Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Legislation to get Ohio back on track with lethal injections being fast-tracked

As reported in this local article, headlined "Death-penalty reform bill would protect execution drug makers, physicians who testify," it appears that the state legislative process is moving forward to enact new regulations to help Ohio get back into the business of executions. Here are the details (with my emphasis added at the end):

Makers of Ohio's lethal-injection drugs would be kept anonymous, and physicians who testify about the state's execution method couldn't have their medical license revoked, under House legislation introduced Monday.  Attorney General Mike DeWine has said that lawmakers need to pass the reforms if Ohio is to resume executions next year, once a court-ordered moratorium ends.

Ohio, along with many other states, has been struggling to settle on an execution method, as many large pharmaceutical companies have refused to continue selling drugs used for lethal injection.  The state's current two-drug cocktail is being challenged in court and has been used in controversial executions in Ohio and Arizona.

House Bill 663 would keep secret the identities of compounding pharmacies, small-scale drug manufacturers that create individual doses of lethal-injection drugs on demand.  The proposed change is a sign that state officials could turn to compounding pharmacies for lethal-injection drugs that courts have upheld but that larger companies have stopped selling, such as pentobarbital.  Rep. Jim Buchy, a Greenville Republican co-sponsoring the bill, said the measure would protect compounding pharmacies from lawsuits.

Another proposed change in the bill would prevent the Ohio State Medical Association from revoking or suspending the license of any physician who provides expert testimony on the state's death penalty.  Such immunity is needed, supporters say, because the state is worried that doctors will refuse to testify in defense of Ohio's lethal-injection protocol for fear that they'll run afoul of medical ethics....

House Speaker Bill Batchelder, a Medina Republican, and Senate President Keith Faber, a Celina Republican, each said last week they plan to pass the legislation.   "That is something that we cannot leave in abeyance, otherwise we're going to have people who pass away prior to execution," Batchelder said.

I have a inkling that Speaker Batchelder's comments emphasized above may have been taken a little out of context, as the quote makes it seem he considers it is essential to fix quickly Ohio's machinery of death so that prisoners do not die on their own before being able to be killed by the state.

November 11, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Notable past remarks by AG-nominee Lynch on criminal justice reform to the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

DownloadI just came across these remarks delivered by Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch in August 2014 to the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Switzerland as part of the US delegation. These remarks were intended to share with the Convention "some of the highlights of the Department of Justice’s efforts to eliminate racial discrimination and uphold human rights in the area of criminal justice."

The remarks are largely just a summary of many of the criminal justice reforms championed by Attorney General Eric Holder, but it will be interesting to see if the remarks garner special scrutiny as part of the Senate's confirmation process. Here are excerpts:

[T]he department has made great progress in reforming America’s criminal justice system. Our focus is not just on the prosecution of crime, but on eradicating its root causes as well as providing support for those re-entering society after having paid their debt to it.

There is, of course, much work still to be done. Currently our country imprisons approximately 2.2 million people, disproportionately people of color. This situation is a drain on both precious resources and human capital. The Attorney General is committed to reform of this aspect of our criminal justice system.

Last August the Attorney General announced the “Smart on Crime” initiative. Under this initiative, we’re ensuring that stringent mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal drug crimes will now be reserved for the most serious criminals. This is not an abandonment of prison as a means to reduce crime, but rather a recognition that, quite often, less prison can also work to reduce crime. We’re advancing alternative programs in place of incarceration in appropriate cases. And we’re committed to providing formerly incarcerated people with fair opportunities to rejoin their communities and become productive, law-abiding citizens.

As part of this effort, the Attorney General has directed every component of the Justice Department to review proposed rules, regulations or guidance with an eye to whether they may impose collateral consequences that may prevent reintegration into society. He has called upon state leaders to do the same, with a particular focus on enacting reforms to restore voting rights to those who have served their debt to society, thus ending the chain of permanent disenfranchisement that visits many of them.

To further ensure that the elimination of discrimination is an ongoing priority, the Attorney General has created a Racial Disparities Working Group, led by the U.S. Attorney community, to identify policies that result in unwarranted disparities within criminal justice and to eliminate those disparities as quickly as possible.

From the reduction of the use of solitary confinement, to the expansion of the federal clemency program, to our support for the retroactive reduction of penalties for non-violent drug offenders to the reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, we have worked to improve our criminal justice system in furtherance of our human rights treaty obligations. We look forward to the future and the opportunity to do even more.

Obviously, if Loretta Lynch become the next US Attorney General, she will be in a great position to seize "the opportunity to do even more" with respect to criminal justice reform. I wonder what she might have in mind.

A few recent related posts:

November 11, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

New York City mayor announces new policy concerning marijuana enforcement

ImagesAs reported in this New York Times article, headlined "Concerns in Criminal Justice System as New York City Eases Marijuana Policy," the NYC's new mayor and old sherrif are bringing a new approach to marijuana enforcement to the Big Apple. Here are the basics:

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office promising to reform the Police Department and repair relations with black and Latino communities, on Monday unveiled his plan to change the way the police enforce the law on marijuana possession.

Arrests for low-level marijuana possession have had an especially harsh impact on minority communities, and under the change announced on Monday, people found with small amounts of marijuana will typically be given a ticket and cited for a violation instead of being arrested and charged with a crime.

The news, outlined by the mayor and his police commissioner, William J. Bratton, at Police Headquarters, marked the most significant criminal justice policy initiative by Mr. de Blasio since he was sworn in as mayor in January. While he stressed that he was not advocating the decriminalization of marijuana, Mr. de Blasio said the impact of enforcement on the people arrested and on the Police Department compelled him to rethink how the police handle low-level marijuana arrests.

“When an individual is arrested,” he said, “even for the smallest possession of marijuana, it hurts their chances to get a good job; it hurts their chances to get housing; it hurts their chances to qualify for a student loan. It can literally follow them for the rest of their lives and saddle young people with challenges that, for many, are very difficult to overcome.”

For a Police Department that has devoted enormous resources to tens of thousands of marijuana arrests a year, the shift in strategy should, the mayor said, allow officers to focus on more serious types of crime by freeing up people who would otherwise be occupied by the administrative tasks lashed to minor marijuana arrests.

But the change, detailed in a five-page Police Department “operations order” that is set to go into effect on Nov. 19, immediately raised questions and concerns in many corners of the criminal justice system. It directs officers who encounter people with 25 grams or less of marijuana, in public view, to issue a noncriminal violation in most instances, rather than arrest them for a misdemeanor....

As they headed into a meeting with departmental leaders to hear about the new policy, some police union leaders said the changes seemed to run counter to the “broken windows” strategy of policing, long championed by Mr. Bratton as a way to prevent serious crime by cracking down on low-level offenses. “I just see it as another step in giving the streets back to the criminals,” said Michael J. Palladino, the head of the city’s Detectives’ Endowment Association, the union representing police detectives. “And we keep inching closer and closer to that.”...

At the news conference, Mr. Bratton said officers would still have to use discretion. If marijuana was being burned or smoked, an arrest would be made, he said. If offenders had an “active warrant,” or were wanted, or could not produce proper identification, they would be taken to the station house, he said. Officials said violations would not constitute a criminal record. They said court appearances, within weeks of the violation, could lead to a fine of up to $100 for a first offense....

Critics have said the police and prosecutors have been improperly charging people with possession of marijuana in public view, often after officers ask them to empty their pockets during street stops.

In 2011, Raymond W. Kelly, then the police commissioner, issued an order reminding officers to refrain from such arrest practices. Mr. Bratton said such practices were not now in use and the problem had been fixed. By now, the number of marijuana arrests has decreased, roughly mirroring the drastic reduction in the frequency of police stop, question and frisk encounters.

Of the 394,539 arrests made last year, marijuana arrests totaled slightly more than 28,000, or a little less than 10 percent of all arrests made in the city. That is down from 50,000 a few years ago.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

November 11, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, November 10, 2014

Highlighting that George Soros and the Koch Brothers agree on the need for criminal justice reform

Tina Brown has this notable new commentary at The Daily Beast headlined "Here’s a Reform Even the Koch Brothers and George Soros Can Agree On." Here is how it gets started:

Do you like lists? Of course you do! It’s the Internet! So try this one:

1. Koch Brothers

2. National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

3. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)

4. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)

5. George Soros

6. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT)

7. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL)

8. Newt Gingrich

9. American Civil Liberties Union

10. Grover Norquist

Apart from a passionate certainty that either liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans (pick one) are a danger to the republic, what does this motley crew have in common?

Here’s what: They all agree that America’s practice of mass incarceration—unique in the world—is at worst a moral and practical failure or at best an outdated policy badly in need of adjustment.

That’s why they have busted out of their party and ideological boxes to try to do something about a dilemma that has become the ugliest face of America’s social, economic, and racial divisions. That’s why, for example, Gingrich and some prominent Christian conservatives joined hands this fall with the Soros-affiliated Open Society Foundation and the ACLU to back Proposition 47, a California ballot measure that redefines many lower-level felonies as misdemeanors. (Prop 47 passed comfortably last Tuesday.) It’s why the Kochs and the defense lawyers’ group just teamed up to train public defenders and help indigent defendants get counsel. It’s why Democratic and Republican senators are daring to co-sponsor bipartisan legislation like the Redeem Act—which, among other changes, would curb solitary confinement for youths and make it easier for nonviolent ex-offenders to survive without returning to crime.

There are 2.3 million Americans in prison right now. And the support of prisons and prisoners is costing taxpayers as much as $74 billion a year. No wonder criminal-justice reform is no longer the sole concern of balladeers and bleeding hearts. The United States of America locks up more of its population than any nation in human history.

Between mandatory sentencing, the war on drugs, the profiteering of private prisons, and the political glee of being “tough on crime,” the land of opportunity has become a vast empire of imprisonment. And the insane cost of keeping so many nonviolent people locked up is an investment in failure. It breaks up families, burns hope, and perpetuates cycles of misery. If you are poor and black and can’t afford the right lawyer, you’re likely to vanish into the system and enter a forever world of forgotten pain.

Our criminal justice system isn’t simply bloated and cruel. It’s also, on the face of it, unjust.

November 10, 2014 in Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Federal prosecutors righteously undo convictions based on FBI agent's misdeeds

Regularly readers know I am quick to criticize federal prosecutors in this space when I am troubled by decision that seem driven more by a desire to win convictions and secure long sentences than by a commitment to do justice.  Given that reality, I nw want to be among the first to praise federal prosecutors for their response to evidence than an FBI agent in the DC area tampered with evidence in a number of serious prosecutions.  This Washington Post piece, headlined "More drug defendants cleared of charges because of investigation into FBI agent," provides details on a story that showcases the virtuousness of federal prosecutors:

Thirteen defendants charged with or convicted of distributing large amounts of heroin in the District had their cases dismissed Friday because prosecution had been tainted by an FBI agent who is accused of tampering with evidence linked to the cases, including drugs and guns.

Seven of the defendants had pleaded guilty in the drug conspiracy and four of them were serving prison sentences of between two and seven years.  But in one instant, all were unburdened by criminal charges or convictions, and those serving time had their sentences vacated. As soon as the hearing in federal court adjourned, the former defendants rushed from the box normally reserved for jurors, with one jubilantly saying, “Let me get out of here before [the judge] changes his mind.”

Friday’s ruling in U.S. District Court follows similar action Thursday, when another judge threw out charges involving 10 people convicted in a separate drug conspiracy involving the sale of heroin and cocaine.  Charges in other cases could be dropped in the near future.

Prosecutors had recommended dropping the charges amid the investigation of Matthew Lowry, 33, an FBI agent assigned to the Washington field office who worked with police on crime that spilled over from the District into Maryland and Virginia.  Lowry has been suspended but not charged. The investigation is being led by the Justice Department’s inspector general, and court documents link the dismissals to the probe involving Lowry.

Authorities have said little about the investigation, but court documents filed as part of the release of suspects say that Lowery is accused of tampering with drug and gun evidence. Officials with knowledge of the investigation have said the agent allegedly took heroin and used it himself.  Other officials said Lowry was found in the last week of September slumped over the wheel of an unmarked FBI car near the Navy Yard, along with two drug evidence bags, heroin and two guns.

The fallout has been swift.  Within days, prosecutors identified at least three drug cases and started to send defendants home from jail and prison to await further action. Prosecutors began dismissing cases outright Thursday.  In all, 23 of 28 defendants in two drug cases have had their charges dismissed.

“We do not lightly dismiss these cases, particularly when the defendants face the serious drug charges at issue here,” U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said in a statement.  But, he added, “The credibility of the system is paramount and more important than any individual prosecution. That’s why we are carrying out a case-by-case, defendant-by-defendant review to determine which cases should go forward.

"We are carefully examining the role that the FBI agent played in each investigation to assess whether the case can proceed.  And moving forward, be assured we will not be dissuaded from aggressively investigating and prosecuting narcotics cases to protect the residents of the District of Columbia,” the prosecutor said....

One of the defendants freed, 59-year-old Brandon Beale, went straight from the courtroom to the Pretrial Services Agency so he could turn in his ankle bracelet and shed the restrictions of home detention, said his attorney, Greg English.  English said Beale, who was jailed for nearly a year, planned to fight the charges on the grounds that he was merely a drug user, not a dealer.  Now, English said, there will be no reason to do that.

“This turn of events is absolutely extraordinary for an agent to commit misconduct like this. It goes to the basic integrity of the system,” English said. “But having said that, I think the U.S. Attorney’s Office did the right thing today and dismissed it. . . . They were completely ethical and upfront in their conduct in this case.”  English said it was technically possible for prosecutors to bring the charges against Beale and others again, but he doubted they would do so.

In addition to being eager to praise federal prosecutors for their swift and aggressive response to learning that an FBI agent has gone rogue, I am also eager to know if anyone (e.g., Bill Otis) might be incline to criticize the federal prosecutors for moving to vacate a bunch of convictions rather than to seeking to contend that any evidence problems created by the rogue agent produced on harmless errors.

November 10, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Florida Supreme Court dealing with Miller retroactivity issue after legislative fix

As reported in this local Florida piece, headlined "Supreme Court ponders life sentences for juveniles," the Sunshine State's top court this past week was starting to puzzle through what Miller and new state legislation mean for old juve LWOP sentences. Here are the details:

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday heard arguments in a debate about sentencing for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. Pointing to a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, two inmates who are serving life in prison for murders they committed as juveniles are challenging their sentences.

The ruling, in a case known as Miller v. Alabama, banned mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder. Juveniles can still face life sentences in such cases, but judges must weigh criteria such as the offenders’ maturity and the nature of the crimes before imposing that sentence.

On Thursday, attorneys for Rebecca Lee Falcon and Anthony Duwayne Horsley argued that the ruling — and a new state law that carries it out — should apply retroactively to their clients, giving them the possibility of release.

The session was lively, with most of the Florida justices’ questions directed at what the Legislature intended by passing the new law. An underpinning of the Miller ruling was that juveniles are different from adults and function at different stages of brain development, so that a life sentence without the possibility of parole violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment....

Lawmakers this spring approved new juvenile sentencing guidelines that went into effect July 1 in response to Miller and to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Graham v. Florida.

The Miller and Graham rulings have spawned legal questions in Florida courts since the Graham ruling was handed down. It took lawmakers that long to agree on the sentencing guidelines, but this year — reluctant to leave it to courts to decide on a case-by-case basis — did so unanimously. That’s almost unheard of,” Justice Barbara Pariente said. “It’s the entire Legislature saying, after lots of hearings, ‘We think this is both good from a policy point of view as well as faithful to Miller.’ “

Under the new law, a juvenile convicted of a murder classified as a capital felony could be sentenced to life in prison after a hearing to determine whether such a sentence is appropriate. If a judge finds that a life sentence is not appropriate, the juvenile would be sentenced to at least 35 years. Also, juveniles convicted in such cases would be entitled to reviews after 25 years....

On Thursday, Assistant Attorney General Kellie Nielan argued that a life sentence does not violate the Constitution if it includes the option of parole. But Justice Ricky Polston said that would create new questions, due to Florida abolishing parole decades ago on new crimes. A commission still hears cases from before the time parole was abolished.

“If there’s no parole, are you asking this court to order the parole commission to hear these cases even though we don’t have the power of the purse?” Polston asked. “We can’t give them the money or authorization to do this. Are you asking us to — from the bench — require a branch of government to enact the parole commission that’s been abolished?”

“I’m asking this court to follow precedent,” Nielan said. “I understand that we have to fashion a remedy for this.” But while the new law was designed to bring Florida into compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings, it doesn’t mention retroactivity.

And in July, when the Florida Supreme Court asked attorneys representing juvenile offenders to weigh in on the new law, Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, the Senate sponsor, said it was not intended to address retroactivity. “We were simply looking at a statutory scheme that was clearly unconstitutional,” the Fleming Island Republican told The News Service of Florida. “We were looking at two United States Supreme Court decisions that set forth certain parameters, and we developed a sentencing framework that complied with those two decisions. As far as how that applied individually to individual defendants, we’ll leave that to the court system.”

November 9, 2014 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Prez Obama selects Loretta Lynch to replace Eric Holder as US Attorney General

This brief press release from the White House Friday afternoon made official that it was President Obama's "intent to nominate U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch to be the Attorney General of the United States."  This lengthy Politico article, headlined "Lame duck looms over Lynch confirmation," highlights some politics dynamics surrounding this decision, and closes with a substantive point I care most about:

President Barack Obama will nominate Loretta Lynch to be the new attorney general on Saturday, setting up what could prove the first major post-midterms Senate showdown.

Obama will call for Lynch to be confirmed as soon as possible, but White House aides say he’ll defer to Senate leaders on whether to press ahead with a vote during the coming lame duck session, or to wait until next year, when the Republicans will officially be in the majority.

Senior Democratic aides, meanwhile, said no final decision on timing has been made, but they are strongly leaning towards moving in the lame duck.  A confirmation vote could be used as leverage in other deals the White House and leaders are seeking in the lame duck.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), however, made clear that he’s completely opposed, issuing a statement Friday evening promising “fair consideration,” but that Lynch’s “nomination should be considered in the new Congress through regular order.”

The question is a significant one — there’s precedent in President George W. Bush pushing through Michael Mukasey’s nomination in a lame duck.  But at the outset of what’s supposed to be a new effort toward cooperation, Obama and Senate Democrats would be doing the exact opposite by moving confirming such a senior Cabinet official in between the midterms and the Republican takeover of the majority.

That could give Republicans an easy excuse to point to for blame on future gridlock.  But by waiting until the new GOP members are sworn in, Obama would risk not getting his choice — or any choice — confirmed for the job.

Lynch, a United States attorney from New York, has kept a low profile, but has quietly been in top consideration for weeks at the White House. Lynch would be the second woman in the post, and the second African American, following Holder.  That could make opposition from the Republican Senate more politically difficult, especially as she’s been previously confirmed by acclimation twice previously.

A career prosecutor who’s been confirmed twice by the Senate to one of the most prominent U.S. attorney positions, Lynch has experience with many of the major issues that a new attorney general would confront — including terrorism and financial crimes. She does not have a deep personal relationships with Obama or his close aides, or a resonance with the Democratic base eager to see the president pick fights more post-midterms.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the outgoing Judiciary Committee chairman, issued a statement praising Lynch’s selection, but made no firm commitment on timing.  “I have spoken with the President about the need to confirm our next attorney general in a reasonable time period, and I look forward to beginning that process,” Leahy said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who’ll head the Judiciary Committee when Republicans take over, said he was generally supportive of Lynch’s nomination but said he was looking forward to learning more about her.  “As we move forward with the confirmation process, I have every confidence that Ms. Lynch will receive a very fair, but thorough, vetting by the Judiciary Committee. U.S. Attorneys are rarely elevated directly to this position, so I look forward to learning more about her, how she will interact with Congress, and how she proposes to lead the department,” Grassley said.  “I’m hopeful that her tenure, if confirmed, will restore confidence in the Attorney General as a politically independent voice for the American people.”...

And timing isn’t the only problem Lynch would face. Sen. Jeff Sessions’ office sent out a reminder to reporters Friday of recent comments by Sens. Sessions, McConnell, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul all saying that any nominee for attorney general would have to disavow Obama’s plan to provide amnesty to certain illegal immigrants through executive action. Obama has said repeatedly, including at his post-election press conference Wednesday, that he will go forward with the immigration reform executive actions before the year, unless Congress passes an immigration reform bill....

Obama, White House aides have said, sees the next attorney general as being a key figure in helping him complete several issues he sees as fundamental to the legal legacy he wants, including sentencing reform and figuring out a solution to closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

I am very pleased and excited by this news for many reasons, particularly because I think the selection of Lynch at least indirectly suggests that Prez Obama is more interested in moving forward with sentencing reform than in picking fights with the new Congress. Among the various names discussed as possible nominees, I view Lynch as probably the least controversial choice as well as the person most likely to be able, practically and politically, to keep up the sentencing reform momentum that outgoing AG Eric Holder made a signature concern of his final years in his position.

November 8, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, November 07, 2014

ACLU to devote $50 million to political efforts to attack mass incerceration

Images (6)As reported in this New York Times article, headlined "A.C.L.U. in $50 Million Push to Reduce Jail Sentences," a leading advocacy group big new pot of money to be spent on attacking the problem of mass incarceration. Here are the details:

With a $50 million foundation grant, the largest in its history, the American Civil Liberties Union plans to mount an eight-year political campaign across the country to make a change of criminal justice policies a key issue in local, state and national elections. The goal of the campaign, financed by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, is to slash an incarceration rate that has tripled since 1980. There are currently some 2.2 million prisoners in the United States.

The campaign aims to translate into state and federal policy a growing belief among many scholars, as well as of a coalition of liberal, conservative and libertarian political leaders, that the tough-on-crime policies of recent decades have become costly and counterproductive. In that view, widespread drug arrests and severe mandatory sentences are doing more to damage poor communities, especially African-American ones, than to prevent crime, and building ever more prisons that mostly turn out repeat offenders is a bad investment.

The campaign is likely to face strong opposition from some law enforcement officials, prosecutor groups and conservative experts who argue that tough sentencing policies have played an important role in driving down crime rates. The Republican electoral victories this week could also stiffen resistance to sweeping change.

The grant is going to the political arm of the A.C.L.U., which has far more leeway to lobby for laws, run ads on television and finance political action committees to promote candidates than the group’s larger, traditional branch, which relies more on litigation. As a result, the money is not tax-deductible.

While the A.C.L.U. has often been associated with liberal causes like ending the death penalty and promoting same-sex marriage, Anthony D. Romero, the group’s executive director, said the organization was building ties with conservative leaders promoting alternatives to incarceration and would not hesitate to aid Republican candidates who support needed steps. “I think criminal justice reform is one of the few issues where you can break through the partisan gridlock,” Mr. Romero said, adding that the group would seek out Republican lobbying firms to help reach legislators.

In the latest example of converging views, conservatives including Newt Gingrich and B. Wayne Hughes Jr., a Christian philanthropist, joined the Soros-led foundation and the A.C.L.U. in support of Proposition 47, a California ballot measure to redefine many lower-level felonies, including possession for personal use of hard drugs, as misdemeanors. The change, which passed by a wide margin on Tuesday, is expected to keep tens of thousands of offenders out of prison and save the state hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

The Koch brothers, major funders of conservative causes and candidates, have joined in. Koch Industries recently gave a grant “of significant six figures” to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to support the defense of indigents, said Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries. “Whether the human cost or the societal cost, what we’re doing in the criminal justice system isn’t working,” Mr. Holden said. “We’re finding common ground with people with different political affiliations,” he said, praising the advocacy work of the A.C.L.U. in this field.

The A.C.L.U. campaign will be directed by Alison Holcomb, who led the effort in Washington State to legalize marijuana. The group plans to use ads to insert issues like drug policy, mandatory sentences and prison re-entry into early primary states in the presidential elections, such as Iowa and New Hampshire, and then in key battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and Florida, Mr. Romero said.

It will also develop a state-by-state database describing who is in prison for what crimes and then target local politicians and prosecutors who promote what Mr. Romero called “overincarceration.” Mr. Romero said the goal of the campaign was to reduce incarceration by 50 percent in eight years.... Todd R. Clear, a criminologist and the provost of Rutgers University-Newark, said he agreed that the time was right for a major shift in justice policies.... But he cautioned that to achieve a decline anywhere near as steep as that proposed by the A.C.L.U., far more politically contentious changes would be necessary. “We’ll have to make sentencing reforms for violent crime, too,” he said, including major changes in drug laws and the multidecade sentences often imposed on violent or repeat offenders.

November 7, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

After state's capital repeal, Maryland AG argues the state cannot execute those already on death row

As reported in this Baltimore Sun piece, headlined "Gansler argues state must vacate sentences of death row inmates," Maryland's Attorney General has concluded that it would not be proper to see execution of those on state's death row after the legislature repealed capital punishment. Here are the details:  

More than a year after the repeal of capital punishment in Maryland, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler says the state has no choice but to change the sentences of its remaining death row inmates.

Gansler has filed a legal brief in support of an appeal by Jody Lee Miles, who is asking to be resentenced for the 1997 murder of an Eastern Shore musical theater director. Miles' lawyers — and Gansler — argue the state no longer has the authority to execute the four men already on death row because lawmakers abolished capital punishment in 2013. With repeal, they argue, legislators took away the state's power to issue the regulations necessary to put someone to death.

Instead, Miles should be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, Gansler argued in a brief filed with the Court of Special Appeals. "Whether or not you agree with the death penalty, the recent repeal of capital punishment in Maryland nevertheless demands that we pursue a prison sentence that ensures Jody Lee Miles dies behind bars, where he belongs," Gansler said in a statement Thursday.

Speaking at a news conference, Gansler called capital punishment in Maryland "illegal and factually impossible." Though the brief relates only to Miles, Gansler acknowledged that his position has implications for the other death row inmates.

His position drew criticism from the family of Miles' victim, Edward Joseph Atkinson, and from the Wicomico County state's attorney, whose office prosecuted the case.

Atkinson's mother, Dottie Atkinson, said Miles should be put to death. "It's been appeal after appeal. We get some hope each time, and all these appeals have been in our favor, and all of a sudden we get this news. We've been let down," she told reporters on the Eastern Shore, according to The Daily Times. "It's an impact people shouldn't have to go through."

Wicomico County State's Attorney Matt Maciarello also denounced the decision. But he added that, if the state's position is set, Gov. Martin O'Malley should move to commute Miles' sentence and spare the family the court hearings and drawn-out process associated with appeals. "If the attorney general is committed to this approach, let's give this family some finality," Maciarello said. "It's cruel to put this family through more suffering."

Gansler noted that O'Malley, who supported repeal, could commute the death sentences to life without the possibility of parole. The governor has at least one petition — from inmate Heath William Burch — on his desk that he has yet to take action on, Burch's attorney said.

Through a spokeswoman, O'Malley declined to comment on Gansler's opinion, saying only that the attorney general "has a constitutional obligation to determine how the law applies." Regarding the governor's ability to commute sentences, the spokeswoman said O'Malley "continues to consider each case and will address the issue when a decision has been made."

Gov.-elect Larry Hogan and incoming attorney general Brian Frosh did not respond to requests for comment.

Gansler — who opposed the repeal legislation but never sought the death penalty as the top prosecutor in Montgomery County — said his office was obligated to weigh in on Miles' case before the Court of Special Appeals. He noted that after a court threw out Maryland's lethal injection procedure as unconstitutional in 2006, the state did not adopt new regulations. When his staff researched the issue, the conclusion was that the "uncertain enforceability" of the death penalty in Maryland threatened due process, he said....

His opinion contrasts with that of a Queen Anne's County judge, who rejected Miles' argument last year. In that case, Judge Thomas G. Ross found the lack of rules for executions "troubling" but said even after the repeal went into effect the Division of Correction retained the authority to develop new rules....

Miles' attorneys commended Gansler's move but said they believe he should be eligible for release at some point, not sentenced to life without parole. Miles has expressed "extreme remorse" for the killing, had a "devastating childhood history" and has been a model inmate while behind bars, the attorneys say. Gansler said life without parole is the appropriate sentence because the jury had a choice between that and the death penalty.

November 7, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 06, 2014

How might election results (and subsequent sparring) impact Prez Obama's clemency plans?

In this prior post, I wondered aloud "How might election results impact replacing Eric Holder as Attorney General?."  Since then, I have turned to thinking about, as the title of this post highlights, whether and how the Republican electorial success this election cycle might impact the President's thinking and plans about finally making some real use of his clemency powers.

As regular readers know, I consider President Obama's clemency record to date to be not merely disappointing, but truly disgraceful.  That said, earlier this year, Deputy AG Cole and others talked up a new DOJ effort to identify worthy clemency candidates so that the President might start to do better.  From the get-go, I have been concerned that all the talk of new clemency developments might prove to be just another example of the Obama Administration being real good at "talking the talk" and not nearly so good at really "walking the walk."  Indeed, until President Obama starts seriously and consistently using his clemency power, I remain deeply fearful that the so-called Clemency Project 2014 could prove to be much ado about nothing (or about very little relief for very few).

With these realities as backdrop, I have no sense at all whether the consequential political developments of the last few days will have little, some or much impact on whatever Prez Obama had in mind with respect to clemency.  Does anyone else have any insights or even wild speculations on this front?

A few of many recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

November 6, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Impact of California's Prop 47 already being felt ... by defense attorneys and police

This local article from California, headlined "Scramble to implement Prop 47 begins," spotlight the impact already being felt by the passage of the biggest criminal justice reform initiative of Election 2014.  Here are the (already remarkable) basics:

Just hours after the last ballot returns were counted, the phone lines of defense attorneys across the state began to light up Wednesday morning with calls from inmates.

With the passage of Proposition 47, simple drug possession and property crimes valued under $950 are now misdemeanors, effective immediately. Punishment means, at the worst, up to a year in jail, no longer prison. It also means up to 10,000 inmates serving time for those crimes can begin to apply for shortened sentences, a process many were eager to get started.

“This morning at 8 a.m., we took 10 attorneys and put them on the phones,” said Randy Mize, a chief deputy at the Public Defender’s Office. “They were taking 200 calls an hour from inmates in county jail. These are people asking us to file petitions on their behalf.”

The scramble to put the new law into practice was starting to touch all corners of the criminal justice system Wednesday, from the City Attorney’s Office, which will have to handle 3,000 extra cases a year, to police officers who will have new protocols to follow for certain arrests.

At Juvenile Hall Wednesday morning, six kids were released because they had felony charges that are now classified as misdemeanors under Proposition 47, and legally minors can’t be detained longer than an adult would, authorities said. “I think the roll out today started fairly smoothly,” Mize said. He attributed much of that to the fact that criminal justice leaders from around the county — including prosecutors, public defenders, the sheriff and probation officers — have been meeting for the past month to prepare for this day....

The law is intended to ease prison overcrowding, and put most of the estimated $200 million saved in prison costs annually into drug and mental health treatment programs to staunch recidivism. The majority of law enforcement officials around the state and the county are skeptical it will have the desired effect, and fear less time behind bars will only contribute to the revolving door of the criminal justice system. But, officials say, they will do their best to make it work. “It’s still a work in progress,” Sheriff Bill Gore said Wednesday. “Our primary concern is clearly the public’s safety.”...

Law enforcement officers were reminded of the new law in police lineups around the county. As of Wednesday, six crimes that used to be felonies are now misdemeanors: drug possession for personal use, as well as five property crimes valued below $950, theft, writing bad checks, forgery, shoplifting and receiving stolen property.

One of the biggest differences when arresting someone on a misdemeanor, rather than a felony, is that the crime must have occurred in the officer’s presence, or be witnessed by a citizen willing to sign an affidavit saying so. Several training memos have been distributed in the past few weeks to prepare deputies on such arrests, Gore said....

The Public Defender’s Office has already identified about 200 state prisoners and 1,800 other offenders either in jail or under the supervision of probation who might be eligible to be resentenced under Proposition 47. The first set of petitions are expected to be filed within the next day or so, with priority given to those in custody. Once the application is filed in court, the District Attorney’s Office will review it to make sure the person is eligible, then a judge will OK it and hand down a new, shorter sentence. The process could be as quick as a few weeks for the first group of offenders, said Mize, with public defender’s office.

“There will be a few cases that the DA thinks should be excluded, and we don’t, and those will be litigated,” Mize said. There may also be a few offenders that prosecutors think are too dangerous to be released, and those cases will be argued. Inmates who can’t be resentenced are those who have prior convictions such as murder, attempted murder and violent sex crimes.

The public defender’s office has also identified nearly 200,000 other people who have been convicted since 1990 — that’s as far back as its database goes — of the crimes reclassified under Proposition 47. They can now apply to have their records show misdemeanor rather than felony convictions. Statewide, that could apply to millions of people. Said Mize, “It will certainly take a lot more work in the short term.”


Prior related posts on California's Prop 47:

November 6, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Based on questions asked at SCOTUS oral argument, wins predicted for federal defendants in Johnson and Yates

As discussed in prior posts here and here, yestderay the Supreme Court heard oral argumentsin two notable federal criminal justices cases,  Yates v. United States and Johnson v. United States.  I am hoping soon to find the time to read the full arguments transcripts in both cases (which are available here and here).  Fortunately, thanks to my old pal Professor Ed Lee and this post at ISCOTUSnow, I do not have to read the transcripts in order to have an informed guess as to who will prevail.  Here is why:

I’m predicting the winners of the Supreme Court cases based on the number of questions asked during oral argument. Studies have shown that the advocate who receives more questions during oral argument is more likely to lose....

Yates v. United States asks whether Mr. Yates was deprived of fair notice that destruction of fish would fall within the purview of 18 U.S.C. § 1519—which makes it a crime for anyone who “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object” with the intent to impede or obstruct an investigation—where the term “tangible object” is ambiguous and undefined in the statute, and unlike the nouns accompanying “tangible object” in section 1519, possesses no record-keeping, documentary, or informational content or purpose.

This is a close call. The Court was very active in questioning both sides. By my count, the Petitioner (Yates) received 49 questions and the Respondent (Solicitor General) 54 questions, which militates slightly in favor of the Petitioner.

But, if you break down the questions asked by Justice, the picture gets more complicated. Four Justices (Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan) asked the Respondent fewer questions, while only three Justices (Roberts, Scalia, and Breyer) asked the Petitioner fewer questions. Justice Alito asked both sides an equal number of questions (3). Justice Thomas asked no questions.

My confidence level is not high in predicting the winner. It appears to be a very close case. The total number of questions slightly favors the Petitioner, while the questions per Justice slightly favors the Respondent. If I had to choose, I would give a slight nod to the Respondent (Solicitor General) based on the higher number of Justices (4) who asked the Respondent fewer questions.

The second case, Johnson v. United States, asks whether mere possession of a short-barreled shotgun should be treated as a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act.

This case is easier to predict, even though the total question count per side was closer. The Court asked almost the same number of questions to each side: 36 to the Petitioner (Johnson) and 37 to the Respondent (Solicitor General). The questions asked by each Justice tells a different picture. Four Justices (Roberts, Ginsberg, Breyer, and Kagan) asked the Petitioner fewer questions. Only two Justices (Scalia and Alito) asked the Respondent fewer questions. Justice Sotomayor asked the same number of questions (5) to each side, while Justices Kennedy and Thomas asked no questions. Another noteworthy point: Justice Alito, in fact, asked 17 questions to the Petitioner — a high number of questions that is somewhat unusual for a Justice to ask one side during oral argument. Justice Alito’s questioning might have inflated the Petitioner’s total question count, in other words. Accordingly, I predict a win for the Petitioner (Johnson), who argued that mere possession of a short-barreled shotgun is not a violent felony under the ACCA.

Previous related posts:

November 6, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"After the Cheering Stopped: Decriminalization and Legalism's Limits"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely paper by Wayne Logan which I just saw on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

To the great relief of many, American criminal law, long known for its harshness and expansive prohibitory reach, is now showing signs of softening. A prime example of this shift is seen in the proliferation of laws decriminalizing the personal possession of small amounts of marijuana: today, almost twenty states and dozens of localities have embraced decriminalization in some shape or form, with more laws very likely coming to fruition soon.

Despite enjoying broad political support, the decriminalization movement has however failed to curb a core feature of criminalization: police authority to arrest individuals suspected of possessing marijuana. Arrests for marijuana possession have skyrocketed in number in recent years, including within decriminalization jurisdictions. This essay examines the chief reasons behind this disconnect, centering on powerful institutional incentives among police to continue to make arrests, enabled by judicial doctrine that predates the recent shift toward decriminalization. The essay also identifies ways to help ensure that laws decriminalizing simple marijuana possession, as well as other low-level offenses, better achieve decriminalization’s goal of limiting the arrest authority of police and the many negative personal consequences of arrest.

November 6, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

What does Rep-elect Mia Love, the new most-interesting person in Congress, think about sentencing reform and the federal drug war?

Images (4)

Among the amazing and exciting stories emerging from this election season is the historic victory of Mia Love, the first black Republican woman ever elected to Congress.  This new Washington Post article discusses the remarkable backstory of this remarkable woman, and why she is now already an especially important member of the new GOP-controlled Congress: 

For at least half a century, the party of Lincoln has battled charges that it is racist, sexist and anti-immigrant. Today, voters from a conservative state made those arguments a little bit harder to make. In Utah, Mia Love became the first black Republican woman — and first Haitian American — elected to Congress.

For the GOP — a house divided that faces significant demographic hurdles to winning the White House in 2016 even as it celebrates President Obama’s shellacking — this was huge. A party threatened with electoral extinction among African Americans and immigrants now has someone to brag about in Washington. In a wave election less about fresh Republican ideas than fervid disapproval of all things presidential, Love’s compelling personal story is an oasis. She’s not just a black face in what’s often described as a party full of angry old white men. She’s a path forward.

It’s hard to overstate how unlikely Love’s victory looked on paper. Utah is less than 1 percent black. Though more than 60 percent of the state’s people identify as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the church is just 3 percent black. Love, 38, is one of these few black Mormons — part of a church that, until 1978, didn’t let African Americans participate in all church activities and still hasn’t apologized for its racism.

Yet, a woman born in Brooklyn to Haitian immigrants is now a duly-elected representative of the Beehive State. What led to this? A speech at a national political convention about triumphing over adversity — just like another familiar politician facing long odds.

At the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Obama spun a tale of unrealistic dreams achieved by the power of a “larger American story.”...

Eight years later, Love turned her superficially similar biography — child of foreigner makes good — into a parable for gritty, individual wherewithal. This was Horatio Alger by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Her parents fled Haiti in 1976, one step ahead of the dreaded Tonton Macoutes, the secret police of dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. “My parents immigrated to the U.S. with ten dollars in their pocket, believing that the America they had heard about really did exist,” Love told the Republican National Convention, gathered in Tampa in 2012 to nominate Mitt Romney. “When times got tough they didn’t look to Washington, they looked within.”

Indeed, Love — a black woman who married a white man she met on a Mormon mission, left her Catholic Church and lit out to a white enclave by the Great Salt Lake — explicitly challenged what she described as a vision of America mired in demography. “President Obama’s version of America is a divided one — pitting us against each other based on our income level, gender, and social status,” she said. “His policies have failed!”...

A talented performing artist, she reportedly turned down a Broadway role in “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” because it conflicted with her wedding in 1998 to Jason Love, who, by the way, took her to a firing range on their first date. She became a neighborhood activist in Saratoga Springs, Utah, leading the charge to get a developer to spray the area for flies — “The War of the Midges” it was called — ultimately winning a seat on the city council and then being elected mayor of the small town.

Even when she entered what would turn out to be a losing congressional run in 2012, the GOP knew what it had. Even the future Republican nominee for vice president said so. “Mia has a great opportunity to extend the message of liberty and economic freedom in ways that a lot of us can’t, and we’re excited about that,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) after hosting a fundraiser for Love.

Two years later, Ryan’s enthusiasm was borne out on Twitter after Love’s victory. She trailed Democrat Doug Owens most of the night as the results came in from Utah’s 4th District, but ultimately triumphed with 50 percent of the vote to Owens’s 47 percent. “Many people said Utah would never elect a black, Republican, LDS woman to Congress. And guess what … we were the first to do it,” she told cheering supporters, the Salt Lake Tribune reported....

Just as Obama’s policies didn’t matter as much as the fact that he existed in 2008, Love’s may not either. Judging by her Web site, she won’t upend conservative orthodoxy. She wants to repeal Obamacare. She wants to defend the Second Amendment. She’s pro-life. All-in-all, a typical Republican.

Except: Not at all. Though she may speak out against immigration or D.C. dysfunction, she is not a white-haired, pale-skinned Methuselah turning beet-red on Fox News while doing so. She is a black woman under 40.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I could not find any statements on Mia Love's campaign website concerning her views about sentencing law and policy or criminal justice issues more generally. But, as regular readers know, Utah's junior Senator, Mike Lee, is one of the co-sponsors of the Smarter Sentencing Act and Rep Paul Ryan (mentioned above) has recently become an advocate of federal sentencing reform. And Love's website on this page stresses the principles of "fiscal discipline, limited government ... [and] cutting waste and ensuring that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely." For these reasons, I am cautiously hopeful that Rep-elect Mia Love will soon become another prominent GOP member of Congress supporting federal sentencing and drug war reforms that can and should limit the most wasteful part of a big federal criminal justice system.

November 5, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

How might election results impact replacing Eric Holder as Attorney General?

The question in the title of this post is fraught with all sorts of political and practical uncertainty in light of the various folks thought to be front-runners for replacing Eric Holder in the most important criminal justice policy position in the nation.  This new posting from Constitution Daily highlights some of the lurking issues:  

There were signs this week that the Obama administration may not use the Senate lame-duck session between November and January to put through Holder’s replacement while it enjoyed the advantage of a filibuster-free nomination process.  But other reports indicated President Obama would make an announcement about Holder’s replacement in the days following the mid-term elections.

Through its constitutional advice and consent powers, the Senate needs to approve a new Attorney General in a simple majority vote, after the Obama administration presents a nominee and the appropriate committees question the nominee.

Given the short time frame and the timing of the November election, a public process that gives the President’s opponents a chance to speak about Holder and Holder’s replacement could prove problematic for the Obama administration.  But given the short time frame of lame duck session between November 2014 and January 2015, a troublesome confirmation hearing now would certainly be shorter than a drawn-out process in early 2015.

Three candidates are rumored to be on Obama’s short list: Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch.

Perez would enjoy the advantage of appearing before the Senate in July 2013 during his nomination to head the Labor Department, which could shorten his hearing process now. Ironically, Perez was approved by a 54-46 vote when Democrats and Republicans had agreed to stop fighting, at least temporarily, about filibuster rules.  But if Perez is the Attorney General pick, President Obama would need to get a new Labor Secretary approved by a GOP-controlled Senate.

Even if one were to exclude all political concerns and calculations, there are practical challenges for a nomination and a confirmation process moving forward relatively expeditiously. And, of course, inside the Beltway, political concerns and calculations often eclipse all others when it comes to headline-grabbing presidential appointments. Moreover, all these dynamics should take on an extra level of interest for sentencing fans given that federal sentencing reforms, federal marijuana policy and maybe even the death penalty could be big issues of interest and concerns for the new Republican-controlled Senate. Interesting times.

A few recent related posts:

November 5, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"Fish, Shotguns and Judicial Activism"

Images (3)The title of this post is the title of this terrific new Bloomberg commentary by Noah Feldman spotlighting some connected issues in the two big federal criminal justice cases being heard today by the US Supreme Court. Here are extended excerpts that explain why jurisprudes, and not just criminal justice fans, ought to be watching these cases closely:

Is a fish a tangible object? Does a sawed-off shotgun pose serious risk of injury? Laugh if you must, but the U.S. Supreme Court is taking up these questions in a pair of cases that will form another chapter in the saga of our vastly expanding federal criminal law. Funny as the cases may seem -- both funny strange and funny ha-ha -- they illustrate how policy and law constantly interact for a court deeply divided about the nature of statutory interpretation.

The fish case, Yates v. United States, involves a Florida fishing boat that was boarded and found to have 72 undersized grouper aboard. Ordered to bring the fish back to port where they would be used as evidence, the skipper, John Yates, instead threw them overboard and tried to substitute fish that were over the legal size requirement.

The criminal nature of the act seems intuitive. The part that has reached the Supreme Court on appeal stems from Yates’s conviction under a provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that punishes anyone who “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object.” The government says that Yates destroyed a tangible object, namely the fish. Yates says the law, passed after the Enron scandal, is intended to prohibit shredding documents, not throwing fish into the sea....

Aristotle, followed by today’s purpose-driven interpreters such as Justice Stephen Breyer, believed the solution is to interpret the law as its authors would have intended had they only thought of the future case. Others, such as Justice Antonin Scalia, reject the idea that the judge should do anything but apply the law as it is written. Ordinarily, you could expect the case to come down to this division, and to come out 5-4, depending on what Justice Anthony Kennedy thinks of it.

In Yates’s case, things are more complicated. Breyer may well reason that the underlying purpose of the statute is not to protect documents from destruction but to protect evidence in federal cases from being destroyed by defendants. If so, he would uphold Yates’s conviction insofar as Yates was clearly trying to get away with a crime by getting rid of the evidence.

For his part, Scalia may find himself affected by a special principle that he applies only in criminal cases: the “rule of lenity,” according to which an ambiguous statute should be interpreted in favor of the criminal defendant. If Scalia were to follow this principle, he might overturn the conviction.

Of course, whether to apply the rule of lenity depends on whether you think the law is ambiguous. The government says it isn’t: You can hold a fish, so it’s a tangible object. If Scalia thinks the ambiguity -- if any -- derives from context, not language, then according to his own jurisprudence, he shouldn’t apply the rule of lenity, and should uphold the conviction.

The shotgun case, Johnson v. United States, is no less challenging -- and no less odd. Samuel James Johnson, founder of something called the Aryan Liberation Movement, was arrested after he made the mistake of telling an undercover federal agent about his plans for attacking various non-Aryan targets. He was in possession of weapons including an AK-47 -- and that possession was a felony that would ordinarily have gotten him roughly 10 years in prison. But Johnson had three prior convictions. And under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act, a fourth conviction for a violent felony carries a minimum of 15 years.

The law defines “violent felony” to include a range of obvious crimes -- plus any “conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” One of Johnson’s prior state convictions was for possession of a short-barreled shotgun. Did owning the illegal shotgun pose a serious potential risk?

You won’t be surprised to hear what the gun lobby thinks about that in its friend of the court briefs -- but that’s not really the important point here. The crucial question is, what’s the meaning of the so-called residual clause of the repeat offender law? How should the courts define what counts as a serious risk of potential injury?

The Supreme Court has been answering that question on a case by case basis -- a practice disliked by, you guessed it, Justice Scalia. He thinks the law is unconstitutionally vague, because it doesn’t provide defendants sufficient notice or the courts adequate guidance. It’s easy to see why the law worries Scalia. He wants the courts to follow the law’s literal meaning, not its policy aims -- but it’s almost impossible not to inject policy when the law tells you to evaluate “serious potential risk of physical injury.”

The purpose-oriented justices look at the interpretive issue and see business as usual. To them, the courts must always consider policy and purpose, whether the subject is tangible fish or injurious firearms.

Who’s right is a deep question of jurisprudence. But as a practical matter, the cases show that Scalia’s approach, devoted to opposing judicial activism, won’t work when Congress actively wants the judiciary to make the law up as it goes along. If Scalia wants to avoid relying on his own judgment, he has to strike down the law as unconstitutional. And that isn’t judicial restraint. It’s activism. 

Some previous related posts:

November 5, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

California sentencing reform initiative Prop 47 wins big getting almost 60% support

As repoted in this Huffinton Post piece, "California approved a major shift against mass incarceration on Tuesday in a vote that could lead to the release of thousands of state prisoners."  Here are the basics from a piece headlined "California Voters Deal Blow To Prisons, Drug War":

Nonviolent felonies like shoplifting and drug possession will be downgraded to misdemeanors under the ballot measure, Proposition 47.  As many as 10,000 people could be eligible for early release from state prisons, and it's expected that courts will annually dispense around 40,000 fewer felony convictions.

The state Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that the new measure will save hundreds of millions of dollars on prisons.  That money is to be redirected to education, mental health and addiction services -- a novel approach that reformers hope will serve as a model in the larger push against mass incarceration.

This official webpage with California ballot measure voting results reports that Prop 47 received 58.5% of votes in support. This big margin of victory strikes me as big news that can and should further propel the political narrative that, at least in some places, significant numbers of voters are significantly interested in significant sentencing reform.

November 5, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Awaiting results from the Last Frontier, marijuana reform initiatives getting majority support

I am about to call it a night now that a few hours have passed since Election Day 2014 ended, but I am eager to note before I do that marijuana reform had a pretty good day at the polls.  A legalization initiative won big in DC, and another won confortably in Oregon, and a medical marijuana initiative garnered 58% of the vote in Florida though did not make the 60% level needed to become law.  And, in the Last Frontier, a legalization initiative is leading as of this writing.  For all the details and some early coverage, check out posts and links Over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform:

November 5, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Is major federal sentencing reform possible now that Republicans have full control of Congress?

As the polls had come to predict in the weeks leading up to Election Day 2014, voters have now decided to put Republicans in control of both houses of Congress.  Way back in this post in July 2013, I asked the question "Could significant federal criminal justice reforms become more likely if the GOP wins Senate in 2014?," and now we are on a path to find out.  

Of course, with respect to sentencing reform and so many other federal legislative issues, a whole lot will depend on whether and how a Republican-controlled Congress wants to work with or work against the lame-duck President Obama.  Ever the hopeful optimist, I believe that Republicans in the new Congress will be looking to pass some bills that President Obama will sign into law and that at least some sentencing reform bills will be in this mix.  

Some recent related posts:

November 5, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Terrific SCOTUSblog previews of this week's SCOTUS arguments in Johnson and Yates

In this post this morning, I noted that the Supreme Court is finally due to get back around to working on important criminal justice issues with oral arguments scheduled in  Yates v. United States, No. 13-7451 and in Johnson v. United States, No. 13-7120.  I now see that the always great SCOTUSblog now has up these two new posts providing detailed argument previews:

In addition, as religious blog readers may remember, another view of the ACCA issues in Johnson was covered in this space a few weeks ago via this SCOTUS preview guest-post by Professor Stephen Rushin titled "Measuring the Dangerousness of Felonies for Sentencing Purposes."

November 4, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack