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors.”  The plan worked, and an all-white jury sentenced Mr. Foster to death.

This was an egregious case, but not a unique one. Far too often in criminal or death penalty cases that involve a black defendant, prosecutors try to exclude black jurors because they believe it will increase the chances of a conviction. In Houston County, Ala., prosecutors struck 80 percent of qualified black jurors from death penalty cases from 2005 to 2009....

The Advisory Committee on Rules of Criminal Procedure, which is part of the Judicial Conference, the federal court system’s principal policy-making body, should propose sharply reducing the number of jury strikes allowed in federal trials. Several Supreme Court justices have suggested as much. Justice Thurgood Marshall endorsed such a reform in his concurring opinion in the 1986 case Batson v. Kentucky: “The decision today will not end the racial discrimination that peremptories inject into the jury-selection process.  That goal can be accomplished only by eliminating peremptory challenges entirely.” In 2005, Justice Stephen G. Breyer also urged reconsideration of the peremptory challenge system.

Total abolition of peremptory challenges would most likely face vigorous opposition from prosecutors and some defense attorneys. And it’s unlikely to be achieved, either for federal or state criminal trials.  But reducing the number will do significant good.  In 1879, the Supreme Court declared that to single out African-Americans for removal from jury service “is practically a brand upon them affixed by the law, an assertion of their inferiority, and a stimulant to that race prejudice which is an impediment to securing individuals of the race that equal justice which the law aims to secure all others.”  All-white juries will continue to be a blight on the American system of criminal justice until federal and state rule makers significantly reduce the number of peremptory challenges.

Prior recent related posts:

May 28, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Two notable new article examing capital prosecutions of intellectually disabled defendants

Michael Perlin, whose interesting scholarship on mental health criminal always includes an extra-fun Bob Dylan reference in the title, has these two notable new articles on capital prosecutions now available via SSRN:

At the risk of being caught up in an idiot wind, I may wait until after the long weekend to read these pieces in order to avoid getting tangled up in blue.

May 28, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 27, 2016

Split Iowa Supreme Court decides any and every "sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile offender violates article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution"

As noted in prior posts here and here, yesterday brought notable post-Miller juve sentencing decisions from state supreme courts in California and Florida. But today the Iowa Supreme Court has one-upped its colleagues via its post-Miller ruling in Iowa v. Sweet, No. 14–0455 (Iowa May 27, 2016) (available here).  The lengthy majority opinon in Sweet wraps up this way:

In sum, we conclude that sentencing courts should not be required to make speculative up-front decisions on juvenile offenders’ prospects for rehabilitation because they lack adequate predictive information supporting such a decision. The parole board will be better able to discern whether the offender is irreparably corrupt after time has passed, after opportunities for maturation and rehabilitation have been provided, and after a record of success or failure in the rehabilitative process is available. See Seats, 865 N.W.2d at 557 (“Even if the judge sentences the juvenile to life in prison with parole, it does not mean the parole board will release the juvenile from prison.”); see also State v. Andrews, 329 S.W.3d 369, 379 (Mo. 2010) (Wolff, J., dissenting) (noting an offender sentenced to life with parole may nonetheless “spend the rest of his life in prison if the parole board does not determine that he is suitable for parole release”).  Steinberg has poignantly made this very point:

It’s not only adolescents’ immature judgment that demands that we treat them differently when they break the law.  If the plasticity of the adolescent brain makes juveniles more amenable to rehabilitation, this argues against mandatory life sentences that don’t allow courts to consider whether an impulsive or impressionable teenager might grow into a law-abiding adult who can control his impulses and stand up to peer pressure.  Of course, a teenager who kills another person deliberately should be punished — no one is arguing otherwise.  But should he be incarcerated for the rest of his life, with no chance to prove that he has matured?

Steinberg at 188. Thus, juvenile offenders’ prospects for rehabilitation augur forcefully against speculative, up-front determinations of opportunities for parole and leads inexorably to the categorical elimination of life-without-the-possibility-of-parole sentences for juvenile offenders.

For the above reasons, we adopt a categorical rule that juvenile offenders may not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole under article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. As a result, the sentence of the district court in this case is vacated and the matter remanded to the district court for resentencing.

Nothing in this opinion, of course, suggests that a juvenile offender is entitled to parole.  The State is not required to make such a guarantee, and those who over time show irredeemable corruption will no doubt spend their lives in prison.  The determination of irredeemable corruption, however, must be made when the information is available to make that determination and not at a time when the juvenile character is a work in progress.

A lengthy dissent authored by Justice Mansfield gets started this way:

Recognizing that our legislature and our trial courts have the primary role in determining criminal sentences, I would affirm the life-without-parole (LWOP) sentence for this seventeen year old who murdered his grandparents who had raised him.

Today, the court breaks new ground in finding that the Iowa Constitution categorically forbids such sentences.  As I will explain below, I believe the justification offered by the majority for its ruling is insufficient.  More is needed before we strike down a legislatively authorized sentence — especially one the general assembly reauthorized by large majorities in both houses just last year.

May 27, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ohio legislature passes medical marijuana reform and other highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Among this past week's reform highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform is the big local news for me as the Ohio General Assembly finally finalized a medical marijuana bill to send to Gov John Kasich.  But, as these links reveal, there were notable stories emerging from other jurisdictions as well:

May 27, 2016 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Killing Dylann Roof: A year after Obama saluted the families for their spirit of forgiveness, his administration seeks the death penalty for the Charleston shooter."

The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing Atlantic commentary authored by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I urge everyone, both those for and against capital punishment, to read he entire piece. Here are excerpts:

On Tuesday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced she would seek the death penalty for Dylann Roof. It has not been a year since Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and murdered nine black people as they worshipped.  Roof justified this act of terrorism in chillingly familiar language — “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”  The public display of forgiveness offered to Roof by the families of the victims elicited bipartisan praise from across the country.  The president saluted the families for “an expression of faith that is unimaginable but that reflects the goodness of the American people.” How strange it is to see that same administration, and these good people, who once saluted the forgiveness of Roof, presently endorse his killing....

There are defensible reasons why the American state — or any state — would find [the nonviolent Martin Luther] King’s ethic hard to live up to. States are violent. The very establishment of government, the attempt to safeguard a group of people deemed citizens or subjects, is always violent.  In America, a president is the commander in chief.  Anyone who voted for Obama necessarily voted for violence.  Furthermore, there is indisputable evidence that violence sometimes works.  The greatest affirmation of civil rights in American history — emancipation — was accomplished at gun-point.

But one has to be careful here not to fall into the trap of lionizing killing, of pride in the act of destroying people even for just ends.  Moreover, even if nonviolence isn’t always the answer, King reminds us to work for a world where it is. Part of that work is recognizing when our government can credibly endorse King’s example.  Sparing the life of Dylann Roof would be such an instance — one more credible than the usual sanctimonious homilies delivered in his name.  If the families of Roof's victims can find the grace of forgiveness within themselves; if the president can praise them for it; if the public can be awed by it — then why can't the Department of Justice act in the spirit of that grace and resist the impulse to kill?

Perhaps because some part of us believes in nonviolence not as an ideal worth striving for, but as a fairy tale passed on to the politically weak.  The past two years have seen countless invocations of nonviolence to shame unruly protestors into order. Such invocations are rarely made to shame police officers who choke men to death over cigarettes and are sent back out onto the beat.  And the same political officials will stand up next January and praise King even as they act contrary to his words.  “Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology,” wrote King, “and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.”

A few prior related posts:

May 27, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Split Florida Supreme Court finds technical eligibility for parole insufficient to comply with Miller Eighth Amendment requirements

The Florida Supreme Court today handed down a notable new opinion applying Miller in a case involving a juvenile offender who got a life sentence for a murder back in 1990.  Here is how the opinion in Atwell v. Florida, No. SC14-193 (Fla. May 26, 2016) (available here), gets started:

Angelo Atwell was sixteen years old when, in August 1990, he committed armed robbery and first-degree murder. Under the statute then in effect, Atwell was sentenced for the first-degree murder to a mandatory term of life imprisonment, with the possibility of parole after twenty-five years, and was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the armed robbery.

As mandated by the existing statutory scheme, Florida’s parole process requires “primary weight” to be given to the “seriousness of the offender’s present offense and the offender’s past criminal record.” See § 947.002, Fla. Stat. (2015). Under this statutory scheme, twenty-five years after Atwell was sentenced, the Commission on Offender Review conducted a parole hearing and set Atwell’s presumptive parole release date, which is the earliest date he may be released from prison as determined by objective parole guidelines, for the year 2130—one hundred and forty years after the crime and far exceeding Atwell’s life expectancy. Thus, while technically Atwell is parole-eligible, it is a virtual certainty that Atwell will spend the rest of his life in prison.

The issue we consider is whether Atwell’s sentence for first-degree murder is constitutional, in light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2469 (2012), which held that the Eighth Amendment “forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.” We conclude that Florida’s existing parole system, as set forth by statute, does not provide for individualized consideration of Atwell’s juvenile status at the time of the murder, as required by Miller, and that his sentence, which is virtually indistinguishable from a sentence of life without parole, is therefore unconstitutional. 

May 26, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

This breaking news just in: the Connecticut death penalty is still dead

Download (2)I am demonstrating my age (and my affinity for Saturday Night Live) when I thought of one of the first famous SNL catch-phrases upon seeing this new local headline from Connecticut: "State Supreme Court Upholds Abolishment Of Death Penalty, Including For Death-Row Inmates."  Here are the serious details of a serious decision that prompted my not-so-serious reaction:

The Connecticut Supreme Court has upheld its decision to abolish the state's death penalty, including for inmates on death row. The 5-2 ruling, released Thursday, upholds the justices 4-3 decision last August that the death penalty was unconstitutional for all — including 11 convicts on Connecticut's death row — following the legislature's abolition three years ago of capital punishment in Connecticut. Lawmakers made the law prospective, meaning it applied only to new cases and kept in place the death sentences already imposed on those facing execution before the bill was passed.

Attorneys for those on death row challenged the law, saying it violated the condemned inmates' constitutional rights. The ruling last August came in the case of Eduardo Santiago, who had faced the death penalty for the December 2000 killing of Joseph Niwinski in West Hartford. Santiago has been resentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.  In the August ruling, the justices in the majority wrote that executing an inmate "would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment" and that the death penalty "no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency."

Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers, who joined with Justice Carmen E. Espinosa and Justice Peter T. Zarella in the August dissents, voted this time with the majority, saying she felt bound to the doctrine of "stare decisis," a Latin term meaning "stand by things decided."

"Just as my personal beliefs cannot drive my decision-making, I feel bound by the doctrine of stare decisis in this case for one simple reason — my respect for the rule of law," Rogers wrote. "To reverse an important constitutional issue within a period of less than one year solely because of a change in justices on the panel that is charged with deciding the issue, in my opinion, would raise legitimate concerns by the people we serve about the court's integrity and the rule of law in the state of Connecticut."

Rogers said, "stability in the law and respect for the decisions of the court as an institution, rather than a collection of individuals, in and of themselves, are of critically important value, especially on an issue of such great public significance as the constitutionality of the death penalty."

In separate dissents, Zarella and Espinosa rejected the assertion that respect for precedent mandated Thursday's ruling, saying that doctrine should never be used to enshrine a flawed decision. And they pointedly noted that Rogers herself had blasted the original Santiago decision as "a house of cards, falling under the slightest breath of scrutiny." They also criticized Justice Richard A. Robinson, who came on the court after the Santiago decision and voted with the majority, along with justices Richard N. Palmer, Dennis G. Eveleigh and Andrew J. McDonald. Like Rogers, Robinson cited the importance of respecting precedent.

"I cannot fathom how Chief Justice Rogers and Justice Robinson believe they respect the rule of law by supporting a decision that is completely devoid of any legal basis or believe it is more important to spare this court of the purported embarrassment than to correct demonstrable constitutional error," Zarella wrote....

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, in a statement released Thursday afternoon, said the ruling "reaffirms what the court has already said: those currently serving on death row will serve the rest of their life in prison with no possibility of ever obtaining freedom."  Malloy noted that Connecticut in the last half century has executed only two inmates, both of whom volunteered for death....

Chief State's Attorney Kevin T. Kane said his office respects the decision and would "move forward" to re-sentence the individuals currently on death row to a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release.  "The Division of Criminal Justice and I extend our deepest sympathy and condolences to the victims of these crimes and to their families," Kane said in a statement.  "I also wish to express my appreciation to the dedicated professionals in the Division of Criminal Justice who have devoted so much of themselves throughout this process."

All the opinions in this new case can be found right now at this Connecticut Supreme Court link.

May 26, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Creating Meaningful Opportunities for Release: Graham, Miller and California's Youth Offender Parole Hearings"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Beth Caldwell now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This article presents findings from a study on the implementation of California’s new Youth Offender Parole Hearing law, which aims to provide juvenile offenders with meaningful opportunities to obtain release from adult prison.  It contributes to the debate surrounding how to apply the “meaningful opportunity to obtain release” standard that the Supreme Court deliberately left open to interpretation in Graham v. Florida and, to some extent, in Miller v. Alabama. The Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Montgomery v. Louisiana reinforces the idea that juveniles who demonstrate that they are capable of change are entitled to release.

The data contained in this Article was obtained by reviewing the transcripts of the first 107 Youth Offender Parole Hearings; this sample represents all but two of the Youth Offender Parole Hearings that took place between January 2014 and June 2014.  In the first six months of the law’s implementation, juvenile offenders were found suitable for parole at younger ages than the general population.  Further, youth offenders appeared to have a more realistic chance of being released under the new law. This reform is, at the very least, an important step towards offering juvenile offenders more meaningful opportunities to earn their release from prison.  At the same time, it does not go far enough.  After discussing some limitations of the law, this Article concludes by recommending guidelines that would provide youth offenders more meaningful opportunities for release in parole hearings. 

May 26, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Making my way to DC for U.S. Chamber/NACDL Symposium: "The Enforcement Maze: Over-Criminalizing American Enterprise"

ILR. NACDL Banner-HHighlighting the many ironies of modern travel, this morning I got to the airport extra early for a flight to DCA because of all the talk about TSA under-staffing and long security lines. But after breezing through securing in a matter of minutes, I am now stuck in the CMH terminal delayed hours awaiting a working plane to ferry me to our nation's capital to participate in a symposium on overcriminalization. I am bummed about the delay because I was looking forward to hearing the morning panels at this inside-the-Beltway event to which I am heading: The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) Law & Policy Symposium on "The Enforcement Maze: Over-Criminalizing American Enterprise."

Undaunted, I remain upbeat because I am cautiously optimistic I will still make it to DC in time to hear fellow lawprof Lucian Dervan present a "TED Talk-inspired" presentation on "The Symbiotic Relationship Between Overcriminalization and Plea Bargaining." I am also looking forward to an afternoon of highlights at this event that include a luncheon keynote by David Ogden, former Deputy Attorney General of the United States, as well as closing remarks by Senator Orrin Hatch.

For those revved up by these topics, here is the description of my afternoon panel:

The Public Policy Consequences and the Road to Recovery: This panel will address the erosion of respect for criminal law, costs incurred by taxpayers, over-incarceration, and the squashing of business ingenuity and growth, and will explore solutions to these problems.

I expect to talk briefly about the importance of mens rea considerations at the sentencing of persons convicted of business-related crimes (and I may do a future post or two on this topic). But, in light of the panel's description, I would welcome reader comments on what I should make sure gets covered my someone on my panel.

May 26, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Federal judge justifies below-guideline sentence of probation for drug importer because of "statutory and regulatory collateral consequences she will face as a convicted felon"

As reported in this new New York Times piece, a "federal judge in Brooklyn, in an extraordinary opinion that calls for courts to pay closer attention to the impact of felony convictions on people’s lives, sentenced a young woman in a drug case to probation rather than prison, saying on Wednesday that the collateral consequences she would face as a felon were punishment enough." Here is more about the opinon:

The judge, Frederic Block of Federal District Court, said that the broad range of such collateral consequences served no “useful function other than to further punish criminal defendants after they have completed their court-imposed sentences.” The judge noted that there were nearly 50,000 federal and state statutes and regulations that impose penalties, disabilities or disadvantages on convicted felons.

Such consequences — the denial of government benefits, ineligibility for public housing, suspension of student loans, revocation or suspension of driver’s licenses — can have devastating effects, he wrote, adding that they may also be “particularly disruptive to an ex-convict’s efforts at rehabilitation and reintegration into society.”

The issue of collateral consequences and sentencing has been considered by other courts, but Judge Block’s 42-page opinion appears to be one of the most detailed examinations yet, combined with his call for reform. He noted that the inability to obtain housing and employment stemming from a conviction often results in “further disastrous consequences, such as losing child custody or going homeless,” and leads to many ex-convicts “becoming recidivists and restarting the criminal cycle.”

The judge’s ruling does not create a binding legal precedent for other courts, but is likely to further contribute to the national debate about the criminal justice system. Gabriel J. Chin, a professor at the University of California Davis School of Law, called the opinion “groundbreaking.”

“This is by some distance the most careful and thorough judicial examination” of collateral consequences in sentencing, said Professor Chin, who has written extensively on the subject and whose work the judge cited in the opinion. “It’s going to generate debate on a critical issue in the criminal justice system — the ability of people convicted of crimes to get on with their lives,” he said.

The sentencing opinion was issued in the case of Chevelle Nesbeth, who was arrested last year at Kennedy International Airport after a search of her luggage turned up 600 grams of cocaine, court records show. A jury, rejecting her claim that she had been given the suitcases by friends and was unaware that they contained drugs, convicted her of importation of cocaine and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, the judge wrote. She faced a sentence within 33 to 41 months under the federal advisory guidelines.

But in a hearing on Tuesday, Judge Block sentenced Ms. Nesbeth to one year of probation, six months of home confinement and 100 hours of community service.

Judge Block's full 42-page opinion in US v. Nesbeth, No. 15-cr-18 (E.D.N.Y May 24, 2016), can be downloaded below. Here are a few passages from its introduction:

Chevelle Nesbeth was convicted by a jury of importation of cocaine and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Her advisory guidelines sentencing range was 33-41 months. Nonetheless, I rendered a non-incarceratory sentence today in part because of a number of statutory and regulatory collateral consequences she will face as a convicted felon. I have incorporated those consequences in the balancing of the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors in imposing a one-year probationary sentence.

I am writing this opinion because from my research and ex:erience over two decades as a district judge, sufficient attention has not been paid at sentencing by me and lawyers - both prosecutors and defense counsel - as well as by the Probation Department in rendering its pre-sentence reports, to the collateral consequences facing a convicted defendant.' And I believe that judges should consider such consequences in rendering a lawful sentence.

There is a broad range of collateral consequences that serve no useful function other than to further punish criminal defendants after they have completed their court-imposed sentences. Many - under both federal and state law - attach automatically...

Because of the significance which I attach to the need of the criminal justice system to embrace collateral consequences as a sentencing issue, I write extensively, addressing in tum: (I) The History of Collateral Consequences; (II) The Depth and Breadth of Post-Conviction Statutory and Regulatory Collateral Consequences; (III) The Governing Caselaw; (IV) Ms. Nesbeth's Collateral Consequences and the Balancing of all§ 3553(a) Factors; (V) The Shaping of the Sentence; and (VI) The Responsibilities of Counsel and the Probation Department.

Download X1x43 Nesbeth opinion

May 25, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

"Many serving sentences for marijuana offenses deserve clemency"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent San Francisco Chronicle commentary authored by Alex Contreras, a former federal inmate serving a 40-year sentence for drug and gun charges who received clemency from President Obama in December 2015.  Here is the text:

More than 10,000 clemency applicants wake up every day in a federal prison, awaiting an answer from President Obama on whether their lengthy prison sentence will come to an end. Most of them will be crushed when they are eventually denied.  There are a few, however, who will realize the unlikely and overwhelming joy of finally being released. I was one of those rare few whose name was on the list of Obama’s recent clemency grants.  And while I was excited to finally be going home — and extremely grateful to the president — I was also perplexed by those who weren’t on the list.

In speaking about criminal justice reform, Obama has highlighted the injustice of incarcerating marijuana offenders for “long stretches,” and has described marijuana as being “less harmful than alcohol” and a “vice,” not unlike cigarette smoking. He also instructed his Justice Department to not prosecute medical or recreational marijuana sellers who are operating under state law.  But his pool of clemency recipients does not reflect these views.

Out of the 306 clemency grants, less than 3 percent were marijuana offenders, and not one of them was a medical marijuana provider, despite being the most deserving given that they were following state law and the Obama administration is no longer prosecuting them. Some of them are even serving decades in prison.

One such inmate is Ricardo Montes, a Latino serving a harsh mandatory 20-year sentence for operating a medical marijuana dispensary in Modesto under California law.  Montes and his co-defendant received the longest sentences ever doled out to any medical marijuana provider, because — during the aggressive George W. Bush administration — they were charged under a fearsome mandatory minimum statue designed for drug kingpins and dangerous cartels.

Individuals like Montes are even more deserving of clemency than I was.  Yet I fear that men such as Montes will be left to serve the remainder of their lengthy prison terms, while others reap the rewards of the change in the legal landscape of our nation’s marijuana policies. I hope that Obama’s remaining clemency grants will reflect his sensible views regarding marijuana, ensuring that our criminal justice system “keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all.”

May 25, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Making a friendly pitch for SCOTUS to consider constitutional limits on extreme judicial sentencing increase based on uncharged homicide

Regular readers know that I have long been troubled by significant sentence increases by judges based on so-called acquitted conduct, and that I have filed a number of federal appellate briefs articulating my concerns. Building on some of that prior work, I recently had a chance to work on an amicus brief in support of certiorari in Hebert v. US, a case out of the Fifth Circuit involving an extreme sentence increase based on uncharged conduct. The full amicus (which the fine folks at the Jones Day in DC made so fine) can be downloaded below, and here are excerpts from its start providing context and key arguments:

It is difficult to imagine a starker violation of the Sixth Amendment and due process than what transpired below. Mr. Hebert pleaded guilty to a $16,000 fraud that carried a guidelines range topping out at 5 years.  After persuading Mr. Hebert to admit responsibility for his fraud and accept punishment for that crime, the Government ambushed him at sentencing by asserting that he had committed an intentional murder along with the fraud to which he had confessed. The Government then asked the district court to find it was more likely than not that Mr. Hebert committed this un-charged, non-admitted, never-convicted, non-federal crime. Then, on the basis of that judicial determination, the district court gave Mr. Hebert a 92-year sentence — a sentence the Government has conceded and the Fifth Circuit recognized “would have been substantively unreasonable under the post-Booker sentencing regime absent a judicial finding of murder,” Pet.App.22a — again, a crime with which Mr. Hebert has never even been charged.

Because Mr. Hebert has never been charged with — much less convicted of — murder, he remains entirely innocent of that crime. If the Government wishes to convict Mr. Hebert of murder, it is welcome to try.  But what it cannot do is use Mr. Hebert’s confession to lesser crimes as the springboard for de facto convicting him of a far more serious crime in a judicial proceeding with no jury, the civil standard of proof, and none of the criminal justice system’s fundamental rules and procedures....

There are at least two constitutional provisions that, under this Court’s well-established jurisprudence, forbid this inverted regime.  First, this Court has made clear that a criminal defendant has a Sixth Amendment “right to have a jury find the facts behind his punishment.” Hurst v. Florida, 136 S. Ct. 616, 621 (2016).  That right reflects the vital role of the jury as the “circuitbreaker in the State’s machinery of justice” — a role that cannot be “relegated to making a determination that the defendant at some point did something wrong [as] a mere preliminary to a judicial inquisition into the facts of the crime the State actually seeks to punish.” Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 306–07 (2004).  The Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial is a constitutional protection of “surpassing importance,” Apprendi, 530 U.S. at 476, yet the decision below makes a mockery of it....

Second, this Court has long recognized that due process forbids grossly unfair procedures when a person’s liberty is at stake. Specifically, this Court has indicated that (1) judges are sometimes limited from imposing distinct new punishments based on “a new finding of fact that was not an ingredient of the offense charged,” Specht v. Patterson, 386 U.S. 605, 608 (1967) (citation omitted); (2) the “safeguards of due process” in criminal cases are “concerned with substance rather than [any] kind of formalism,” Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, 698–99 (1975); and (3) constitutional concerns are raised whenever sentencing findings become “a tail which wags the dog of the substantive offense,” or when the government restructures criminal prosecutions “to ‘evade’ the commands” of the Constitution. McMillan v. Pennsylvania, 477 U.S. 79, 88–89 (1986).

The simple principle that unifies these decisions is fatal to the legal rule embraced below: Due process forbids prosecutors from manipulating the criminal justice system to evade its core protections.  Applied here, that principle barred prosecutors from waylaying Mr. Hebert at sentencing with allegations of a far more serious crime for which he has never been indicted or convicted — allegations that depend, moreover, on evidence which the prosecutors were apparently unwilling to subject to the crucible of a criminal trial or test against the burden of proof they must carry there.  Due process demands more.

Download Berman Amicus in Support of Cert in Hebert

May 25, 2016 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

DOJ Inspector General report details (impressively?) rare cases of untimely release of federal prisoners

This New York Times article about a new DOJ report carries a headline that at first led me to wonder what is heck is going on with the federal Bureau of Prisons: "Thousands Held in Federal Prisons for Too Long, Report Finds."  But then, upon reading quickly the executive summary of the DOJ Inspector General's report reference in the headline, I am actually impressed with how well BOP seems to be doing a key part of its job. This full DOJ Report is titled "Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Untimely Releases of Inmates," and here is its first two paragraphs:

Following news reports that the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had confined an inmate for 13 months past his correct release date, the Department of Justice (Department) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) initiated an examination of the BOP’s process for ensuring federal inmates are released on their correct release dates and the incidences of releases before or after the correct release date due to staff error between 2009 and 2014.  We found that of the 461,966 inmate releases between 2009 and 2014, the BOP categorized 157 as untimely due to staff error.  We also learned that the BOP classifies a far greater number — 4,183 — as untimely for other reasons.

According to the BOP, the vast majority of non-staff error “untimely” releases were due to situations that are beyond its control, such as amended sentences that result in shorter sentences than the time an inmate had already served. Also, data and information we reviewed indicates that other entities inside and outside the Department may sometimes contribute to untimely releases.  Although BOP officials told us that it was highly unlikely that staff error on the part of a Department entity contributed to any of the 4,183 cases, they could not rule out the possibility and we found that the BOP does not always have complete information about the circumstances of untimely releases to which other entities contribute.  We therefore concluded that the Department should work with all relevant entities, both within and outside the Department, to review the full range of possible reasons for untimely releases and how to address those that are in any way preventable.

While I know lots of folks have lots of sound reasons to criticize BOP, I have a very hard time knocking the agency too much for staff efforts which impacted only roughly 1 out of every 3000 releases.  Of course, as the DOJ report explains, every reasonable effort should be made to avoid BOP staff errors leading to untimely releases.  But I think we should general celevrate any government agency with a 99.93% accuracy rate in one of its core responsibilities.

May 25, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Federal prosecutors (FINALLY!) decide to pursue death penalty for Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof

Almost a year after Dylann Roof committed one of the worst mass murder hate crimes in modern US history, federal prosecutors have offically decided to make his federal prosecution a capital one.  Here are excerpts from this CNN report about this (too-long-in-development) decision:

Federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty for Dylann Roof, who is accused of killing nine people at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, in July 2015.

Roof, who is white, is charged with 33 federal offenses, including hate crime charges for allegedly targeting his victims on the basis of their race and religion. A judge entered a not guilty plea on his behalf in July 2015. "The nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said.

Roof, 22, is accused of shooting participants of a Bible study class at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, known as Mother Emanuel, in downtown Charleston on June 17, 2015. Among the victims was the church's pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who also was a state senator.

South Carolina has charged Roof with murder. Charleston County Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said last year that she will seek the death penalty in the state's case, which is scheduled to go to trial in January.

There is no date yet for his federal trial. Attempts to reach Roof's attorneys for comment were not immediately successful.

Roof, a high school dropout not known for violence, was captured in North Carolina the day after the shootings. He confessed in interviews with the Charleston police and FBI, two law enforcement officials told CNN. He also told investigators he wanted to start a race war, one of those officials said.

Three federal inmates have been executed in the United States since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988 after a 16-year moratorium. They were Timothy McVeigh, Juan Raul Garza and Louis Jones. Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is one of the most recent people to be sentenced to death by a federal judge. There are about 60 people on federal death row.

I fully share the Attorney General's view that the "nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision," and that is why I have been critical in prior posts about it taking so long to make this decision. A well-functioning criminal justice system surely ought to be able to prosecute and sentence a mass murderer in the span of a year in a case like this one in which there is no doubt about guilt. But, remarkably, it seems it now takes a year just to decide whether the death penalty should be even sought. Sigh.

A few prior related posts:

May 24, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Reviewing the state and future of lethal injection as execution method

Lincoln Caplan has this New Yorker piece headlined "The End Of The Open Market For Lethal-Injection Drugs," which provides a useful primer on where matters stand regarding lethal injection as a means carrying out death sentences on condemned murderers. Here are excerpts from the start, middle and end of the lengty piece:

Last week, the global drug company Pfizer announced sweeping new restrictions on the distribution of seven of its products, preventing them from being used to carry out the death penalty. Pfizer came into possession of those products, which include sedatives, paralytics, a pain medication, and a drug used to prevent or treat low levels of potassium in the blood, when it acquired the pharmaceutical company Hospira, in September.  Its decision is an enormously significant one for the death penalty in the United States, and ends a long and chaotic chapter in which governments, drug companies, and activists worldwide have gradually closed the open market for the federally approved drugs that have been used for lethal injections.

Twenty of the thirty-one states with the death penalty on the books now have a formal or informal moratorium on executions, in almost all cases because they have been unable to obtain approved drugs to use in lethal injections. In 2015, there were twenty-eight executions in the U.S., the lowest number since 1994.  This year, there have been fourteen executions so far — six in Texas, five in Georgia, and one each in Alabama, Florida, and Missouri. Prisons in those states can’t buy drugs for lethal injections from American manufacturers.  They can’t import drugs from foreign manufacturers — which, in any case, will not supply them.  In short, their options are severely restricted, which will almost certainly lead to more botched executions.

Texas, Georgia, and Missouri are among the small number of states that have carried out executions using drugs made by compounding pharmacies, which combine, mix, or alter drugs, typically to meet the need of an individual patient — say, by removing an ingredient to which a patient is allergic.  These pharmacies are not required to register with the F.D.A., and the F.D.A. does not approve their products.  They must be licensed by the pharmacy board in the state where they operate, but state oversight has often been scandalously lax.  In February, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said he wants the state to open its own compounding pharmacy, in order to guarantee a supply of the drugs that the state needs for lethal injections. (This despite the fact that no department of corrections could meet a basic requirement for obtaining a drug made by a compounding pharmacy: a medical prescription for an individual patient.)

Oklahoma’s turn toward compounding pharmacies is part of the fallout from Glossip v. Gross, one of the most important death-penalty cases decided by the Supreme Court in the past generation....

The campaign to halt lethal injections as a mode of capital punishment by restricting access to the lethal drugs has not yet ended the death penalty.  But it may very well have accelerated the end game that Breyer invoked in his Glossip dissent.  In the five years between Hospira’s decision to stop making sodium thiopental and Pfizer’s decision to stop supplying drugs for executions, the unsuccessful effort, by one state after another, to carry out lethal injections in a manner that meets standards of fairness and reliability has made it increasingly clear that states cannot constitutionally perform these types of executions.  If they can’t do that, how can the Supreme Court continue to permit capital punishment under the Constitution?  The Court is unlikely to take on an issue this fundamental when it is at the mercy of a polarized Senate and self-important Republican leaders who refuse to confirm the President’s nominee for the Court’s ninth Justice.  But the churn that the campaign has quickened will inevitably give rise to a legal controversy that will force the Justices to face just such a question.

Interestingly, I have since Glossip was decided that the case would prove to be "one of the most important death-penalty cases decided by the Supreme Court in the past generation" only if states viewed the ruling as presenting a unique and new opportunity to move away from lethal injection as an execution method in light of all the drug shortages. Significantly, the Supreme Court has never formally declared any particular execution method unconstitutional, and I thought the Glossip ruling might prompt a number of jurisdictions to see a chance to seriously move forward with a return to firing squads or experimentations with nitrogen gas. But absent any such developments (and absent Justice Breyer finding thre more Justices to join his effort to judicially abolish capital punishment in the US), I have a hard time seeing Glossip as nearly as big practical deal as other recent SCOTUS cases placing limits on capital sentences and procedures like Kennedy and Hurst.

May 24, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Dynamic commentary on SCOTUS work in Foster and related Monday news

A number of bright folks have already had some dynamic takes the Supreme Court's rulings yesterday in the Georgia capital case, Foster v. Chapman.  Organized alphabetically by location of the commentary, here are a few early takes that caught my eye:

The pieces by Epps and Otis are extra-notable because they link into their discussions the SCOTUS Miller remands and the not guilty verdict in a Freddy Gray prosecution, respectively.

UPDATE Scott Greenfield made via Twitter the excellent point that the list above included only "commentaries on Foster from people who don't pick juries & nothing from anyone who does." So, with Scott's help, I am here rounding out my round-up of Foster takes:

May 24, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Virginia Republicans go directly to state Supreme Court to try to undo Gov's clemency order restoring vote to former felons

As first reported in this post last month, Gov Terry McAuliffe of Virginia used his executive clemency powers to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 former felons who had been permanently disenfranchised under Virginia's state election laws.  Now, as reported in this Washington Post piece, political opponents are going to court to try to undo this effort to allow more people to participate in democracy.  Here are the details:

Leaders of Virginia’s House and Senate went to the state’s highest court Monday in a bid to reverse Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s sweeping order to restore voting rights to 206,000 felons. Skipping lower courts, they filed a complaint with the Supreme Court of Virginia, contending that McAuliffe (D) exceeded his authority in April when he restored voting rights to felons en masse instead of individually.

The lawsuit — bankrolled by private donors — presents a complex constitutional question with the urgency of presidential election-year politics. Republicans are seeking an expedited review so that reinstated ex-cons who have registered to vote can be stripped from the rolls before November.

Virginia governors have restored felons’ voting rights, but none with anything close to McAuliffe’s scale and speed. “From Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson to Tim Kaine and Bob McDonnell, every Governor of Virginia has understood the clemency power to authorize the Governor to grant clemency on an individualized basis only,” said the lawsuit, filed on behalf of House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) and four other Virginia voters....

The governor says that his move helps former convicts to fully reenter society. Republicans call it a favor to Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, McAuliffe’s close friend and political ally, who could benefit from higher numbers of minority voters in the crucial swing state.

McAuliffe blasted the lawsuit, suggesting that Republicans were trying to hold onto a remnant of the Jim Crow era, since African Americans have been disproportionately affected by felon disenfranchisement. One in four African Americans in Virginia had been banned from voting because of laws restricting the rights of those with convictions.

“Today Republicans filed a lawsuit to preserve a policy of disenfranchisement that has been used intentionally to suppress the voices of qualified voters, particularly African Americans, for more than a century,” McAuliffe said in a written statement. “These individuals have served their time and are now living, raising families and paying taxes in our communities — this suit is an effort to continue to treat them as second-class citizens.”...

The lawsuit, filed by Charles J. Cooper, who ran the Office of Legal Counsel under President Ronald Reagan, pushed back against the claim that felon disenfranchisement was rooted in racism. “Governor McAuliffe has falsely suggested that Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement provision was first introduced into the Constitution after the Civil War for the purpose of disenfranchising African-Americans,” the lawsuit says. “But Virginia has prohibited felons from voting since at least 1830 — decades before African-Americans could vote.”...

McAuliffe’s predecessor, Republican Robert F. McDonnell, simplified and sped up the application process for nonviolent offenders. When he was governor, Democrat Timothy M. Kaine, now a U.S. senator, considered a broader action but opted against it on the advice of his senior counsel, Mark Rubin. “A blanket order restoring the voting rights of everyone would be a rewrite of the law rather than a contemplated use of the executive clemency powers,” Rubin wrote in 2010. “And, the notion that the Constitution of the Commonwealth could be rewritten via executive order is troubling.”

McAuliffe’s order also allows ex-felons to serve on juries, run for public office and apply for restoration of their gun rights. It applies to all ex-felons, including those guilty of violent offenses such as murder and rape — a point emphasized by Republicans. The lawsuit notes that attorneys for a man accused of killing a state police trooper in Dinwiddie County are seeking to have felons whose civil rights were restored added to the pool of eligible jurors for his trial.

The McAuliffe administration notes that felons would still need a judge’s approval before winning back their gun rights and would still be vetted by the jury selection process before being added to such a panel. McAuliffe said that nearly 80 percent of those affected by his order were convicted of nonviolent offenses. Still, Republicans say, that means McAuliffe restored rights to 40,000 violent felons.

Prior related posts:

May 24, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, May 23, 2016

"An Experimental Study of the Effectiveness of Certificates of Recovery as Collateral Consequence Relief Mechanisms"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available via SSRN authored by Peter Leasure and Tia Stevens Andersen. Here is the abstract:

Securing stable, quality employment is one of the most robust predictors of desistance from offending. Yet, obtaining gainful employment is difficult for ex-offenders due to the stigma of a criminal record. In recognition of employment-related barriers to re-entry, some state legislatures have created certificates of recovery/relief, which lift occupational licensing restrictions, limit employer liability for negligent hiring claims, and aim to ensure employment decisions about certificate-holders are made on a case-by-case basis.

The present study presents the results of the first empirical test of the effectiveness of such certificates. Using an experimental correspondence design, fictitious applicants applied to entry-level jobs advertised in the Columbus metropolitan area using fabricated resumes with identical names, educational backgrounds, employment experience, and skills. Because the only differences between the resumes were the type of criminal record and the presence of a Certificate of Qualification for Employment (CQE), the results isolate the specific impacts of criminal records and certificates on employment opportunities. Results indicate that, for job seekers with a one-year-old felony drug conviction, having a certificate of recovery increases the likelihood of receiving an interview invitation or job offer more than threefold. Importantly, certificate-holders and their counterparts with clean criminal backgrounds were equally likely to receive an interview invitation or job offer. These promising preliminary results suggest certificates of recovery/relief may be an effective avenue for lessening the stigma of a criminal record for ex-offenders seeking employment.

May 23, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

SCOTUS has "firm conviction" strikes in Georgia capital case were "motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent"

The Supreme Court's one criminal justice ruling today comes in Foster v. Chatman, 14-8349 (S. Ct. May 23, 2016) (available here), a capital case out of Georgia involving a Batson claim. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion for the Court, which garnered six votes, and its ruling is reasonably summarized via these passages: 

As we explained in Miller-El v. Dretke, “[i]f a prosecutor’s proffered reason for striking a black panelist applies just as well to an otherwise-similar nonblack [panelist] who is permitted to serve, that is evidence tending to prove purposeful discrimination.” 545 U. S. 231, 241 (2005). With respect to both Garrett and Hood, such evidence is compelling. But that is not all. There are also the shifting explanations, the misrepresentations of the record, and the persistent focus on race in the prosecution’s file. Considering all of the circumstantial evidence that “bear[s] upon the issue of racial animosity,” we are left with the firm conviction that the strikes of Garrett and Hood were “motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.” Snyder, 552 U. S., at 478, 485....

The contents of the prosecution’s file, however, plainly belie the State’s claim that it exercised its strikes in a “color-blind” manner. App. 41, 60 (pretrial hearing). The sheer number of references to race in that file is arresting....

The State’s new argument today does not dissuade us from the conclusion that its prosecutors were motivated in substantial part by race when they struck Garrett and Hood from the jury 30 years ago. Two peremptory strikes on the basis of race are two more than the Constitution allows.

Justice Alito has an interesting corcurrence about procedures that I will likely discuss in another post. Justice Thomas, in notable contrast, dissents on the merits, and his dissent starts this way:

Thirty years ago, Timothy Foster confessed to murdering Queen Madge White after sexually assaulting her with a bottle of salad dressing. In the decades since, Foster has sought to vacate his conviction and death sentence on the ground that prosecutors violated Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79 (1986), when they struck all black prospective jurors before his trial.  Time and again, the state courts have rejected that claim.  The trial court twice rejected it, and the Supreme Court of Georgia unequivocally rejected it when Foster directly appealed his conviction and sentence. Foster v. State, 258 Ga. 736, 736, n. 1, 738–739, 374 S. E. 2d 188, 190, n. 1, 192 (1988), cert. denied, 490 U. S. 1085 (1989).  A state habeas court rejected it in 2013. App. 175–176, 192–196.  And most recently, the Supreme Court of Georgia again rejected it as lacking “arguable merit,” Ga. Sup. Ct. Rule 36 (2001). See App. 246.

Yet, today — nearly three decades removed from voir dire — the Court rules in Foster’s favor.  It does so without adequately grappling with the possibility that we lack jurisdiction. Moreover, the Court’s ruling on the merits, based, in part, on new evidence that Foster procured decades after his conviction, distorts the deferential Batson inquiry.  I respectfully dissent.

May 23, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

SCOTUS concurrences explore what Montgomery GVRs might mean for juve murderers originally sentenced to death

Continuing its recent trend, the short-staffed Supreem Court opted in this new order list not to grant certiorari review in any new cases.  But the list still has some intrigue for sentencing fans thanks to dueling concurrences in a set of cases vacated and remanded for further consideration in light of Montgomery v. Louisiana.  The start of Justice Alito's corcurrence in Adams v. Alabama sets up what makes these cases potentially different from other post-Montgomery GVRs:

The present case differs from most of those in which the Court grants, vacates, and remands for reconsideration in light of Montgomery.  The petitioner in this case — as with a few others now before the Court — was sentenced to death prior to our decision in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U. S. 551 (2005), which held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a death sentence for a minor. During that pre-Roper period, juries in capital cases were required at the penalty phase to consider “all relevant mitigating evidence,” including “the chronological age of a minor” and a youthful defendant’s “mental and emotional development.” Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U. S. 104, 116–117 (1982); see also Roper v. Simmons, supra, at 603 (O’Connor, J., dissenting) (“A defendant’s youth or immaturity is, of course, a paradigmatic example” of the type of mitigating evidence to which a “sentencer in a capital case must be permitted to give full effect”). After Roper, death sentences imposed on prisoners convicted of murders committed as minors were reduced to lesser sentences.

Justice Alito goes on to explain his view that this case history might be of constitutional consequence now:

In cases like this, it can be argued that the original sentencing jury fulfilled the individualized sentencing requirement that Miller subsequently imposed.  In these cases, the sentencer necessarily rejected the argument that the defendant’s youth and immaturity called for the lesser sentence of life imprisonment without parole.  It can therefore be argued that such a sentencer would surely have felt that the defendant’s youth and immaturity did not warrant an even lighter sentence that would have allowed the petitioner to be loosed on society at some time in the future.  In short, it can be argued that the jury that sentenced petitioner to death already engaged in the very process mandated by Miller and concluded that petitioner was not a mere “‘child’” whose crimes reflected “‘unfortunate yet transient immaturity,’” post, at 2 (SOTOMAYOR, J., concurring in decision to grant, vacate, and remand), but was instead one of the rare minors who deserves life without parole.

Justice Stotmayor is not so sure that Justice Alito's view on this matter should carry the day on remand, and she explains why in her concurrence:

Miller v. Alabama, 567 U. S. ___ (2012), did not merely impose an “individualized sentencing requirement”; it imposed a substantive rule that life without parole is only an appropriate punishment for “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” Montgomery, 577 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 17) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Even if a court considers a child’s age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison, that sentence still violates the Eighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity.” Id., at ___–___ (slip op., at 16–17) (same).  There is no indication that, when the factfinders in these cases considered petitioners’ youth, they even asked the question Miller required them not only to answer, but to answer correctly: whether petitioners’ crimes reflected “transient immaturity” or “irreparable corruption.” 577 U.S., at ___–___ (slip op., at 16–17).

The last factfinders to consider petitioners’ youth did so more than 10 — and in most cases more than 20 — years ago. (Petitioners’ post-Roper resentencings were generally automatic.)  Those factfinders did not have the benefit of this Court’s guidance regarding the “diminished culpability of juveniles” and the ways that “penological justifications” apply to juveniles with “lesser force than to adults.”  Roper, 543 U.S., at 571.  As importantly, they did not have the benefit of this Court’s repeated exhortation that the gruesomeness of a crime is not sufficient to demonstrate that a juvenile offender is beyond redemption: “The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character.” Id., at 570; see also id., at 573; Miller, 567 U. S., at __ (slip op., at 17).

May 23, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)