Sunday, April 13, 2014

Is SCOTUS now no longer all that interested in criminal justice issues?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this chart concerning the make-up of the Supreme Court's merits docket this Term from the latest Stat Pack put together by the folks at SCOUTSblog.  The chart highlights that nearly 75% of the merits docket this Term involves civil cases.  In addition, this SCOTUSblog list of cert grants for October 2014 reveals that only one of nine grants for the next Term involves a criminal law issue (and that issue, as noted here, seems stunningly minor).

When Justices Alito and Sotomayor first joined the Court, it seemed as though they brought some extra interest and extra attention to the criminal justice part of the SCOTUS docket.  But of late it seems as though the Court is more eager to avoid rather than take up some important criminal justice matters.

Notably, there are any number of big lurking criminal justice issues relating to the Second (right to carry), Fourth (GPS tracking), Sixth (applications of Apprendi and Booker) and Eighth Amendments (applications of Graham and Miller).  I have an inkling that some of these matters will end up on the October 2014 docket, but this post perhaps highlights that I have a hankering for some more major criminal cases to be on the docket.

April 13, 2014 in Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, April 11, 2014

Was it "disrespectful" to the judiciary (or, in fact, quite helpful) for AG Holder to order prosecutors not to oppose application of pending drug sentencing guideline reduction?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this National Review article, headlined "Judge: Holder ‘Disrespected’ Judicial Branch In Sentencing Change," about a verbal skirmish that emerged during yesterday's US Sentencing Commission meeting to approve formally a small reduction in all federal drug guideline sentences (basics here).  Here are excerpts:

The United States Sentencing Commission Thursday unanimously approved an amendment to revise sentencing guidelines for non-violent drug offenders, but not before one commissioner accused Attorney General Eric Holder of having “disrespected” the judicial branch’s role in sentencing reform.

“I regret that, before we voted on the amendment, the Attorney General instructed Assistant United States Attorneys across the Nation not to object to defense requests to apply the proposed amendment in sentencing proceedings going forward,” Judge William Pryor, Jr. said at a public hearing in Washington. “That unprecedented instruction disrespected our statutory role, ‘as an independent commission in the judicial branch,’ to establish sentencing policies and practices under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984.”...

In August, Holder revealed his “Smart on Crime” initiative, which includes recommendations for reduced sentencing, without consulting with the Sentencing Commission — an independent agency within the judicial branch tasked with setting such policies.  Although the sentencing reforms themselves were not controversial, Holder’s cavalier approach to separation of powers, including a March memo in which he “instructed the Assistant United States Attorneys across the Nation not to object to defense requests to apply the proposed amendment in sentencing proceedings going forward,” irritated commissioners and alarmed supporters of constitutional separation of powers.

The amendment approved Thursday, aims to reduce federal prison overcrowding by reducing non-violent drug trafficking offenders’ sentences by 17 percent. Holder did not attend the meeting. Instead, Commissioner Jonathan Wroblewski responded to what he called Pryor’s “very, very, very serious charge.” Wroblewski insisted that what the Attorney General did was “not only lawful, but in the greatest respect of the Justice Department,”

Chief Judge Ricardo Hinojosa stated that he was “surprised” by Wroblewski’s statement. He concurred with Pryor that Holder is setting a “dangerous precedent,” noting that two years ago, the Justice Department testified that it was not ready for reductions in sentencing, but that “all of a sudden, because the Attorney General says so” the DOJ has changed its course.

The meeting concluded with Chief Judge Patti Saris applauding the commission for its unanimous vote. But observers joined Pryor and Hinojosa in condemning Holder’s high-handed approach to constitutional boundaries.  “For those committed to the rule of law, the question now goes beyond whether reducing sentences for dealers in dangerous drugs is wise.  It’s whether the Attorney General, the chief law enforcement officer in the United States, is committed to following the law as it exists, or, instead, as he wants and speculates it might become,” William G. Otis a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said in a statement.

My first reaction to this piece was to be intrigued and pleasantly surprised that Bill Otis was quoted criticizing the nation's top prosecutor for how he seeks to exercise his lawful prosecutorial discretion. (Notably, the author of this NRO piece seems to suggest that the AG should have felt some need to "consult" with a judicial branch agency before announcing a major prosecutorial initiative; I am pretty sure, based on prior debates over the potential problems with unreviewable prosecutorial discretion, that Bill does not believe it would be wise or even constitutional to expect federal prosecutors to have their charging policies reviewed by the judicial branch.)

My second reaction to this piece was to wonder if most federal judges agreed with Judges Pryor and Hinojosa that it was disrespectful and dangerous for the AG to instruct his prosecutors not to object to defense requests to apply the proposed reduced drug guidelines ASAP.  This issue is dynamic and challenging in part because if AG Holder had instructed prosecutors to object to application of these new guidelines until they formally became law in November, then defendants would likely start requesting sentencing delays in all federal drug cases throughout the bulk of 2014.  Because there are about 500 federal drug sentencings every week, this in turn would mean federal district judges nationwide would be receiving motions for sentencing postponements nearly every day for the next seven months.

Notably, just because AG Holder instructs his prosecutors not to object to the application of the proposed new drug guidelines, no judge is in turn obligated to follow the proposed drug guidelines.  Rather, judges now just have an easier time applying this new guidelines, if they so desire, without having to put all their drug cases on hold until November.  That is the context for the DOJ ex-officio representantive on the Commission, Jonathan Wroblewski, suggesting that AG Holder is actually seeking to help and show respect for the judiciary via his instructions to federal prosecutors.

That all said, if the substance of the drug guideline reform proposals now adopted by the Commission were very controversial (i.e., if the Commission itself was split) or if there was reason to believe that Congress and the President might formally reject the drug guideline reform proposal (i.e., if there was wide and vocal expressed opposition), then I think the concerns expressed by Judges Pryor and Hinojosa might be more compelling.  But since these judges themselves both voted with the unanimous Commission to lower the drug guidelines, and since there is momentum in Congress for even more drug sentencing reform, I do not really find AG Holder's exercise of his lawful discretion in this setting all that disrespectful or dangerous.

Some recent related posts:

April 11, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Is New Hampshire on the verge of becoming the next state to abolish the death penalty?

As reported in this local AP article, headlined "On revote, N.H. Senate panel endorses death penalty repeal measure," the Granite State appears to have now moved a step closer to possible repeal of capital punishment. Here are the details:

The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday revisited the idea of repealing New Hampshire’s death penalty and recommended that it pass, setting up a potentially historic vote in the chamber next week. The bill represents the most energetic recent effort to repeal the state’s centuries-old death penalty. It passed the committee by a 3-2 vote, days after the same panel issued a tie vote that could have sounded the death knell on the repeal effort.

The House has voted resoundingly for repeal, and the governor supports it. The Thursday vote in the Republican-controlled Senate is said to be too close to call. “I think it will be a tight vote,” Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley told the Associated Press. “I think it will not break down all that much on party lines.”...

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 2-2 Tuesday with one member absent, an outcome that would have automatically sent a message to the Senate to kill the repeal measure. The committee reconsidered the issue yesterday in deference to Democrat Donna Soucy of Manchester, who missed Tuesday’s meeting due to a family medical issue. There was no debate.

Sens. Bette Lasky, a Nashua Democrat, Sam Cataldo, a Farmington Republican, and Soucy voted for repeal. Sens. Sharon Carson of Londonderry and David Boutin of Hooksett, both Republicans, voted against it.

The state is the closest to repealing the death penalty that it’s been since 2000, when both houses of the Legislature approved repeal, but then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed it. Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan has said she would sign the repeal measure, because it wouldn’t affect the death sentence of Michael Addison – convicted of killing Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs in 2006. Addison is the only death row convict in the state, which has not seen an execution since 1939.

Death penalty opponents greeted yesterday’s vote with cautious optimism. Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat whose father and brother-in-law were murdered in separate crimes, has not wavered in his opposition to the death penalty through nearly two decades of sponsoring repeal measures.

“Everybody’s a swing vote,” Cushing said after yesterday’s vote. “It’s not a party issue,” he added. “There are a lot of senators genuinely wrestling with this.”

The House last month voted 225-104 in favor of repeal. The vote in the 24-member Senate – with 13 Republicans and 11 Democrats – could come down to a one-vote margin. A tie vote would kill the measure.

April 11, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 10, 2014

US Sentencing Commission to vote on reducing drug sentencing guidelines

As detailed in this official notice, "a public meeting of the [US Sentencing] Commission is scheduled for Thursday, April 10, 2014, at 2:30 p.m."  On the official agenda is "Vote to Promulgate Proposed Amendments," and as reported in this prior post, in January the USSC voted to publish proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines that include an across-the-board reduction in the sentences recommended for all drug offenses.  

I expect there will be some press reports about the USSC vote on the drug guidelines later today.  In the meantime, this effective new PBS Frontline article headlined "Feds to Reconsider Harsh Prison Terms for Drug Offenders," provides some background and context:

The federal prison population has expanded by nearly 800 percent in the past 30 years, spurred in part by the increasing use of tougher sentences applied to nonviolent drug crimes. Now there’s a growing movement to scale it back. On Thursday, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent federal agency, plans to vote on an amendment to sentencing guidelines that could ultimately begin to winnow the federal prison population, nearly half of whom are people convicted of drug offenses.

The amendment is part of a bipartisan push away from America’s addiction to incarceration, which prison reform experts say costs far too much, not only in dollars — $80 billion a year in 2010 — but also in the devastation primarily of African-American communities, who have been disproportionately caught up in the system.

The commission’s proposal would lower the sentencing guideline levels for drug-trafficking offenses, allowing judges to impose reduced sentences by about 11 months, on average, for these crimes. The guidelines are the range between which a judge can sentence an offender. Currently, those guidelines are set higher even than mandatory minimum sentences — the lowest possible sentence a judge could impose — to give prosecutors bargaining power. The amendment would set the upper and lower guideline limits around the mandatory minimums, leading to lower sentences for nearly 70 percent of drug-trafficking offenders, the commission said....

Prison reform advocates say the commission’s proposal is an incremental step, but an important one. “When you’re serving 10 years, six months can make a difference,” said Jesselyn McCurdy, an attorney with the ACLU’s Washington legislative office. “It’s incremental, but it’s all important because it sends the larger message that we have to do something about the harsh sentencing in the federal system.”

Should the Sentencing Commission’s amendment pass, it will be sent to Congress, which will have 180 days to make any changes. If it does nothing — which is the likely outcome given bipartisan Congressional support for the proposal — the resolution will take effect on Nov. 1.

For years, states, which carry the bulk of U.S. prisoners, have taken the lead on sentencing reform — largely out of necessity. Struggling with stretched budgets and overflowing prisons, 40 states have passed laws that ease sentencing guidelines for drug crimes from 2009 to 2013, according to a comprehensive analysis by the Pew Research Center. Seventeen states have invested in reforms like drug treatment and supervision that will save about $4.6 billion over 10 years, according to the Justice Department.

Such reforms also have gained popular public support. According to Pew’s own polling, 63 percent of Americans say that states moving away from mandatory minimum sentencing is a “good thing,” up from 41 percent in 2001. Even more — 67 percent — said that states should focus on treatment, rather than punishment, for people struggling with addiction to illegal drugs....

The Sentencing Commission itself notes that substantial reform requires action by Congress. “Our proposed approach is modest,” said Patti Saris, the commission’s chairwoman. “The real solution rests with Congress, and we continue to support efforts there to reduce mandatory minimum penalties, consistent with our recent report finding that mandatory minimum penalties are often too severe and sweep too broadly in the drug context, often capturing lower-level players.”...

The Senate is currently considering a bill called the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in July 2013 by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). It wouldn’t abolish mandatory minimums, but it would allow judges to impose more lenient sentences for certain non-violent drug offenses. “Our current scheme of mandatory minimum sentences is irrational and wasteful,” Lee said when introducing the bill, adding that the act “takes an important step forward in reducing the financial and human cost of outdated and imprudent sentencing policies.”...

But the bill, which even the senators acknowledged as “studied and modest” on their website, doesn’t have great odds of passing. According to govtrack.us, a nonpartisan website that tracks congressional legislation, the Smarter Sentencing Act has only a 39 percent chance of being enacted.

Some recent related posts:

UPDATE:  This press release reports that, as expected, the USSC voted today to reduce the federal guidelines for all drug offenses.  Here is an excerpts from the press release:

The Commission voted unanimously to amend the guidelines to lower the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table across drug types. The drug guidelines under the amendment would remain linked to statutory mandatory minimum penalties. The Commission estimates that approximately 70 percent of federal drug trafficking defendants would qualify for the change, with their sentences decreasing an average of 11 months, or 17 percent, from 62 to 51 months on average.

The Commission this year has prioritized addressing federal prison costs and capacity with a continued commitment to public safety. The Commission estimates that the amendment reducing drug guidelines would reduce the federal prison population by more than 6,500 over five years, with a significantly greater long-term impact.

“This modest reduction in drug penalties is an important step toward reducing the problem of prison overcrowding at the federal level in a proportionate and fair manner,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission. “Reducing the federal prison population has become urgent, with that population almost three times where it was in 1991.”

In addition, the Chair of the USSC made a statement in conjunction with today's vote, which is now available here via the USSC's website.  The interesting three-page statement concludes with this interesting paragraph concerning possible retroactive application of the proposed new guidelines: 

Over the next few months, the Commission will be studying the issue of whether the drug amendment should apply retroactively, which we are statutorily required to do. This is a complex and difficult issue, and requires a different analysis than the decision we have made today about reducing drug sentences prospectively. The Commission will take into account, as it always does when considering retroactivity, the purposes of the amendment, the magnitude of the change, and the difficulty of applying the change retroactively, among other factors. I know the Commission will carefully consider this issue, and many stakeholders will have strong views. I do not know how it will come out, but we will carefully review data and the retroactivity impact analysis we have directed staff to conduct as well as public comment in order to ensure that we weigh all perspectives.

April 10, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Retro Report provides reminder of "When Youth Violence Spurred ‘Superpredator’ Fear."

WeeklyStandard-1995nov27The New York Times together with Retro Report puts together articles and videos looking back a media coverage and the aftermath of high-profile stories of years gone by. The latest production is available here under the headline "hen Youth Violence Spurred ‘Superpredator’ Fear." Here are excerpts from the article that goes along with the great 10-minute video on the topic:

Social scientists like James A. Fox, a criminologist, warned of “a blood bath of violence” that could soon wash over the land. That fear, verging on panic, is the subject of this week’s segment of Retro Report, a series of video documentaries that examine major news stories from years ago and explore what has happened since.

What happened with the superpredator jeremiads is that they proved to be nonsense. They were based on a notion that there would be hordes upon hordes of depraved teenagers resorting to unspeakable brutality, not tethered by conscience. No one in the mid-1990s promoted this theory with greater zeal, or with broader acceptance, than John J. DiIulio Jr., then a political scientist at Princeton. Chaos was upon us, Mr. DiIulio proclaimed back then in scholarly articles and television interviews. The demographics, he said, were inexorable. Politicians from both major parties, though more so on the right, picked up the cry. Many news organizations pounced on these sensational predictions and ran with them like a punt returner finding daylight.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypse. Instead of exploding, violence by children sharply declined. Murders committed by those ages 10 to 17 fell by roughly two-thirds from 1994 to 2011, according to statistics kept by the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Mugged by reality, a chastened Mr. DiIulio has offered a mea culpa. “Demography,” he says, “is not fate.” The trouble with his superpredator forecast, he told Retro Report, is that “once it was out there, there was no reeling it in.”

It certainly had consequences. It energized a movement, as one state after another enacted laws making it possible to try children as young as 13 or 14 as adults... Many hundreds of juveniles were sent to prison for life, though in the last few years the United States Supreme Court has ruled that such sentences must not be automatic, even in murder cases. Individual circumstances and possible mitigating factors should be weighed, the justices said....

The superpredator scare fit neatly with a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach to rising crime that had taken hold even before the ‘90s. Many states are now moving in the opposite direction, if only because incarceration is expensive, in both its human toll and its burden on strapped government budgets....

Fears about predators, super or not, have not entirely disappeared. Of late, some are concerned about what is called “the knockout game.” It involves a young man or group of young men punching a stranger on the street. This is cast essentially as a black-on-white crime, perhaps a gang initiation rite. No question, such assaults have taken place. But are they part of an organized “game”? In New York, the police seem unsure if they amount to more than isolated incidents.

As for superpredators, not everyone has abandoned the notion. In the ‘90s, Mr. DiIulio called those youngsters “remorseless” and “impulsive,” describing them as unburdened by “pangs of conscience.” Hmm, said Richard Eskow. Or words to that effect. Mr. Eskow, a senior fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future, wrote for The Huffington Post two years ago that he knew a group of people who matched those very descriptions. They were, he said, the reckless bankers and Wall Street high rollers who almost brought the United States economy to its knees a few years ago.

April 9, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Fourth Circuit deepens (via dramatic split opinion) circuit split over fixing sentencing problems via 2255 motions

Though one needs to be a hard-core federal sentencing or habeas aficionado to really enjoy all the action, even casual fans may want to check out the extraordinary work of a Fourth Circuit panel yesterday in Whiteside v. US, No. 13-7152 (4th Cir. Apr. 8, 2014) (available here).  Excerpts from the three separate opinions provides a flavor of all the action, but a full read is needed to understand and appreciate the passion that is reflected in the passages quoted below.

To begin, writing for the panel majority, Judge Gregory explains the legal basics at the outset:

This case presents the question of whether a federal inmate may use a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion to challenge a sentence that was based on the career offender enhancement under the United States Sentencing Guidelines when subsequent case law reveals the enhancement to be inapplicable to him.  We find that he may, and in doing so hold that the mistake results in a fundamental miscarriage of justice that is cognizable on collateral review.  For the reasons stated below, we grant a certificate of appealability, vacate the petitioner’s sentence, and remand the case for resentencing.

More than 30 pages later comes a concurring opinion by Judge Davis that runs only two pages, but effectively highlights the heart of the issues splitting this panel (and the circuit courts more generally). Here is an excerpt:

I am pleased to join Judge Gregory’s extraordinarily compelling opinion, which fully responds to the dissent’s overwrought and formalistic protestations that our judgment here presages an end to law as we know it. (Evidently, it is not enough simply for the dissent to say that there is no miscarriage of justice shown on this record.)

The dissenting opinion is hopelessly pleased with itself.  This is not surprising, as it prostrates itself at the altar of finality, draped in the sacred shroud of judicial restraint....

In any event, what’s remarkable is that, as viewed through the lens of our good friend’s dissenting opinion, it is perfectly fine for the United States Department of Justice, which is to say the Executive Branch, to bypass supposed reverence for finality on a case-by-case basis, through waivers of limitations and other devices, see ante, Maj. op., n.6, but the Third Branch is duty-bound never to acknowledge instances in which law’s interest in finality must give way to competing values rooted in our shared abhorrence of manifest injustice.  To devolve to the Executive Branch sole authority to identify a cognizable miscarriage of justice amounts to judicial abdication, not judicial restraint.  Such an approach enjoys no legitimate place in our scheme of institutional checks and balances. The Third Branch’s transcendent role, in our enviable but imperfect system of criminal justice, is to afford protection from the loss of individual liberty resulting from profoundly erroneous decision-making, and not least of all, erroneous decision-making by the Third Branch itself, as in this very case.

The dissenting opinion favors what’s “finished” over what’s “right” and thereby blinks at a profound miscarriage of justice. It is wrong to do so.

Finally, Judge Wilkinson provides an addition 30+ pages to explain his views about why the panel majority gets this matter so very wrong.  Here is how his lengthy opinion starts and ends:

Deangelo Whiteside was properly designated a career offender in the course of his federal sentencing proceedings.  Now, years later, the majority vacates that sentence.  In invalidating Whiteside’s sentence, the majority creates a circuit split over whether career-offender designations are cognizable on collateral review, and ignores settled law as to whether changes in circuit precedent can reset the statute of limitations for post-conviction review of federal criminal proceedings.  The majority opinion represents a dramatic expansion of federal collateral review that is unsupported by law or precedent.  It makes a shambles of the retroactivity doctrines that have long safeguarded the basic finality of criminal convictions.  It disrupts the orderly administration of our criminal-justice system....

The Great Writ stands for the fundamental proposition that government too is subject to the given law.  Here the government observed the law; it is, sadly, a court that accords no meaning to that fact.  How is it that requiring someone to serve a sentence lawfully imposed and constitutionally rendered becomes a “plain injustice” and a “fundamental unfairness”? Maj. Op. at 29.  This path vindicates no fundamental liberty.  It only transforms collateral review into a double of direct review, a redundant mechanism for routine error correction, deployed to unsettle sentences that were imposed years earlier under governing law, in accordance with unexceptionable procedure, and by a sovereign acting in accordance with its sovereign duty to protect citizens from those who repeatedly violate its criminal laws.

For the aforementioned reasons, and because I view this decision as wholly wrong and deeply damaging to our criminal-justice system, I respectfully dissent.

April 9, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

AG Eric Holder advocates for Smarter Sentencing Act in testimony to House Judiciary Committee

As reported via this DOJ press release, Attorney General Eric Holder testified this morning before the US House Committee on the Judiciary.  Here are parts of the AG's prepared remarks that should be of interest to sentencing fans:

Across the board, the Department’s comprehensive efforts reflect our commitment to integrity and equal justice — in every case and circumstance.  And nowhere is this commitment stronger than in our work to strengthen America’s federal criminal justice system. Through the Smart on Crime initiative I announced last August, my colleagues and I are taking action on a number of evidence-based reforms — including modifications to the Department’s charging policies with regard to mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent, low-level drug crimes.  This commonsense change will ensure that the toughest penalties are reserved for the most dangerous or violent drug traffickers.  And I’m pleased to note that Members of this Committee have shown tremendous leadership in the effort to codify this approach into law.

I’ve been proud to join many of you in supporting the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act — introduced by Representatives Scott and Labrador and cosponsored by Ranking Member Conyers — which would give judges more discretion in determining appropriate sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes.  And I pledge to keep working with leaders like you — and like Senator Rand Paul and others — to address the collateral consequences of certain convictions, including felony disenfranchisement policies that permanently deny formerly incarcerated people their right to vote.

We will never be able to simply arrest and incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation. That’s why we need to be both tough and smart in our fight against crime and the conditions and behaviors that breed it.  And this struggle must extend beyond our fight to combat gun-, gang-, and drug-fueled violence — to include civil rights violations and financial and health care fraud crimes that harm people and endanger the livelihoods of hardworking Americans from coast to coast.

UPDATE: As highlighted in this Politico report, headlined "Eric Holder at center of marijuana debate," following AG Holder's prepared testimony there was some heated discussion of the topic of federal marijuana policy.  Here is how the Politico piece starts:

Attorney General Eric Holder found himself caught Tuesday in a vast congressional divide over how the federal government should respond to moves states have made to legalize marijuana.

During a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Republicans repeatedly bashed Holder for going too far to accommodate the state actions, while a Democrat pounded the attorney general for refusing to call for a study of whether the federal drug classification system exaggerates the dangers posed by cannabis.

April 8, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Noting the very cautious politics still surrounding pot legalization

Today's New York Times has this interesting lengthy article discussing pot politics under the headline "Despite Support in Party, Democratic Governors Resist Legalizing Marijuana." Here are excerpts:

At a time of rapidly evolving attitudes toward marijuana legalization — a slight majority of Americans now support legalizing the drug — Democratic governors across the country ... find themselves uncomfortably at odds with their own base.

Even with Democrats and younger voters leading the wave of the pro-legalization shift, these governors are standing back, supporting much more limited medical-marijuana proposals or invoking the kind of law-and-order and public-health arguments more commonly heard from Republicans. While 17 more states — most of them leaning Democratic — have seen bills introduced this year to follow Colorado and Washington in approving recreational marijuana, no sitting governor or member of the Senate has offered a full-out endorsement of legalization. Only Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat in Vermont, which is struggling with a heroin problem, said he was open to the idea....

The hesitance expressed by these governors reflects not only governing concerns but also, several analysts said, a historically rooted political wariness of being portrayed as soft on crime by Republicans. In particular, Mr. Brown, who is 75, lived through the culture wars of the 1960s, when Democrats suffered from being seen as permissive on issues like this.

“Either they don’t care about it as passionately or they feel embarrassed or vulnerable. They fear the judgment,” said Ethan Nadelmann, the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that favors decriminalization of marijuana. “The fear of being soft on drugs, soft on marijuana, soft on crime is woven into the DNA of American politicians, especially Democrats.” He described that sentiment as, “Do not let yourself be outflanked by Republicans when it comes to being tough on crime and tough on drugs. You will lose.”

In Washington and Colorado, the Democratic governors had opposed legalization from the start, though each made clear that he would follow voters’ wishes in setting up the first legal recreational-marijuana marketplaces in the nation. “If it was up to me, being in the middle of it, and having read all this research and having some concern, I’d tell people just to exercise caution,” Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado said in a recent interview....

Washington has yet to let its first marijuana stores open — that is expected to happen later this spring — but Gov. Jay Inslee has made his position clear. “As a grandfather, I have the same concerns every grandfather has about misuse of any drug, including alcohol and marijuana,” he said in a telephone interview, adding, “All of us want to see our kids make smart decisions and not allow any drug to become injurious in our life. “I recognized the really rational decision that people made that criminalization efforts were not a successful public policy,” Mr. Inslee continued. “But frankly, I really don’t want to send a message to our kids that this is a route that is without risk.”...

The resistance comes as public opinion on the issue is moving more rapidly than anyone might have anticipated. Nationally, 51 percent of adults support legalizing the drug, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in February, including 60 percent of Democrats, 54 percent of independents and 72 percent of young adults. Even 44 percent of Tea Party members said they wanted the drug legalized....

There is no obvious political upside to supporting legalization, analysts said, and politicians, as a rule, tend to be risk averse. “You don’t hold these positions without having a sense of your own place in history,” said former Representative Patrick J. Kennedy, who joined Mr. Sabet in founding Project SAM, which strives to reduce marijuana use by emphasizing health risks. “They can honestly see that this is not a good move, that it’s going to have huge consequences, not all of which can be foretold.”...

At this point, the prospects for other elected officials jumping on the legalization bandwagon is likely to depend on what happens as the experiments in Washington and Colorado proceed. Among the questions are whether legalization will lead to more drug abuse by teenagers and how much it will fatten state tax coffers.

“I don’t tell other governors what to do,” Mr. Hickenlooper said, “but when they asked me, I said, ‘If I was in your shoes, I would wait a couple of years and see whether

there are unintended consequences, from what is admittedly a well-intentioned law.’”

April 6, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, April 05, 2014

"Is the Death Penalty Starting to Make a Global Comeback?"

The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing Slate commentary.  Here are excerpts:

An Indian court today sentenced three men to death for the horrific gang rape of a photojournalist in Mumbai last year.  They are the first to be sentenced under India’s tough new anti-rape law.

The sentence hammers home something that’s been obvious for some time now: After appearing to be on the verge of abolishing the death penalty entirely, India has now firmly rejoined the ranks of the world’s executioners.  It’s one of a number of countries — including some of the world’s largest democracies — that have recently re-embraced capital punishment.

A 1983 Indian Supreme Court decision allows for capital punishment in only the “rarest of the rare” cases, and from 2004 to 2011 the country didn’t carry out any executions at all. From 1995 to 2012, it carried out only three.  Then in 2012, Ajmal Kasab, the last surviving gunman of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, was hanged in secret in what appeared to be an unusually swift and haphazard execution.  The Kashmiri militant Afzal Guru was hanged under similar circumstances last year.  Seventy-two people in total were sentenced to die in India last year, including four of the men involved in the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi in 2012 — a case that shocked the country and prompted the drafting of laws aimed at speeding up the prosecution of rapists.

India’s not the only country heading in this direction. Amnesty International’s 2013 death penalty report noted that executions were up 15 percent last year — and that’s not even counting China, where the number of executions is a state secret.  Just three countries — Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia — accounted for 80 percent of executions, but to my mind, the most interesting recent trend has been been the countries that, like India, have been bucking the general global movement away from the death penalty.

In 2012 Japan carried out its first executions since 2010. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, four rounds of “secret executions” have taken place.  Nigeria carried out its first executions in seven years last year and Indonesia its first in five years.  Vietnam resumed them after an 18-month pause with the execution of seven people by lethal injection.

It’s true that in terms of number of countries, the world is moving away from the death penalty. According to Amnesty’s numbers, 37 countries had the death penalty in 1994, compared with 22 today.  In Europe and Latin America, the practice has essentially been entirely banished and an increasing number of African countries are reviewing their laws.

On the other hand, with the exception of Brazil, where it’s banned, and Russia, where it’s legal but abolished in practice, the world’s 10 biggest countries are all death penalty states.  With India, Japan, and Indonesia rejoining the U.S., the world’s largest democracies are death penalty countries and the practice has heavy popular support in all of them.

UPDATE: This interesting international article highlights related death penalty developments under the headline "Vietnam is sentencing corrupt bankers to death, by firing squad."

April 5, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Serial killer hoping SCOTUS will be troubled by execution drug secrecy in Texas

As highlighted in this AP article, a legal challenges based on execution drug secrecy is now before the Supreme Court after a Texas death row defendant has won and then lost on lower courts in his effort to block his execution.  Here are the basics:

Attorneys for a serial killer asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt his execution set for Thursday in Texas as they challenge that state's refusal to release information about where it gets its lethal injection drug.

Lawyers for Tommy Lynn Sells made the plea after a federal appeals court allowed the execution to stay on schedule.  A lower court had stayed the execution Wednesday, ordering Texas to reveal more information about its drug supplier, but the ruling was quickly tossed on appeal.  "It is not in the public interest for the state to be allowed to be deceptive in its efforts to procure lethal injection drugs," Sells' attorneys told the high court.

The appeal was one of two separate issues pending before the justices.  Another before the court since last month asked for the punishment to be stopped to review whether Sells' legal help at his trial was deficient, and whether a court improperly denied him money to hire investigators to conduct a probe about his background.

Sells, who was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing a 13-year-old South Texas girl in 1999, claims to have committed as many as 70 killings across the U.S. The 49-year-old is scheduled to be lethally injected Thursday evening in Huntsville. Sells' attorneys argue that they need to know the name of the company now providing the state with pentobarbital, the drug used during executions, in order to verify the drug's quality and protect Sells from unconstitutional pain and suffering.

But 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Texas prison officials, who argued that information about the drug supplier must be kept secret to protect the company from threats of violence. It also found that the stock of the pentobarbital, a powerful sedative, falls within the acceptable ranges of potency.  The court said that had Texas wanted to use a drug never used before for executions or a completely new drug whose efficiency or science was unknown, "the case might be different."

It's unclear how the Supreme Court would rule. Last month it rejected similar arguments from a Missouri inmate's attorneys who challenged the secrecy surrounding where that state obtained its execution drugs, and the condemned prisoner was put to death....

A batch of pentobarbital that Texas purchased from a compounding pharmacy in suburban Houston expired at the end of March. The pharmacy refused to sell the state any more drugs, citing threats it received after its name was made public. That led Texas to its new, undisclosed suppler.

The court case challenging the state's stance also included 44-year-old Ramiro Hernandez-Llanas, who is scheduled for execution next week.  But the 5th Circuit ruling affected only Sells. Maurie Levin, an attorney for the inmates, said Sells' case would be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Levin said the lower court ruling, which had ordered the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to give defense attorneys details about the drug supplier and how the drug was tested, "honors the importance of transparency in the execution process."

If Sells' execution is carried out Thursday, it would be the fifth lethal injection this year in Texas, the nation's busiest death-penalty state.

Sells had dubbed himself "Coast to Coast," a nod either to his wandering existence as a carnival worker or to his criminal history. Court documents said he claimed as many as 70 murders in his lifetime in states including Alabama, California, Arizona, Kentucky and Arkansas. "We did confirm 22 (slayings)," retired Texas Ranger John Allen said this week. "I know there's more. I know there's a lot more. Obviously, we won't ever know."

UPDATE: This AP story reports that Sells "was put to death Thursday in Texas after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his lawyers' demand that the state release information about where it gets its lethal injection drug."

April 3, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (43) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Terrific upcoming NYU Law conference on "Mercy in the Criminal Justice System"

Image001I am very pleased and very excited that on April 15 this year I will be spending all day thinking and talking about something other than my income tax forms.  That is because, as detailed in the program linked at the bottom of this post, I will be spending that day attending and speaking at the Sixth Annual Conference of the NYU Law School's Center on the Administration of Criminal Law.  This year's NYU Center conference is focused on clemency and related topics.

The full official title for the event, which runs from 10am to 4pm at NYU Law is "Mercy in the Criminal Justice System: Clemency and Post-Conviction Strategies," and the keynote speaker is White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler.  Here is a brief account of the panels and participants scheduled to surround the keynote:

Panel 1: The Role of Law Schools in Delivering Clemency and Post-Conviction Assistance.

This panel will discuss how law schools are providing critical services to prisoners through clemency clinics and other mechanisms, and will also provide practical training on how to effectively prepare clemency petitions, post-conviction motions and provide other reentry support to prisoners.

Moderator: Prof. Mark Osler, University of St. Thomas Law School.  Panelists: Prof. Anthony Thompson, NYU Law; Prof. J.P. “Sandy” Ogilvy, Columbus School of Law, Catholic University; Harlan Protass, Esq., Clayman & Rosenberg; Prof. Joann M. Sahl, University of Akron Law School.

Panel 2: What We Can Learn About Clemency From the States.

This panel will examine the different ways clemency and pardon petitions are administered in selected states with effective systems.

Moderator: Nancy Hoppock, Executive Director of the CACL. Panelists: Lt. Governor Matthew Denn, State of Delaware; Hon. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., King & Spalding and former Governor of Maryland; Margaret Love, Esq., former U.S. Pardon Attorney; Jorge Montes, Esq., former Chairman of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

Panel 3: The Future of Clemency.

This panel will discuss recent developments in federal clemency and where clemency could and should be headed in the future.

Moderator: Prof. Rachel E. Barkow, NYU Law. Panelists: Amy Baron-Evans, National Federal Defender Sentencing Resource Counsel; Prof. Paul G. Cassell, University of Utah Law School; Prof. Douglas A. Berman, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law; Sam Morison, Esq.; Dafna Linzer, Managing Editor of MSNBC.com.

Persons can register for this great and timely conference at this link.

Download CACL.ClemencyProgram5

April 2, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

"Law Enforcement Lobby Quietly Tries To Kill Sentencing Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Huffington Post piece.  Here are excerpts:

Several organizations representing state and local law enforcement are quietly trying to kill a bipartisan bill that would roll back tough mandatory sentences for people convicted of federal drug offenses under legislation passed during the height of America’s drug war three decades ago.

These groups include the National Sheriffs' Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Narcotic Officers' Associations' Coalition, the National Association of Police Organizations and the Major County Sheriffs' Association, The Huffington Post has learned.

They hope to weaken congressional support for the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reform the nation's mandatory minimum statutes, authorizing federal judges to sentence drug defendants to less time behind bars than what current law requires. The legislation passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, when, in a rare instance of bipartisan collaboration these days, Republicans Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona joined the committee’s Democrats in supporting the measure. Its House counterpart is still sitting in committee....

Major drug dealers “need to be locked up somewhere,” [Bob] Bushman [president of the National Narcotic Officers' Associations' Coalition, one of the groups fighting the bill] told HuffPost. “Some of these folks have worked hard to get to prison."...

A number of law enforcement agencies have already joined advocacy groups like the ACLU in endorsing the bill. They include the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the International Union of Police Associations, the American Correctional Association, the International Community Corrections Association and the American Probation and Parole Association. Attorney General Eric Holder backs the measure as well.

Bushman and his allies, however, aren’t the first law enforcement advocates to speak out against the bill. The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys have also come out against federal sentencing reform in recent months. Unlike Bushman’s cohorts, both of these groups represent officials who work for the federal government, and both have stated their positions in public.

The National Narcotic Officers' Associations' Coalition, the National Sheriffs' Association and the other state and local groups have been working behind the scenes. Several of them had previously lined up against Debo Adegbile, the president's nominee to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, and helped block his confirmation last month.

Lobbyists with the National Association of Police Organizations and other groups met with Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John Walsh (D-Mont.) to discuss their opposition to the reform package. A spokeswoman for the International Association of Chiefs of Police confirmed that the organization was lobbying against changes on Capitol Hill, but said it wasn't prepared to speak publicly on the topic.

Fred Wilson, an official with the National Sheriffs' Association, said his group isn't formally opposed to the legislation in principle but believes the bill needs more study -- even though it has already passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It may be [late], but our legislative folks seem to think not all is lost," Wilson said.

A letter from Bushman and his group to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) -- just one of several letters written by the Smarter Sentencing Act opponents that Bushman said are floating around Capitol Hill -- argues that federal policy should not be driven by "second-order effects of America’s drug problem" like incarceration costs....

Bushman said it was "a little early" to talk about whether law enforcement groups could be won over with a compromise bill this time, but said members of Congress first need to look at the "broader implications" of rolling back mandatory minimums. Democratic congressional aides acknowledged that they have been speaking with a number of law enforcement groups about the bill and said they hoped some of the concerns raised would be addressed, but likewise noted it was still relatively early in the legislative process.

April 2, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

"Two church leaders urge Senate to pass Smarter Sentencing Act"

The title of this post is the headline of this article from what appears to be a prominent Catholic newspaper. Here are excerpts:

Two Catholic leaders called on the U.S. Senate to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reform rigid sentencing policies for certain nonviolent drug offenders. Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, said in a March 27 letter to senators that tough minimum sentences "are costly, ineffective and can be detrimental to the good of persons, families and communities." They called the bill a "modest first step in reforming our nation's broken sentencing policies."

The bill would cut minimum existing sentences by half and allow judges to use discretion when imposing jail terms against lower-level offenders. The legislation also would permit crack cocaine offenders to seek lighter sentences if they were jailed under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The bill's supporters tout it as a necessary first step to reduce overcrowding in prisons and begin whittling down the massive cost of incarceration.

Despite supporting the bill, Archbishop Wenski and Father Snyder questioned three new categories of mandatory sentencing minimums that were added to the original bill, saying they would not ease prison overcrowding or reduce costs. The new categories cover sexual assault, domestic violence and arms trading....

Noting that annual incarceration costs for state and federal governments total about $80 billion annually, the clergymen wrote that it is time for the government to support programs aimed at crime prevention, rehabilitation, education and substance abuse treatment and as well as probation, parole and reintegration into society. "Our Catholic tradition supports the community's right to establish and enforce laws that protect people and advance the common good. But our faith teaches us that both victims and offenders have a God-given dignity that calls for justice and restoration, not vengeance," the letter said. 

The full letter referenced in this article is available at this link, and here is the closing paragraph:

Though imperfect, the Smarter Sentencing Act will help begin a long, overdue reform of our nation’s ineffective and costly sentencing practices.  Pope Francis recently said, “God is in everyone’s life.  Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else — God is in this person’s life.”  We join the pope by advocating for reforms to our nation’s sentencing policies that will lead to healing and restoration, rather than simply punishment.

Though I am not sure this would be an entirely fair and accurate statement, I love that this last paragraph allows me to reasonably assert that wise religious leaders say "Pope Francis supports the Smarter Sentencing Act."  Indeed, maybe based on this letter I can even consider claiming that God supports the SSA (and, in so doing, provocativey and humorously speculate aloud about who is really behind the forces opposing the SSA).

April 2, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Is there any likely sentencing or (private) prison reform aspect to big SCOTUS political speech ruling?

The big SCOTUS news this morning is the split 5-4 First Amendment ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC (available here). This press report on the ruling from the Los Angeles Times provides the basics: 

The Supreme Court on Wednesday freed wealthy donors to give more money directly to congressional candidates, extending its controversial 2010 Citizens United decision that opened the door for unlimited independent spending on political issues.

In a 5-4 decision, the court’s conservative majority struck down Watergate-era aggregate limits that barred political donors from giving more than $123,000 a year in total to candidates running for seats in the House of Representatives or Senate. The court said this limit violated the free-speech rights of the donors, and it was not needed to prevent “corruption” of the political process. The justices noted that donors mush still abide by rules that prevent them from giving more than $2,600 per election per candidate.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., speaking for the court, said the 1st Amendment protects a citizen’s free-speech right to give to candidates. “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the 1st Amendment protects,” he said. If it protects “flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades — despite the profound offense such spectacles cause — it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, speaking for the four dissenters, said the court had opened a huge legal loophole that threatens the integrity of elections. “Taken together with Citizens United, today’s decision eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws,” he said.

The question in the title of this post highlights that I am always a blogging criminal justice hammer seeing every important SCOTUS ruling as a possible sentencing nail. Without even reading the full opinion, I wonder if this ruling might end up helping (1) some white-collar defendants and their wealthy friends better support federal legislators and candidates who advocate sentencing reform in arenas that impact these kinds of defendants, and/or (2) private prison companies and their executives support federal legislators and candidates who advocate for continued or expanded reliance on private prisons.

As usual, I am sure I am stretching a bit to view a non-sentencing story as having significant potential sentencing echoes. But maybe readers agree that there could be something to these early post-McCutcheon speculations.

April 2, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Forecasting the uncertain present and future of federal legislative sentencing reform

Writing for CQ Weekly (which calls itself the "definitive source for news about Congress") John Gramlich has this fascinating and lengthy new article about the state of federal sentencing reform efforts. The piece is headlined "The Prison Debate, Freshly Unlocked," and here are excerpts from a piece that merits a full read:

A bipartisan Senate coalition intent on shrinking the swollen federal prison population will see its toughest test yet in the weeks ahead. Party leaders face the delicate task of shepherding legislation through a politically charged chamber that could ease punishment for tens of thousands of felons — in an election year, no less.

The political stakes, particularly for Democrats, are substantial.  Control of the Senate is up for grabs in November and if Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada presses forward with a debate over crime and punishment, he could force members of his own caucus to cast difficult votes on a subject that has haunted the party in the past.  Many vulnerable Democrats want to focus on jobs rather than softening criminal penalties.

Despite the risks, it’s clear that Congress is closer than it has been in decades to slowing the growth of the federal prison population, which has ballooned to about 216,000 today from 25,000 in 1980.  Overhaul supporters have covered their bases, building consensus and deliberately pushing legislation through the committee process. But floor consideration will pressure any cracks in the coalition, given lingering reservations from influential lawmakers in both parties and opposition from prosecutors, which could stoke public fears about crime.

Reid has two bills on his slate, both of which would cut criminal penalties for a broad cross-section of federal offenses.  One would slash mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenders by as much as 60 percent and give judges more leeway to impose lighter penalties than those set out in statute.  It also would allow crack cocaine users and dealers who were sentenced under a system that Congress abolished in 2010 to seek shorter sentences retroactively.

The other measure would allow as many as 34,000 currently incarcerated inmates — more than 15 percent of the federal correctional population — to leave prison early, provided they successfully complete rehabilitation programs first.

Both bills have support from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, further undermining the decades-old caricature of party orthodoxy on criminal justice: that Republicans are “tough on crime” while Democrats are “soft.”...

Predicting the outcome of an election year Senate debate about criminal justice is not easy. Reid is still weighing whether to bring the legislation up in a year in which his party is at risk of losing control of the Senate for the first time since 2007.

And even if legislation passes the Senate, finding a path through the House is more difficult.  The House Judiciary Committee has set up a task force to examine sentencing and prison population issues.  But House leadership has, so far, shown no interest in taking up companion bills to the Senate measures. House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, said his panel “is taking a comprehensive look at the prison reform issue, and plans to continue its review over the next several months.”...

Lobbying from law enforcement organizations could still prove pivotal in this debate, particularly if it focuses on the specter of increased crime.  The sentencing bill sponsored by Durbin and Lee has sparked notable opposition from the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, a prosecutors’ group that took the rare step of publicly breaking with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — their boss — to denounce the legislation and warn that it could endanger public safety....

Meanwhile, the Fraternal Order of Police ... has its own concerns about any proposals that might reduce time behind bars.  The group is still evaluating both bills.  “The argument that we hear most often for reducing the prison population is cost,” James Pasco, the executive director of the group’s legislative advocacy center, says.  “Well, you know, the fact of the matter is if somebody commits a crime serious enough for lengthy incarceration, it’s at variance with common sense to suggest that’s not a good penalty just because it costs too much.”

“We have had conversations with the administration and we’ve had conversations with both sides in Judiciary, and they are aware of our apprehensions [about the bills],” Pasco added. “But the game really begins now.”

Bipartisan opposition from a handful of holdouts could make for speed bumps on the floor, if not outright problems.  California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, a senior member of the Judiciary panel, warned that the early-release bill could endanger public safety because “we do not know the facts of any of the 34,000 inmates estimated to be affected by this bill.”

Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, also withheld his support for the early-release bill by voting “present” in committee. Leahy expressed concerns that the measure, which would let lower-risk inmates earn credits allowing them to transfer from prison to halfway houses and other forms of supervision, could worsen “racial and socioeconomic disparities in our prison system” and place an unfunded mandate on the Bureau of Prisons by requiring the agency to do widespread risk assessments on the inmates it incarcerates.

Holder has endorsed the sentencing measure, but stopped short of endorsing the early-release proposal, telling the U.S. Sentencing Commission in March that it needs changes to make it “as good as it might be.”

The sentencing bill also faces likely amendments.  In an interview with CQ Roll Call, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said he and fellow Judiciary member Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, are working on an amendment that would scale back some of the bill’s sentencing reductions.

Republicans, for their part, are divided about whether they want both measures to reach the floor at all.  Tea-party-backed members such as Lee and Paul support both bills, but Cornyn and the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, represent the party’s establishment wing and support only the early-release measure.  “If Sen. Reid would take up the prison reform legislation, I think then it has a good chance of passing. It’s got good, strong bipartisan support,” Cornyn, the Senate minority whip, says. “If they’re going to try to pair it with the sentencing reform, I think that’s a problem.”

In the Senate, where opposition from even a single member can stop legislation dead, Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions is still evaluating his options to oppose both bills. Sessions, another member of the Judiciary Committee and a former federal prosecutor who helped broker a new law in 2010 to reduce sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses, voted against both of the new proposals in committee.

“One of the reasons people want to reduce sentences is because the crime rate is down,” Sessions said. “They think that just happened. But a fundamental reason is we enhanced enforcement, we enhanced the likelihood that you’d be apprehended and actually convicted, and we enhanced the penalties.  I believe the changes in the law that they have proposed are larger and more impactful than the sponsors fully realize.”

Though I sincerely hope I am very wrong, I take away one fundamental message from this story (aided, in part, by reading between the lines): the real chance of passage of any significant federal sentencing or prison reform legislation this year seems slim, at best.

April 1, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Reviewing the state of the death penalty in the Buckeye State

The Attorney General of Ohio has a statutory obligation to report on the state's administration of capital punishment each year, and this local article highlights parts of the latest version of the AG's Capital Crimes Report (which can be accessed in full here):

Ohio continues to add more people to Death Row — four last year — even though the lethal injection process is mired in legal controversy.

The 2013 Capital Crimes Report, issued today by Attorney General Mike DeWine, says 12 executions are scheduled in the next two years, with four more pending the setting of death dates....

Ohio has carried out 53 executions since 1999, including three last year, the same as in 2012.  The annual status report on capital punishment in Ohio, which covers calendar year 2013, does not mention the problems during the Jan. 16, 2014, execution of Dennis McGuire when he gasped, choked and struggled for more than 10 minutes before succumbing to a two-drug combination never before used in a U.S. execution....   The next scheduled execution is Arthur Tyler of Cuyahoga County on May 28.

DeWine’s report notes that 316 people have been sentenced to death in Ohio since 1981 when capital punishment was restored after being overturned as being unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.  The report cites 18 gubernatorial commutations of death sentences: four by Kasich, five by Gov. Ted Strickland, one by Gov. Bob Taft, and eight by Gov. Richard F. Celeste.

For the first time this year, a group opposed to the death penalty issued its own report in response to the official state document. Ohioans to Stop Executions concludes, “While Ohio's overall use of the death penalty is slowing, it has become clearer than ever before that the race of the victim and location of the crime are the most accurate predictors of death sentences in the Buckeye State.”  The group said 40% of death sentence originate in Cuyahoga County. 

Ohio prosecutors filed 21 capital murder indictments last year, a 28 percent drop from 2012, as life without the possibility of parole sentences became more prevalent.

I do not believe the report from the group Ohioans to Stop Executions is available yet, but I assume it will be posted on OTSE's website before too long.

April 1, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, March 31, 2014

New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association endorses marijuana legalization

A helpful reader alerted me to this notable article from the Asbury Park Press, headlined "It's high time to legalize pot, N.J. prosecutors say." Here is how it starts:

Proponents of legalizing marijuana in New Jersey received a boost from an unlikely source — the very people who prosecute pot users. The New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association in Hamilton, N.J., has come out in favor of legalizing possession of marijuana. The support of the prosecutors association comes as two bills were introduced this month in the New Jersey State Legislature and as polls show a majority of Americans favor legalization.

One of the bills, introduced March 10, calls for a referendum asking voters to legalize the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana. Assemblymen Reed Gusciora, a Democrat from Trenton, N.J., who also is municipal prosecutor in Lawrence Township, N.J., and Michael Patrick Carroll, a Republican from Morris Township, N.J., are its sponsors.

"If it were up to me, I would make all quantities legal," Carroll said. "Why should the government be in the business of criminalizing marijuana? All it does is create administrative Al Capones and puts the power in the hands of gangsters." From the government's perspective, Carroll said legalizing marijuana would be a huge benefit. Government could save money by hiring fewer police and parole officers. Carroll also noted that getting an arrest record has ruined many people's careers.

On March 24, Sen. Nicholas Scutari, a Democrat from Linden, N.J., who also is municipal prosecutor there, introduced another bill. Scutari's bill does not call for a referendum. Instead it would legalize the cultivation, sale and possession of marijuana; set up an agency to oversee the industry; and then funnel the sales tax revenue to the state Transportation Trust Fund, drug prevention and enforcement efforts and women's health programs....

The board of trustees of the municipal prosecutors association voted Feb. 21 to endorse legalization, said its president, Jon-Henry Barr, who is municipal prosecutor in Kenilworth and Clark Township, N.J. "The board was not unanimous, but a clear majority of municipal prosecutors favor the idea," Barr said.

Of the 10 members of the board of trustees, seven were in favor of legalization, Barr said. Two members were opposed to legalization, and one member of the board abstained from voting, Barr said. He said the association is made up of 150 prosecutors. Among the reasons the municipal prosecutors favor legalization is the damage a prosecution for marijuana possession has on a person's reputation and the growing acceptance among Americans that marijuana should not be criminalized, Barr said....

"The time has come to understand that this particular offense makes about as much sense as prohibition of alcohol did," Barr said. "It is time to stop the insanity." Barr said prosecutors are spending time prosecuting marijuana cases when they could be attacking more pressing problems.

Some municipal prosecutors were unaware of the association's position on marijuana, and not all agree with it. "I was not at the meeting," Municipal Prosecutor Bonnie Peterson said. She is prosecutor in Seaside Park, Ship Bottom and Harvey Cedars, three communities on the Jersey Shore. "They sent an e-mail. I was surprised. ... I would find it very hard to believe the municipal prosecutors association would come out with a blanket endorsement of legalization of marijuana."... Steve Rubin, prosecutor in Long Branch and West Long Branch, N.J., was one of the municipal prosecutors association's board of trustees who voted to endorse legalization. Still, he said he has some concerns, especially during a transition to legalization. He said he fears some marijuana trade would remain in the hands of criminals. "There still are people who are bookmakers," Rubin said. "We thought they would have been eliminated with OTB (off-track betting) and the lottery."

But Rubin said legalization would eliminate many of the court cases he has to present. "I would no longer have to prosecute a bunch of 18-year-olds who went to a frat party," Rubin said.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

March 31, 2014 in Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Is it time for AARP to get active in policy debates over sentencing and prison reforms?

Coa-main2The (provocative) question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy article from a local Pennsylvaia paper under the headline, "Older criminals present challenges for prisons, courts; Our population is getting grayer everywhere, including behind bars." I have seen and highlighted a number of these article in the past, and often they appear in a series of articles about state prison policies and reform. But this lengthy article is within a series of articles called "Coming of Age" addressing a range of issues facing a greying baby-boom population.

It is surely a sign of the modern mass incarceration times that a series about growing old includes a lengthy article about growing old in prison. And here are excerpts from the piece:

Older prison inmates are more likely to have chronic illnesses and mental conditions that require special treatment, and moving them through the court system can be a complicated balancing act on the scales of justice.

At the Bucks County Correctional Facility in Doylestown Township, 7.5 percent of the population — about 89 prisoners — are 65 and older.  There is no special cell block for the elderly, although some prisoners who are especially frail may be placed in protective custody, said William Plantier, Bucks County’s director of corrections....

Most of Pennsylvania’s state correctional institutions house elderly inmates. All have wheelchair-accessible cells and showers that can accommodate people with disabilities. Inmates with medical conditions that require elaborate care are sent to SCI Laurel Highlands, a minimum security prison located about 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

Built on the site of a former state hospital, Laurel Highlands is set up like a medical facility. Inmates receive treatments like kidney dialysis and chemotherapy, and staff members have been trained to treat chronic illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Laurel Highlands has 15 dialysis chairs. Before the facility opened in 1966, inmates had to be transported to outside clinics for treatment. “We’re saving a ton of money by doing it in-house,” said Betsy Nightingale, assistant superintendent at Laurel Highlands. “It’s also much better for security purposes, because the inmates do not have to travel.”

Inmates in Laurel Highlands follow a normal prison schedule; there are regular times when prisoners are counted and meals follow a schedule. Frail inmates who cannot move about the facility easily have activities brought to them. “There’s bingo and a current events program,” Nightingale said.

About 120 inmates reside in Laurel Highland’s skilled care unit. That part of the prison has nurses on staff 24/7. Prisoners who have Alzheimer’s and other incapacitating illnesses take up most of the rooms. While the majority of the 1,571 beds at Laurel Highlands are filled with older inmates, younger people with chronic illnesses may also be sent there. Sometimes, they are nursed back to health and transferred to another prison.

Currently, about 5,365 of Pennsylvania’s 51,512 state-sentenced prisoners are over age 55. That’s about 10.42 percent of all prisoners. In 2000, the percentage was 4.82, about 1,775 out of 36,802 inmates.

There are 1,249 prisoners over age 65 — about 2.49 percent of the prison population. Nationwide, the number of prisoners age 55 and older has risen sharply over the past decade, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Charitable Trust, a nonpartisan research center. In 1999, there were 43,300 prisoners age 55 and up. By 2011, that number had blossomed to 121,800.

The health care costs for inmates age 55 and older with a chronic illness is, on average, two to three times that of the cost to house and care for other inmates, according to the study. In Pennsylvania, the ratio of older to younger inmates fluctuates, as prisoners complete their sentences and are released, said Susan Bensinger, deputy press secretary for the state Department of Corrections. “Not everyone who is older and goes to prison, even to Laurel Highlands, goes there to die, which is a common assumption,” she said.

But the reality is, people do die behind bars. To address this issue, the department has created an end-of-life care initiative, in which an inmate volunteer is paired with another prisoner who is terminally ill. The two inmates spend several hours a day together, so the dying prisoner spends less time alone and is more comfortable. The program, which isn’t hospice care, can be an emotional experience for the volunteers, Bensinger said. “It’s a very different thing to watch another human being die,” she said. “Some of them are probably seeing themselves in 10 years. The volunteers are very compassionate.”

In the prison system, 50 is considered elderly. That’s because inmates often enter the facilities with serious health problems. “Many inmates come to us never having received dental care or regular health care. Most of them also have drug and alcohol dependence, which ages a body much more rapidly,” Bensinger said.

March 31, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Controversy long after du Pont heir got probation as punishment for raping his small daughter

As detailed in this lengthy local article from Delaware, headlined "Heir's sentence raises questions in child rape case," a high-profile child rape case from years ago is now generating new controversy because the low sentence imposed on the rapist just became public.  Here are the details: 

A judge who sentenced a wealthy du Pont heir to probation for raping his 3-year-old daughter noted in her order that he "will not fare well" in prison and needed treatment instead of time behind bars, court records show.  

Superior Court Judge Jan Jurden's sentencing order for Robert H. Richards IV suggested that she considered unique circumstances when deciding his punishment for fourth-degree rape.  Her observation that prison life would adversely affect Richards was a rare and puzzling rationale, several criminal justice authorities in Delaware said. Some also said her view that treatment was a better idea than prison is a justification typically used when sentencing drug addicts, not child rapists.

Richards' 2009 rape case became public this month after attorneys for his ex-wife, Tracy, filed a lawsuit seeking compensatory and punitive damages for the abuse of his daughter. The fact that Jurden expressed concern that prison wasn't right for Richards came as a surprise to defense lawyers and prosecutors who consider her a tough sentencing judge. Several noted that prison officials can put inmates in protective custody if they are worried about their safety, noting that child abusers are sometimes targeted by other inmates.

"It's an extremely rare circumstance that prison serves the inmate well," said Delaware Public Defender Brendan J. O'Neill, whose office represents defendants who cannot afford a lawyer. "Prison is to punish, to segregate the offender from society, and the notion that prison serves people well hasn't proven to be true in most circumstances." O'Neill said he and his deputies have often argued that a defendant was too ill or frail for prison, but he has never seen a judge cite it as a "reason not to send someone to jail."...

O'Neill said the way the Richards case was handled might cause the public to be skeptical about "how a person with great wealth may be treated by the system."  Richards, who is unemployed and supported by a trust fund, owns a 5,800-square-foot mansion in Greenville, Del., he bought for $1.8 million in 2005.  He also lists a home in the exclusive North Shores neighborhood near Rehoboth Beach, according to the state's sex abuse registry. His great-grandfather is du Pont family patriarch Irenee du Pont, and his father is Robert H. Richards III, a retired partner in the Richards Layton & Finger law firm....

The lawsuit filed by Richards' ex-wife accuses him of admitting to sexually abusing his infant son between 2005 and 2007, the same period when he abused his daughter starting when she was 3.  Police said they investigated allegations involving the boy in 2010 after his mother filed a complaint, but said they did not have sufficient evidence to justify charges. Investigators will take another look at the allegations included in the lawsuit, which are based on reports by probation officers.

State Attorney General Beau Biden's office had initially indicted Richards on two counts of second-degree rape of a child -- Class B violent felonies that carry a mandatory 10-year prison term for each count.  According to the arrest warrant filed by a New Castle County Police Detective JoAnna Burton in December 2007, the girl, then 5, told her grandmother, Donna Burg, that Richards sexually abused her.

Burg said the child reported that her father told her it was "our little secret" but said she didn't want "my daddy touching me anymore." Tracy Richards, who confronted her then-husband, told police he admitted abusing his daughter but said "it was an accident and he would never do it again," the warrant said.

Richards was free on $60,000 secured bail while awaiting trial on the charges that could have put him behind bars for years.  But in June 2008, just days before a scheduled trial, prosecutor Renee Hrivnak offered Richards a plea to a single count of fourth-degree rape, which carries no mandatory time, and he accepted, admitting in court that he abused his child.

"It was more than reasonable, an enlightened plea offer," Richards attorney Eugene J. Maurer Jr. said.  Fourth-degree rape is a Class C violent felony that by law can bring up to 15 years in prison, though guidelines suggest zero to 2 1/2 years in prison.

At Richards' February 2009 sentencing, Hrivnak recommended probation, Biden's chief deputy Ian R. McConnel said, adding that in retrospect he wished she would have sought prison time.  Hrivnak would not comment.... McConnel would not discuss the rationale behind the Richards' plea deal and Hrivnak's recommendation of probation for the fourth-degree rape conviction.

While judges have the latitude to sentence defendants within legal parameters, they are urged to follow more lenient guidelines established by the Delaware Sentencing Accountability Commission, a panel of judges and other top officials in the criminal justice system. The panel has a policy that prison should be reserved for violent offenders, including rapists.

Jurden gave Richards, who had no previous criminal record, an eight-year prison term, but suspended all the prison time for probation. "Defendant will not fare well in Level 5 setting," said the final line of her sentencing order. In Delaware's correctional system, Level 5 is prison....

Defense lawyer Joseph A. Hurley said it makes sense to him that the judge would be concerned about Richards' time in prison. "Sure, they have protective custody, but that is solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. We're not a third-world society," Hurley said. "Sex offenders are the lowest of the low in prison," Hurley said. "He's a rich, white boy who is a wuss and a child perv. The prison can't protect them, and Jan Jurden knows that reality. She is right on."

Though lots of reactions to this story are possible, I cannot help but highlight that a story which might seem like an example of a sentencing judge being surprisingly lenient proves to really be a story of prosecutors being surprisingly lenient through plea bargaining and sentencing recommendations. Without a lot more information about the evidence in the case, I am disinclined to robustly criticize either the prosecutors or the judge for how this du Pont heir was treated. But I am inclined to encourage everyone to appreciate how this story reveals yet again how prosecutorial charging, bargaining and sentencing decisions are never subject to transparency or formal review, while judicial sentencing decisions have to be made in open court, on the record, and can in some cases be appealed.

March 31, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 30, 2014

As heroin concerns grow, so do proposals to increase sentences

Everyone who follows sentencing reform developments knows that it is common for legislative proposals calling for longer prison terms to follow reports of a new or increased crime problem.  The biggest crime problem being discussed these days seems to be heroin use and abuse, and here are two stories from Louisiana and Ohio reporting on proposals to increase drug sentences:

The sentencing reform debate developing around heroin in Louisiana is especially interesting, and here are excerpt from the article linked above:

Heroin-related deaths soared last year from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, and the drug has shown no signs of loosening its grip as the epidemic spills into more and more parishes. On the verge of panic, authorities are warning of a public health crisis that demands new methods of deterrence. “When we’re getting to people, they’re dead,” said Col. Mike Edmonson, the State Police superintendent. “When we’re getting to people, the needle is still hanging out of their skin.”

Against this backdrop, law enforcement officials are supporting legislation to drastically increase prison time for heroin dealers and users, including a bill backed by the influential Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association that would impose a mandatory minimum of two years behind bars — without parole — for anyone caught possessing even a small amount of heroin. House Bill 332 sailed through the House Criminal Justice Committee last week and is attracting bipartisan support, even among lawmakers otherwise skeptical of the “tough-on-crime” policies that have been blamed for Louisiana’s nation-leading incarceration rate.

“I think everybody understands the danger of heroin,” said Rep. Joseph Lopinto, R-Metairie, the committee’s chairman and the author of the bill. “I don’t want to put them away for the rest of their lives, but from the other standpoint, I want to make it enough of a deterrent that when they do get out of prison they say, ‘I’m staying away from that stuff.’ That’s the purpose.”

The proposal, which also would double the mandatory minimum sentence for heroin distribution from five to 10 years, stands in sharp contrast to a package of other legislative measures that aim to reduce the state’s teeming prison population, in part by shortening jail time for nonviolent offenders. And it comes at a time of growing recognition among conservatives and liberals alike that mandatory minimums for drug offenses have strained state coffers while doing little, if anything, to curb crime.

“Louisiana already has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, and part of the reason for that is their history with mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses,” said Lauren Galik, a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, who has studied the state’s sentencing laws. “It clearly hasn’t served as a deterrent effect if people are still using drugs.” 

March 30, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack