Thursday, April 21, 2016

Brennan Center provides a (suspect?) "final analysis" of crime in 2015

The folks at the Brennan Center have this new report titled "Crime in 2015: A Final Analysis" authored by Ames Grawert and James Cullen Here is its first page with its summary findings:

This analysis provides final crime data to update the report, Crime in 2015: A Preliminary Analysis. It finds the same conclusions as that report (and its December 2015 update), with slightly different percentages.

The analysis examines crime in the 30 largest cities from 2014 to 2015, with 25 cities reporting data on murder through the end of 2015 and 22 reporting data on crime.  Its findings:

• As shown in Table 1A, crime overall in the 30 largest cities in 2015 remained the same as in 2014, decreasing by 0.1 percent across cities.  Two-thirds of cities saw drops in crime, which were offset mostly by an increase in Los Angeles (12.7 percent). Nationally, crime remains at all-time lows. The data show no evidence of a deviation from that trend.

• Violent crime rose slightly, by 3.1 percent.  This result was primarily caused by increasing violence in Los Angeles (25.2 percent), Baltimore (19.2 percent), and Charlotte (15.9 percent). Notably, aggravated assaults in Los Angeles account for more than half of the rise in violent crime in these cities. There is no evidence of a deviation from the historically low levels of violence the country has been experiencing.

• As shown in Table 1B, the 2015 murder rate rose by 13.3 percent in the 30 largest cities, with 19 cities seeing increases and six decreases. However, in absolute terms, murder rates are so low that a small numerical increase can lead to a large percentage change. Murder rates today are roughly the same as they were in 2012 — in fact, they are slightly lower.

• Final data confirm that three cities (Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.) account for more than half (244) of the national increase in murders (Table 1B).  While this suggests cause for concern in some cities, murder rates vary widely from year to year, and there is little evidence of a national coming wave in violent crime. These serious increases seem to be localized, rather than part of a national pandemic, suggesting that community conditions remain the major factor. Notably, these three cities all seem to have falling populations, higher poverty rates, and higher unemployment than the national average (Table 2).  This suggests that economic deterioration of these cities could be a contributor to murder increases there.

These findings are consistent with the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report data from the first six months of 2015. Notably, the Brennan Center’s analysis focuses on major cities, where increases in crime and murder were highest, so this report likely systematically overestimates any rise in crime nationally.

I have in my title primed the question of whether we should look at this data as suspect largely because Bill Otis and others at Crime & Consequences have done a number of posts questioning how the Brennan Center has been analyzing and characterizing 2015 crime data.  Here are some of these C&C posts:

Readers know I am a proponent of "evidence-based" sentencing reform, but they should also know that I fully recognize (and am often eager to highlight) how evidence about both crime and punishment will often be used by advocates in very different ways.

April 21, 2016 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Slimy Sheldon Silver should serve substantial slammer stint, sentencing statement says"

An awesome, amusing, amazing alliteration about prosecutors' potent politico punishment proposal after federal fraud findings made for too good a title for me not to reuse the headline of this New York Daily News piece.  Here are the serious senetencing specifics:

Disgraced ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver should serve more than 14 years behind bars for corruption — a longer term than any other state pol convicted of similar crimes, federal prosecutors argued Wednesday.

Silver, a Democrat convicted last November on seven corruption counts, should serve a sentence that reflects the “unprecedented magnitude, duration, and scope of his abuse of power,” Manhattan federal prosecutors said in the sentencing memo.

“It should reflect the immeasurable damage Silver caused to the democratic process and to the public trust. It should punish Silver for the vast harm he has caused and the position of trust that he exploited, deter other elected officials from the temptation towards corruption, and communicate to the public that the rule of law applies even to the most prominent of public officials.”...

Sentencing guidelines for Silver suggest a range from 262 to 327 months — that’s between 22 and 27 years — in a federal lockup. “The guidelines range is high because the United States Sentencing Commission explicitly has recognized the ‘threat to the integrity of democratic processes’ caused by public corruption offenses,” the feds wrote.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office also said the hefty suggestion stemmed from “the many egregious aspects of the defendant’s crimes — including Silver’s role as a high-level public official, his engagement in multiple corrupt schemes, the millions of dollars in bribe money Silver took in, and his laundering of his crime proceeds.”

Bharara wants Silver, 72, to forfeit the $5.2 million he pocketed in the scheme and cough up “a substantial fine of at least $1 million is appropriate in this case, particularly in light of the defendant’s significant remaining resources and his more than $70,000-per-year pension, paid for by New York State taxpayers.”

Silver’s lawyers maintain in their sentencing memo that Manhattan Federal Judge Valerie Caproni should consider “a term of rigorous community service — whether as an alternative to incarceration, or as a component of an appropriate below-guidelines sentence” due to his age and poor health. "One letter after another — written with full awareness of the jury's verdict - from Mr. Silver's constituents, neighbors, friends, family, fellow Assembly members, and other government officials attest to his outstanding character and unrivaled contributions," they wrote in the memo, filed Wednesday.

Silver's lawyers went on to quote a key staffer who said that Silver "acted with integrity and exhibited a deep, consistent commitment to issues that he felt best served the public interest." They also quoted former Mayor David Dinkins as saying, "Mr. Silver has shown himself to be a person of integrity, committed to working in partnership on the side of New York City's citizenry."

April 21, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Lots of interesting post-Booker guideline talk as federal defendant gets another sentencing win from SCOTUS

The Supreme Court today handed down its opinon this morning in Molina-Martinez v. US, No. 14-8913 (S. Ct. April 20, 2016) (available here), a little case about the application of plain error review of guideline calculation errors.  Excitingly, because the majority opinion authored by Justice Kennedy has lots of dicta about post-Booker sentencing, and because a concurrence by Justice Alito complains about some of that dicta, Molina-Martinez is now a must-read for all sentencing practitioners.  

I will likely have some further commentary about Molina-Martinez after I get a chance to read it thoroughly.  In the meantime, here are a couple of key passages from the majority opinion:

This case involves the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. In sentencing petitioner, the District Court applied a Guidelines range higher than the applicable one. The error went unnoticed by the court and the parties, so no timely objection was entered. The error was first noted when, during briefing to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, petitioner himself raised the mistake. The Court of Appeals refused to correct the error because, in its view, petitioner could not establish a reasonable probability that but for the error he would have received a different sentence. Under that court’s decisions, if a defendant’s ultimate sentence falls within what would have been the correct Guidelines range, the defendant, on appeal, must identify “additional evidence” to show that use of the incorrect Guidelines range did in fact affect his sentence. Absent that evidence, in the Court of Appeals’ view, a defendant who is sentenced under an incorrect range but whose sentence is also within what would have been the correct range cannot demonstrate he has been prejudiced by the error....

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit stands generally apart from other Courts of Appeals with respect to its consideration of unpreserved Guidelines errors. This Court now holds that its approach is incorrect.

Nothing in the text of Rule 52(b), its rationale, or the Court’s precedents supports a requirement that a defendant seeking appellate review of an unpreserved Guidelines error make some further showing of prejudice beyond the fact that the erroneous, and higher, Guidelines range set the wrong framework for the sentencing proceedings. This is so even if the ultimate sentence falls within both the correct and incorrect range. When a defendant is sentenced under an incorrect Guidelines range—whether or not the defendant’s ultimate sentence falls within the correct range—the error itself can, and most often will, be sufficient to show a reasonable probability of a different outcome absent the error....

In the ordinary case the Guidelines accomplish their purpose. They serve as the starting point for the district court’s decision and anchor the court’s discretion in selecting an appropriate sentence. It follows, then, that in most cases the Guidelines range will affect the sentence. When that is so, a defendant sentenced under an incorrect Guidelines range should be able to rely on that fact to show a reasonable probability that the district court would have imposed a different sentence under the correct range. That probability is all that is needed to establish an effect on substantial rights for purposes of obtaining relief under Rule 52(b).

And here is the start of the concurrence authored by Justice Alito:

I agree with the Court that the Fifth Circuit’s rigid approach to unpreserved Guidelines errors is incorrect. And I agree that petitioner has shown a reasonable probability that the District Court would have imposed a different sentence in his case if his recommended Guidelines sentence had been accurately calculated. Unlike the Court, however, I would not speculate about how often the reasonable probability test will be satisfied in future cases. The Court’s predictions in dicta about how plain-error review will play out are predicated on the view that sentencing judges will continue to rely very heavily on the Guidelines in the future, but that prediction may not turn out to be accurate. We should not make predictions about the future effects of Guidelines errors, particularly since some may misunderstand those predictions as veiled directives.

April 20, 2016 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Eleventh Circuit concurrence lists 100+ cases now made viable now that Welch clarified Johnson's retroactivity

A helpful reader altered me to a remarkable concurrence authored by Eleventh Circuit Judge Beverly Martin in In re Robinson, No. 16-11304 (11th Cir. April 19, 2016) (available here). Here is the full text of the concurrence, which serves as an explanatory preamble to a list of 110 Welch impacted cases within the circuit:

I agree that Troy Robinson cannot benefit from Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. ___, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), because his sentence is valid even without the residual clause.  I write separately to note that Mr. Robinson is one of dozens of prisoners who has tried to file similar applications based on Johnson.  Prior to yesterday’s decision in Welch v. United States, No. 15-6418, 2016 WL 1551144 (Apr. 18, 2016), all these applicants were turned away from our Court not because Johnson wouldn’t benefit them but because our Court held that Johnson could never apply in these cases. Some of those who filed applications in other courts have already been freed because they were serving an unconstitutional prison sentence.  As best I can tell, all the prisoners we turned away may only have until June 26, 2016, to refile applications based on Johnson.  See Dodd v. United States, 545 U.S. 353, 359, 125 S. Ct. 2478, 2482–83 (2005).

Although I have not taken the time to investigate the merits of these cases, below is a list of every case I know of in which this court denied an application from a prisoner seeking to file a second or successive 28 U.S.C. § 2255 petition based on Johnson.  I share this list in the hope that these prisoners, who filed their applications without a lawyer’s help, may now know to refile their applications.  I have separated out the cases that arise under the residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) and the cases that arise under the identical language in United States Sentencing Guidelines § 4B1.2 (which includes cases for which the guidelines were mandatory together with those for which the guidelines were advisory).  I have also listed the district court in which each sentence was imposed, to the extent Federal Public Defender offices are monitoring these cases.

Because these cases all involve prisoners seeking collateral review of their prison terms, the Sixth Amendment does not provide them with a constitutional right to the assistance of counsel. I believe district judges may have discretion to appoint lawyers for these prisoners under the Criminal Justice Act, and federal defenders and private lawyers can take up their cases upon their own initiative. I hope many will.  Indeed, I cannot help but wonder if some lawyers still working through thousands of federal clemency petitions (all of which wouls seem to have limited chance of success) might reallocate some of their energies to helping Johnson/Welch claimants on this list and elsewhere throughout the country.

April 20, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

"Everybody Talks About Prosecutorial Conduct But Nobody Does Anything About It: A 25-Year Survey of Prosecutorial Misconduct and a Viable Solution"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Harry Caldwell that I just saw via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Prosecutors, whom we trust to carry out the demanding and essential business of presenting the People’s case against alleged law-breakers, are free to commit misconduct with impunity.  They suffer no disciplinary repercussions for their misdeeds.  The only adverse consequence facing an erring prosecutor is the extremely rare prospect of having a conviction overturned due to his misconduct.  Even then the prosecutor will not be subject to any sanction: no citation for contempt, no suspension of license, no civil liability, no fine, not so much as a censure.

In an earlier article entitled The Prosecutor Prince, I proposed the creation of an independent commission empowered to investigate claims of alleged prosecutorial misconduct, and meter our discipline should the claims be warranted.  As set forth in that article, the commission would be modeled after California’s Judicial Panel, which has proven effective in dealing with instances of judicial misconduct.

The purpose of this current article is not to once again make the case that prosecutorial misconduct is prevalent and represents a stain on the American justice system — that purpose has been thoroughly accomplished in the earlier article and by countless others.  The two-fold purpose of this article is to revise the earlier proposal to make it more fiscally and politically viable, and to use the findings from our recently completed twenty-five-year survey of prosecutorial misconduct as support for the revised proposal.

April 20, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Your tax dollars at work?: cost accounting for Aurora theater shooter James Holmes' failed capital trial

As a matter of abstract philosophy, I have struggled for decades concerning my opinion on capital punishment.  But as a matter of modern public policy, I have generally concluded that the death penalty is not a great use of limited resources for most states.  This new Denver Post article, headlined "Aurora theater shooting trial cost taxpayers at least $3 million: Final cost of James Holmes' trial in the Aurora theater shooting likely won't ever be known," reinforces my perspectives in this regard. Here are the details:

Jailing, evaluating and prosecuting the man who committed the Aurora movie theater shooting cost taxpayers at least $3 million, but the final expense of one of the mostly closely watched court cases in Colorado history may never be known. The $3 million tab was compiled by The Denver Post following multiple open-records requests over the past year. It covers the amount spent from 2012 through 2015 specifically on preparing for and seeing through the trial of James Holmes.

Nearly $1.6 million of the cost was covered by federal grants. When including the salaries of judges, prosecutors, sheriff's deputies and other government employees who spent most or all of their time on the case — but who would have been paid regardless — the total cost rises to more than $7 million.

And there's still a big chunk of expense missing from that amount. The state's taxpayer-funded public defenders — who represented Holmes — are not required to disclose what they spend on a case. Doing so, they say, would violate ethics rules and subject poor defendants to lower standards of attorney-client confidentiality. Generally, the office of the state public defender reports having spent nearly $2 million on death-penalty and potential death-penalty cases since July 2002, not including staff salaries.

The theater shooting trial was one of the longest in state history. Prosecutors sought the death penalty, and Holmes, who pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, underwent two psychiatric evaluations by state-appointed experts — at a cost of more than $600,000 to the state Department of Human Services. Holmes ultimately was found guilty of murdering 12 people and trying to murder 70 more in the July 2012 attack on the Century Aurora 16 movie theater; he was sentenced to life in prison without parole in August.

While the case prompted public debates about the cost of the death penalty and mental health evaluations, the biggest expense that has been reported was for providing victims' assistance services. The Arapahoe County district attorney's office spent nearly $1.2 million on salaries for victims' advocates, travel expenses for victims to attend the trial and other costs. All of those costs were covered by a federal grant.

Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, whose office published its close-to-final cost figures last week, said the costs were about in line with what he expected. In addition to the federal grant, the state government appropriated about $500,000 to cover trial-related costs for the district attorney's office. He said more than half of what his office spent on the case was spent before the trial even began one year ago this month, and he rejected the criticism that seeking the death penalty ballooned the trial's price tag. Instead, Brauchler said the case was expensive because of the number of victims involved.

The county DA here make a reasonable point that the nature of the crime may be the reason for the considerable expense as much as the nature of the punishment sought. Nevertheless, I believe this case could and would have cost taxpayers a whole lot less if prosecutors had accepted the defense's early offer to plead guilty in exchange for an LWOP sentence. (That LWOP sentences was ultimately achieved in the end after a lengthy and costly capital trial.) Moreover, the costs here include the opportunity costs of having so many Colorado state justice officials (police, prosecutors, judges) working on this case so intensely when there surely were many other Colorado crime and criminals that might have otherwise gotten their attention.

Of course, and I think not to be overlooked in any accounting of general capital costs/benefits, Holmes' defense team likely was only willing to offer to plead guilty and take LWOP because Colorado has capital punishment on its books. Consequently, it would be unfair to suggest abolition of the death penalty will always produce massive savings in major murder cases. But, as regular readers should know, this kind of accounting leads me to suggest, yet again, that states ought to have ways to "delegate" major murders to the feds for more efficient and effective capital prosecutions.

A few (of many) older related posts (with lots of comments):

April 20, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Taking full stock of the Prez Clinton's punishment legacy by looking at PLRA (and AEDPA and ....)

Though I have enjoyed seeing the 1994 Clinton Crime bill getting lots and lots of attention recently (example here and here), there is so much more to legacy of the "Clinton years" to the full story of US punishment practices.  This new New Republic commentary, headlined "Another Clinton-Era Law that Needs to Be Repealed: The Prison Litigation Reform Act is still trampling on prisoners' legal rights," tells another piece of the story, and here are excerpts:

Signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 as a rider to the annual congressional appropriations bill, the PLRA laid waste to the ability of incarcerated people to bring prison officials to court for violations of their constitutional rights, whether it be racial discrimination, lack of medical care, or brutality by prison guards.  The act was championed as a solution to the thousands of supposed “frivolous lawsuits” by prisoners, with barely any discussion by Congress about its far-reaching effects.

Locked away, those in prison are easily demonized, unable to refute any exaggerations or myths created by those on the outside. One story publicly hyped by members of Congress leading up to the act’s passage had a prisoner filing suit after receiving crunchy peanut butter instead of creamy.  But when a federal judge researched the case later, he found that the issue wasn’t about that prisoner’s taste in condiments, but that the prisoner had never been reimbursed after returning the item.  The price of a jar of peanut butter might seem trivial to those of us on the outside, but most people in prison are poor and are often deeply in debt.  Plus, many prisons overcharge for simple items (the jar of peanut butter cost $2.50, significantly more than the average cost at the time).  Looking back, the PLRA did not solve a problem of “frivolous” litigation, rather it masked and discredited the legitimate claims of people with nowhere else to turn.

Since the PLRA became law, tremendous burdens have been placed on prisoners wishing to file suit for violations of their constitutional rights.  For example, one of the law’s provisions forces you to go through the prison’s administrative complaint procedures before bringing an actual lawsuit.  This can take months. Imagine a prisoner who is in pain and in need of medical treatment, but ignored by prison staff: She must not only file her complaint with the same staff that is denying her treatment, but wait for a refusal, appeal that decision, and only after a judgment on that appeal can she then file a legal case beyond prison walls.  By that time, it may be too late for a court to do anything.

As the title of this post is meant to suggestion, lots of other Clinton-era federal criminal laws and developments, particularly the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and Prez Clinton's decision to sign-on to Congress's rejection of the US Sentencing Commission's crack/powder amendment to equalize the guidelines, ought to be a continuing topic of conversation as we consider putting another Clinton in the White House this year.

Prior related posts:

April 19, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 18, 2016

Seeing Montgomery and Welch as SCOTUS Teague make-up calls

2000px-Seal_of_the_United_States_Supreme_Court.svgA few years ago I wrote this extended article, titled "Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences," which made the case for modern doctrines to be far less concerned about sentence finality, and far more concerned about punishment fitness and fairness, when new legal developments raise doubts or concerns about lengthy prison sentences.  Though I did not in that article call for the Supreme Court's Teague doctrines to be ignored, passages from it suggesting Teague's limit on retroactivity ought to be narrowly construed appeared in amicus briefs I signed in Montgomery and Welch

I have been pleased that Montgomery and now Welch both resulted in a significant block of Justices declaring prior Eighth And Fifth Amendment rulings fully retroactive.  But how the Court majority has gotten there has been more than a bit puzzling because, as I see, the Court keeps massaging Teague while it suggests that it is faithfully applying the doctrine.  In Montgomery, as I explain in this new commentary, six Justices signed on to an opinion (including Chief Justice Roberts) that seems, at least indirectly, to rewrite significantly the very foundational legal basis for Teague.  And, in the final line of his solo dissent in Welch today, Justice Thomas complains that the majoity opinion in Welch (which has the votes of both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito) shows that "the Court keeps moving the [retroactivity] goalposts" through its "unprincipled expansion of Teague [so that] every end is instead a new beginning."

I bring all this up because, upon reading Welch, this one passage from the majority opinion stood out for a couple of reasons: 

[W]here the conviction or sentence in fact is not authorized by substantive law, then finality interests are at their weakest.  As Justice Harlan wrote, “[t]here is little societal interest in permitting the criminal process to rest at a point where it ought properly never to repose.” Mackey, 401 U. S., at 693 (opinion of Harlan, J.).

First and foremost, I am pleased and I think it potentially quite important (and in harmony with my own writings) to see the Supreme Court state expressly that "finality interests are at their weakest" when substantive law has changed and a defendant is still dealing with the consequences of the conviction or sentence based on the now-changed substantive law.  

Second, as explained in the title of this post, the quote from Justice Harlan seems especially notable here in describing the limited societal interest in "permitting the criminal process to rest at a point where it ought properly never to repose."  I suspect that Chief Justice Roberts was somewhat more comfortable with the Teague rewriting in Montgomery and that both the Chief and Justice Alito were content with the Court's work in Welch because they may have come to the conclusion the Court ultimately took unfairly long before finally finding constitutional problems with mandatory juve LWOP and the residual clause of ACCA.  In both settings, lots and lots of defendants subject to really long prison terms have been persistently complaining for decades that these extreme sentencing laws were constitutionally problematic.  I would guess that, as judicial umpires calling balls and strikes, the Chief and Justice Alito could live with a "Teague" make-up call to help the defendants who before kept getting strikes called against them.

April 18, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Supreme Court swiftly rules in Welch declaring Johnson ACCA vagueness decision retroactive

As reported here, just a few weeks ago the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Welch v. United States to address the retroactive application of last Term's significant ruling in Johnson (authored by Justice Scalia) that the "residual clause" of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague.   Justice Kennedy authored this opinion for the Court in its 7-1 ruling, and here is the heart of the opinion's analytical conclusion:

Under this [Teague] framework, the rule announced in Johnson is substantive.  By striking down the residual clause as void for vagueness, Johnson changed the substantive reach of the Armed Career Criminal Act, altering “the range of conduct or the class of persons that the [Act] punishes.” Schriro, supra, at 353.  Before Johnson, the Act applied to any person who possessed a firearm after three violent felony convictions, even if one or more of those convictions fell under only the residual clause.  An offender in that situation faced 15 years to life in prison.  After Johnson, the same person engaging in the same conduct is no longer subject to the Act and faces at most 10 years in prison.  The residual clause is invalid under Johnson, so it can no longer mandate or authorize any sentence.  Johnson establishes, in other words, that “even the use of impeccable factfinding procedures could not legitimate” a sentence based on that clause.  United States v. United States Coin & Currency, 401 U. S. 715, 724 (1971).  It follows that Johnson is a substantive decision.

In the wake of the oral argument, I find this substantive ruling not at all surprising. What is a bit surprising, though, is that Justice Thomas not Justice Alito is the sole dissenter. Here is how his dissent gets started:

Last Term the Court held in Johnson v. United States, 576 U. S. ___ (2015), that because the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. §924(e)(2)(B)(ii), “combin[es] indeterminacy about how to measure the risk posed by a crime with indeterminacy about how much risk it takes for the crime to qualify as a violent felony,” it is unconstitutionally vague.  576 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 6).  Federal prisoners then sought to invoke Johnson as a basis for vacating their sentences in federal collateral review proceedings.  See 28 U. S. C. §2255(a).

Today the Court holds that Johnson applies retroactively to already final sentences of federal prisoners.  That holding comes at a steep price.  The majority ignores an insuperable procedural obstacle: when, as here, a court fails to rule on a claim not presented in a prisoner’s §2255 motion, there is no error for us to reverse.  The majority also misconstrues the retroactivity framework developed in Teague v. Lane, 489 U. S. 288 (1989), and its progeny, thereby undermining any principled limitation on the finality of federal convictions.  I respectfully dissent.

April 18, 2016 in Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Would Congress be wise to pursue sentencing reform through DOJ spending limitations?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent Reason piece by Jacob Sullum headlined "DOJ Accepts Decision Saying It May Not Target State-Legal Medical Marijuana Suppliers: The feds had argued that a spending rider left them free to shut down dispensaries."  Here are the details:

The Justice Department has abandoned its appeal of a ruling that said federal prosecutors are breaking the law when they target medical marijuana providers who comply with state law.  U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer issued that ruling last October, when he said enforcing an injunction against a state-legal dispensary would violate a spending rider that prohibits the DOJ from interfering with state laws allowing medical use of marijuana.  The Justice Department initially asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to overturn Breyer's decision but later changed its mind, and on Tuesday the court granted its request to withdraw the appeal.

That decision leaves in place Breyer's ruling, which involved the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana (MAMM), without establishing a circuit-wide precedent.  Presumably the DOJ worried that the 9th Circuit would agree with Breyer's reading of the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which says the department may not use appropriated funds to "prevent" states from "implementing" their medical marijuana laws.  The DOJ argues that prosecuting medical marijuana suppliers, seizing their property, and shutting them down does not prevent implementation of laws authorizing them. Breyer said that interpretation "defies language and logic."

The rider that Breyer considered expired last year, but the same language was included in the omnibus spending bill for the current fiscal year.  If Congress continues to renew the amendment and other courts agree with Breyer's understanding of it, medical marijuana growers and suppliers who comply with state law will have less reason to worry about raids, arrests, and forfeiture actions, although uncertainty will remain in states where the rules for dispensaries are unclear.  For the time being, that remains true in California, although state regulations aimed at clarifying the situation are scheduled to take effect in 2018.

In other words, now that DOJ has (sort-of) accepted a broad reading of the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, this DOJ spending limitation has (sort-of) achieved indirectly what Congress has been unwilling or unable to do directly, namely authorize states and individuals to move forward with a responsible medical marijuana program without persistent concerns that DOJ may raid and prosecute participants.  Of course, this spending limitation can and will expire if not consistently renewed by Congress.  But still, as this Sullum piece highlights, even a short-term spending limit can end up having some real bite. 

In light of this intriguing "spending limit" back-door form of congressional marijuana reform, I am now wondering if this approach should be pursued sentencing reformers/advocates growing frustrated Congress has not yet been able to pass a significant statutory sentencing reform bill. Though some clever drafting might be needed, I could imagine a provision in a federal budget bill that prohibited the Department of Justice from, say, expending any funds to prosecute a non-violent drug offender using statutes that carry any mandatory minimum sentencing term or  expending any funds to continue to imprison anyone whose prison sentence would have been completed had the Fair Sentencing Act been made retroactive.

My suggestion here might ultimately be more of a Swiftian "modest proposal" than a real suggestion for how real work can get done on sentencing reform in Congress.  Nevertheless, as the prospect of major federal statutory sentencing reform semes to grow ever darker with each passing week, I am ever eager to consider and suggest whatever it might take to turn the enduring bipartisan sentencing reform talk into some consequential legislative action.

April 17, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

An interesting perspective on Virginia's recent capital experiences

Virginia made capital headlines last week after Gov. Terry McAuliffe altered a bill passed by the state's legislature calling for use of the electric chair if the state could not obtain need lethal drugs.  The headline of this Washington Post piece from last week explains his proposed alternative approach: "In a move that could jeopardize executions, McAuliffe wants to shield the identity of makers of lethal-injection drugs."

Meanwhile, this new commentary by Kerry Dougherty, a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot, provides some perspective on this execution method brouhaha and Virginia's recent experience with the death penalty. The piece is headlined "Lost in all the death-penalty drug talk is that there are only 7 men on death row in Virginia," and here are excerpts:

Last winter, state legislators came up with a solution: They said that if drugs are unavailable, the commonwealth should fire up Old Sparky.  Predictably, this sparked a heated debate among politicians. Some argued that the electric chair is cruel.

Others shrugged, saying painless deaths are not the goal of the state.  “I hear, ‘Oh my Lord, he might have to suffer,’ ” said the Senate’s Democratic leader, Richard Saslaw in March. “… If we don’t have the necessary drugs, then we need this bill.  When you commit acts like that, you give up your right, as far as I’m concerned, to say, ‘Well, I want to die humanely.’ ”

The governor seems to disagree.  “We take human beings, we strap them into a chair, and then we flood their bodies with 1,800 volts of electricity, subjecting them to unspeakable pain until they die,” McAuliffe said last week, according to news reports.  “Virginia citizens do not want their commonwealth to revert back to a past when excessively inhumane punishments were committed in their name.”

McAuliffe’s language calls for the state to buy the drugs needed to put prisoners to sleep from special pharmacies. The names of those companies would be cloaked in secrecy, as they are in some other states.  “All I’m doing today is providing a humane way to carry out capital punishment here in Virginia so we have options,” McAuliffe said. “If they do not take it up, I want to be clear, they will be ending capital punishment here in Virginia.”

Now the question becomes, should the people’s business be conducted covertly?  I can answer that: No, it shouldn’t.

Lost in all this talk about how to kill the last men on Virginia’s death row is the happy fact that there are just seven men living there. Seven.  According to an NBC news report, Virginia’s death row was at its most crowded in 1995 when it housed 57 condemned prisoners.  Both executions and death sentences have dropped sharply since then.

The ultimate penalty is imposed on those who commit the most heinous crimes.  Last year, for instance, Virginia executed one man: The loathsome Alfredo Prieto.  He killed a young couple in Fairfax in 1988, raping one of the victims as she died. The Washington Post reported that he had killed as many as seven others. One of those murders was of a 15-year-old in California while he was on the run after the double homicide in Fairfax.

I couldn’t gin up any sympathy for this predator.  Neither could the governor, who refused to block his execution in October. Yet Prieto was the first man executed in the Old Dominion in more than two years.

Why all the empty cells on death row?  Many reasons. But one component is certainly 1995’s “truth-in-sentencing” law pushed by then-Gov. George Allen.  The measure abolished parole and closed the revolving doors on Virginia’s prisons. Suddenly a 10-year sentence meant the convict would spend most of a decade in prison. And a life sentence? It actually meant life in prison.

Given this ironclad alternative to execution, it’s become rare for a Virginia jury — or judge — to send a convict to death row. Before we get back to arguing about the death penalty, can’t we all agree that’s a good thing?

April 17, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Privacy gurus: what do you think of (coercive?) plea discussions requiring disclosure of defendant's iPhone password?

I have had the great pleasure of working through the years with a number of super-smart privacy-tech scholars (see here and here).  I am very interested to hear what these folks and others think of this fascinating new story from an NYC federal district court.  The story is headlined "Meth, kiddie porn-dealing dentist has two weeks to give up iPhone password if he wants shot at plea deal, judge says," and here are the interesting details: 

A Manhattan dentist charged with distributing methamphetamines and child pornography has two weeks to decide whether he will disclose to the government the password to his locked iPhone so the FBI can examine the creepy contents, a federal judge said Friday.

Dr. John Wolf has been trying to cut a plea deal with the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney's office, but prosecutors haven't offered a plea agreement until it can be determined whether there is additional criminal evidence on the iPhone. Assistant U.S. Attorney Moira Penza said the iPhone is password protected and the FBI has been trying to unlock the device without asking a judge to order Apple to assist the government.

"We've been considering the possibility that we will just give them the password," defense lawyer Marc Agnifilo told Federal Judge William Kuntz....

Kuntz said he wanted to set a deadline in case there is no agreement. "I don't have to tell you this is a very complicated, contentious issue," Kuntz said Friday. Wolf allegedly traded meth with a drug dealer for dental services, but also had a trove of child porn which he gave to an undercover FBI agent who posed as a pervert. Wolf's lawyer said his client was addicted to meth before he was arrested.

April 16, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"The history of drug criminalization in America is a history of social panics rooted in racism and xenophobia"

Ungass_2016-624x312The title of this post is the subheadline of this new Salon comentary carrying the primary headline "The real reason cocaine, heroin and marijuana are illegal has nothing to do with addiction."  Here is how the lengthy piece gets started:

Looking out at the trail of devastation and death that the heroin epidemic has left in its wake, it’s hard to imagine that not long ago one could purchase the drug from a Sears catalogue.  Heroin was created by German chemists during the late 1890s and marketed through Bayer, the company best known for selling aspirin.  For decades, suburban housewives could peruse pages of flashy advertisements for Bayer Heroin, the cure for sore throats, coughs, headaches, diarrhea, stress and menopause.  In fact, until recently the percentage of Americans using opium-derived medicine was higher at the turn of the 20th century than at any other time in history.

The majority of illicit drugs we see today were once legal, popular and used for medicinal purposes.  Cocaine made its debut in toothache drops marketed to children.  Cannabis was recognized for its ability to relieve pain and nausea long before it became associated with youthful vagrancy.

As the world grapples with the fallout from the War on Drugs — and heads towards UNGASS 2016, a possible opportunity to put things right — it’s important to know the history of these drugs and their journey from medicine to menace. We didn’t suddenly discover that they were far more addictive or dangerous than other medicines.  In fact, the reasons that drugs like heroin, cocaine, marijuana and others are illegal today have far more to do with economics and cultural prejudice than with addiction.

Heroin was the first to fall from pharmaceutical darling to a demonized, black-market street drug.  Long used as a cure for aches and pains, it wasn’t until Chinese immigrants came to the United States to work on the railroads and mines that opium-based products such as heroin were perceived as dangerous.  American settlers were not happy with the Chinese arrivals, who brought with them a cultural tradition of smoking opium for relaxation in the evenings.  The settlers accused the Chinese of “taking our jobs,” and economic resentment morphed into rumors of Chinese men luring white women into opium dens and getting them addicted.  Rumors turned to fear, which turned to hysteria, which politicians seized upon.  In 1875 California passed the first anti-opium law, enforced by raids on Chinese opium dens. Other states soon followed.  The first federal law regulating heroin was the Harrison Act of 1914, which eventually led to its criminalization.

Cocaine was criminalized for similar reasons, only this time the backlash was directed against black Americans.  After the Civil War, economic resentment simmered over the freed slaves gaining a foothold in the economy.  White Southerners grumbled about black men “forgetting their place,” and fears spread about a drug some of them smoked, which was rumored to incite them to violence.  In the early 1900s New Orleans became the first city to slap down laws against cocaine use and the trend quickly spread, dovetailing with efforts in Latin America to criminalize the coca leaf, an ingredient in cocaine, which was used for religious purposes among indigenous populations.

Marijuana was next in the firing line.  During the 1920s, tensions sprang up in the South over the influx of Mexican immigrants who worked for low wages.  By the 1930s, the Great Depression had bred panic among people desperate for work and they directed their angst towards immigrants.  The media began propagating stories about Mexicans and their mysterious drug, marijuana.  The first national law criminalizing marijuana, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, passed thanks to a strong push from Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who referred to marijuana as “the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”

While such claims of marijuana inducing violence may sound ridiculous to those of us who know marijuana as a drug that does precisely the opposite, it goes to show that the criminalization of drugs has little to do with relative risk or danger.  Instead, the main impetus for criminalization is fear over certain groups seen as an economic or cultural threat to established America.  Recognizing this fact does not mean ignoring or minimizing the very real harm that drugs can cause.

Most illicit drugs carry risks and serious potential for problematic use.  But so does glue. So do gasoline, cough syrup, shoe polish, paint thinner, nail polish remover, cleaning fluids, spray paint, whipped cream cans, vanilla extract, mouthwash, nutmeg, prescription pills and countless other household items that are not only addictive, but potentially fatal if misused.

April 16, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

US Sentencing Commission adopts a bunch of (large and small) federal sentencing guideline amendments

Late yesterday before I had to jump on an airplane, I watched online this scheduled public meeting of the US Sentencing Commission where a number of new guideline amendments were formally and unanimously passed by the USSC. The hour-long meeting included a few interesting comments by a few participants, and I was particularly struck by the Chair's comments (available here) that one proposed amendment concerning the animal fighting guideline engendered "more pieces of public comment on this amendment than any in the history of the Commission." (This USSC page with public comments includes this entry that reports that an ASPCA Form Letter was submitted by 48,116 citizens on this front that urges the Commission to act to "ensure higher sentences" for federal animal fighting offenses.)

This press release from the USSC provides this summary of the substantive work done by the Commission yesterday afternoon.  Here are excerpts:

The bipartisan United States Sentencing Commission (“Commission”) voted unanimously to amend the federal sentencing guidelines, including significant changes pertaining to immigration policy, compassionate release and animal fighting.

Based on the Commission’s data and public comment, the Commission voted to amend the illegal reentry guidelines. The promulgated amendment modifies the existing guideline by (1) eliminating the “categorical approach,” which has been a source of widespread complaints by judges, the Department of Justice, and others; and (2) recalibrating the guideline to account for prior criminal conduct in a more proportionate manner.  The newly adopted amendment adds a new tiered enhancement specifically aimed at criminal conduct occurring after a defendant reentered the country illegally, including prior illegal reentry offenses. The current base offense level for illegal reentry offenders will remain the same....

The Commission also amended the federal sentencing guidelines for alien smugglers, enhancing penalties for those who smuggle vulnerable unaccompanied minors.  Today’s amendment also makes clear that a four level sentencing enhancement applies for any smuggling case involving sexual abuse.

Separately, in response to Congressional changes to the Animal Welfare Act, the Commission’s own research and analysis, and nearly 50,000 citizen letters, the Commissioners also voted to strengthen the federal sentencing guidelines to better reflect the cruelty and violence associated with animal fighting offenses.  Specifically, the Commission voted to increase the base offense level for animal fighting offenses from a range of 6 to 12 months to a more serious range of 21 to 27 months.  The amendment also establishes a new, corresponding sentencing guideline range for anyone that attends an animal fighting venture with a minor under 16 years old.

In addition, the Commission strengthened and broadened the criteria for compassionate release with several meaningful changes. Congress charged the Commission with issuing policy statements describing what should be considered extraordinary and compelling reasons for a sentencing reduction.  As amended, federal inmates may be eligible for compassionate release based on four categories relating to medical conditions, age, family circumstances, or other extraordinary and compelling reasons.  The Commission’s action encourages the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to use its current authority if an eligible offender meets any of the circumstances defined by the Commission’s expanded criteria for compassionate release.

In addition, the Commission voted to resolve certain circuit conflicts, in the area of child pornography, as well as to strengthen provisions pertaining to probation and supervised release.  Finally, the Commission took action on necessary conforming, technical changes in response to recently enacted legislation.

A reader-friendly version of these amendments are available at this link, and I hope in some future posts to highlight the part of these amendments likely to be most consequential in the future.

April 16, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 15, 2016

Previewing what could be a big coming criminal justice week at SCOTUS

The folks at SCOTUSblog have this new post about an intriguing Supreme Court development for the coming week:

The Supreme Court, altering its usual agenda, will issue one or more opinions in argued cases on Monday of next week, as well as on the more normal days of Tuesday and Wednesday, according to the Court’s telephonic “hotline” announcing its schedule.  Ordinarily, when the Court is hearing argument on Mondays, it releases only orders in new cases, and withholds opinions until later in those weeks.

The new plan immediately stirred speculation that the Court has found some specific urgency in a pending case that requires immediate action.  Monday will see a large crowd in the courtroom because the case up for argument that day is the major challenge to President Obama’s 2014 revision of immigration policy, in the case of United States v. Texas.

I will leave it to others to speculate what this unusual development might mean amidst a chaotic and high-profile SCOTUS Term. But the simple fact that the Court expects to release opinions on three days next week reinforces my expectation that we will get one or more criminal justice rulings in the coming days. In addition, as these two SCOTUSblog preview posts details, on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week, a couple criminal justice cases are scheduled for oral argument:

On Tuesday, April 19:  US v. Bryant: Argument preview: The right to appointed counsel, tribal-court convictions, and federal domestic-violence statutes collide

On Wednesday, April 20: Birchfield v. North Dakota:  Argument preview: Warrantless DUI tests and the Fourth Amendment      

April 15, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

More praise of my Ohio State students (and Ohio legislators and others) for research on marijuana law, policy and reform

Regular readers are familiar with my periodic collecting of posts from my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform blog.  And, as highlighted in this prior post, a lot of recent content on that site involve ideas and collections of materials put together by terrific student in my Ohio State College of Law seminar as they gear up for class presentations on an array of fascinating marijuana law and policy and reform topics.  In addition, just as my class is starting to wind down, it seems that the debate over medical marijuana reform is really heating up in Ohio and elsewhere.  This collection of links to recent posts at MLP&P reflect these realities:

April 15, 2016 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Supreme Court of Canada declares a one-year(!) mandatory-minimum drug sentence unconstitutional

In the United States, some defendants can and have received mandatory life without parole sentences for drug offenses, and most federal mandatory minimum drug sentences come in 5- and 10-year chunks of required prison time even for first offenders. And, to date, none of these laws have been found constitutionally problematic largely because, back in 1991, the Supreme Court held in Harmelin v. Michigan that the Eighth Amendment's cruel an unusual clause did not preclude Michigan from imposing a mandatory LWOP sentence on a defendant convicted of possessing more than 650 grams of cocaine.

Fast forward a quarter-century and this news about a new Canadian court ruling shows our neighbor jurists to the north have a much different conception of what kind of mandatory drug sentence violates a constitutional provision precluding cruel and unusual punishments.  The article is headlined "Rulings from Canada's top court strike down mandatory minimum sentences for drugs and bail conditions," and here are the basics:

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that two key "tough on crime" measures brought in by the previous Conservative government are unconstitutional. In the first case, the court ruled 6-3 that a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in prison for a drug offence violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It centres on Joseph Ryan Lloyd, a man with drug addictions in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, who was convicted of trafficking after police caught him in 2013 with less than 10 grams of heroin, crack cocaine and crystal methamphetamine.

The court ruled the sentence cast too wide a net over a wide range of potential conduct, catching not only the serious drug trafficking that is its proper aim, but also conduct that is "much less blameworthy. "

"If Parliament hopes to maintain mandatory minimum sentences for offences that cast a wide net, it should consider narrowing their reach so that they only catch offenders that merit that mandatory minimum sentence," the decision reads. "In the alternative, Parliament could provide for judicial discretion to allow for a lesser sentence where the mandatory minimum would be grossly disproportionate and would constitute cruel and unusual punishment." The dissenting view argued that the law as drafted was narrow enough, and that it did not amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

The sentence imposed stemmed from the so-called "omnibus crime bill" brought in by the Stephen Harper government in 2012. The Safe Streets and Communities Act, also known as C10, made sweeping changes to Canada's criminal justice system, including mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the Liberal approach to criminal justice is to protect public safety while respecting rights. He said mandatory minimums are appropriate in some conditions, and noted that past Liberal governments have imposed them for certain crimes like murder. "At the same time, there is a general sense, reinforced by the Supreme Court decision, that mandatory minimums brought in by the previous government in a number of cases went too far," he said after an event in Waterloo, Ont.

A mandate letter from Trudeau to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould called for an overhaul of the measures brought in by the Conservatives. "You should conduct a review of the changes in our criminal justice system and sentencing reforms over the past decade with a mandate to assess the changes, ensure that we are increasing the safety of our communities, getting value for money, addressing gaps and ensuring that current provisions are aligned with the objectives of the criminal justice system," the letter reads.

In the other case, the Supreme Court was unanimous in ruling that a person who is denied bail because of prior convictions should be able to receive credit for time served before sentencing. Normally, a person denied bail can get 1.5 days of credit for each day spent in pre-sentence custody, reflecting what are often harsh conditions with a lack of access to programs. Under sentencing reforms introduced by the Conservatives in 2009, a person denied bail because of a previous conviction is not eligible for enhanced credit.

The mandatory minimum ruling in R. v. Lloyd can be accessed at this link, and here is one key passage from the majority opinion in Lloyd:

The reality is this: mandatory minimum sentence provisions that apply to offences that can be committed in various ways, under a broad array of circumstances and by a wide range of people are constitutionally vulnerable.  This is because such provisions will almost inevitably include an acceptable reasonable hypothetical for which the mandatory minimum will be found unconstitutional.  If Parliament hopes to maintain mandatory minimum sentences for offences that cast a wide net, it should consider narrowing their reach so that they only catch offenders that merit that mandatory minimum sentences.  In the alternative, Parliament could provide for judicial discretion to allow for a lesser sentence where the mandatory minimum would be grossly disproportionate and would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Insofar as s. 5(3)(a)(i)(D) of the CDSA requires a one‑year mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment, it violates the guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment in s. 12 of the Charter.  This violation is not justified under s. 1. Parliament’s objective of combatting the distribution of illicit drugs is important.  This objective is rationally connected to the imposition of a one‑year mandatory minimum sentence under s. 5(3)(a)(i)(D) of the CDSA. However, the provision does not minimally impair the s. 12 right.

April 15, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Making in Oklahoma the modern "conservative appeal against death penalty"

Richard Viguerie has this notable new commentary in an Oklahoma paper headlined "A conservative appeal against death penalty." Here are excerpts:

This election year, Republican and Democratic voters in records numbers agree on something: They distrust political leaders and the political establishment.  That same distrust applies to ambitious prosecutors, who are part of the political establishment.  Too many have been caught cheating to win convictions, withholding exculpatory evidence and using coerced confessions.

The bipartisan distrust of the political establishment is certainly increasing with regard to the death penalty.  The government's troubling track record of exercising its life-ending authority provides ample reason for concern.  Since 1973, more than 155 people have been released from death row because they were wrongfully convicted. Ten were from Oklahoma.  As an anti-abortion, pro-law enforcement conservative who believes in the sanctity of life and society's duty to protect the innocent, I find this unacceptable.

Oklahoma's well-documented wrongful convictions and failure to adhere to established execution protocols have shown that it cannot be trusted with properly carrying out the solemn responsibility of executing inmates. Oklahoma officials might soon compound these known problems by attempting again to execute Richard Glossip, a man who may well be innocent....

Conservatives are the leaders against government abuse and lawlessness. We understand that government can be callous about its errors, which are costly and cause harm to the innocent. When government tries to execute a man who may well be innocent, I believe we have an even higher calling to speak out.

Oklahoma's systemic failures and Glossip's case in particular are emblematic of what is wrong with America's death penalty. The death penalty's problems are a confluence of things that all Americans loathe: a big, broken, costly and dangerous government program prone to mistakes, and with questionable positive benefits.

It was recently announced that a bipartisan group of eminent Oklahomans would be donating their time to a first-of-its-kind review of the Oklahoma death penalty system. I urge all Oklahomans, and especially conservatives, to support the call for a moratorium on the Oklahoma death penalty until this commission has finished its task and made its recommendations.

The death penalty system, where errors are gravest, is prone to flaws and lawlessness like any other government program.

Recent prior related post:

April 15, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, April 14, 2016

California board recommends parole for former "Manson family member" Leslie Van Houten

Though the federal system and a number of states have abolished parole, a number of states still have this method of prisoner release and high-profile cases often provide a reminder of this important reality. And, as highlighted by this new Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Board recommends parole for Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten," high-profile parole cases can reach back to crimes committed nearly a half-century ago. Here are the details and some context:

A California review board recommended parole Thursday for former Charles Manson family member Leslie Van Houten, who was convicted in the 1969 killings of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. The decision was issued following a hearing earlier in the day at the California Institution for Women in Chino.  Van Houten has been denied parole 19 times since she was convicted of murder in the deaths of Leno LaBianca, a wealthy grocer, and his second wife at their Los Feliz home.

After the ruling is reviewed by the parole board's legal team, it will be forwarded to Gov. Jerry Brown, who could decide to block Van Houten’s release.  Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey expressed disapproval after the decision was announced: "We disagree with the board's decision and will evaluate how we plan to proceed."

The youngest of Manson’s followers, Van Houten, 66, has been considered the least blameworthy member of the group, and has been portrayed by supporters as a misguided teen under the influence of LSD on the night of the killings. A former homecoming queen from Monrovia, Van Houten did not join in the Aug. 9, 1969, killings of Sharon Tate, the wife of film director Roman Polanski, and four others at the Benedict Canyon home that Tate was renting.

But the following day, then-19-year-old Van Houten joined in slaying the LaBiancas. Van Houten and another woman held down Rosemary LaBianca as Charles “Tex” Watson stabbed Leno LaBianca. After Watson stabbed Rosemary LaBianca, he handed Van Houten a knife. She testified to stabbing Rosemary at least 14 more times. The blood of the victims was used to scrawl messages on the walls, as had been done at the Benedict Canyon home.

In prior bids for parole, Van Houten's attorneys have characterized her as a model inmate who has obtained a college degree behind bars and has been active in self-help groups. At a 2002 parole board hearing, Van Houten said she was “deeply ashamed” of what she had done, adding: "I take very seriously not just the murders, but what made me make myself available to someone like Manson."...

Van Houten's attorney, Richard Pfeiffer, said he believed the two-member board was most persuaded by her exemplary behavior behind bars. "Since 1980, there were 18 different doctors who did psychiatric evaluations of her. Every single one found she was suitable for parole," Pfeiffer said.

Van Houten told her attorney that she was left "numb" by the decision handed down Thursday. Pfeiffer said he's hopeful that Brown opts to grant her parole. "The opposition to parole has always been the name Manson," he said. "A lot of people who oppose parole don’t know anything about Leslie’s conduct. Her role was bad. Everyone’s was. But they don’t know what she’s done since then and all of the good she’s done."

Last summer, a parole board recommended parole for Manson associate Bruce Davis, who was convicted in the 1969 killings of Gary Hinman and Donald “Shorty” Shea. But in January, Gov. Brown rejected parole for the 73-year-old, stating that “Davis' own actions demonstrate that he had fully bought into the depraved Manson family beliefs.” Davis was not involved in the killings of the LaBiancas, Tate and four others.

April 14, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Costs of Pretrial Detention"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new piece authored by Shima Baradaran Baughman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Spending on U.S. incarceration has increased dramatically over the last several decades.  Much of this cost is on incarcerating pretrial detainees — inmates not convicted of a crime — which constitute the majority of individuals in our nation’s jails.  

Current statutory schemes give judges almost complete discretion to order pretrial detention based on unexplained or unidentified factors.  With this discretion, judges tend to make inconsistent decisions in every jurisdiction, some releasing almost all defendants — including the most dangerous — and others detaining most defendants — even those who are safe to release.  There are constitutional and moral reasons to evaluate our current detention scheme, but even the fiscal impact of pretrial detention alone calls for an empirical analysis.

Although legal scholarship has applied cost-benefit analysis to other areas of criminal law, this Article is the first attempt at conducting such analysis in the pretrial arena.  This Article compares the risk posed by each defendant and the cost of any crimes they may potentially commit while released with the costs incurred by detaining these defendants.  The results show that relying on the cost-benefit model provided here, judges could bring significant savings — approximately $78 Billion, increased safety, and potentially more equitable pretrial detention decisions.

April 14, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Federal district judge declines to enjoin "scarlet passport" provision of new federal International Megan’s Law

As reported in this AP piece, a "federal judge declined Wednesday to immediately block a law that requires a marker to be placed in the passports of people convicted of sex offenses against children."  Here is more about a notable first ruling about a notable provision of a notable new federal law:

Since the marker provision has not yet gone into effect, deciding whether to block it over constitutional issues would be premature, U.S. District Court Judge Phyllis Hamilton said. "It is not clear, for example, what form the identifier will take, which citizens will be required to carry a passport with the identifier, or whether the identifier will appear on the face of the passport or will be readable only by a scanner," she said.

Opponents of the marker have called it a "Scarlet Letter" that would wrongly imply that passport holders had engaged in child sex trafficking or child sex tourism and subject them to danger. Janice Bellucci, the attorney challenging the law, said she wasn't sure yet whether she would appeal Hamilton's ruling. Bellucci had requested a preliminary injunction against the law.

Bellucci said the judge missed a primary argument for blocking the law. "It doesn't make any difference what the identifier is and how it's applied to a passport," she said. "The fact is any identifier violates the constitution." Bellucci has said a marker would unlawfully compel speech.

The passport marker is part of the so-called International Megan's Law that President Barack Obama signed in February. It also requires that other countries are notified that registered sex offenders are traveling there. The Department of Justice says the law attempts to address cases where people evade such notifications by traveling to an intermediate country before going to their final destination.

Prior related posts:

April 13, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Restrictive medical marijuana reforms proposed by Ohio legislature in shadow of broader initiative effort

As a bellwether state with a long history of picking White House winners, I often feel very lucky to be in Ohio in big election years to observe how local, state and national politics surrounding various criminal justice issues play out in the Buckeye State.  But this year, given my particular interest in marijuana reform, law and policy and the coming (brokered?) GOP convention in Cleveland, my Buckeye political and policy cup is already running over.  

I bring all this up today because, as detailed in this new local article, "Ohio state lawmakers release plan to legalize medical marijuana," local GOP legislative leaders in Ohio are now actively peddling an important (but restrictive) medical marijuana reform proposal at the same time the national Marijuana Policy Project is gathering signatures and building a campaign for (much broader) medical marijuana reform in the form of a November 2016 voter initiative to amend the Ohio Constitution.  Here are the basics and latest in these dynamic ongoing Buckeye marijuana reform developments:

Ohio state lawmakers released plans today to legalize marijuana for medical use. The bill being considered would allow doctors to write notes for marijuana for medical use. It would still allow for drugfree workplaces.

People who use medical marijuana, could still be fired from their job, according to the bill.  The bill will not allow for home growing of marijuana.

Doctors would be required to periodically report to the state why they are prescribing marijuana instead of other drugs. Anyone taking medical marijuana under the age of 18 would require parental consent.

Ohio lawmakers are also asking the federal government to change marijuana from a Schedule 1 drug to a Schedule 2 drug.  Hearing will start soon on the legislation and there could be as many as two hearings a week. No word yet on where Gov. John Kasich stands on the legislation.

The move comes as groups start collecting signatures to put an issue on the ballot before voters in November.... [and] polls show that legalizing marijuana just for medical use is popular across the state....

Ohioans for Medical Marijuana, which is backed by a national group, expects to spend $900,000 collecting 306,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform (where in coming days I will do some anaylsis of the Ohio bill and reactions thereto).

April 13, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Taking stock of how the continued lack of lethal drug stocks is altering execution dynamics

The folks at The Marshall Project have this effective new review of the state of death penalty states deep into the enduring challenges so many are having finding lethal injection drugs for executions. The piece is headlined "How the Drug Shortage Has Slowed the Death-Penalty Treadmill: Only 4 states are currently carrying out lethal injections, and 10 are considering other methods." Here is the piece's effective accounting (with links from the original):

We’ve determined the status of executions for the 31 states that allow the death penalty, as well as for the federal government. Here is the breakdown:

  • Only four states are currently carrying out lethal injections. Texas, Missouri, and Georgia use a single drug, pentobarbital (Georgia is set to use the drug for an execution on Tuesday). Alabama has scheduled an execution next month, and uses three drugs in its protocol, including midazolam and pentobarbital. The state’s Department of Corrections has refused to divulge the source of those drugs, which were used for an execution in January, the state’s first in two years.

  • Florida has also enveloped its lethal-injection process in secrecy — and may be able to carry it out — but executions are on hold there because of a Supreme Court decision, Hurst v. Florida, which invalidated the state’s rules surrounding how judges hand down death sentences.

  • Three active execution states have drugs that are about to expire (Virginia, Arizona, and Arkansas). Many states have turned to small compounding pharmacies, which make a version of pentobarbital that loses its potency more quickly than the type manufactured by larger companies.

  • Three states (Arizona, Arkansas, and Oklahoma) are tied up in court battles over their drug sources. In Arizona and Arkansas, state officials have said the drugs they have on hand could reach their expiration date before those battles conclude.

  • The difficulty of finding a source of drugs has led Louisiana to halt executions until at least July, and Ohio’s execution chamber will not be in use until 2017. Several of the 11 executions Ohio had planned for this year are rescheduled for as late as 2019. Nebraska is also looking for execution drugs, although the state legislature repealed the death penalty; a public referendum on the punishment is expected in November.

  • Since 2010, the year the drug shortage began to take hold, 17 states and thefederal government have carried out no executions. Five other states (Delaware, Idaho, Mississippi, South Carolina, and South Dakota) have carried out no executions since 2012.

At least 10 states have recently considered other methods of execution, including the firing squad (Utah, Mississippi, Wyoming, South Carolina, Missouri, and Arkansas), the electric chair (Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia), and the gas chamber (Oklahoma). Mississippi has considered all three.

April 13, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Continued compelling commentary on the Clintons, crime, punishment and the 1994 Crime Bill

In this post over the weekend, titled "The many challenge of a fully nuanced understanding the Clintons, crime, punishment and the 1994 Crime Bill," I highlighted nearly a dozen articles and commentary to stress that there are many nuances essential to a full understanding of just what the 1994 Crime Bill did (and did not) achieve, and just what has been the role and record of former Prez Bill Clinton (and Prez candidate Hillary Clinton) on criminal justice reforms past and present. And because these stories are so nuanced, and I glad we are continuing to see lots of worthy commentary on these fronts, such as these recent pieces from various sources:

I am very pleased to see this important 20-year-old story is getting some useful attention now as part of the 2016 campaign.  But, for a variety of reasons, I hope attention soon turns to the more recent (very mixed) records of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama on crime and punishment with focused questions to all the remaining 2016 candidates about whether, why and how they will be eager to continue or to change various modern federal criminal justice policies and practices.

April 13, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

"Accounting for Prosecutors"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting looking new paper by Daniel Richman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

What role should prosecutors play in promoting citizenship within a liberal democracy?  And how can a liberal democracy hold its prosecutors accountable for playing that role? Particularly since I’d like to speak in transnational terms, peeling off a distinctive set of potential “prosecutorial” contributions to democracy — as opposed to those made by other criminal justice institutions — is a challenge.  Holding others — not just citizens but other institutions – to account is at the core of what prosecutors do.  As gatekeepers to the adjudicatory process, prosecutors shape what charges are brought and against whom, and will (if allowed to) become shapers of citizenship.  They also can can promote police compliance with legal and democratic norms.  Because the prosecutorial role in case creation is largest when crimes are not open and notorious, prosecutors can also play an outsized role in the bringing of cases that target instances of illegitimate subordination (including domestic violence) and corruption that are antithetical to a liberal democracy.

After considering ways in which prosecutors might promote democratic values, I explore (quite tentatively) how prosecutors can be held to account.  Working from existing practices and structures, I consider how we might promote their potential contributions through legal and institutional design with respect to reason-giving obligations; geographic scale; insulation from direct political influence, and modulation of their message.

April 12, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Taking a close look at the prosecutor dealing with Miller and Montgomery on the ground in Philly

Daniel Denvir has this intriguing piece in Salon about the resentencing of juvenile murderers in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection. The full headline highlights its themes: "The unconstitutional outrage of juvenile life sentences: Why Philadelphia will be a case study for this criminal-justice reform: The city is faced with deciding what to do about 300 now-unconstitutional juvenile life sentences." Here is how it starts:

Children convicted of committing murder on Philadelphia’s violent streets long faced the prospect of receiving the harshest sentence short of death: life without parole. Today, the city has more juvenile offenders locked up for life than any other. It has been a grim and predictable cycle: Young black men mourned at premature funerals and their killers packed into state prisons with only the narrowest hope of ever leaving. And then the tough-on-crime pendulum began to swing back.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole for juveniles was unconstitutional, and in a January decision they made that ruling retroactive. And so Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has roughly 300 big decisions to make: How long will he seek to imprison the onetime juveniles, many now much older, who until recently were set to die behind bars?

States responded to the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision in a hodgepodge manner, including by abolishing juvenile life without parole entirely. In Pennsylvania, however, then-Gov. Tom Corbett signed a law that angered reform advocates for its harshness, changing the sentence for first-degree murder to 35 years to life for older juveniles, and 25 to life for younger ones. Those convicted of second-degree murder now face sentences of 20 or 30 years to life.

Critically, the law did not make the new sentences retroactive, leaving hundreds of Pennsylvania juvenile lifers in limbo. The Court’s January decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana means that prosecutors and judges throughout Pennsylvania will soon face a deluge of prisoners asking to be re-sentenced. In Philadelphia, advocates are concerned that Williams, who has taken a tough line in the past, will fight to keep many behind bars for a long time.

“The District Attorney has a pretty stark choice,” emails Marc Bookman, director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation. “He can either follow the very obvious trend away from sentencing juveniles to life without parole sentences, or he can swim against the tide and against the dictates of the Supreme Court and continue to seek such sentences.”

Williams’ office, which declined to comment for this story, must navigate the gap between the Supreme Court and the current state law. It’s unclear how he will proceed. The Supreme Court only barred mandatory life without parole sentences, so he could try to keep some locked up. The Court did make it clear, however, that life without parole sentences should only be applied in rare cases where an offender is “irreparably corrupted.”

Brad Bridge, a lead attorney at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, criticized Williams’ past opposition to making Miller retroactive and says that he should move quickly to resolve the cases of those who have been incarcerated the longest. “Based upon [these court rulings,] we now must re-sentence over 300 juvenile lifers in Philadelphia,” emails Bridge. “Given that over 100 of these juvenile lifers have been incarcerated for over 30 years, we should quickly resolve those cases immediately by agreeing to release those who have done well in prison. It is only by prompt resolution of 100, and maybe 200, of these cases that the resources of the judiciary, prosecutor and defense can be properly focused on the 100 cases that cannot be resolved by agreement.”

Bridge and the Juvenile Law Center, a leading critic of juvenile life without parole, have called for the prisoners to be re-sentenced on third-degree murder, carrying a sentence of 20 to 40 years. But Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, has argued that the harsher sentences meted out by the state’s new law should be applied.

Seth Williams is the association’s vice president, and last fall conveyed his opposition to re-sentencing, telling WHYY that the prisoners “aren’t kids in fifth grade doing these things… We’re talking about killings. Not someone who stole someone’s laptop. We’re talking about the loss of life. And us having to look into the eyes of victims’ families, who want something done.”

April 12, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 11, 2016

New Orleans judge threatening to turn public defender funding crisis into a public safety problem

32This local article from the Big Easy reports on notable efforts by a local judge to make sure it is no longer easy for public officials to ignore the problem of inadequate funding of public defenders to represent indigent criminal defendants.  The article is headlined "New Orleans judge orders release of seven inmates charged with serious felonies because of lack of money for defense, but men will remain jailed pending an appeal," and here are the basic details:

In a potentially blockbuster ruling, an Orleans Parish judge on Friday ordered seven indigent inmates released from jail because of a lack of state money for attorneys to represent them amid a squeeze on public defense funding in New Orleans and across Louisiana.

However, Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter stayed his order, which also included a suspension of the men’s prosecutions, pending an appeal from District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office. Assistant District Attorney David Pipes told Hunter an appeal is coming, and Hunter gave him 10 days. The seven men will remain behind bars pending the outcome of that appeal.

All of them face serious felony charges — including murder, armed robbery and aggravated rape — and all have been deemed indigent. Most have spent more than a year behind bars, going months without legal help on their cases, attorneys said.

Hunter ruled that the lack of state funding for the seven men’s defense violated their Sixth Amendment rights and that the resulting uncertainty on when their cases might move forward warrants their release. “The defendants’ constitutional rights are not contingent on budget demands, waiting lists and the failure of the Legislature to adequately fund indigent defense,” Hunter wrote in his 11-page ruling, portions of which he read from the bench.

“We are now faced with a fundamental question, not only in New Orleans but across Louisiana: What kind of criminal justice system do we want? One based on fairness or injustice, equality or prejudice, efficiency or chaos, right or wrong?”

A spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office said the district attorney “believes that releasing defendants charged with serious acts of violence poses a clear and present danger to public safety, and he intends to appeal the ruling.” Spokesman Christopher Bowman added, “It appears that the judge’s ruling declares that a legislative act — namely the most recent budget — violates the Louisiana Constitution.”

Tulane Law School professor Pam Metzger, who is representing all seven in their bid for release, said she was “thrilled that the judge appreciates the extraordinary constitutional obligations of providing poor people with counsel and due process of law.” She said she was disappointed that Hunter stayed his ruling but that attorneys would continue pressing to free the men.

In addition to Metzger, each of the men has an attorney appointed by Hunter. But in his ruling, Hunter said the appointment of private attorneys without any state money available for early witness and defendant interviews, filing motions and strategizing “makes a mockery of the Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel.”

Hunter was following directions laid out in a 2005 Louisiana Supreme Court decision on when judges can halt prosecutions because of a lack of adequate indigent defense funds. The court said a judge can stop a case “until he or she determines that appropriate funding is likely to be available.” The “absence of a date certain” when that money will come, Hunter found, also violates the right to due process guaranteed in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Louisiana Constitution’s edict for the Legislature to “provide for a uniform system for securing and compensating qualified counsel for indigents.”...

Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton’s office had turned away the seven cases, citing a severe budget shortfall, bloated workloads and the loss of several experienced attorneys in his office.

Hunter, who has taken drastic measures during past funding shortfalls at the Public Defenders Office — he ordered the release of several inmates after Hurricane Katrina — doled out the seven men’s cases to private attorneys, who promptly sought a halt to the prosecutions and the men’s release. They said they can’t do any work on the cases unless they get money to pay for investigators and other expenses.

Hunter’s ruling came after a series of hearings in his courtroom that began in November with testimony from Bunton and Jay Dixon, who heads the Louisiana Public Defender Board, among others. They testified that indigent defense in Louisiana is facing a crisis because of a system in which local offices are funded largely through fines and fees leveled on criminal defendants, mostly for traffic violations. Those revenues have slid steadily over the past several years, in some parishes more than others. All told, almost a dozen district public defenders across the state have instituted austerity programs.

In New Orleans, that has meant a hiring freeze since last summer and, beginning in January, a refusal by Bunton’s office to accept appointments in serious felony cases — now at 110 and counting — because of a lack of experienced attorneys to handle them, according to Bunton. “Obviously, the charges involved in these cases are really serious, so I do think folks should be concerned about public safety,” Bunton said Friday. “We wouldn’t need to be in this position if (the state) provided the resources that are necessary under the constitution. You can only prosecute as fast as you can defend, and if you can’t defend, you can’t prosecute.”...

The defenders’ funding troubles may be getting even worse. In Baton Rouge, lawmakers grappling with the state’s deep budget morass have threatened deep cuts in the $33 million in annual state funding that has supplemented local revenue, making up about a third of the overall funding for indigent defense across the state. The Louisiana Supreme Court has in the past endorsed a halt to prosecutions until adequate funding becomes available. But it has stopped short of ordering action by the Legislature.

At a recent hearing, Metzger described an “abject state of financial crisis. There is no money to fund these defenses. ... The cause of the delay rests entirely with the state. The Legislature has been on notice not simply for weeks or months or years but for decades.”

In a legal filing last week, however, Cannizzaro’s office described the private attorneys seeking to be relieved from the cases as bent on “nothing less than anarchy” by pressing for the defendants’ release and a halt to their prosecutions, while “hoping for a paycheck” at the expense of justice. “They are seeking to bring down a system they disagree with rather than protecting the rights of those individuals this court has appointed them to represent,” Pipes wrote.

A statement from Mayor Mitch Landrieu called Hunter’s ruling “a miscarriage of justice on all sides” and urged the judge “for the sake of the victims and their families” to “reconsider putting alleged murderers back on the streets, like Darrian Franklin.”

“The state needs to live up to its obligation by fully funding the public defender, and the judge should continue to work on getting the State to appropriately fund its responsibilities,” the statement read.

April 11, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The many challenges of a fully nuanced understanding of the Clintons, crime, punishment and the 1994 Crime Bill

Blog_prison_population_crime_bill_0The notable interchange a few days ago between former Prez Bill Clinton and protestors (noted here) has brought renewed attention to the contributions of the 1994 "Clinton" Crime Bill to mass incarceration and the massive reduction in modern crime rates.  Like every other important criminal justice story, there is considerable nuance to fully understanding (1) just what the 1994 Crime Bill did (and did not do), and (2) just what this single piece of federal legislation has produced with respect to crime and punishment two decades later.  Also full of considerable nuance is the role and record of Prez Bill Clinton (and now Prez candidate Hillary Clinton) on criminal justice reforms past and present.

All the political, policy and practical dynamics of the Clintons' record and the 1994 Crime Bill justifies considerable scholarly commentary, and lots of important nuances cannot be fully captured by soundbites or brief blog postings. Nevertheless, I thought it might be useful here, in service to encouraging a richer understanding of all these matters, to collect below a number of notable commentaries I have seen that help highlight why any simple account of the Clintons, crime, punishment and the 1994 Crime Bill is likely to be simply wrong:

UPDATE:  Here is another recent addition to this list via the New York Times: "Prison Rate Was Rising Years Before 1994 Law"

April 10, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, National and State Crime Data, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, April 09, 2016

In praise of "The Record" created by The Marshall Project

DownloadAnyone and everyone who reads this blog ought by now be regularly checking out all the criminal justice reporting and referencing now done by The Marshall Project. And, wonderfully, this terrific resource is now also committed to archiving criminal justice stories through what it is calling The Record.  Via the week-ending email I get from The Marshall Project, here is what this new feature is all about:

The Record is the online library TMP staff has curated over the past two years of some of the best criminal justice reporting on the internet.  Here is a 14,000-entry collection of reporting about topics, including “sentencing reform” and “death penalty”; events like the “Charleston Church shooting,” and people, including “Kalief Browder” and our namesake, “Thurgood Marshall.” Check it out and please send us your feedback....

There are many reasons why we did this; my favorite is that by making it easier for journalists, lawyers, academics, and others to find criminal justice stories we improve the chances that those engaged in the countless debates to come will be armed with more historical context and perspective, not to mention good, old-fashioned facts. That point was emphatically made on Thursday— the very day we launched, right on cue — by Bill Clinton, whose sharp retort to "Black Lives Matter" protesters begged for a look back at the conditions and consequences of the 1994 Crime Bill (a category included in The Record). The story of that law, like every other contentious criminal justice policy, is complicated, more complicated than either the protestors or the former president have made it out to be.  If the stories contained in The Record help illustrate the contours of those complications, the nuances that get lost in the heat of the moment, the background that helps explain why some themes suddenly rush to the foreground, our work will have succeeded.

April 9, 2016 in Recap posts, Recommended reading, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 08, 2016

Latest USSC retroctivity data suggest prison savings approaching $2 billion from drugs-2 guideline amendment retroactivity

The US Sentencing Commission's website has this new document titled simply "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This report, dated April 2016, provides "information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782.  The data in this report reflects all motions decided through March 25, 2016 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by March 29, 2016."

The official data in the report indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive, now 26,850 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of two years.  So, using my typical (conservative) estimate of each extra year of imprisonment for federal drug offenders costing on average $35,000, the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive so far appears to be on track to save federal taxpayers around $1.9 billion dollars.  

As I have said before and will say again in this context, kudos to the US Sentencing Commission for providing at least some evidence that at least some government bureaucrats inside the Beltway will sometimes vote to reduce the size and costs of the federal government.  Perhaps more importantly, especially as federal statutory sentencing reforms remained stalled in Congress and as Prez Obama continues to be cautious in his use of his clemency power, this data provides still more evidence that the work of the US Sentencing Commission in particular and of the federal judiciary in general remains the most continuously important and consequential force influencing federal prison populations and sentencing outcomes.

April 8, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Former Prez Clinton takes on protestors complaining about his tough-on-crime policies

This new Reuters article, headlined "Bill Clinton confronts protesters who say his crime reforms hurt blacks," reports on a notable exchange about crime and punishment involving former President Bill Clinton today. Here are the details:

Former President Bill Clinton faced down protesters angry at the impact his crime reforms of 20 years ago have had on black Americans and defended the record of Hillary Clinton, his wife, who is relying on the support of black voters in her quest for the presidency. The former president spent more than 10 minutes confronting the protesters at a campaign rally in Philadelphia for his wife on Thursday over criticisms that a 1994 crime bill he approved while president led to a surge in the imprisonment of black people....

In Philadelphia, several protesters heckled the former president mid-speech and held up signs, including one that read "CLINTON Crime Bill Destroyed Our Communities."

Video footage of Hillary Clinton defending the reforms in 1994 has been widely circulated during the campaign by activists in the Black Lives Matter protest movement. In the footage she calls young people in gangs "super-predators" who need to "be brought to heel." Hillary Clinton, 68, who also has faced protesters upset by her remarks, in February said she regretted her language.

Bill Clinton, 69, who was president from 1993-2001, on Thursday defended her 1994 remarks, which protesters say were racially insensitive, and suggested the protesters' anger was misplaced. "I don't know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children," he said, shaking his finger at a heckler as Clinton supporters cheered, according to video of the event. "Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She (Hillary Clinton) didn't."

"You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter," he told a protester. "Tell the truth."

Hillary Clinton promised to end "mass incarceration" in her first major speech of her campaign last year. She has won the support of the majority of black voters in every state nominating contest so far, often by a landslide....

Bill Clinton said last year that he regrets signing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act into law because it contributed to the country's high incarceration rate of black people for nonviolent crimes. On Thursday, he did not explicitly recant those regrets, but appeared to be angry at any suggestion the bill was wholly bad.

The legislation imposed tougher sentences, put thousands more police on the streets and helped fund the building of extra prisons. It was know for its federal "three strikes" provision that sent violent offenders to prison for life. The bill was backed by congressional Republicans and hailed at the time as a success for Clinton....

Bill Clinton's remarks on Thursday drew criticism online. Some saw him as dismissive of the Black Lives Matter movement, a national outgrowth of anger over a string of encounters in which police officers killed unarmed black people.

April 7, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Public concerns about crime and violence increases, justifiably, along with increasing crime rates

Fgroul1z306minwfhuphkwThis new report from Gallup, headlined "Americans' Concern About Crime Climbs to 15-Year High," details that it is not only politicians and researchers who have noticed that crime rates are up in recent years.  Here are the basic details:

Americans' level of concern about crime and violence is at its highest point in 15 years. Fifty-three percent of U.S. adults say they personally worry "a great deal" about crime and violence, an increase of 14 percentage points since 2014.  This figure is the highest Gallup has measured since March 2001.

Twenty-six percent of U.S. adults currently worry "a fair amount" about crime and violence, while 22% worry "only a little" or "not at all."

When Gallup first asked Americans about their level of concern regarding crime and violence in March 2001, 62% said they worried a great deal.  That figure remains the highest level of worry in Gallup's 15-year trend on this question. In the months leading up to 9/11, Americans consistently mentioned crime and violence as one of the most important problems facing the country in response to a separate Gallup question.  But after 9/11, crime and violence no longer appeared among the list of problems Americans identified as most important, with terrorism rising to the top.

In turn, the percentage saying they personally worry about crime and violence plunged to 49% by March 2002.  Crime worry remained at a lower level over the next decade, as Americans named other issues such as the situation in Iraq, terrorism, the economy, dissatisfaction with government and healthcare as the most important problems facing the country.  After falling to a record-low 39% in 2014, worry about crime and violence increased in 2015 and 2016.

The rise in Americans' level of concern about crime could reflect actual, albeit modest, increases in crime, as well as increasing media coverage of it.  The number of violent crimes reported to police across the country in the first half of 2015 was up by 1.7% compared with the same period in 2014, according to the FBI's 2015 Uniform Crime Report.  Many large U.S. cities reported spikes in their homicide rates in 2015, including Milwaukee, St. Louis, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. From a long-term perspective, though, violent crime is down significantly since the 1990s.

April 7, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Disconcerting report on the (declining?) state of federal statutory sentencing reform efforts in Congress

This new New York Times report on the status and fate of federal statutory sentencing reform has me getting ever closer to asserting that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will not get to President Obama's desk before election day.  The piece is headlined "Garland Fight Overshadows Effort to Overhaul Sentencing Laws On Washington," and here are excerpts:

A bipartisan overhaul of criminal justice laws was supposed to be a defining issue of this Congress, a rare unifying moment for Republicans, Democrats and President Obama. Instead, the members of the Judiciary Committee who wrote the criminal justice package are at war over whether to consider Mr. Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Merrick B. Garland.

This feud over the nomination has overshadowed the effort to reduce mandatory minimum sentences and ease the transition from prison. Now supporters of an overhaul are worried about its fate, especially with the Senate about to turn to a series of time­consuming spending bills and the electionyear calendar approaching a point where little gets done that is not absolutely necessary.

“If this is going to happen along with 12 appropriations bills, we are going to have to elbow our way into the queue,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, one of the chief Democratic authors of the bill. “The ball is now on the Republican side of the net.”

Before the death of Antonin Scalia in February created a Supreme Court vacancy, the criminal justice measure had already run into trouble from skeptical Senate Republicans, notably Tom Cotton of Arkansas. He contended that the proposed sentencing changes would result in the premature release of violent felons. And there were whispers about Willie Horton, the furloughed inmate who committed a rape while on release from a state prison in Massachusetts, a case that Republicans used in 1988 to portray Michael S. Dukakis, then the state’s governor and the Democratic nominee for president, as soft on crime.

The internal turbulence led Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, to urge Republican authors of the measure to consider changes to win over some doubters and ease party divisions. They have retooled the legislation, decreasing the chances of felons who carried guns in their crimes qualifying for lighter sentences, among other expected revisions. The changes have won the backing of at least one Republican senator, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, whose aides say will support the reworked bill.

One of its top Republican supporters says they are making progress. “We continue to do work on criminal justice reform, to try to meet some of the concerns that have been previously stated and to shore up support and show additional support both inside and outside the Capitol for those important reforms,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said Tuesday.

One problem backers of the bill have run into is that senators are questioning the political risk of supporting it when the measure might not go anywhere before the November elections. At the same time, some on the left contend that the measure has been too watered down.

Hoping to restore momentum, leaders of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a coalition of conservative and liberal groups behind the legislative effort, plan to bring leading advocates from around the country to Washington next week. They will meet with undecided senators and House members to make the case for the measure. The group has also scheduled a briefing for Senate staff members on Friday with former senior law enforcement officials to try to build support and ease doubts among Senate Republicans....Other backers of the measure, including some in the Senate, are expected to step up their push for the legislation next week as well, and new endorsements could be coming.

In the House, Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin recently reaffirmed his support for a criminal justice overhaul, calling himself a late convert to the cause and promising to move forward with legislation. “We’re going to bring criminal justice reform bills, which are now out of the Judiciary Committee, to the House floor and advance this,” he said in a recent question-­and-­answer session....

Some see a potential upside in the Supreme Court fight. Mr. McConnell could be more motivated to bring the criminal justice measure to the Senate floor to show that Republicans, who are under withering criticism from Democrats on a daily basis over the Garland nomination, can work in a bipartisan way and produce some accomplishments.

“Senator McConnell has one of the bigger incentives to work on this particular bill because it is one of the few, if not the only, things that the left and right agree on,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, director of the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy institute affiliated with the New York University School of Law.

What happens in the next few weeks will determine if the criminal justice effort has a chance this year.  Failure to find consensus would represent a major defeat not just for President Obama and congressional backers of the legislation, but also for the unusual coalition of disparate political forces that united behind it as an overdue course correction from the tough­-on-­crime approach of the 1990s.

I am starting now to worry that more than a few folks on the left may be disinclined to encourage Democratic Senators like Dick Durban to elbow the SRCA into the queue based on the hope that a big Democratic victory in November would enable a push for a more robust and far-reaching reform bill.  Moreover, as every day passes, it seem to me increasingly easy given various 2016 election timelines for any and every fence-sitting Senator to urge leadership to postpone a vote on federal sentencing reform at least until the 2016 lame duck sesssion or in the next Congress.

A few 2016 related posts:

 

UPDATE: I just came across this recent Roll Call piece striking similar themes and headlines "White House Eager to Rekindle Criminal Justice Effort: Cornyn 'optimistic' but GOP fissures, floor time posing problems."

April 7, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

"Normative Retroactivity"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new piece by William Berry now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

When the Court interprets the Constitution to accord a new right to criminal offenders, the question quickly becomes which prisoners might benefit from the new rule.  The current retroactivity doctrine relies on a confusing substance-procedure dichotomy.  Drawn from Teague v. Lane, this test often results in lower court splits on the retroactivity question.  Just this term, the Supreme Court has already decided the question of retroactivity in one case — Montgomery v. Louisiana, and has granted certiorari in another — Welch v. United States.

This Article rejects the substance-procedure dichotomy and offers a competing theoretical frame for considering the question of retroactivity.  Specifically, the Article develops the concept of “normative retroactivity,” arguing that retroactivity should relate directly to the normative impact of the new rule on previous guilt and sentencing determinations.  Further, the article advances a doctrinal test for assessing normative retroactivity of new rules of criminal constitutional law that combines the normative impact of the rule with a balancing test that weighs the applicable values of fundamental fairness and equality under the law against the competing values of finality, comity, and government financial burden.

April 6, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Examining how Michigan, thanks to Montgomery, is struggling through Miller retroactivity

Me_lifers_juvenile_040516A couple of month ago I flagged here a press report on the legal and practical challenges unfolding in Pennsylvania after the Supreme Court's ruling in Montgomery v. Louisana forced the state to start dealing with all its now-unconstitutional mandatory juve LWOP sentences.  Now I see this similar story from Michigan headlined " Hundreds of Mich. juvenile lifer cases to be reviewed."  The lengthy and details article gets started this way:

Hundreds of killers sentenced to mandatory life without parole while in their teens could be resentenced this year, but a debate over how to process the cases has left prosecutors and lawyers in limbo. The Michigan Court of Appeals has been asked to decide whether a judge or jury should consider whether to give offenders new sentences. A hearing is anticipated, but a date to make arguments hasn’t been set.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that sentencing a person under 18 to life in prison without parole constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.” The decision potentially affects 363 cases in Michigan dating to 1962.

Prosecutors have been required to provide a list to the chief judge in every county of the cases that may require resentencing. Wayne County has the most, at 152. Oakland is second with 49, followed by Genesee with 26 and Kent with 24. Macomb has 12 cases to be reconsidered for sentencing. Prosecutors will have to make legal motions to resentence those they feel still deserve life without parole. Other defendants will get a minimum of 25-40 years and a maximum of 60 years to serve before automatically being considered for parole.

Critics, including families of victims, argue mandatory resentencing may be unjust and open old wounds for victims who thought their cases were settled. Local law enforcement officials and prosecutors predict the process will be lengthy, costly and could further traumatize families.

Gov. Rick Snyder has recommended adding $1.1 million to the state budget to fund 11 full-time employees at the State Appellate Defenders Office for compliance with the Supreme Court ruling. But prosecutors, struggling with smaller staffs and tighter budgets, say they need more money too. Defense and appellate attorneys agree it’ll cost money to process the cases, but they argue it’s the right thing to do.

Many young offenders are immature, act impulsively and often are under the direction of older defendants, advocates say. Some juvenile lifers already have served beyond the minimum sentences that would have otherwise taken effect under resentencing, but for the pending hearing in the Michigan Court of Appeals.

“The bottom line is we’re not opening the doors and letting them all out — there will be a process and a hearing and some will be determined unfit for release,” said Valerie Newman, an assistant defender in the State Appellate Defenders Office. “And there will still be parole hearings.”

County prosecutors in Michigan say the process will take time, money and care to ensure that people who should be in prison stay there. St. Clair County Prosecutor Michael Wendling, who recently testified before a state Senate subcommittee on potential problems with resentencing, said: “It will tie up my staff and also challenge our resources — and I have only four cases; some counties have more than a hundred.” Wendling said after it is determined a case will be resentenced, it will mean locating victims, witnesses and experts and diverting assistant prosecutors from new cases.

Among Wendling’s old cases is one from 2010 in which Tia Skinner, then 17, plotted with a boyfriend to kill her parents after they took away her cellphone. Skinner has been resentenced twice, Wendling said. Another involves James Porter, then 17, of Yale who on one morning in 1982, balanced a .22 rifle on the handlebars of his bicycle, pedaled to the house of a friend with whom he had a dispute and fatally shot the teen and four family members. “I suspect we will be seeking the same sentences on all four of our juvenile lifers — these aren’t shoplifting cases,” Wendling said.

April 6, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

"How Drug Warriors Helped to Fuel the Opioid Epidemic"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Atlantic piece.  Here is how it starts and ends:

Despite almost 50 years of the drug war — a policy that creates black markets, enriches drug cartels, and fuels killing zones in scores of cities, even as it causes the United States to cage more human beings than any other democracy in the world — it remains extremely easy for Americans to acquire the most addictive, deadly drugs.

“Overdoses from heroin, prescription drugs, and opioid painkillers have overtaken car accidents to become the leading cause of injury-related deaths in America,” The Economist reports.  “In 2014, they were responsible for 28,647 deaths. Between 2001 and 2014, deaths from heroin overdoses alone increased six-fold, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  On average, 125 people a day die from drug overdoses, 78 of them from heroin or painkillers. These numbers have been compared to deaths from HIV in the late 1980s and 1990s.”

Had the War on Drugs merely failed to prevent this epidemic, even as it destabilized numerous countries and undermined domestic liberties, it would be an abject failure.  But federal drug policy has actually been worse than useless in heroin’s rise.

In a saner world, American researchers and patients would’ve spent the last several decades experimenting with marijuana to maximize its potential as a pain reliever.  Pot use isn’t without health consequences, but is much less harmful than many prescription drugs.  Instead, drug warriors fought to stymie marijuana research, keep pot illegal, and stigmatize medical marijuana as a dangerous fraud, even as doctors prescribed more opioid painkillers — that is, medical heroin. Many get addicted, and when the pills run out, they seek a street substitute....

“What has made it previously difficult to emphasize treatment over criminal justice,” President Obama said last month, “is that the problem was identified as poor, minority, and as a consequence, the thinking was, it's often a character flaw in those individuals who live in those communities, and it's not our problem they're being locked up. One thing that's changed in this opioid debate is that it reaches everybody.  Because it's having an impact on so many people, we're seeing a bipartisan interest in addressing this problem … not just thinking in terms of criminalization or incarceration, which unfortunately has been our response to the disease of addiction."

But even today’s reformers are far too timid. The War on Drugs rages daily, and it is still a catastrophe.  The catastrophe is rooted in the black markets that federal policy creates.  It is exposed by the urban killing zones that those markets guarantee.  It is shown to be futile by the ease of acquiring the most addictive drugs despite prohibition. And it is exacerbated by decades of efforts to prevent milder drugs from serving as substitutes.  End it.

April 5, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

More reflections and criticisms of clemency work past, present and future

I reprinted here over the weekend a lovely and positive report by Lisa Rich about all the activity emerging from the White House last week on the important topic of clemency.  Thanks to Mark Osler, I have now learned that Thursday's extended "White House Briefing on Life After Clemency" can be watched in full via YouTube here. Here is how the event is described:

Building on the President's efforts to make our criminal justice system more fair by granting clemency to men and women sentenced under outdated sentencing rules, the briefing brings together academics, advocates and Administration officials seeking to remove obstacles to successful reentry. The briefing provides a collaborative environment to discuss and share ideas on the President's clemency initiative and ways to improve paths to reentry.

Critically, not everyone is having warm feelings about the work of Prez Obama and his administration's work to date in this arena.  In particular, Mark Osler followed up his participation in the White House briefing with this New York Times op-ed headlined "Obama’s Clemency Problem." Here are excerpts:

In the spring of 2014, the Obama administration announced an initiative to consider granting clemency to thousands of federal prisoners serving what Mr. Obama called “unjust” sentences for low-level drug crimes.  Federal prisoners were notified of the project, and more than 30,000 responded by submitting surveys to begin the process.

Despite the relatively high number of commutations that Mr. Obama has now granted, there are still more than 9,000 pending commutation cases, many of the sort singled out in the 2014 initiative as potentially worthy. So why has the president acted on so few?  Typically, a reluctance to exercise the pardon power is a result of political timidity.  But in this case, the Obama administration already took the political risk two years ago when it announced the clemency initiative.

The problem here is that too many cases can’t be adequately considered by the president because of a sluggish and often intransigent review process.  Clemency petitions undergo no fewer than seven levels of review, four of them within the Department of Justice.  Within the Justice Department, clemency petitions run not only through the Office of the Pardon Attorney but also through the office of the deputy attorney general.

When the pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, resigned in January, she complained in her letter of resignation that meritorious clemency cases had been thwarted by those above her. She noted in particular that some of her own recommendations had been overruled by the deputy attorney general, Sally Quillian Yates.  It is not an incidental fact that Ms. Yates is a career prosecutor.  When the Department of Justice reviews clemency cases, the opinions of prosecutors in the district of conviction are solicited and given considerable weight. But prosecutors are the wrong people for the task of vetting clemency cases.

I was a federal prosecutor for five years.  In that job, deciding someone’s fate is a necessary but difficult emotional commitment.  The prospect of being wrong — and a clemency initiative like Mr. Obama’s can feel like a judgment that prosecutors were wrong — can be a lot to bear.  We should not be surprised if, when it comes to Mr. Obama’s clemency initiative, prosecutors systematically resist what is, in effect, an indictment of their work.

President Obama can and should fix this problem with a simple executive order that places the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the White House, rather than at the bottom of the institutional structure at the Department of Justice.  An empowered pardon attorney (or perhaps a pardon board, as we find in many states) would then report directly to the president.  That would allow an independent but thorough review of clemency petitions free from the influence of career prosecutors.

And while Professor Osler is concerned about the slow and cumbersome process for considering clemency requests, this letter to AG Loretta Lynch authored by Senator Richard Shelby highlights that others are troubled by some of the few offenders who have already received sentence commutations.  Here is how Senator Shelby's letter gets started:

I am writing to you in response to yesterday’s announcement that President Barack Obama granted sentence commutations to 61 individuals. I have strong concerns that 12 of these 61 individuals were convicted of one, if not more, firearm-related offenses. These include:

  • Seven convictions of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime;
  • Four convictions of possession of a firearm by a felon; and
  • Two convictions of use of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense.

In August 2014, the Department of Justice announced its rubric for considering federal inmates for the President’s new initiative for executive clemency. Part of these criteria included: non-violent individuals who would not pose a threat to public safety if released; low-level offenders without significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs, or cartels; inmates who do not have a significant criminal history; and those who have no history of violence prior to, or during, their current term of imprisonment.

By my count, the President has commuted the sentences of over 200 of these “non-violent” federal inmates, of which 33 were convicted of firearm-related offenses.  I am troubled by the nature of the firearm-related convictions and the fact that some individuals are previously convicted felons who continued to commit crimes.  This announcement clearly demonstrates that the Administration is not following its own selection criteria.  Frankly, I am left wondering why the President and the Justice Department consider individuals who carry guns to drug deals as “non-violent”.

April 5, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, April 04, 2016

"Summary Injustice: A Look at Constitutional Deficiencies in South Carolina’s Summary Courts"

The title of this post is the title of this new report produced by National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) about low-level (in)justice in the low country. Here is a summary account via this press release of Summary Injustice:

In South Carolina, the bulk of criminal cases are low-level offenses heard in municipal and magistrate courts, collectively referred to as summary courts.  These courts often fail to inform defendants of the right to counsel, refuse to provide counsel to the poor at all stages of the criminal process, and force defendants who can’t afford to pay fines to instead serve time in jail.

“When you go to a summary court in South Carolina, you find yourself in a judicial netherworld where the police officer who made the arrest acts as the prosecutor, the judge may not have a law degree, and there are no lawyers in sight,” said Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU of South Carolina.  “By operating as if the Sixth Amendment doesn’t exist, these courts weigh the scales of justice so heavily against defendants that they often receive fines and jail time they don’t deserve.”

This report documents the constitutional violations observed by attorneys with NACDL and the ACLU in 27 different courts throughout the state during several weeks between December 2014 and July 2015, including multiple stories from defendants.  The U.S. Constitution guarantees that a person accused of a crime and who faces loss of life or liberty as punishment has the right to a lawyer even if he or she can’t afford one.

“Many, if not most, people will read this report and be shocked by the numerous and profound constitutional deficiencies in South Carolina’s summary courts as observed by NACDL and the ACLU since they began this research in 2014,” said longtime Rock Hill, South Carolina, criminal defense lawyer and NACDL Treasurer Chris Wellborn. “Sadly, as someone who has spent my career representing the criminally accused in South Carolina, I am only able to underscore how pervasively these courts have been disregarding the rights of the people of South Carolina, and that it’s been like this for decades.”

NACDL President E.G. “Gerry” Morris said: “While this important report, and a forthcoming second report to be released later this year, is focused on South Carolina, it is part of a larger initiative to study state level public defense delivery systems across the nation.  The ultimate goal is to identify and document weaknesses in different public defense delivery systems that must be remedied as well as to highlight strengths and successes in systems that can and should be replicated elsewhere.  More than 50 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, the people of America are entitled to nothing less than to have their courts respect the very rights recognized and protected by the Constitution.  NACDL will not waver in its mission to shine the light brightly on systems where that is not happening, and to offer policymakers effective solutions to what is quite clearly a widespread problem of constitutional dimensions.”

April 4, 2016 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Senators Grassley and Feinstein convening hearing on whether DOJ is "Adequately Protecting the Public" from state marijuana reforms

This recent press release from US Senate's Caucus on International Narcotics Control details that this caucus has a hearing scheduled to explore how the federal government is keeping an eye on state-level marijuana reforms. (Exactly what this has to do with international control is unclear, but big-government drug warriors on both sides of the political aisle like Senators Grassley and Feinstein have never really been too keen to worry about limiting government growth in this arena.) Here are the basic details on what is prompting this hearing:

Sen. Chuck Grassley, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee and the Caucus on International Narcotics Control, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Co-chairman of the Caucus on International Narcotics Control, will hold a hearing entitled, “Is the Department of Justice Adequately Protecting the Public from the Impact of State Recreational Marijuana Legalization?”

In August 2013, the Obama Administration decided to effectively suspend enforcement of federal law on marijuana in states that legalized it for recreational use. But to disguise its policy as prosecutorial discretion, the Administration also announced federal priorities that it claimed would guide its enforcement going forward. These priorities include preventing marijuana from being distributed to minors, stopping the diversion of marijuana into states that haven’t legalized it, and preventing adverse public health effects from marijuana use. At the time, the Justice Department warned that if state efforts weren’t enough to protect the public, then the federal government might step up its enforcement or even challenge the state laws themselves. This put the responsibility on the Department of Justice to monitor developments in these states, develop metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of its policy, and change course if developments warranted.

But a report from the Government Accountability Office that Grassley and Feinstein requested found that the Administration doesn’t have a documented plan to monitor the effects of state legalization on any of these priorities. Moreover, according to the report, officials at the Department could not even say how they make use of any information they receive related to these priorities. Grassley and Feinstein are convening this hearing to explore this problem.

What I find most notable and disconcerting about this hearing is that it claims to be exploring whether the big federal government bureaucrats inside the Beltway at DOJ who are very far removed from direct public accountability are "protecting the public" from state reforms in Alaska and Colorado and Oregon and Washington which were enacted directly by the public through voter initiatives.

Cross posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

April 4, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Lots of little SCOTUS criminal justice work to start April

April is always an exciting month for me as both a sports fan and a SCOTUS watcher: as a sports fan, I have the certain joys of the start of the MLB baseball season, the Masters, and the start of the "real" season in the NBA and NHL; as a SCOTUS watcher, I have the uncertain joys of anticipating the Justices winding down its current Term by perhaps handing down some big criminal justice opinions or cert grants.  And just as the MLB season is off to something of a cold April start — e.g., it was 39 degrees for the very first pitch yesterday in Pittsbugh, and today's Yankees game has already been postponed — so too is SCOTUS keeping it cool in the criminal justice arena at the start of April.

Specifically, the Justices kicked off one of my favorite months with three little criminal justice developments:

  1. A cert grant in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado to consider "whether a no-impeachment rule constitutionally may bar evidence of racial bias offered to prove a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury";

  2. A per curiam opinion in Woods v. Etherton to summarily reverse on AEDPA defenence grounds a decision by the Sixth Circuit in favor of a state habeas petitioner;

  3. A unanimous opinion in Nichols v. US to hold that SORNA did not require a sex offender to update his registration in Kansas once he departed the State for the Phillipines. 

If I did not have to obssess over a number of other matters this morning (including whether I managed to acquire any fantasy baseball sleepers during my draft this past weekend), I might be able to find some sleeper SCOTUS story to discuss within these developments. But absent readers helping me identify something big in these seemingly little developments, I am likely to move on to other bloggy matters (such as continuing to speculate how Justice Scalia's untimely demise has been impacting the Court's work in criminal justice cases).

April 4, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, April 03, 2016

"Subconstitutional Checks"

The title of this post is the title of this great-looking new paper authored by Shima Baradaran Baughman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Constitutional checks are an important part of the American justice system.  The Constitution demands structural checks where it provides commensurate power.  The Constitution includes several explicit checks in criminal law. Criminal defendants have the right to counsel, indictment by grand jury, trial by jury, the public or executive elects or appoints prosecutors, legislatures limit actions of police and prosecutors, and courts enforce individual constitutional rights and stop executive misconduct.  However, these checks have rarely functioned as intended by the constitution and criminal law has failed to create — what I call — “subconstitutional checks” to adapt to the changes of the modern criminal state.

Subconstitutional checks are stopgaps formed in the three branches of government to effectuate the rights in the constitution when the system is stalled in dysfunction, when one branch has subjugated the others, or when two or more branches have colluded with one another.  The need for sub constitutional checks is evident in the criminal arena. In the modern criminal state, plea agreements have virtually replaced jury trials, discipline and electoral competition between prosecutors is rare, separation of powers does not serve its purpose because the interests of all branches are often aligned, and individual constitutional rights have little real power to protect defendants from the state.

As a result, the lack of structural constitutional checks in criminal law has lead to constitutional dysfunction.  Though never recognized as such, constitutional dysfunction in criminal law is evidenced by mass incarceration, wrongful convictions, overly harsh legislation, and an inability to stop prosecutor and police misconduct.  This Article sheds light on the lack of constitutional checks by performing an external constitutional critique of the criminal justice system to explore this structural gap in the three branches and concludes that creating subconstitutional checks has the potential of reducing criminal dysfunction and creating a more balanced criminal justice system.

April 3, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

A more positive spin on clemency developments and more positive aspects

LisaRichRegular readers may grow somewhat tired of hearing me kvetch about President Obama being much more willing to talk the talk than walk the walk when it comes to criminal justice reform generally and clemency developments in particular. For that reason (and others), I invited always sunny Lisa Rich to provide for blogging her sunny perspective on clemency events that transpired at the White House last week. Here is what she was kind enough to send my way for posting:

A somewhat sentimental post by Lisa A. Rich, former director of Legislative & Public Affairs at the U.S. Sentencing Commission and current director of the Texas A&M School of Law Residency Externship Program in Public Policy:
Last Week, I had the privilege of joining not only the tireless advocates of the Justice Roundtable and White House staff but over two dozen recipients of clemency spanning four presidencies during the Justice Roundtable and White House Briefings on “Life After Clemency.”
Personally, it was a joy to see all of the people — Nkechi Taifa, Mark Osler, Cynthia Rosenberry, Jesselyn McCurdy, Julie Stewart, Margy Love, and so many others who have been working tirelessly to answer the Obama Adminstration’s call to action on clemency.  I am in awe of the ceaseless dedication these advocates demonstrate every day in their pursuit of hope and justice for those human beings who deserve a chance to be something so much more than a statistic in our cycle of mass incarceration. These advocates and those for whom they do their jobs are the role models I discuss in my classes and they are the ones who inspire me to be better.
But more than my personal connection with those I miss because I am no longer living in D.C., the events over these past three days were important for two reasons.  First, all of us, including the President and White House staff saw and heard what hope is all about.  We heard from clemency recipients about heartache, mistake, and loss being turned into determination, faith, and commitment.  We heard people who genuinely want to make their communities and their lives better, stronger, and happier.  I am delighted that policymakers inside and outside of Washington are taking the opportunity to get to know these people — as people, not numbers, not workload, not files on a desk.
Second, I was pleased that two of my students were in the audience — and in fact had been given the opportunity to be involved in preparing for these events.  As part of Texas A&M School of Law’s new externship program in public policy, these students got to see policymaking in action from start to finish; they got to see firsthand the effects of both good and bad policy decisions.  Their experiences may not seem all that different from the hundreds of law students who go to D.C. and elsewhere each semester to partake in policy but it actually was a defining moment for me and them.  These students are the future policymakers and advocates.  To me, the events of these past three days were not just about hope for those impacted by outdated laws and poor decision making, but hope that the next generation of lawyers, policymakers, and advocates being trained by the brilliant people who participated in these events will learn from our mistakes; that they will engage in sound decision making based on evidence and best practices; that they will carry on the work done so well by so many. As an advocate and a teacher that is what hope is all about.

April 3, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Might the US be willing to learn from the German prison experience?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Huffington Post commentary by Vincent Schiraldi, headlined "What we can learn from German prisons."  The commentary provides a bit of a preview of this segment to air tonight on 60 Minutes under the title "This is prison? 60 Minutes goes to Germany: Germany's prison system keeps convicts comfortable, costs less and has lower recidivism rates, but would Americans ever accept it?".  Here is the start of the Huffington Post piece:

On Sunday, April 3, 60 Minutes will air a story on several U.S. delegations to German prisons by advocates, researchers and public officials that should be mandatory viewing for anyone who works in or cares about America’s massive prison problem. In a country that has only a fraction of our incarceration rate, even Germany’s deepest-end prisons are humane and decent in ways that, at least at present, are difficult to fathom in the U.S. context.

The groups who funded or organized the trips - the Vera Institute of Justice, John Jay College of Justice, and the Prison Law Office - hope to change that. Inspired by these delegations, when I was working for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Criminal Justice, I organized a study tour to one of the prisons they had visited - the Neustrelitz Prison near Berlin, which houses adolescents and young adults.

The place couldn’t have been more different than a U.S. prison or juvenile facility. In fact, it was a bit of both, because young people are allowed to be tried in Germany’s juvenile courts up to age 21, unlike U.S. juvenile courts whose jurisdiction expires somewhere between ages 16 and 18, depending on the state.

The young people we met were all involved in programming from farming, to wood shop, to metal work, to in-depth therapy. The freedom of movement was extraordinary, with most youth sleeping in unlocked rooms at night and eventually going on home visits and transitioning out to daytime work, returning to the facility at night. Sentences were much shorter than those experienced by people locked up in the U.S., which partially explains why only 79 out of every 100,000 Germans are behind bars, compared to America’s world-leading incarceration rate of 700 per 100,000.

April 3, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Noticing the notable nature of states now categorically banning LWOP for juvenile murderers

This Washington Post piece by Amber Phillips spotlights an interesting reality as states continue to engage with some of the Supreme Court's recent Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. This piece is headlined "States are getting rid of life sentences for minors.  And most of them are red states."  Here are excerpts:

As America revisits its tough-on-crime policies from decades past, much of how to fix our criminal justice system is still up for debate.  Most prominently, a bipartisan bill to rewrite the nation's sentencing laws is slogging through Congress and may well get stuck there.

But criminal justice reform advocates are celebrating a surprising amount of success in one area largely off the radar of the national debate: banning the practice of sentencing minors to life in prison without parole.

Twenty-one states ban entirely or in most cases the practice of sentencing minors to life without parole. Many of those bans have been instituted in the past decade. Lately, Republican-leaning states have been picking up the cause, an indication that the sentencing practice instituted in the 1990s is on its way out.

On Tuesday, Utah became the second state this year to ban such sentences, after South Dakota. And in the past few years, Wyoming, Nevada and West Virginia have instituted some version of the ban. Since a critical 2012 Supreme Court decision on this issue, the number of states that have banned the practice has more than tripled, said Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

The debate, like many others in criminal justice reform, is hard to separate from race; advocates say the minors who have been sentenced to life without parole are 10 times as likely to be black than white. "There's clearly been a shift and a recognition that young people need to be held accountable in more age-appropriate ways, and we've really gone too far in our approach to youth sentencing," Lavy said....

In Utah, the debate to eliminate the practice from the books went pretty smoothly, said state Rep. Lowry Snow (R), who sponsored the bill. "I didn't have to twist a lot of arms," he said.

Snow and advocates say the arguments speak for themselves; they cite research that adolescents' brains are still growing and, thus, are not as skilled as adults' in controlling impulses or thinking through long-term actions. "They're not the same people when they're 16, 17, 18 than they are when they're 40 and 50 years old," he said.

Another argument that seems to resonate among more conservative, religious lawmakers is one of redemption. "Utah is very prone to a recognition that there can be redemption and people can be given a second chance," Snow said....

At its basic level, the debate over whether to keep or get rid of life sentences without parole mirrors the debate over the death penalty: What's the most appropriate way to punish someone for a heinous crime?  In that sense, there is still opposition to the idea of banning life-without-parole sentences for minors.

Some crimes "are so heinous, so violent, so destructive … that maybe in rare cases they should receive the sentence of life without parole," state Rep. Merrill Nelson (R) said on the floor of the Utah statehouse after he spoke with the father of a teen who was killed by another teen.  "Why should we take that discretion away from the judge?"

A victims advocacy group, the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers, says a ban is out of step for several reasons: The potentially un-ending parole process is often "torture" for a victim's family, and while it doesn't advocate for any specific sentence, it does not see why the life-without-parole option should be taken off the table....

And success, as described here, is relative.  More than half of U.S. states still allow the sentence, after all.  But given the broader political context in which these bans are coming, criminal justice reform advocates will take what they can get.

April 2, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 01, 2016

GOP frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz author joint letter urging Prez Obama to commute tens of thousands more federal sentences!

April-Fool-5Apologies to those who clicked through based on the headline of this post to discover that this headline is my lame attempt to bring a timely sentencing spin to April Fools Day. 

As I was thinking about what to post on this special day for silliness and pranks, it dawned on me that whomever does eventually become the GOP candidate for President probably would be eager to have Prez Obama commute tens of thousands of prison sentences before the election... so that he could thereafter blame any and all future crimes on the current President and every other Democrat currently in office or running for office.  This reality, I think, helps explain why Prez Obama has still been so stingy with his clemency grants to date despite so much talk about a big clemency push.

Indeed, in light of Prez Obama's grant of only 61 more commutations earlier this week (details here), I am inclined to predict that we will only see, at most, a few dozen more clemency grants before the November election.  But once the election is completed, I think it is entirely unpredictable what Prez Obama might do in the clemency arena.  Prez Bill Clinton issued a large number of last-day clemencies, including a notorious pardon to campaign funder and fugitive Marc Rich, and the controversy that created likely led the Prez George W. Bush only granting a few lame-duck clemencies.

Ironically, if a fellow Democrat is elected in November, I suspect Prez Obama will be inclined to grant fewer lame-duck clemencies: he likely will not wish to create any unique challenges or controversies when a member of his own party takes over his position in the Oval Office, and he likely will be hopeful that a successor from his party will continue his visible clemency push.  In contrast, if a Republican wins in November, I would expect Prez Obama to grant more clemencies so that he could in this way burnish his claim to have lived up to his "hope and change" campaign mantra in the criminal justice arena.

Finally, while focused on the intersection of April Fools Day and the 2016 campaign, am I crazy to imagine that GOP frontrunner Donald J. Trump might give a big speech today to announce that his entire campaign was just a massive prank and the most amazingly extended form of performance art in American political history?

April 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Federal district judge astutely asks feds for accounting of political corruption sentences before high-profile NY pol sentencing

As reported in this New York Post article, headlined "Judge in Shelly Silver’s case wants to know how much time crooked pols usually get," a federal district judge has ordered federal prosecutors to help her discharge her post-Booker sentencing duties under 18 USC 3553(a)(6) to consider "the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct."  Here are the interesting details:

Manhattan federal Judge Valerie Caproni wants a chart outlining sentences for previously convicted New York politicians ahead of Sheldon Silver’s sentencing next month.  In an order to prosecutors filed Thursday, Caproni asked for the information to “consider the need for unwarranted disparities between similarly situated defendants.”

The judge wants the government to include in its sentencing submission paperwork “a summary chart containing the sentences imposed on elected state and federal officials who were convicted in federal court of corruption-related offenses in the last five years to the extent that information is not unduly burdensome to obtain,” the one-page order says.

Prosecutors will have their hands full: Dozens of New York politicians have been convicted of charges varying from bribery to mail fraud and racketeering to tax evasion, prosecutors said.

Ex-City Councilman Dan Halloran was slapped with a stiff 10-year prison sentence for masterminding a failed $200,000 bribery plot to rig the 2013 mayoral election for then-state Sen. Malcolm Smith.  Meanwhile, ex-Senate Majority Leader Smith, who was also busted, got seven years behind bars.

And Hiram Monserrate, the Democratic state senator who looted nearly $100,000 in taxpayer money to win higher office, was sent away for two years in 2012 after pleading guilty.  Another disgraced ex-state senator, Pedro Espada Jr., received a five-year sentence for bilking a taxpayer-funded nonprofit to pay for his lavish lifestyle.

Silver faces up to 130 years behind bars after he was convicted in November of corruption charges.  The 72-year-old ex-Assembly speaker will likely receive far less at his sentencing April 13.

Prosecutors’ sentencing submission is due by April 6, court records show. Ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos — who was convicted with his son, Adam, of bribery and corruption just weeks after Silver — also faces 130 years.  The Skeloses will be sentenced April 28.

Based on the quote of this article, it seems that Judge Caproni has asked not merely for sentencing details on convicted New York politicians, but all "elected state and federal officials who were convicted in federal court of corruption-related offenses in the last five years." I am guessing there could be hundreds of politicians nationwide who fit into this category. I would be especially interested to see what this summary chart looks like, and I hope to be able to post it on this blog whenever it becomes publicly available.

April 1, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A telling, but still unsatisfying, SCOTUS discussion of retroactivity during oral argument in Welch

As previewed in this post, yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Welch v. United States, which is principally concerned with the retroactive application of last Term's significant ruling in Johnson (authored by Justice Scalia) that the "residual clause" of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague.  I am deeply interested in this Welch case, not only because I helped with this law professor amicus brief in Welch, but also because I have authored this law review article to explain my view that traditional SCOTUS retroactivity doctrines — so called Teague doctrines — developed with unique concern for the importance of preserving the finality of convictions are not necessarily the best was to examine whether and when a new sentencing rule ought to apply retroactivity.

Helpfully, Rory Little has followed up his terrific Welch oral argument preview post at SCOTUSblog with this spot-on oral argument review post titled "Argument analysis: A likely decision in favor of retroactivity?."  Having read the full argument transcript in Welch (which is available here), I fell well positioned to assert that Rory's analysis is a much better and more enjoyable read, and it includes these essential insights at its start and end:

While it is not possible to describe the intricacies of retroactivity doctrine here — let alone wise if we want to keep our readers awake — it looks like last Term’s decision in Johnson v. United States will be declared to apply retroactively for all purposes, including on first and even successive (assuming they are timely filed) habeas corpus petitions. And as I explained in my preview, that result is likely, although not certain, to result in substantial sentencing reductions for a significant number of convicted federal defendants....

The law of retroactivity presents intellectual conundra that may never be fully settled.  The decision in this case is likely to be simply one more precedent in the wavering doctrinal line.  We will never know what Justice Harlan, or Justice Scalia, thinks of it.  But convicted federal felons whose sentences are reduced by five or more years will not care about the intricacies, while young law professors aspiring to tenure will have new grist for their mills.

Though I am no longer a young law professor, the intricacies of retroactivity doctrines as articulated in Teague and its progeny are a source of frustration and concern for me.  And the Welch oral argument leaves me concerned that the current Justices are going to be content to apply existing Teague doctrines in a quirky manner to a quirky case (as they have recently show they are wont to do in Montgomery v. Louisiana decided a few months ago).  As I suggest in this law review article, applying traditional Teague doctrines in retroactivity cases that involving only sentencing issues necessarily involves banging a square equitable peg into and round Teague doctrinal hole.  And yet, after reading the Welch transcript, it seems the Justices are for now content to just keep banging away.

March 31, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fair Punishment Project releases first major report: "Juvenile Life Without Parole in Philadelphia: A Time for Hope?"

In this post yesterday I noted the new initiative emerging from Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP).  Today I received an email concerning the great new work of this great new initiative.  Here is part of this email reporting on this new report from FPP:

As Pennsylvania prepares for hundreds of resentencing hearings, a new report released today by the Fair Punishment Project and Phillips Black highlights Philadelphia’s frequent use of life without parole sentences for juveniles, calling the county an “extreme outlier” in its use of the punishment.  The report urges District Attorney Seth Williams to adopt a new approach to dealing with juveniles in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which determined that the court’s prior decision barring mandatory life without parole sentences for youth must be applied retroactively.

The report, Juvenile Life Without Parole in Philadelphia: A Time for Hope?, notes that Philadelphia County is responsible for the highest number of juvenile life without parole sentences in the country.  By way of comparison, Philadelphia County is home to just .5% of all Americans, but at least 9% of all juveniles sentenced to life without parole — or nearly one in 10.

“The latest scientific research show us that juveniles have a tremendous capacity to change their behaviors as they age,” stated Johanna Wald, a spokesperson for the Fair Punishment Project. “It is an injustice, and waste of taxpayer resources, to keep individuals locked up until their death for crimes they committed when they were teenagers. They should have an opportunity to prove they are worthy of a second chance.”

Wald notes that the Supreme Court has set a high bar to justify a life without parole sentence for juveniles. “The court has said that juvenile life without parole sentences should be reserved for exceptional cases that reflect ‘irreparable corruption.’ Given that adolescent brains are not fully developed and the capacity children have to change, the court rightfully assumes that it will be rare for an individual to meet this standard.”...

“Philadelphia has sentenced more juveniles to life without parole than anywhere else in the United States,” said John Mills of Phillips Black. “It is an outlier jurisdiction that, thanks to the court’s ruling, now has the opportunity to right the harsh punishments of the past by providing a thoughtful and measured approach to resentencing.”

March 31, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

GOP frontrunner Donald Trump says "some form of punishment" would be needed for women who have abortions if procedure is made illegal

This recent article at The Crime Report, headlined "Trump On Crime: Tough Talk, Few Specifics," highlighted how hard it is to figure out Donald Trump's policy position on various criminal justice issues (in which I was quoted):

Most experts we talked to say it’s hard to distinguish the rhetoric from the policies. “[The Trump campaign] has not issued a platform yet, so I’m not sure that I’d take anything that he’s been saying as an actual criminal justice policy,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.

“What’s really frustrating, is that (he’s) like a cardboard candidate; you know what his pitch is but you don’t know anything else beyond that,” said Prof. Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School. “And maybe he doesn’t either.”

Berman suggests half-jokingly that there’s a “simple answer” to the question of what Donald Trump believes about criminal justice. “Who the hell knows?” he said.

On many policy issues, Trump has sidestepped detailed responses by pointing to his experience in real estate and suggesting that good dealmakers keep their positions ambiguous at the start of any negotiation. That seems to apply to his approach to justice as well. Asked about specific criminal justice reforms, Trump often changes the subject back to supporting police or vague answers about needing to be “tough.”

But today GOP frontrunner Trump is making headlines for talking about criminal punishment in an especially controversial setting.  This FoxNews piece, headlined "Trump says abortion ban should mean punishment for women who have procedure," provides the details:

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump said Wednesday said that if abortion were illegal in the United States, then women who have the procedure should be punished.  Trump made the comments during a taping of an MSNBC town hall that will be aired later Wednesday.

Host Chris Matthews pressed Trump to clarify, asking him whether abortion should be punished and who ultimately should be held accountable. “Look, people in certain parts of the Republican Party, conservative Republicans, would say, ‘Yes, it should,’” Trump said. The candidate later put out a statement saying: “This issue is unclear and should be put back into the states for determination.”...

When asked specifically at the town hall what he thought, the New York businessman answered, “I would say it’s a very serious problem and it’s a problem we have to decide on. Are you going to send them to jail?”

“I’m asking you,” Matthews prompted.

“I am pro-life,” Trump said.

Matthews pressed on, asking again who should be punished in an abortion case if it were illegal.

“There has to be some form of punishment,” Trump said.

“For the woman?” Matthews asked.

“Yeah,” Trump responded, adding later that the punishment would “have to be determined.”

His rivals seized on the remarks. Ohio Gov. John Kasich later told MSNBC “of course women shouldn’t be punished.” An aide to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted: “Don't overthink it: Trump doesn't understand the pro-life position because he's not pro-life.”

With all due respect to the statement made by an aide to Senator Ted Cruz, it seems to me that Donald Trump actually understands — and may be taking more seriously than many other politicians — the oft-stated pro-life position that life begins at conception and that abortion it at least somewhat akin to homicide.

The National Right to Life Committee, the nation's oldest and largest pro-life organization,  states expressly here that in the US "over 40 million unborn babies have been killed in the 40 years since abortion was legalized and more than 1.2 million are killed each year" and that "medical science has known conclusively that every individual's life begins at the moment of fertilization."   Pro-Life Action League states expressly here that "killing an unborn child is inherently wrong, and therefore can never be justified regardless of circumstances. It is no more just to kill an unborn child in order to avoid hardship than it would be to kill a toddler to avoid hardship. Because the unborn child is unseen, it is easier for society to condone killing him or her, though this is morally indistinguishable from killing any child at any stage of development."  The American Life League similarly states expressly here that "abortion is a direct attack on a preborn child which kills; it is murder."

If one genuinely believes that any abortion involves the intentional "killing" of a human life, that it is "morally indistinguishable from killing any child at any stage of development," and that "it is murder," and thus an act which should be criminally prohibited (like all other forms of intentional homicide), then I would hope that one ought also be genuinely committed to criminally punishing, at least to some extent, any and every person intentionally involved in this act of intentional killing which "morally indistinguishable from killing any child at any stage of development." 

In modern society, we threaten to punish all sorts of persons (at least with fines) for all sorts of petty crimes like overtime parking and illegal copying of a DVD and loitering.  I believe I am understanding and showing respect to the views and claims of persons who are pro-lifer when I surmise they consider any intentional abortion to be a societal wrong that is far more serious than, say, overtime parking or loitering.  If that is right, then I also think it would be fair to say that Donald Trump is actually understanding and showing respect for the views and claims of persons who are pro-life when he suggests that women intentionally involved in obtaining illegal abortions ought to be subject to at least "some form of punishment."

March 30, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Harvard Law School launches "Fair Punishment Project"

While I was on the road yesterday, I received an email with some exciting news from my law school alma mater.  Here is the text of the email announcement:

We'd like to introduce you to a brand new initiative brought to you by Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP).  The Fair Punishment Project will use legal research and educational initiatives to ensure that the U.S. justice system is fair and accountable.  The Project will work to highlight the gross injustices resulting from prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias and exclusion. We are dedicated to illuminating the laws that result in excessive punishment, especially the death penalty and juvenile life without parole.

We'll be releasing our first report in the next day or two, so keep an eye out -- you don't want to miss it.  Future reports will highlight the troubling attributes that outlier death penalty counties have in common, examine America's top 10 deadliest prosecutors, and look deeply into counties that are plagued by prosecutorial misconduct. 

The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute was launched in 2005 by Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. The Institute serves as a critical bridge between scholarship, law, policy, and practice to solve the challenges of a multi-racial society.  The Criminal Justice Institute trains Harvard Law School students who will be the next generation of ethical, effective, and passionate defense lawyers.  Led by Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., the Institute leads research of the criminal and juvenile justice systems in order to affect local and national reform.

The Fair Punishment Project will strive to be a valuable resource for anyone and everyone who is interested in bringing about a fair and equitable justice system.  We hope you will visit our website at www.fairpunishment.org to learn more about our work, and that you will join us as we address one of the most critical issues of our time.

And here are titles and links to some of the notable sentencing-related content already up at the FPP website:

March 30, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)