Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Florida Supreme Court adds to the mess that is the current Florida death penalty limbo

These three headlines spotlight the remarkable (and still unclear) story surrounding an important death penalty ruling by the Florida Supreme Court which was released and then withdrawn today:

"Typo upends Florida Supreme Court’s death penalty ruling"

"Florida's High Court Takes Puzzling Turn on Death Penalty"

"Florida Supreme Court: Prosecutors can't seek death penalty - or can they?"

Here are the basics from the first of these linked reports:

Just hours after declaring prosecutors could not seek death sentences under existing state law, the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday rescinded the order, an uncommon move that casts fresh uncertainty on the state’s death penalty.

The reason: A typo.

In a 5-2 ruling Wednesday morning, the court rejected Attorney General Pam Bondi’s request to let prosecutors seek the death penalty as long as juries voted unanimously. The court threw out the state’s revamped death sentencing law in October because it required only a 10-2 super majority of the jury to put someone to death.

Then at 1 p.m., the Supreme Court rescinded the order, saying it was “prematurely issued,” and deleted it from the court’s website. The Wednesday morning ruling was vacated because of a “clerical error,” said Craig Waters, a spokesman for the court.

Makes me think of the famous words of one of my favorite philosophers.

January 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Why Dylann Roof Has a Right to the Death Penalty" ... OR "Why Dylann Roof Representing Himself Is A Constitutional Tragedy"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective and timely new NBC News commentary authored by Andrew Cohen.  Here are excerpts:

Dylann Roof has a constitutional right not to try to spare his own life....

In the end, despite the drama of a closed hearing in the middle of a capital trial, it likely wasn't a close call as a matter of law to allow Roof to continue to represent himself.  The standard for "competency" in these circumstances is low, on purpose, to give defendants the chance to control their own fates.  Roof has consistently shown he understands the nature of the proceedings against him.  The truth is that Roof's decision not to present mitigating evidence seems entirely consistent with his racist beliefs and with his evident antipathy toward psychiatry and psychology.  He wrote in the past that he is "morally opposed to psychology," calling it a "Jewish invention."

Roof also appears to share the mentality of other notable murderers who for one reason or another eschewed a defense their lawyers would have chosen for them. For example, Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, rejected his attorneys' plans for an insanity defense on his behalf before accepting a plea deal that spared him the death penalty.  Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh gave up the rest of his appeals following his capital conviction and opted for an expedited execution, which took place at the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana, on June 11, 2001. The Beltway Sniper, John Allen Muhammad, also sparred with his own lawyers in Virginia before he was convicted and sentenced to death.

For all the hand-wringing over the constitutionality (and morality) of self-representation in a capital case, for all the arguments that every capital defendant should always present every non-frivolous defense at trial, the truth is that Roof has a constitutional right not to present a defense, to choose to increase the likelihood he'll get the death penalty instead of a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

It is not necessarily a sign of mental illness, or mental instability, or mental incompetence, to take responsibility for one's murderous actions rather than blame them, in some fashion, on some sort of mental disease or defect. Some killers, like McVeigh, saw it as one final act of control over their lives. This may be why Roof on Wednesday in his first direct interaction with jurors chose not to beg for his life but rather to tell the panel: "There is nothing wrong with me psychologically."

Nor is it necessarily a sign of mental incompetency to chose to want to die sooner, rather than later, after spending years in solitary confinement in a federal prison — which is where Roof will be headed no matter what his jury decides. If he doesn't want to save himself, in other words, or if he doesn't want the world ever to perceive him as having been mentally ill when he killed those innocent people inside that church, there is nothing his lawyers can do to save him so long as he's judged competent.

Finally, a point that's been under-reported these past few days: Just because Roof won't put on any mitigating evidence doesn't guarantee he'll get the death penalty. All it would take for the jury to preclude a capital sentence for Roof is for one juror to decide that consigning the 22-year-old defendant to 50 or 60 or 70 years in ADX-Florence, the federal prison in Colorado that Roof soon will call home, is a punishment worse than a death penalty. That, too, is not an unreasonable position to take.

UPDATE: Not more than an hour after I posted the Andrew Cohen commentary above, I learned of this new Huffington Post commentary by lawprof Scott Sundby which has the headline I have added to the title of this post.  Here are this piece's final two paragraphs:

The Supreme Court has justified the current death penalty regime on the premise that the jury will act as the conscience of the community. Jurors can only carry out this sacred function, however, if they hear all of the evidence, both for and against imposing a death sentence. Jurors often feel betrayed in cases when they later learn that a defense lawyer’s ineffectiveness meant they did not hear compelling evidence about a defendant’s mental illness or abusive childhood. And well they should. The justice system asked them to make a profoundly difficult moral and spiritual decision and then failed to give them the information that they needed to carry out their mandate.

In Roof’s case, the court may believe that its ruling furthers certain values, but it has missed a far more important constitutional principle: a death sentence should never be imposed unless we have complete confidence that the jury’s decision is a reliable and knowing one based on all of the facts. With Dylann Roof representing himself, that outcome is simply impossible. We owe it to the jurors and to ourselves as the society for whom the jurors speak that they hear all about Roof’s life before we ask them whether he should be sentenced to death.

January 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

GOP Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley says federal sentencing reform a priority after Trump nominations completed

This lengthy new Politico article, headlined in full "Senators plan to revive sentencing reform push: Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley says he's not done yet pressing a cause with broad bipartisan support," brings some welcome new year good news for advocates of federal sentencing reform.  Here are the details, with a couple of lines emphasized for subsequent commentary:

Criminal justice reform — the great bipartisan hope of 2016 that ended in disappointment — may not be dead just yet. Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) plans to take up a bill to revamp U.S. sentencing laws and reform prisons soon after his panel clears the high-profile nominations from Donald Trump. A similar measure passed his committee overwhelmingly last year before stalling out in the face of opposition from law-and-order conservatives.

But Grassley told POLITICO he will soon try again. "The committee will begin the year working through the attorney general and Supreme Court nominees, but criminal justice reform will be one of the legislative bills I plan to bring up early on,” he said in a statement. “It cleared the committee with a broad bipartisan majority in the last Congress, and I don't expect that to change.”

The chief authors of the criminal justice overhaul, led by Grassley and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), will continue to try to drum up more support among senators, while “educating” the Trump administration about their bill’s merits, Grassley said.  The legislation isn’t expected to be substantially different than last year’s version.

Criminal justice reform could’ve been one of the bright, bipartisan spots in an otherwise contentious election year. But despite support from President Barack Obama, powerful congressional Republicans, and a sprawling network of groups from the left and right, the legislation never made it to the floor.  That was partly due to the determined efforts of law-and-order conservatives to steamroll it — and there's little to suggest that if the legislation heads to the Senate floor, that dynamic would change.

Nevertheless, Durbin approached Grassley after the election and pressed the chairman about whether the duo should make another run at it this year, Durbin recalled in a recent phone interview. Grassley was in. And once the chairman tees up the bill this year in his committee, its supporters expect a bipartisan vote similar to the 15-5 tally it received in October 2015.

Durbin and Grassley’s aides have been discussing a strategy to advance the bill in 2017. Aiding their cause is the fact that three opponents — GOP Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and David Perdue of Georgia — are leaving the committee this year, stirring hope that the vote count in favor of the measure could be higher. Vitter no longer serves in the Senate, Sessions is expected to be confirmed as attorney general and Perdue is shifting committees. Replacing them on the influential panel are Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Mike Crapo of Idaho and John Kennedy of Louisiana. “I think the committee will be just as strong. It may be stronger,” Durbin said. “When you have people like Grassley and Durbin and [Senate Majority Whip John] Cornyn and [Sen. Patrick] Leahy for goodness sakes … it ought to be enough for us.”...

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is rarely eager to take up policy fights that divide his conference — and Democrats point a finger at him as a prime reason why criminal justice reform stalled last year. “The problem we ran into is Sen. McConnell, who didn’t want to call the bill to the floor. He was concerned about the impact on the election and also that the House wasn’t going to take it up,” Durbin said. The question remains going forward, he added, "whether McConnell will give us a chance.” McConnell aide Don Stewart responded that the majority leader spoke several times about the issue in 2016 and “doesn’t need Sen. Durbin to be his spokesman.”

The president-elect ran on a law-and-order platform, but Trump doesn't appear to have weighed in on the Senate measure during his campaign. Another wildcard factor is Sessions, Trump’s pick to become the attorney general.  As a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was a fervent opponent of the sentencing overhaul and one of the five votes against it.

But Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), another supporter of the criminal justice reform effort, speculated that once Sessions becomes the attorney general, his chief objective will be on enforcing what Congress sends him — even if he disagrees with it — rather than slipping into the role of legislator and try to change the laws. “He’s going to be focused on being the nation’s top law enforcement official,” Tillis said. “I don’t necessarily see him weighing in heavily on public policy choices that President Trump makes.”

Durbin said he intends to press Sessions on his views of criminal justice reform and how he’ll handle the issue at the Justice Department when the two meet privately to discuss about his bid to become attorney general on Wednesday.  Though Sessions had wanted to meet earlier, Durbin said Senate Democrats decided as a caucus to not meet with any Cabinet selections until the new year. “I want to know after all of the speeches he gave on the floor against criminal justice reform, what we can expect of him as attorney general,” Durbin said. “I don’t know what he’ll say.”

Still, others speculate that after Washington endures partisan wars over repealing Obamacare and confirming polarizing presidential nominees, Trump will be looking for a bipartisan win. Criminal justice reform could deliver one. “I know we have enough votes to send this to the president’s desk,” Tillis said. Stressing his desire to avoid legislative gridlock, Tillis added: “The election was not a Republican mandate. The election was a results mandate.”

This story is both encouraging and not all that surprising given the events of the last few years surrounding the proposal, debates and modifications of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. The two lines I have emphasized reflect two coming developments that I think are crucial to this developing 2017 federal sentencing reform story:

1. I think it would be a policy mistake, despite the 2015 Judiciary Committee success of the SRCA, for that bill to serve the essential template for new Senate reform legislation. In my view, there are a host of ways a new and improved federal sentencing reform bill could and should be much more streamlined AND I think a new bill could and should garner even more bipartisan support if it also were to include some modest (or even aggressive) mens rea reforms.

2. I think Senators Sessions and Durbin are really critical players here, especially over the next few weeks, as Sessions develops and articulates his priorities as Attorney General and as Durbin seeks to explain why the horrific uptick in violent crime in his own Chicago (Which Prez-Elect Trump has been tweeting about) should not be a reason to tap the brakes on any further federal sentencing reforms.

January 4, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Texas sues feds over confiscated execution drugs"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Dallas Morning News article reporting on some notably different kind of execution drug litigation. Here are the details:

For nearly a year and a half, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has detained a shipment of about 1,000 vials of execution drugs headed for Texas' death chamber. On Tuesday, Texas officials demanded an end to the delays, filing a lawsuit that seeks to force the feds to turn over the drugs. "My office will not allow the FDA to sit on its hands and thereby impair Texas' responsibility to carry out its law enforcement duties," Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement.

Texas and other states that still execute inmates have been hard-pressed to find lethal injection drugs in recent years. American companies have stopped making the drugs, and European makers have stopped selling them to the U.S. Amid the drug shortage in 2012, Texas switched from the three-drug cocktail it used since 1982 to a single overdosing injection of pentobarbital, a barbiturate, but that drug, too, is in short supply.

In July 2015, the FDA intercepted about 1,000 vials of sodium thiopental, also a barbiturate, that Texas was attempting to import from a foreign seller at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. FDA officials said that the drugs lacked the required warnings and directions for use and that they needed federal approval. The state responded to the FDA, explaining that the drugs were legal for importation for law enforcement use. In April 2016, the FDA issued a tentative decision denying admission of the drugs. But since then, the agency hasn't issued a final decision and has kept the drugs.

In the lawsuit filed Tuesday, Paxton argued the delays are unwarranted and should come to an end. "Because FDA's delay is unreasonable, TDCJ requests the Court to declare that the delay is unlawful and compel FDA to render a final admissibility decision," the lawsuit states.

As execution drugs have become harder to obtain, the state has turned to compounding pharmacies to make them, has sought drugs from foreign providers and has sought to restrict public access to information about where and how it gets drugs used in lethal injections....

"The Texas Department of Criminal Justice lawfully ordered and obtained the necessary license to import drugs used in the lethal injection process, yet the Food and Drug Administration stopped the shipment and continues to hold it without justification. This has left the agency with no other recourse than to challenge the unjustified seizure in court," Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark said in a statement.

Clark said the TDCJ has enough drugs on hand to complete the nine executions scheduled for the first six months of this year. "We cannot speculate on the future availability [of] drugs, so the agency continues to explore all options including the continued use of pentobarbital or alternate drugs to use in the lethal injection process," Clark said.

January 4, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Eleventh Circuit Judge, and SCOTUS short-lister, William Pryor named Acting Chair of the (now hobbled) US Sentencing Commission

Because of the rumored short-list of the short-list of possible SCOTUS nominees, this press release coming today from the US Sentencing Commission might get a bit more than usual amoung of attention. Here is the full text of the release, the last paragraph of which is really the most important:

The United States Sentencing Commission announced that Circuit Judge William H. Pryor, Jr. will serve as Acting Chair of the Commission, as the term of the former Chair, Chief Judge Patti B. Saris expired at the end of the 114th congressional session.

In his first statement as Acting Chair, Judge Pryor of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals said, “I am honored to act as Acting Chair of the Commission and commend the exemplary leadership of Chief Judge Saris during her term. I look forward to our continued work to further the Commission’s critical mission of developing federal sentencing policies that further the goals of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984.”

The terms of Judge Charles R. Breyer (former Vice Chair) and Commissioner Dabney L. Friedrich also expired.  By statute, commissioners are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and serve six-year terms. At least three of the commissioners must be federal judges and no more than four may belong to the same political party. Remaining commissioners include Commissioner Rachel E. Barkow, Commissioner J. Patricia Wilson Smoot (ex-officio, U.S. Parole Commission), and Commissioner Michelle Morales (ex-officio, U.S. Department of Justice).  The Commission must have at least four voting Commissioners for a quorum.

Because ex-officio members of the USSC do not have voting rights, the current Commission is now officially two members short of a quorum and five members short in total.  For those eager to see continued federal sentencing reforms and improvement, this is a very big deal and a very big problem.

I am hopeful (but not especially optimistic) that the incoming Trump Administration might make staffing the USSC with new Commissioners a "first 100 days" priority.  I am not sure whether having Judge Pryor as Acting Chair and/or having him be a possible SCOTUS pick makes staffing the USSC more or less likely.  I suppose time will tell.

January 3, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Eighth Circuit panel reverses district court findings of substantive due process problems with Minnesota's sex offender commitment program

As reported in this local article, a "federal appeals court in St. Louis has reversed a lower-court ruling that Minnesota's sex-offender treatment program is unconstitutional — a major victory for the Minnesota Department of Human Services and a decision that could delay long-awaited reforms to the state's system of indefinite detention for sex offenders."  Here is more about the ruling and its context:

In a decision Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals found that a class of sex offenders who sued the state failed to prove that the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) violated their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. "We conclude that the class plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that any of the identified actions of the state defendants or arguable shortcomings in the MSOP were egregious, malicious, or sadistic as is necessary to meet the conscience-shocking standard," the court ruled.

In response, the lead attorney for a class of offenders who sued the state said he is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which must be filed within 90 days. "Justice was not done today," said Dan Gustafson, the attorney for the plaintiffs. "We're still considering what we are going to do but, as Governor Dayton said the other day, we are not going quietly into the night."

Minnesota confines more offenders per capita, and has the lowest release rate, among the 20 states that use civil commitment to confine sex offenders in treatment programs. Only 14 offenders have been conditionally discharged from the program in its more than 20-year history. Of those, seven are currently living in the community. Just one offender has been unconditionally discharged, and that did not occur until August.

In June 2015, federal Judge Donovan Frank in St. Paul, ruling in a lawsuit brought by a group of sex offenders, declared the program unconstitutional for confining offenders indefinitely, after they have already completed their prison terms, without a clear path toward release. The judge ordered state officials to conduct independent evaluations of the roughly 720 offenders confined at secure treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter to determine if they still pose a public safety risk. He also ordered the state to develop less restrictive options for housing offenders in the community.

The unanimous Eighth Circuit panel ruling in this case is available at this link, and it gets started this way:

Class plaintiffs, civilly committed sex offenders, bring a facial and as applied challenge under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming their substantive due process rights have been violated by Minnesota’s Civil Commitment and Treatment Act and by the actions and practices of the managers of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).  The Minnesota state defendants in this action are managers of MSOP — Emily Johnson Piper, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services; Kevin Moser, MSOP Facilities Director at Moose Lake; Peter Puffer, MSOP Clinical Director; Nancy Johnston, MSOP Executive Director; Jannine Herbert, MSOP Executive Clinical Director; and Ann Zimmerman, MSOP Security Director (collectively “state defendants”).  After several months of litigation, including a six-week bench trial, the district court found for plaintiffs and entered an expansive injunctive order.  The district court applied incorrect standards of scrutiny when considering plaintiffs’ claims, thus we reverse the finding of substantive due process violations and vacate the injunctive relief order.  We remand to the district court for further proceedings to address the remaining claims.

January 3, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Latest SCOTUS short-list speculations and suggested nomination timeline

SCOTUS junkies will want to be sure to check out this latest lengthy Politico article headlined "Inside Trump's strategy to remodel the Supreme Court: The president-elect is narrowing his short list while his advisers look beyond the current opening." Here are snippets that struck me as especially new or noteworthy:

Donald Trump has narrowed his short list for his first Supreme Court pick down to roughly a half-dozen finalists but the president-elect and his top advisers are already thinking about a second selection, as they seek to quickly remodel the high court with a reliably conservative bent.  Trump’s team wants to make filling the seat held by the late Justice Antonin Scalia one of the earliest acts of his presidency, according to multiple transition officials, in hopes of scoring an energizing and unifying victory for the conservative movement.

And as Trump weighs perhaps the most enduring personnel decision he’ll make as president-elect — filing one of only nine lifetime seats on the high court — he has sought input from an array of friends, former rivals, and legal and TV personalities. “He clearly understands he may have a chance to define the court for a generation or more and he is taking it very seriously,” said former Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump confidante.

While Scalia’s seat is the only current opening, Trump’s advisers are plotting how to fill that vacancy in tandem with the next one — a slot if vacated by a liberal justice like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 83, or swing-vote Justice Anthony Kennedy, 80, could far more dramatically move the court’s political center of gravity to the right. The thinking inside the transition, according to multiple people involved in the internal deliberations, is that Scalia’s replacement offers Trump and the conservative movement the best chance for an unabashedly rock-ribbed replacement because it would not fundamentally shift the court’s balance of power....

But in the current search process, Trump’s team is also hoping to identify a conservative candidate — possibly a woman — who could be more politically palatable, or at least harder for Senate Democrats to oppose, if Kennedy or Ginsburg leave the court.... Two of the most-discussed names are Diane Sykes of the Chicago-based 7th Circuit federal appeals court and William Pryor of the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit, in part because Trump himself name-dropped them at a primary debate last February....

Trump, besides promising to appoint justices in the mold of Scalia, is looking for some distinctly Trumpian qualities.  He has repeatedly told his advisers, for instance, “I want someone who is not weak.”  That is especially appealing to legal conservative hardliners who are still scarred by former Justices David Souter and Sandra Day O’Connor, two Republican appointees who often sided with the court’s liberal bloc, and to a lesser extent Chief Justice John Roberts, an appointee of President George W. Bush, who upheld the constitutionality of President Obama’s health care law....

Those close to Trump’s search process say that the list now under more serious consideration is closer to a half-dozen, including Pryor and Sykes, as well as 3rd Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman, 6th Circuit Judge Raymond Kethledge, 8th Circuit Judges Steve Colloton and Raymond Gruender, 10th Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan Larsen.

Trump released two lists of potential justices during the campaign, but most of the candidates under serious consideration are on the initial list of 11.  The only two women in the current top tier, Larsen, who is only 48, and Sykes, 59, are among those who could be “held back” for a second opening. “Going with a woman or a minority does get you some brownie points, so in terms of picking the hardest to confirm now, that would argue for a man,” Levey said. “Also the symbolic value, if Ginsburg does leave the court, of replacing her with a woman WOULD be important.”

Trump’s advisers want his Supreme Court pick to be one of his earliest acts as president, though the plan has been not to announce a choice until after Sen. Jeff Sessions is confirmed as attorney general.  Both Sessions and any high court pick must pass through the same Senate Judiciary Committee.

The two men spearheading Trump’s search are Don McGahn, Trump’s incoming White House counsel, and Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society’s executive vice president. Incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and top Trump advisers Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway are also involved, as are Vice President-elect Mike Pence and Sessions.

Leo said on “Fox News Sunday” that Trump’s team wants the Scalia vacancy filled in time for the new justice to be seated for the final sitting of this term in late April. That could allow the new justice to weigh in on important pending cases, including the detention of immigrants and transgender rights. “Ideally, you would have someone who could be seated on the court at least by then to hear those final round of cases, perhaps even have some of the 4-4 decisions, if there are any, reheard by the court,” Leo said. He noted that Ginsburg — “one of the most liberal justices”— was confirmed in just 50 days at the start of President Clinton’s first term....

As he often does ahead of big decisions, Trump has sought opinions from far and wide, including Fox News legal analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano, former rivals Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum and at least one person on his longer list: Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who is not considered to be in serious contention for a high court seat. While Trump promised his public list of 21 was “definitive” when it was announced, he could still expand it for a second pick. “After the first nominee he may add some new possibilities,” Gingrich said, a view confirmed by another transition official.

A few prior related Trumpian SCOTUS posts:

January 3, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Death penalty in Pennsylvania so dysfunctional that it cannot complete long-overdue report on its dysfunction

Unless and until the newly enacted reform ballot initiative magically fixes a whole bunch of problems, California will still be able to lay claim to having the most dysfunctional death penalty system in the United States.  But this new local article, headlined "Three years late, seminal death penalty report still unfinished," highlights why Pennsylvania come in a pretty close second. Here are excerpts: 

Already three years behind schedule, a committee studying flaws in Pennsylvania's death penalty is still a long way away from issuing its much-anticipated report.  The stakes for the Senate's Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment are high, ever since Gov. Tom Wolf vowed nearly two years ago to block executions until its recommendations are issued and acted upon.

But elevated from obscurity by Wolf's moratorium, the all-volunteer committee has no individual budget and no dedicated staff members, and has consistently seen its time line pushed further and further into the future, much to the unhappiness of death-penalty backers.  The new year will see "meaningful, significant progress" in the panel's work, said Steve Hoenstine, a spokesman for state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, a point man in the effort.  But Hoenstine wouldn't commit to the report being completed this year, given the scope of the questions being tackled.  "The goal isn't to produce something as quickly as possible that may or may not be correct," said Hoenstine, whose boss is a staunch opponent of capital punishment. "Studying bias in Pennsylvania's death penalty, it is just an enormous undertaking."

Wolf, a Democrat, announced his moratorium in February 2015, when he called the death penalty "error prone, expensive and anything but infallible." He has since issued reprieves to five inmates facing the death chamber, including Lehigh Valley mass murderer Michael Eric Ballard, who stabbed to death four people in a Northampton home in 2010 while on parole for a prior killing. Even without issuing findings, the advisory committee has proven controversial to death-penalty supporters, who charge the makeup of its 27 members is weighted against capital punishment.

Given the moratorium, it is no surprise that the report continues to be delayed, said Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, a Democrat who is a vocal death penalty backer. With executions halted, there's no incentive for the committee to finish its work, he said. "I don't think it is ever going to come," Morganelli said. "Why would they release it?"

The committee, approved by the Senate in 2011, is looking into 17 aspects of capital punishment, including its cost, its impact on public safety, its potential for racial or economic bias, and whether there are sufficient safeguards against the innocent being executed.  The report originally was due in December 2013. The panel includes judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, clergy members, college professors, a relative of a murder victim, victims advocates, officials from the American Civil Liberties Union and two other nonprofits, and police and corrections representatives.

Hoenstine said delays have nothing to do with the moratorium.  He noted the committee was established while Wolf's predecessor, Tom Corbett, a Republican former prosecutor, was governor.  "This is something that happened long before Gov. Wolf took office and, therefore, long before this moratorium took place," Hoenstine said. "It is a bipartisan search for the truth. It is nothing but that."

Like much of the nation, the state has contentiously debated capital punishment, under which scores of Pennsylvania inmates have seen their sentences reversed. None have been executed here against their will since John F. Kennedy was president.

The committee's work is spearheaded by the Joint State Government Commission, a research wing of the Legislature, with assistance from a state commission on fairness in the courts and by researchers from Penn State University.  Glenn Pasewicz, executive director of the Joint State Government Commission, has said research has proven laborious, given the need for data collectors to go from county courthouse to county courthouse gathering statistics about homicide cases, when the death penalty is sought and when it is imposed.  According to Hoenstine, that work is ongoing. "We want it to be data driven and based on clean data, reliable data," Hoenstine said. "That's a time-consuming process."...

Pennsylvania has 175 prisoners on death row, but it rarely performs an execution, going back well before Wolf's moratorium. Just three men have been put to death in the modern era of capital punishment, and all were volunteers who abandoned legal challenges to their sentences. The last was Philadelphia "house of horrors" murderer Gary Heidnik, who was lethally injected in 1999.

January 3, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 02, 2017

Great report on Texas justice reviewing why Lone Star State is a "leader in criminal justice reform"

Images (4)Via this local press article, headlined "Report: Don't cut funding for inmate rehabilitation," I came across this terrific new report from the Texas House of Representatives Committee on Corrections.  These excerpts from the press piece provides a partial summary of the report:

When lawmakers return to Austin in 10 days to begin grappling with what appears will be a bare-bones state budget, a legislative panel that oversees the Texas prison system is urging them to resist cutting funding for programs that help former inmates and probationers adjust to free-world life.

“As (the prison system) cannot cut back on the security and public safety components of their mission, it is likely that many of the programs that are making a real difference will face the axe,” says a report released over the holidays by the Texas House Corrections Committee.

“The state that leads the nation in executions also leads the nation in providing alternatives to incarceration,” the report adds. “An American state that used to be infamous for its ‘lock 'em up and throw away the key’ approach to crime is now providing an unlikely inspiration to other states and countries.”

The 68-page report that the panel will likely use as a blueprint for legislative initiatives once 2017 session begins Jan. 10 makes several recommendations, include lowering the fees that probationers must pay, opting out of a federal program that requires the suspension of a driver’s license for anyone convicted of possessing even a small amount of marijuana and sealing the criminal records for qualifying former inmates who remain out of trouble for a specified period of time.

The report comes some 20 years after Texas leaders frustrated by rising crime rates completed a massive prison building program that tripled the system’s capacity. It even uses a phrase once thought to be politically toxic is describing the state’s approach for helping lawbreakers return to society. “Texas is a leader by being ‘softer on crime,’ although we prefer the word ‘smarter,’” it says. “It's something to think about as we head into the next legislative session.”....

The committee report says probation revocations, while still relatively high, have been steadily dropping for about a decade as lawmakers began devoting more resources to programs aimed at reducing inmates’ and probationers’ substance addictions and arming them with job skills. During that period, the report says, Texas’ crime rate has dropped about 20 percent while recidivism rates declined from 28 percent to 21 percent.

During a hearing in February, Corrections Committee Chairman Jim Murphy said it’s important that inmates and probationers believe that the state is committed to programs aimed at minimizing the chance that they’ll be back behind bars. “I am thinking about the dynamic of someone being in the system, wanting to improve themselves, and being told ‘you're not a priority,’” said Murphy, a Houston Republican. “If we're trying to get someone not to recidivate, that's exactly opposite of what I think the intended result would be.”

According to the report, which Murphy signed in early December before its release last week, the fees associated with being on probation can be insurmountable for offenders struggling to find employment. Probationers are charged upward of $60 a month to help cover the cost of supervision. Many are required to take and pay for classes aimed at fighting addiction or controlling anger and violence. Probationers who lose driving privileges can be required to take a class to have the license reinstated and pay up to $325 before being allowed to drive, even if it’s just to and from work.

The list goes on. “There are fees for records management, for juries, for judicial support, for court security, and for indigent defense,” the committee’s report says. “Pages and pages of fees. It boggles the mind to read it. Think of what it must be like to live it.” Often, the report continues, judges who impose the costs have little information regarding an offender’s ability to pay them. “In an era when you can find out your credit score for free on the internet, would it be that difficult to determine if a person is indigent prior to appearing before a judge?” the report asks.

The committee’s report points out that in April 2016, Pennsylvania enacted legislation, allowing criminal records of qualified nonviolent offenders to be sealed for offenders who remain free of legal trouble for 10 years. The records of those charged but not convicted of a crime can be sealed after 60 days.

As this partial summary should highlight, any and everyone interested in state or national criminal justice reform ought to have this across this important new Texas government report high on their New Year's reading list.

January 2, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Understanding why Dylann Roof will not present penalty phase evidence at his capital trial

Last week in this post I noted the news that Dylann Roof, at a hearing before the penalty phase of his capital trial, told the district judge that "he doesn't plan to call any witnesses or present evidence to ask a jury to spare his life." This new New York Times article, headlined, "Dylann Roof Himself Rejects Best Defense Against Execution," provides some explanatory backstory.  Here is how the lengthy piece begins:

Twenty-two pages into the hand-scribbled journal found in Dylann S. Roof’s car — after the assertions of black inferiority, the lamentations over white powerlessness, the longing for a race war — comes an incongruous declaration.

“I want state that I am morally opposed to psychology,” wrote the young white supremacist who would murder nine black worshipers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015. “It is a Jewish invention, and does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they dont.”

Mr. Roof, who plans to represent himself when the penalty phase of his federal capital trial begins on Tuesday, apparently is devoted enough to that proposition (or delusion, as some maintain) to stake his life on it. Although a defense based on his psychological capacity might be his best opportunity to avoid execution, he seems steadfastly committed to preventing any public examination of his mental state or background.

“I will not be calling mental health experts or presenting mental health evidence,” he wrote to Judge Richard M. Gergel of Federal District Court on Dec. 16, a day after a jury took only two hours to find him guilty of 33 counts, including hate crimes resulting in death, obstruction of religion and firearms violations. At a hearing on Wednesday, Mr. Roof told the judge that he planned to make an opening statement but not call witnesses or present evidence on his behalf.

The testimony presented by prosecutors during the guilt phase of Mr. Roof’s trial detailed with gruesome precision how he had plotted and executed the massacre during a Wednesday night Bible study in the church’s fellowship hall. It was less satisfying in revealing why he had done it. With his choice to sideline his legal team and represent himself, the second phase — when the same jury of nine whites and three blacks will decide whether to sentence him to death or to life in prison — may prove little different.

Death penalty experts said it was exceedingly rare for capital defendants to represent themselves after allowing lawyers to handle the initial part of a case. Mr. Roof, who also faces a death penalty trial in state court, has not publicly explained his reasoning. But legal filings strongly suggest a split with his court-appointed defenders about whether to argue that his rampage resulted from mental illness.

January 2, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Any astute thoughts about the sentencing year that was or the year that will be?

A variety of other (mostly non-work) engagements have prevented me from having the time to do any elaborate year-in-review or year-to-come posts about sentencing topics.  That said, as I take my 2016 calendars down and replace them with the 2017 versions, two matters come to mind that implicate both the year that was and the year to come:

1. SCOTUS transition: though representing only one vote, Justice Scalia's voice and impact on sentencing and criminal justice jurisprudence was far larger than his voting record.  The impact and import of his legacy and his absence, along with the coming character of his SCOTUS replacement, cannot be readily overstated.

2. Marijuana reform (but few other big sentencing reforms): with four more states voting for full recreational reform and nearly a dozen others enacting or enhancing medical regimes, in 2016 marijuana reform continued at a remarkable clip while broader drug war and other sentencing reform stalled (at least at the federal level). What the new GOP executive leaders in DC will now do on these fronts is among the most interesting and dynamic and uncertain story to watch in 2017.

As always, I welcome reader throughout on these topics and any others about the year that ended yesterday or the new one getting started today.

January 1, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Chief Justice extols the work of federal district judges in traditional year-end report

The Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts decided to use his 2016 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, which is available at this link, to praise the work of federal district judges. The report starts with a lovely little history lesson, and it includes these passages that should especially engage criminal justice fans:

The character of a district judge is most starkly evident in a criminal trial.  Most criminal charges are resolved through the plea bargaining process, but those cases that go to trial place especially high demands on the court.  The judge must move the process forward in accordance with the Speedy Trial Act, consistent with the defendant’s right to constitutionally adequate representation.  He must promptly decide motions and make evidentiary rulings as the trial proceeds, typically without the luxury of calm consideration and research in the quiet of chambers.  The judge must carefully guide the jury on the elements of the offense and the prosecution’s burden of proof.  If the trial results in conviction, the judge faces the somber task of sentencing.

Most district judges agree that sentencing is their most difficult duty.  The judge must confront the offender, face-to-face, and take just account of human failing.  The judge must consider the perspectives of the prosecutor, the defendant, and the victim, and impose a penalty that, by design and necessity, will alter the direction of the defendant’s life.  In determining appropriate punishment, his discretion is confined by legislative determinations, and guided by carefully considered sentencing guidelines and a presentence report.  At the end of the day, the sentence nonetheless critically reflects the judge’s wisdom, experience, and educated grasp of what he observed firsthand in the courtroom. In delivering the sentence, the judge speaks as the voice of the community.

In part because I know and respect so many federal district judges, I am so very pleased to see the Chief Justice deliver this kind of justified professional love letter. In addition, because I have long been a strong and dogged advocate for SCOTUS Justices having experience as a trial judge, I cannot help but "read between the lines" here and see a kind of chiefly endorsement for the next SCOTUS justice having district court experience.

January 1, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Split Sixth Circuit ruling upholding protective order concerning lethal injection drugs might(!?!) enable Ohio to get back into execution game

As this local article reports, in the afternoon of the last business day of 2016, a Sixth Circuit panel "upheld a protective order shielding the state of Ohio from having to disclose the names of those who make or use the state's lethal-injection drugs."  Here is more about the ruling and its context:

In a 2-1 decision, the appeals court panel ruled that a district court judge was justified in issuing the secrecy order, which was made on the grounds that it was needed to protect lethal-injection drugmakers from public intimidation and harassment. The lawsuit, brought by more than 65 death-row inmates, contended that the state shouldn't be allowed to use drugs procured from anonymous suppliers and evaluators.

Ohio had postponed its next three executions by several weeks at the behest of a federal magistrate, who feared the appeals court wouldn't make this ruling before a Jan. 3 court hearing for the first three inmates scheduled to die. As a result, Gov. John Kasich delayed the resumption of executions from Jan. 12 to Feb. 15, starting with convicted child killer Ronald Phillips of Akron. It's unclear whether that revised schedule will stay in place now that the appeals court has ruled....

Ohio hasn't executed anyone since January 2014, when killer Dennis McGuire took 25 minutes to die from a previously unused execution drug combination. State officials and the courts put executions on hold until the state picked a new lethal-injection drug combination of midazolam, rocuronium bromide and potassium chloride last October....

In 2014, state lawmakers passed a secrecy law hoping to encourage small-scale drug manufacturers called compounding pharmacies to make its lethal-injection drugs.

The full ruling is available at this link, and the fact that the panel opinion included a dissent could entail further en banc or SCOTUS appeals on just this semi-procedural issue involving a protective order. Even without further appeals, though, there is an evidentiary review on tap for the first week of January concerning Ohio's new execution drug protocol, and that litigation has already led in part to a short delay of scheduled executions. In other words, this Sixth Circuit panel ruling may clear one obstacle for Ohio resuming executions, but there are additional litigation road-blocks still ahead.

December 31, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

BJS releases three big reports on correctional populations throughout the United States

Via email today I received news of and links to a bunch of big data reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (which is part of the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice). Here are the titles, links and descriptions of these notable new publications:

Correctional Populations in the United States, 2015

This report presents statistics on persons supervised by adult correctional systems in the United States at yearend 2015, including persons supervised in the community on probation or parole and those incarcerated in state or federal prison or local jail. The report describes the size and change in the total correctional population during 2015. Appendix tables provide statistics on other correctional populations and jurisdiction-level estimates of the total correctional population by correctional status and sex for selected years.

Prisoners in 2015

This report presents final counts of prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities at yearend 2015, including admissions, releases, noncitizen inmates, and inmates age 17 or younger. The report describes prisoner populations by—

  • jurisdiction
  • most serious offense
  • demographic characteristics.

Selected findings on prison capacity and prisoners held in private prisons, local jails, and the U.S. military and territories are also included. Findings are based on data from BJS's National Prisoner Statistics program, which collects data from state departments of correction and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Jail Inmates in 2015

This report presents information on changes in the jail inmate population between 2000 and 2015 by—

  • demographic characteristics
  • conviction status
  • average daily population
  • rated capacity of local jails
  • percent of capacity occupied.

It also includes statistics, by jurisdiction size, on changes in the number of inmates, admissions, and weekly turnover rate from 2014 to 2015. Estimates and standard errors were based on BJS's Annual Survey of Jails.

December 29, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Will Ohio get back in the business of state killing in 2017?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by my awareness of lots of messy on-going litigation in the Buckeye State over execution protocols and in part by this new local AP article headlined "Court weighs challenge of order blocking Ohio execution info."  Here are excerpts from the AP piece:

A federal appeals court is weighing a challenge by attorneys for death row inmates of a judge's order blocking them from information about Ohio's new lethal injection process. The pending decision by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals will help determine whether Ohio will proceed with its first executions in three years beginning in February.

Ohio plans to execute Ronald Phillips on Feb. 15 for raping and killing his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter in 1993. Another execution is scheduled for April.

At issue are new efforts the state is making to shield information about lethal injection in hopes of jumpstarting executions in Ohio, which have been on hold since January 2014. That's when it took condemned inmate Dennis McGuire 26 minutes to die from a never-before-used two-drug method while he repeatedly gasped and snorted.

For example, a 2015 law blocks anyone from getting information about individuals or entities participating in executions, including companies that make or mix drugs. The 6th circuit last year upheld that law while rejecting free speech allegations raised by death row inmates.

What's before the appeals court now is a protective order issued by a federal judge last fall that bars the release of information about lethal injection requested by attorneys for Phillips and two other inmates scheduled for execution in 2017.  That order, by retired Judge Gregory Frost, held that the state's need to obtain the drugs outweighs concerns by death row inmates that the information is needed to meaningfully challenge the source of the drugs, such as names of the manufacturers.

Federal Magistrate Judge Michael Merz in Dayton cited the current 6th Circuit case earlier this month when he put executions on hold. He said the hold could be lifted after the court rules. Attorneys for death row inmates argue they can't meaningfully challenge the use of the drugs without the information. They also said the secrecy protections are unnecessary given the history of lawsuits over lethal injection in Ohio....

The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction in October announced plans to use a new three-drug combination — midazolam, rocuronium bromide and potassium chloride — for at least three executions. Phillips and other inmates want to block the new procedure, arguing that it will result in a painful and barbaric death.

December 29, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Clemency seeker to Obama: please don't forget us"

The title of this post is the headline of this new CNN commentary, authored by Alice Marie Johnson.  Here is how it gets started and concludes:

The week before Christmas, President Obama gave a second chance -- in the form of clemency -- to 231 people. I was not among them, but since many of them, like me, were incarcerated on drug-related charges, I feel I know their stories.  I am only one of thousands of first-time, non-violent offenders given a mandatory and lengthy prison terms after committing a crime under financial distress.

In 1996, I was given a death sentence without sitting on death row. I was convicted as a first-time nonviolent drug offender to life behind bars in federal prison.  Since I went to prison, the laws governing my wrong-doing have changed.  If I were convicted again today for the same crime, my life might look very different.

Last month, as I was preparing to put on a short play I wrote, entitled "The Strength To Be," a fellow inmate pulled me aside and gave me the news that the Obama Administration had just started announcing its next slate of clemencies.  My mind went racing. What if this could be my chance to be reunited with the outside world, to see my family or what is left of it?

For 20 years I have been incarcerated, and I won't lie, it's hard to keep the hope of freedom alive for that long.  But my faith in God has carried me this far.  Despite the impending announcement, I knew that the show had to go on. I channeled the uncertainty of my future into my play and danced a duet to Whitney Houston's song, "I Didn't Know My Own Strength."...

I want this part to be clear: I acknowledge that I have done wrong. I made the biggest mistake of my life to make ends meet and got involved with people selling drugs.  This was a road I never dreamed of venturing down.  I became what is called a telephone mule, passing messages between the distributors and sellers.  I participated in a drug conspiracy and I was wrong.

My trial took a toll on my family.  At the time of my conviction, I had two children in college and a senior in high school. Bryant, the senior, ended up dropping out of school because of the trial.  Tretessa had a good paying job with Motorola and was flying down to support me.  Members of the community were at my hearings encouraging me and hoping for the best.

But I was convicted on October 31, 1996 -- and sentenced to life in prison. The day after my oldest son Charles "celebrated" his 20th birthday.  It was his first birthday spent away from me. It's hard to imagine that I have now served 20 years of my life sentence for that one mistake.  The United States leads the world in incarceration rates, with five percent of the world's incarcerated population and one-quarter of the world's prisoners.  I am one of thousands of first-time, nonviolent offenders who were given mandatory lengthy prison terms.

During my two decades in here, I've become an ordained minister and a mentor to young women who are also in prison.  And if I get out -- I have a job secured, and plan to continue to help those in prison and work hard to change our justice system.  My daughter started a petition to President Obama asking him to grant me clemency, and more than 100,000 people have signed it.  It a source of strength and hope for me -- a chance to be free.

The President has made an incredible push at helping to right the wrongs of our criminal justice system.  I applaud him and hold out hope for me and thousands of others who face lifelong sentences for nonviolent crimes.  But with the historic Obama administration coming to an end, this could be a last chance at freedom for me and for many others -- so I also hope he moves quickly.  I hope his administration will process all the applications for clemency currently waiting for the President's review.

No matter what happens, I was not built to break. I will keep writing. I will continue to hold my head high and live a productive life either as a free woman or here behind bars.  God has shown me my strength.

December 29, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Federal military execution seemingly on track for mass rapist/murderer

This CNN article, headlined "US military could carry out first execution in over 50 years," reports on some notable developments in a notable federal capital setting. Here are the interesting details:

A former US Army soldier who has been on death row since 1988 for raping and murdering several women could now face execution after a judge denied his bid for another stay of execution. Judge J. Thomas Marten of the US District Court for the District of Kansas wrote last week that a previously granted stay of execution to Ronald Gray was "no longer in effect," denying his request to further block the military from carrying out the death sentence.

If Gray is put to death, it will be the first military execution since 1961, when John Bennett was hanged at Fort Leavenworth prison in Kansas after he was convicted of raping and attempting to kill an 11-year-old Austrian girl. The current military method of execution is lethal injection.

Gray is one of six former servicemen currently on the military's death row at Fort Leavenworth. The most recent addition to that group is former Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who was convicted of 13 counts of murder and 32 counts of attempted murder after his 2009 shooting rampage in Fort Hood, Texas.

Gray was convicted and condemned to death in military court in 1988 for two murders and three rapes in the Fayetteville, North Carolina, area while stationed at Fort Bragg and serving as a cook. He pleaded guilty in civilian courts to two other killings and five rapes....

Gray came close to being put to death in 2008, when then-President George W. Bush signed a warrant authorizing his execution. But a federal court gave Gray a last-minute temporary stay.

In 1983, a military appeals court found the death penalty to be unconstitutional because of problems with the armed forces' sentencing guidelines, but President Ronald Reagan soon after reinstated capital punishment in the military. The President has the power to commute a death sentence and no service member can be executed unless the President confirms the death penalty.

While no execution date has yet been set, Army regulations state that a could be set sometime in the next 30 days. Gray's lawyer could not be reached for comment.

December 29, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Dylann Roof tells federal judge he does not plan to present any evidence at penalty phase of his capital trial

As reported in this new AP story, "Dylann Roof told a judge Wednesday he doesn't plan to call any witnesses or present evidence to ask a jury to spare his life for killing nine black worshippers at a Charleston church in a hate crime." Here is more:

But there also is mystery evidence that Roof is working hard to make sure the public never sees in his federal death penalty trial.

Roof, who is acting as his own attorney in the penalty phase to prevent what he thinks would be further embarrassment to himself or his family, again was warned by U.S. Judge Richard Gergel at a hearing Wednesday that being his own lawyer was a bad idea. "That's your decision," Gergel told Roof. "I think that highlights my advice to you that you aren't served by being your own counsel."

Gergel told Roof to talk to his grandfather, who is a lawyer, and other family members one last time. He told Roof he has until the start of the penalty phase Tuesday to change his mind and hire his high-powered, publicly funded defense team back.

The same jurors who convicted Roof earlier this month on 33 counts including hate crimes and obstruction of religion will return next week to decide if he faces life in prison without parole or the death penalty.

Roof spoke for less than 10 minutes of the 35-minute hearing Wednesday. He told Gergel he does plan an opening and closing statement. He then told the judge he objects to prosecutors' plans to present a photograph of evidence in the court's possession. Roof, Gergel and assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson all carefully tiptoed around saying what that evidence was. Gergel did say there was a hearing in which he decided it could be admitted in the penalty phase.

Roof also wanted a jailhouse statement left out of the penalty phase and evidence that involved his mother. No specifics were given. Gergel told Roof to go back to jail and write a motion for him to consider. Roof's ankle chain clanked as he walked back to the defense table in his jail jumpsuit.

Prosecutors also laid out their case. Most of the penalty phase will involve up to 38 people related to the nine people killed and the three people spared when Roof went into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015, sat through a 45-minute Bible study in the fellowship hall, then fired 77 shots as many of the worshippers hid under tables.

Gergel, who complained during the guilt phase that prosecutors were repeating themselves at times with witnesses, said he will allow Richardson to call as many witnesses related to the victims as he wants. "The statute provides broad leeway for the victims to be heard, and I plan on honoring that," the judge said....

Gergel spent much of the hearing going over the format of the penalty phase with Roof, warning him several times he was likely doing himself no favors leaving his defense team as just advisers to file briefs. After saying he planned no witnesses, Roof told Gergel he was just answering the same question the judge had asked prosecutors. Gergel said that wasn't necessary. "Don't do them any favors," the judge said. "They aren't going to do you any."

December 28, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Former Deputy AG Phil Heymann makes full-throated pitch for Justice Department to address Rubashkin case

Last month via this Wall Street Journal commentary, two former Justice Department officials Charles Renfrew and James Reynolds advocated for clemency for Sholom Rubashkin in a piece headlined "Obama Should Pardon This Iowa Kosher-Food Executive: Prosecutors overstepped, interfered with the process of bankruptcy and then solicited false testimony."  This week via this Washington Post commentary, LawProf and former Deputy AG Philip Heymann is making the case for Rubashkin while calling out the Justice Department's failure to address these matters.  The piece is headlined "107 former Justice officials think this case was handled unjustly.  DOJ must act."  Here are excerpts:

“You don’t just try to hammer everybody for as long as you can, because you can,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates told the New York Times. That is the right attitude for someone tasked with the fair administration of justice.  Unfortunately, Yates and Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch have, for the past year, rebuffed efforts by me and many other former senior Justice Department officials to even discuss another prosecution in which justice fell far short: the case of Sholom Rubashkin, a Brooklyn-born rabbi who was sentenced to 27 years for bank fraud.

Rubashkin, a 57-year-old father of 10, has already served seven years for the crime, which ordinarily merits no more than three years.  Worse, his sentence was based on perjured testimony and prosecutorial misconduct.

If even a few highly respected prosecutors think a particular case was handled unjustly, resulting in a vastly excessive sentence, the department’s representatives should be prepared at least to discuss the reasons.  In Rubashkin’s case, 107 former Justice Department officials, including five former attorneys general, six former deputy attorneys general (myself included), two former FBI directors, 30 former federal judges and other leading jurists, have sought to meet with senior officials of the department we once served.  The only response: a form letter from an assistant attorney general stating that no meeting could take place while Rubashkin was also pursuing his case in court.

Meanwhile, Kevin Techau, the U.S. attorney in Iowa (where Rubashkin was prosecuted), has suggested that Rubashkin used his financial resources to buy the support of so many prominent justice officials. Not only has Rubashkin lost everything he owned in this case, his wife and children now depend heavily on the support of their community for their needs.  Moreover, all 107 of us are working on this pro bono.  Among other things, former deputy attorneys general Larry Thompson, Charles Renfrew and I have traveled to distant meetings and volunteered considerable time to this matter, all on our own nickel.

The facts are clear: Rubashkin was vice president of Agriprocessors, a kosher meatpacking plant based in Postville, Iowa.  In May 2008, more than 500 federal immigration agents raided the plant and arrested hundreds of undocumented workers.  The raid resulted in the company declaring bankruptcy.  Rubashkin was arrested a short time later and charged with bank fraud.  And this is where things went terribly wrong.  The sentence for bank fraud depends on the amount of the loss to creditors. In this case, the prosecution deliberately increased the amount of the loss — and thus the length of Rubashkin’s sentence....

I am saddened by the unwillingness of the department’s senior leaders to even discuss the injustice that more than 100 of their predecessors and former judges find evident in the Rubashkin case.  Experienced former prosecutors and career Justice Department officials view this case as a stain on an institution created to uphold the law.  If the department’s leadership refuses to act, I hope President Obama pardons Rubashkin and ends this tragedy. The alternative is a display of either blind self-righteousness or frightened defensiveness that is inconsistent with the Justice Department we all have served and respected.

December 28, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

New York Times made yet another editorial pitch for judicial abolition of the death penalty

Today's New York Times has this editorial headlined "The Continuing Collapse of the Death Penalty." Here are excerpts:

Piece by piece, the death penalty continues to fall apart. Last week, the Florida Supreme Court invalidated between 150 and 200 death sentences — nearly half of all those in the state — because they were imposed under a law the United States Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional in January.  The law, which required judges and not juries to make the factual findings necessary to sentence someone to die, violated the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a jury trial. “A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for an 8-to-1 majority.

The Florida decision is the most recent sign, in a year full of them, that the morally abhorrent practice of capital punishment is sliding into the dustbin of American history — where it should have been long ago.

Juries around the country imposed 30 death sentences in 2016, a 40 percent drop from last year and fewer than at any time since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, according to a report by the Death Penalty Information Center, a research group that opposes capital punishment.  Twenty people were executed this year, the lowest number in a quarter-century.

The practice is not only increasingly rare, it is concentrated in an extremely narrow slice of the country. Only five states carried out executions in 2016, the report found, and only five imposed more than one death sentence. California sentenced nine people to die, the most of any state, but no one has been put to death there since 2006.

Public support for the death penalty keeps dropping, too — falling below 50 percent for the first time in more than four decades, according to a Pew Research survey. Support falls even further when respondents are given the alternative of a long prison term like life without parole.  Though voters in California, Nebraska and Oklahoma last month preserved the death penalty, the overall trend is toward growing discomfort with state-sanctioned killing.

The total abolition of capital punishment, however, will depend on the Supreme Court’s reading of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments.  So far, only one current member of the court, Justice Stephen Breyer, a regular critic of the death penalty, has expressed openness to examining this question....  Justice Breyer is asking the right questions. It is up to a majority of his colleagues to listen closely and bring the only just result: the permanent abolition of capital punishment in America.

December 27, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Monday, December 26, 2016

Reports of now five names atop Prez-Elect Trump's SCOTUS short-list

Ten days ago in this post I reported on reports that federal circuit judges Diane Sykes and William Pryor were among the top contenders to be named by Donald Trump to replace Justice Scalia. Now, via How Appealing and Jan Crawford at this link, the latest buzz about the short list has now also added the names of circuit judges Thomas Hardiman and Steve Colloton, and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan Larsen.  

I know a little bit about the sentencing "history" of many of these folks, but I am disinclined to talk up (or criticize) this history unless and until we go from short-list speculations to an actual nominee.  But if others want to praise or pillory any of these folks.....

A few prior related Trumpian SCOTUS posts:

December 26, 2016 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

"Society must not forget those it incarcerates"

The title of this post is the headline given to this new commentary authored by my colleague Steven Chanenson (who is also co-managing editor of the Federal Sentencing Reporter and a former chair of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing). Here are excerpts:

Prisons are usually hidden and often grim places. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.'s observation nearly 30 years ago still rings true today: "Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness." It should not and need not be that way.

Although there is a vigorous debate over when and to what extent they should be used, prisons are a key public safety tool. Whenever used, incarceration must be effective, safe, and humane. Prisoners are not popular, but how we treat our criminals is, in the words of Winston Churchill, "one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country."

Society has a right and an obligation to protect itself, but it needs to do so while considering both the short- and the long-term consequences for all involved. Most prisoners eventually return to our communities.  Last year, almost 20,000 people were released from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.  They are once again our neighbors across the commonwealth.

Thus, it is in everyone's interest for people who return from prison to come back better equipped to succeed than when they arrived there. If we want to slow the revolving door of incarceration and crime, we must provide meaningful access to treatment, training, and, yes, hope. We must hold the prisons accountable for meeting those goals, including through independent oversight. Both society and the inmates themselves deserve no less.

We must also celebrate the positive work done in prisons. One especially bright ray of hope was on display this month at the State Correctional Institution at Chester. The inmates and staff at the Chester prison partnered with other stakeholders to present a series of TEDx talks focused on the children of incarcerated parents....  Under the able leadership of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, this was the fourth set of TEDx talks from a Pennsylvania prison. Like the earlier sessions, the discussions in Chester highlighted challenges faced and progress made by the speakers. While talking about the more than 81,000 Pennsylvania children who have a parent in a Pennsylvania prison, they provided a glimpse of some constructive energy that may eventually benefit those of us outside the prison walls....

Particularly during the holiday season, many of us think about the humanity of our fellow men and women.  That is a sentiment we should nurture. We need to remember people in prison, how they are treated and what will happen to everyone when they return to our neighborhoods.  There was a clear demonstration of hope — for safer communities and our collective humanity — at the State Correctional Institution at Chester.  For that, we should all be thankful.

December 26, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Fulsome (and incomplete) criticisms of Prez Obama's fulsome (and incomplete) clemency efforts

Liliana Segura has this lengthy new Intercept commentary headlined "Obama's Clemency Problem – And Ours."  I recommend the full piece and here are some excerpts:

President Obama broke his own remarkable clemency record [last week], granting an unprecedented 231 commutations and pardons in a single day. Headlines and tweets broadcast the historic tally; on the White House website, a bar graph tracks Obama’s record to date, which has dramatically outpaced that of his predecessors. With a total of 1,176 recipients, the White House boasted, Obama has granted clemency “more than the last 11 presidents combined.”

The president certainly deserves credit for making clemency a priority before leaving office....  Those who make the cut are, as the White House put it this week, “individuals deserving of a second chance.”  Many have been serving long mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, crimes for which they have shown remorse.  Applications list courses completed, prison jobs maintained, records untarnished by disciplinary write-ups. Last spring, Obama highlighted a handful of men and women who “have made the most of their second chances,” describing their ability to leave prison, get a job, and piece their lives back together as “extraordinary.”

With his legacy and the politics of crime in mind, it makes sense that Obama would be cautious with his commutations, while amplifying the success stories. Yet there’s something disingenuous in the now-familiar rhetoric peddled by the White House with every clemency announcement, which repeatedly tells us we are a “nation of second chances.” Even within the narrow scope of Obama’s clemency initiative — and putting aside his treatment of immigrants and whistleblowers — this is wishful thinking at best.  As Obama himself has written in his congratulatory letters to clemency recipients, “thousands of individuals have applied for commutation, and only a fraction of these applications are approved.” Before the latest round of pardons and commutations, Obama had rejected nearly 14,000 clemency applications....

[W]hen it comes to the president’s pardon power — the one place where Obama could directly address the problem — there are few signs of a transformation.

Instead, the White House has promoted a story about exceptionalism: The president has proven exceptionally merciful and the clemency recipients are uniquely deserving — even extraordinary.  If the former is true, it is only because we have set the bar so low. As for the latter, it is certainly no small thing to survive — even thrive — while serving some of the harshest prison sentences in the world. But praising such men and women as exceptional diminishes the vast human potential that exists behind bars.  As one clemency recipient told me last month, recalling an exchange with the former White House pardon attorney, “I have a list of names of people I would like to see come home. But there are even more people who I’ve never met.  To give a list of names would exclude too many people.”...

On the same day activists published their letter exhorting Obama to expand his clemency efforts, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report titled “False Hope: How Parole Systems Fail Youth Serving Extreme Sentences.” Documenting how states routinely deny release to those eligible for parole, the ACLU offers numerous profiles of men and women sent to grow up (and in many cases, to die) in prison, whose efforts to prove their value as adults have been repeatedly rebuffed.  The stories are all too familiar.  They show how poverty, neglect, trauma, and mental illness factor into the lives of young people arrested for violent crimes.  They also show how harshly we continue to punish such youth, first with decades in prison, and then with repeated refusals to grant parole, no matter how much they change in the years that follow — or how much evidence shows that older people “age out” of crime.  People of color are seen as even less amenable to rehabilitation. Today, despite the wide rejection of the “superpredator” myth, state parole boards show very little mercy to people serving sentences that grew out of such racist hysteria.

As with Obama’s clemency initiative, the problem is largely political: Nobody wants to be the person to free an individual who might go out and commit another crime, even if it has been decades since the original offense — and even if the sentence was disproportionate to begin with.  What’s more, the ACLU notes, by focusing on the original crime, “parole board members may never know about the success stories: people convicted of serious crimes who, once released, have become successful community leaders supporting themselves and their families, who grew up and moved beyond the worst thing they ever did.”

One bright spot of Obama’s clemency initiative has been in these very kinds of success stories — publicized in the press and by the White House itself. But in the absence of a deeper rethinking of what we consider a second chance, such anecdotes are no match for generations of fear mongering that has entrenched fear of violent criminals into our very psyche, even at times when crime has hit historic lows....

Just a few days after the ACLU report on parole, the Washington Post unveiled a front-page, four-part investigative series called Second Chance City, which examined a D.C. law called the Youth Rehabilitation Act.  Passed in 1985, the law aimed to give judges discretion in handling juvenile cases — including by circumventing mandatory minimums — to allow deserving young people to avoid harsh punishment and, ultimately, expunge their record.  The Post series raised alarm, finding dozens of cases where beneficiaries of the law had gone on to commit new, often violent offenses, and describing the crimes in dramatic detail....

Most counterproductive was the framing of the series, placed squarely as a counterpoint to efforts at prison reform on Capitol Hill. “At a time when the Obama administration and Congress are working to ease ‘mandatory minimum’ sentencing guidelines for non-violent offenses, in part because of concerns that such laws have unjustly imprisoned large numbers of African-Americans,” the authors write, “D.C. law enforcement officials are increasingly concerned about the number of repeat violent offenders on the streets.”

The media should certainly scrutinize attempts at reform, pointing out where they fail. But the Post series was a reminder of how quickly we revert back to old narratives about crime, to convince ourselves that more imprisonment will keep us safe. With the real fights over prison reform happening at the state and local level — over things like the Youth Act — any efforts by the president were always going to be limited.  But if the pendulum is to swing back toward a more punitive era, as many fear it will under Trump, Obama must do as much as he can now to preserve the legacy he has carved out.

But beyond Obama — and if we are to make a dent in mass incarceration — Americans must also begin to think much bigger than his administration ever did. We should refuse to let the same government that gave us mandatory minimums define what counts as a “second chance.” We must stop letting our leaders — whether the president or a parole board — divest their responsibility to remedy draconian punishments by placing the burden on people who never should have received them in the first place. Ending mass incarceration will require mercy, but fundamentally it is about justice.  And the state has not even begun to account for its own mistakes.

I credit Segura for noting and lamenting that what's most remarkable about Prez Obama's clemency efforts are how non-transformative they are. Despite lots of advocacy from lots of advocates for the development of a new structure for clemency decision-making, Prez Obama has barely tweaked the status quo in order to better discover a few thousand prisoners with extreme prison sentences that could be shortened. Prez Obama merits praise and credit for doing something, but that something is largely a last-minute tweak rather than a timeless transformation.

The story of clemency here is a variation on the broader drug war reality throughout the Obama years. As of 2013, then-AG Eric Holder started talking up a new "Smart on Crime" initiative. But, despite this useful talk and some tweaked approaches to federal prosecutions, Prez Obama's Department of Justice for all eight years of his presidency continued to prosecute, on average, 20,000 new federal drug cases each year even though there is still little evidence that severe federal drug sentences for nonviolent drug offenders help reduce drug crime or violent crimes. (Of course, the prior decade saw on average 25,000 federal drug prosecutions, so the Obama DOJ can claim credit for being a lesser evil.) Running these numbers, if Prez Obama commuted 2000 federal drug sentences each and every year he was in the Oval Office, through the work of his DOJ, he still would be responsible for a net addition of 18,000 federal drug sentences each and every year.

Put simply, at the margins, Prez Obama left federal criminal justice matters somewhat better than he found them. But the federal criminal justice system continues to need a wide array of reforms that go, in my mind, far beyond the margins.

December 25, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Holiday pitch from NY Times editorial board for "Cutting Prison Sentences, and Costs"

With Christmas on a Sunday this year, I will have to guess whether it was a holiday spirit or an end of year spirit that inspired this new New York Times editorial headlined "Cutting Prison Sentences, and Costs."  Here are excerpts, with a little commentary to follow:

States across the country have rushed to trim prison costs by backing away from the draconian sentencing policies that drove up the national prison population from 200,000 at the start of the 1970s to a peak of about 1.6 million in 2009.  While the total inmate population has declined by 2.9 percent since then, several states that approached reform more aggressively have already reduced their prison populations by far more. California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island have done so by more than 20 percent.

These states have shown that it is possible to shorten sentences — or divert offenders to community supervision — without compromising public safety.  But even bolder reforms to the sentencing system will be necessary to bring the prison census down to where it should be and reverse the corrosive effects of mass incarceration....

A new report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law provides a blueprint for further reforms.  It calls on states to mandate alternative sentences like drug treatment, probation or community service for low-level crimes like drug possession, minor drug trafficking, minor fraud, forgery and theft, which account for 25 percent of the nation’s prison population.  Judges would have the flexibility to hand down prison sentences in exceptional circumstances, as in the case of serious, repeat offenders.

The report also recommends a reduction in sentences for major crimes that account for a majority of the prison population — aggravated assault, murder, nonviolent weapons offenses, robbery, serious burglary and serious drug trafficking. (Under such a system, the typical inmate convicted of, say, robbery would serve 3.1 years, as opposed to 4.2.)  If these reforms were retroactively applied, the authors estimate, more than 200,000 people serving time for these crimes would be eligible for release.

Under a saner system, the report says, nearly 40 percent of the country’s inmate population could be released from prison without jeopardizing public safety. This would save states $200 billion over the first 10 years — enough to hire 270,000 new police officers, 360,000 probation officers or 327,000 teachers.

The preliminary reforms that many states already have enacted reflect a growing realization that mass incarceration is economically unsustainable and socially disastrous. But to reverse four decades of bad policy, state lawmakers will have to adopt a more decisive and systematic approach to sentencing reform.

Though I am inclined to embrace the essential elements of this editorial, it strikes me as politically and practically tone-deaf in many respects. Politically, the editorial could and should have emphasized the significant number of "red states" that have reduced their prison populations, states like Texas and Georgia and South Carolina and Mississippi. Practically, the editorial could and should have acknowledged that some violent crime (especially murder) and heroin problems have been increasing in recent years, which in turn suggests and demands that states and the federal government focus on fighting crime smarter and not just tougher.

December 25, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Louisiana appeals court find LWOP sentence unconstitutionally excessive for fourth minor offense

As reported in this lengthy local article, headlined "Appeals court vacates 'unconscionable' life sentence for New Orleans man over theft of $15 from 'bait vehicle'," this past week brought a notable state constitutional ruling from the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. Here are the basics from the press report:

Walter Johnson was walking down a street in Uptown New Orleans a week before Thanksgiving in 2013 when he noticed a Jeep Cherokee with the driver's side window down.  He glanced inside and saw a laptop and $15 in cash -- a $10 bill and a $5. Johnson snatched the bills.  He left the computer.

As it turns out, the Jeep was a law enforcement "bait vehicle," and Johnson was the catch of the day.  He was found guilty of simple burglary and illegal possession of stolen things at a trial in April 2015, and Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office promptly invoked the state's habitual-offender law.

Johnson, who had prior convictions for simple burglary, heroin possession and cocaine distribution, was deemed a four-time felon.  Criminal District Court Judge Karen Herman sentenced him in October 2015 to a mandatory life prison term with no parole.

But on Wednesday, an appeals court panel threw out Johnson's life sentence, finding his street heist "shockingly minor in nature," the amount "extraordinary in its triviality" and Johnson's life sentence an "unconscionable" punishment that "shocks our sense of justice."  The appeals court sent the case back to Herman, telling her to resentence Johnson "to a term that is not unconstitutionally excessive."

The 10-page opinion, written by 4th Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Paul Bonin, marks the latest bid to limit the discretion that state law grants prosecutors to ratchet up sentences for low-level drug offenders and other nonviolent criminals with multiple convictions.

Judges have little control over such decisions, and the Louisiana Supreme Court has been loath to step on the Legislature's toes by overriding one of the nation's stiffest habitual-offender laws.  The state's high court has ruled that departures below the law's mandatory minimum sentences must be limited to "exceedingly rare" cases.

But occasionally it has seen fit to do so. Last year, for instance, the Supreme Court found a 30-year sentence "unconscionable" for Doreatha Mosby, a 73-year-old New Orleans woman who was found with a crack pipe tucked in her bra. Yet in the case of Bernard Noble, a father of seven who was found with the equivalent of two joints of marijuana, the court found he wasn't unusual enough to allow a sentence below the mandatory 13-year minimum under the statute.

Both of those cases, as well as Johnson's, came out of Orleans Parish, where Cannizzaro employs the habitual-offender law far more than any other prosecutor in the state. In 2015, Cannizzaro's office sent 154 convicts off to long prison sentences under the statute — almost one of every four offenders who were shipped to state prisons from New Orleans that year, according to state data analyzed by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"You're dealing with different crime problems, socioeconomic levels, and you're dealing with different judges, different sentencing dispositions," Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro's office, said in explaining the office's penchant for deploying the statute. "If you were dealing with a situation where a prosecutor feels probation is being given too freely, then the district attorney is required to use the habitual-offender law."

The full majority ruling in Louisiana v. Johnson is available at this link.  Notably, the rule s based on the Louisiana state constitutional provision prohibiting "cruel, excessive, or unusual punishment." La. Const. art. 1, § 20. Here is one notable passage (with some cites removed) from the Johnson decision: 

Despite its legality, however, we find the life-without-parole sentence imposed upon Mr. Johnson unconstitutionally excessive.  Mr. Johnson reached into the open window of a bait-vehicle and took fifteen dollars.  He is now condemned to die in prison for that crime.

We acknowledge that Mr. Johnson's life sentence, under the habitual offender law, is intended as punishment not only the current conviction, but all prior convictions as well.  Legitimate sentencing goals notwithstanding, Mr. Johnson's status as a fourth felony offender "cannot be considered in the abstract."  Solem, 463 U.S. at 296.  As previously noted, the trial judge found that all his prior felonies were for nonviolent crimes.  And the instant offense, the one which set in motion the habitual offender proceedings, is shockingly minor in nature.  No person was harmed, nor any property damaged.  Had Mr. Johnson taken the fifteen dollars but not by entry into a vehicle or other structure listed in the simple burglary statute, he would have been convicted of misdemeanor theft.

December 24, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Reviewing the unique issues and challenges for sentencing ISIS sympathizers

A helpful colleague made sure I did not miss this interesting new Wall Street Journal article headlined "ISIS Sentences Pose Challenge for Judges." The subheadline highlights the main theme of the piece, "U.S. judges grapple with how to punish young Islamic State sympathizers who could become more dangerous after decades in prison," and here are excerpts:

Federal judges this year faced the unprecedented challenge of sentencing dozens of Islamic State supporters across the country, with punishments ranging from no prison time to decades behind bars.

In Minnesota, 20-year-old Khaalid Abdulkadir received three years probation for tweeting threats to kill federal law-enforcement officers after one of his friends had been arrested for providing support to Islamic State. In Ohio, 22-year-old Christopher Cornell received 30 years in prison for plotting to attack the U.S. Capitol in Washington on the terrorist group’s behalf.

The wide range reflects the difficult question at sentencing in many of these cases: Should judges give young Americans who support Islamic State a chance to turn their lives around, or a lengthy prison sentence to ensure public safety?

For the most part, judges are choosing to be cautious, although some have begun considering alternatives to prison. Of the 39 Islamic State defendants who have been sentenced so far, the average prison sentence has been 13 years, according to Fordham University’s Center on National Security.

Since 2014, more than 110 suspected Islamic State sympathizers have been prosecuted in the U.S. for a broad array of criminal activities, including making false statements to the government and traveling overseas to fight with terrorists. Roughly half of these cases have resulted in convictions, while the other half are pending, according to Fordham. Several sentencings are scheduled to happen next year, including one in Brooklyn, N.Y., for Tairod Pugh, who was the first Islamic State sympathizer in the U.S. to be convicted at trial.

No Islamic State supporter in the U.S. has received a life sentence yet. Most defendants are arrested before they commit violence and charged with providing “material support” to terrorists, which carries a maximum 20-year sentence....

More than a quarter of the sentences have occurred in Minneapolis, whose large Somali population has been a target in recent years for terrorist recruitment. In an unprecedented move, one federal judge there, Michael J. Davis, last summer asked six defendants to undergo an evaluation before sentencing to see if they could be good candidates for a “deradicalization” program.

Judge Davis ultimately allowed only one defendant, 20-year-old Abdullahi Yusuf, to be released to a halfway house, where he could receive counseling and family group therapy. For another defendant, 22-year-old Guled Omar, who was convicted at trial of conspiring to commit murder in Syria, Judge Davis imposed 35 years in prison, the harshest sentence so far in an Islamic State case.

The deradicalization effort has caught the attention of judges around the country. In Anaheim, Calif., a federal judge in October raised the possibility of assigning such a program to 26-year-old Muhanad Badawi, who was convicted at trial for helping a friend who wanted to join Islamic State overseas. Mr. Badawi ultimately received 30 years in prison.

Most Islamic State defendants are between the ages of 18 and 26 at the time of their arrest, which means many of them don’t have a criminal history and could become more dangerous after decades in prison, some lawyers say. On average, Islamic State supporters under the age of 21 have been receiving lighter sentences, according to Fordham.

Still, most judges tend to impose the harshest sentence possible under the law for terrorist defendants. Terrorism, unlike other types of violent offenses, is a crime in which law-enforcement officials feel there can be no room for error. No judge wants to be the one who gave a lenient sentence to someone who ends up committing a terrorist attack.

December 24, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, December 23, 2016

Seeing the state of criminal justice reform through the lens of state reforms

Though the federal criminal justice system always gets lots of attention, the reality is that most of the real criminal justice "action" takes place at the state (and local) level.  Consequently, this Medium commentary by Jenna Moll, Deputy Director, U.S. Justice Action Network, titled "2016: States Home to Success on Effective Justice Reforms," serves as a useful year-end review of the state of our criminal justice reform union. Here is how the lengthy piece gets started, its middle headings, and its ending:

In 2016, the U.S. Justice Action Network made an aggressive push in 12 states to safely reform sentencing laws, reduce mandatory minimums, expand effective treatment and rehabilitation options, and improve the reentry process for returning citizens in our justice system.

With more than 1.3 million of the Americans currently behind bars in state facilities, our state work is crucial in order to actually impact the country’s incarceration rate. And every time we add another state, red or blue, to our list of successes, we make it harder for Congress to ignore the bipartisan calls for action.

The reason for our success is no secret but it is unique. We have used our right-left coalition and national allies to bring together law enforcement officials, faith-based community leaders, and stakeholders from all walks of life who recognize the pressing need to make changes.

We’ve had great successes throughout the year — and we haven’t taken our foot off the gas yet. Just last week in Ohio, the legislature passed fixes to the civil asset forfeiture system in the state that better protect due process and property rights for Ohio residents. A victory, right before the buzzer in 2016. Here’s where we and our allies made the most progress this year:

Removing Barriers to Employment...

Changing Laws, Changing Lives...

Refocusing Our Justice System ...

Bringing State Successes to D.C....

2017

Looking ahead, we’re already focused on long-term success, educating lawmakers and interest groups in states and pressing them to coalesce around robust legislative recommendations that can make the change voters seek. We’re involved in this process across the country — in Illinois with the bipartisan State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, in Louisiana and Pennsylvania with their Justice Reinvestment Initiatives, and in Ohio through the Criminal Justice Recodification Committee.

In 2016, a clear roadmap for passing successful reforms at the state level was created, strengthened, and expanded. We know that by harnessing the power of bipartisan, state-based coalitions and engaging law enforcement, the business community and faith leaders, we can set the agenda for justice reform and gain a consensus that few other issues can achieve in the current political climate. That’s why in 2017, our organization is continuing efforts in almost a dozen states and expanding our efforts on the state level to include Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming.

At times, progress on the legislative level seems to move at a snail’s pace, in light of the overwhelming levels of bipartisan support from voters. But it’s clear that 2016 was a successful year for the justice reform movement at the state level. Across eleven states, we’ve seen thirty-six bills that we and our coalitions championed signed into law by Governors from the right and the left, and we are incredibly proud of this work. And even more proud of those allies with whom we’ve had the honor of standing side-by-side.

I call that progress — and I look forward to even more in 2017.

December 23, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Some notable comments from Senator (and AG nominee) Sessions about limiting federal crimes and prosecutorial discretion

YH-Jeff-Sessions-2Among my plans for the holiday break is to review some of the writings and statements of Senator (and AG nominee) Jeff Sessions concerning various criminal justice matters, and I may at times share some interesting findings in this space.  To that end, I came across this lengthy floor statement from 2009 in which Senator Sessions expressed these concerns about a proposed federal hate crime provision: 

For years legal commentators and jurists have expressed concern at the tendency of Congress, for the political cause of the moment, to persist in adding more and more offenses to the U.S. Criminal Code that were never Federal U.S. crimes before. This is being done at the same time that crime rates over the past decade or so have dropped and State and local police forces have dramatically improved their skills and technology.  There are really fine police forces all over the country today.  An extraordinary number of police officers have college degrees and many advanced degrees.

I think two questions should be asked initially.  First, is this a crime that uniquely affects a Federal interest, and can it be addressed by an effective and enforceable statute? Second, have local police and sheriffs' offices failed to protect and prosecute this vital interest?

Most people do not understand that a majority of crimes -- theft, rape, robbery, and assault -- are not Federal crimes and are not subject to investigation by the FBI or any other Federal agency.  They could not do so if they wanted to because they have no jurisdiction.  They can only investigate Federal crimes.  It has been this way since the founding of our country, and it fixes responsibility for law enforcement on local authorities where it should be.

Americans have always feared a massive Federal Government police force. It is something that we have not ever favored. This is not paranoia but a wise approach, and I do not think it should be changed....

[Attorney General Holder has been] suggesting that, in a select group of cases that are on the front burner today, the Attorney General needs this legislation -- S. 909, which has now been attached to the Defense bill -- as a backstop for State and local law enforcement to ensure that justice is done in every case.

Well, there are many prosecutorial and jury decisions that are made in State courts every day with which one could disagree. The question is whether the Federal Government will be empowered to ensure justice is done in every case.

I just want to share the reality of the world with my friends here, that anyone, I guess, can conclude that a case didn't end justly for them. One distinguished jurist is famously quoted as saying, "To speak of justice is the equivalent of pounding the table. It just adds an element of emotion to the discussion." But whatever we mean by that word, it basically means the Attorney General gets to decide whatever he wants to do. I am not sure this is good legislation. I think legislation ought to be crisp and clear and set forth criteria by which a prosecution occurs or does not occur, leaving not so much broad discretion among the prosecutorial authorities....

I would note, it is an inevitable delight of prosecutors to have more and more power and more and more ability to prosecute criminals. That is what they do. They are wonderful people. I never enjoyed anything more than being a prosecutor, wearing a white hat every day to work and trying to vindicate decent people from criminal acts. But that is just a tendency of the prosecutorial mindset that we ought not to forget....

I want my colleagues to know it is time for us in Congress to step back and question carefully any proposal to create new or further expand federal criminal jurisdiction that would encroach upon the historic powers of our State and local law enforcement to enforce the law in their jurisdiction.

December 22, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Florida Supreme Court brings back to life some older death sentences

As reported in this local article, headlined "Florida Supreme Court: Death penalty cases finalized before 2002 will stand," it now appears that there is a little bit of life left in some old Florida death sentences.  Here are the basics: 

Some of the nearly 400 prisoners waiting on Florida's death row will not be allowed a re-sentencing under new death penalty laws, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The 6-1 ruling in a death sentence appeal by Mark James Asay says that death row inmates are not entitled to a re-sentencing unless their case was finalized after the 2002 ruling in Ring vs. Arizona, which required juries to find aggravating factors to impose the death penalty.

The court also lifted a stay on Asay's execution, previously scheduled for March of this year. It appears executions could commence soon.

Florida's death penalty has been under siege for the past year. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state's death penalty scheme unconstitutional in Hurst vs. Florida, prompting the Legislature to re-write sentencing laws.  Then, in October, the Florida Supreme Court found that the Hurst ruling required a unanimous vote by the jury to sentence someone to death, rather than a majority or supermajority required under old and existing laws. It was not clear until Thursday's ruling whether these changes entitled people already on death row to a re-sentencing hearing.

The lengthy Florida Supreme Court in Asay v. Florida is available at this link. Here is the key concluding paragraph from the majority opinion:

After weighing all three of the above factors, we conclude that Hurst should not be applied retroactively to Asay’s case, in which the death sentence became final before the issuance of Ring. We limit our holding to this context because the balance of factors may change significantly for cases decided after the United States Supreme Court decided Ring. When considering the three factors of the Stovall/Linkletter test together, we conclude that they weigh against applying Hurst retroactively to all death case litigation in Florida. Accordingly, we deny Asay relief.

There can be little doubt that this ruling will be appealed to the US Supreme Court, though there can and should be much doubt about whether SCOTUS will take up the issue.

UPDATE: A helpful tweeter made sure I did not miss this additional ruling from the Florida Supreme Court that reaches this companion conclusion for cases in which a death sentence was imposed after 2002:

After weighing all of the considerations essential to a faithful Witt analysis, we conclude that Hurst should be applied retroactively to Mosley.  The purpose of the holdings in Hurst v. Florida and Hurst is to prevent a violation of the fundamental and critically important right to a trial by jury. See Hurst, 202 So. 3d at 50-51, 55.

December 22, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Split Ohio Supreme Court concludes Graham violated by term-of-years juve sentence that exceeds life expectancy

The holiday season is often a time that brings some interesting sentencing ruling, and this year the jurisprudential present under my tree comes from my own Ohio Supreme Court in Ohio v. Moore, No. 2016-Ohio-8288 (Ohio S. Ct. Dec. 22, 2016) (available here). Here is how the lengthy majority opinion in Moore gets started and concludes:

We decide in this case whether the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 130 S.Ct. 2011, 176 L.Ed.2d 825 (2010), prohibiting the imposition of sentences of life imprisonment without parole on juvenile nonhomicide offenders also prohibits the imposition of a term-of-years prison sentence that exceeds the offender’s life expectancy on a juvenile nonhomicide offender. We hold that pursuant to Graham, a term-of-years prison sentence that exceeds a defendant’s life expectancy violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution when it is imposed on a juvenile nonhomicide offender.

We hold in this case that Graham’s categorical prohibition of sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juveniles who commit nonhomicide crimes applies to juvenile nonhomicide offenders who are sentenced to term-of-years sentences that exceed their life expectancies. The court of appeals abused its discretion in failing to grant Moore’s application for reconsideration. The 112-year sentence the trial court imposed on Moore violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. We reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and vacate Moore’s sentence, and we remand the cause to the trial court for resentencing in conformity with Graham.

Interestingly, Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor appears to have been the key swing vote here on a court that split 4-3, and her lengthy concurring opinion concludes this way:

Graham is one of the most momentous decisions in American juvenile law. Given its significance, the stated intention of the sentencing judge in this case, the de facto life sentence he imposed, and the curtness with which the court of appeals denied Moore’s application to reconsider his sentence in light of Graham, I conclude that the appellate court abused its discretion in refusing to consider Moore’s claim. The court was not bound to accept his arguments, but it was bound to consider them more thoughtfully after allowing the application for delayed reconsideration.

I concur fully in the majority opinion, which addresses the significant constitutional question that is properly before us and which holds that the court of appeals abused its discretion in failing to recognize that extraordinary circumstances were presented by Moore’s application, i.e., the unconstitutional imposition of a lengthy term-of-years sentence on a juvenile offender.

December 22, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"The Obama Legacy: Chipping Away at Mass Incarceration" ... but ...

The quoted portion of the title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary authored by Marc Mauer.  Perhaps appropriately given the "Obama Legacy" label, the piece is focused mostly on the federal sentencing system.  And, in my view inappropriately, the piece gives Prez Obama a little too much credit for some of what I consider to be his "day late and dollar short" work in this arena.  With that set up, here are excerpts (with two lines emphasized that really rankles me, as I will explain after the excerpt):

As President Obama prepares to leave office, the United States still holds the dubious honor of having the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 2.2 million people behind bars. In order to assess his impact on the criminal justice system, it’s necessary to examine the policy shifts that got us here in the first place.

In 1980 there were 24,000 people in the federal prison system, about 25% of whom were serving time for a drug offense. By the time Obama was elected in 2008, that number had ballooned to 201,000 people, nearly half of whom were locked up for a drug offense.

There are two key reasons for the population explosion — both rooted in the war on drugs.  First, President Reagan encouraged federal law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to emphasize drug arrests. Second, Congress adopted mandatory sentencing policies — frequently applied to drug offenses — that established a “one size fits all” approach to sentencing. Federal judges were obligated to impose prison terms of 5, 10, 20 years — or even life — largely based on the quantity of drugs involved. They were not permitted to take any individual factors, such as histories of abuse or parenting responsibilities, into account to mitigate those sentences. The racial disparities from these sentencing policies were particularly extreme.

The most egregious of these policies were tied to crack cocaine offenses.  Someone possessing as little as five grams of the drug (about the weight of a sugar packet) would face a minimum of five years in prison.  That threshold was significantly harsher than the mandatory penalty for powder cocaine, which required a sale of 500 grams of the drug (a little over a pound) to receive the same penalty.  Since 80% of crack cocaine prosecutions were brought against African Americans, the racial disparities from these sentencing policies were particularly extreme.

Momentum for reforming the crack cocaine mandatory minimum laws predated the Obama administration, and had growing bipartisan support when the President took office.  The President signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law in 2010, reducing sentencing severity in a substantial number of crack cases.  Then in 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memorandum to federal prosecutors calling on them to avoid seeking mandatory prison terms in low-level drug cases, which has cut the number of cases with such charges by 25%.

While the changes in sentencing laws have helped to reduce the federal prison population, the highest profile of Obama’s reforms is his use of executive clemency to reduce excessively harsh drug sentences.  That is a story of both politics and policy.  During Obama’s first term he used his clemency power far less than his predecessors — a pattern that was sharply criticized by many reform groups and editorial  boards. But after launching a “clemency initiative” in 2014, the President has commuted the drug sentences of more than 1,100 individuals (with promises of substantially more by the time he leaves office).  Notably, in about a third of these cases, the individuals had been sentenced to life without parole due to mandatory sentencing policies....

Perhaps the most significant aspect of President Obama’s work in regard to criminal justice reform has been his role in changing the way we talk about the issue. After a disappointing first term in which these issues received only modest attention, Obama’s last years in office framed criminal justice reform as a top priority. Among a series of high-profile events during his second term was the President’s address on mass incarceration at the NAACP national convention, at which he concluded that “mass incarceration makes our country worse off.”

Mass incarceration did not come about because there is a shortage of ideas for better approaches to public safety — it was the result of a toxic political environment where legislators favored political soundbites over evidence. By using the bully pulpit to frame justice reform as a major issue, Obama provided some coverage for mainstream legislators to support sound policy options.

It is difficult to be optimistic that the incoming administration will look favorably on criminal justice reform.  Leading Republicans, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, may be persuasive in making the conservative argument for reform.  But President-elect Trump’s “tough on crime” rhetoric, which paints many incarcerated people as “bad dudes,” suggests progress at the federal level will be a challenge.  Realistically, opportunities for justice reform are more likely at the state level. Many local officials are already convinced of the need for sentencing reform and reentry initiatives, and they may be less influenced by the political climate in Washington. If so, such changes at the local level may ultimately gain traction in a Trump White House as well.

1.  The first line emphasized above makes me extra crazy because it falsely portrays Prez Obama as a bold leader who used the bully pulpit in order to provide "coverage for mainstream legislators to support sound policy options."  This could not be more backwards: Prez Obama was a timid and disappointing follower here, as his July 2015 NAACP speech about the need for reform came only AFTER "mainstream" politicians ranging from Rand Paul to Corey Booker, from Ted Cruz to Patrick Leahy, from Rick Perry to Deval Patrick, from Bobby Jindal to Jim Webb, from Chuck Grassley to Dick Durbin, from Jim Sensenbrenner to Bobby Scott, from Raul Labrador to Elijah Cummings, from Judy Chu to Mia Love, from Newt Gingrich to even Chris Christie had all spoken in some significant ways about the need for significant criminal justice reform and especially sentencing reform (and I am sure I am leaving out many others).

2.  The second line emphasized above makes me crazy for more "inside baseball" reasons: given that this commentary makes much of the "egregious" crack/powder cocaine sentencing policies that were only partially fixed by the FSA, the commentary ought to take a moment to note that Prez-Elect Trump has nominated as Attorney General the most prominent and vocal GOP Senator who was complaining loudly about the 100-1 crack/powder laws before doing so was popular or comment.  As noted in this post and recently reported by the Wall Street Journal, " Mr. Sessions was for years Congress’s most avid supporter of cutting the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine, at a time when other lawmakers were loath to be seen as soft on crime."  

I really respect so much of the work Marc Mauer does in his commentary and through The Sentencing Project, but these troublesome statements reflect what I am seeing as the worst tendencies of the "commentariat class" since the election.  Specifically, even though Prez Obama's record on sentencing reform is relatively unimpressive (especially as compared to his record on lots of other issues), many on the left seem eager to assert that Prez Obama really achieved a lot in this arena and then go on to gnash teeth about reform momentum being halted now that there is a new sheriff in town.  This narrative entirely misses, in my opinion, not only (a) the reality that Prez Obama himself retarded reform momentum in many ways (e.g., by getting such a late start on clemency, by resisting mens rea reforms that could have been included in bipartisan sentencing reform bills), but also (b) the (significant?) possibility that many GOP leaders in Congress who have actively promoted and worked hard on federal sentencing reform bills will keep up that work in the years to come.

December 21, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

DPIC releases year-end report highlighting "historic declines" in use of the death penalty in 2016

NewDeathSentences1973-2016This press release from the Death Penalty Information Center, titled "Death Sentences, Executions Drop to Historic Lows in 2016," provides a summary of the DPIC's 2016 year-end report on the administration of the death penalty in the United States. Here is the text of the press release:

Death sentences, executions, and public support for capital punishment all continued historic declines in 2016.  American juries imposed the fewest death sentences in the modern era of U.S. capital punishment, since the Supreme Court declared existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972.  The expected 30 new death sentences in 2016 represent a 39 percent decline from last year’s already 40-year low of 49. The 20 executions this year marked the lowest number in a quarter century, according to a report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). National public opinion polls also showed support for capital punishment at a 40-year low.

“America is in the midst of a major climate change concerning capital punishment.  While there may be fits and starts and occasional steps backward, the long-term trend remains clear,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report.  “Whether it’s concerns about innocence, costs, and discrimination, availability of life without parole as a safe alternative, or the questionable way in which states are attempting to carry out executions, the public grows increasingly uncomfortable with the death penalty each year.”

For the first time in more than 40 years, no state imposed ten or more death sentences. Only five states imposed more than one death sentence. California imposed the most (9) followed by Ohio (4), Texas (4), Alabama (3) and Florida (2).  Death sentences continued to be clustered in two percent of counties nationwide, with Los Angeles County imposing four death sentences, the most of any county. But death sentences were down 39 percent, even in those two-percent counties.

This year’s 20 executions marked a decline of more than 25 percent since last year, when there were 28 executions.  Only five states conducted executions this year, the fewest number of states to do so since 1983.  Two states -- Georgia, which had the most executions (9), and Texas, which had the second highest number (7) -- accounted for 80 percent of all executions in the U.S.  Although Georgia carried out more executions than at any other time since the 1950s, juries in that state have not imposed any new death sentences in the past two years.

State and federal courts continued to strike down outlier practices that increased the likelihood a death sentence would be imposed.  The United States Supreme Court struck down practices in Florida, Arizona, and Oklahoma that had disproportionately contributed to the number of death sentences imposed in those states.  And state courts in Florida and Delaware ruled that portions of their statutes that permitted the death penalty based upon a non-unanimous jury vote on sentencing were unconstitutional.

America’s deep divisions about capital punishment were reflected in voters’ action at the ballot box this year. Voters in California and Nebraska voted to retain the death penalty and Oklahoma voters approved a constitutional amendment regarding capital punishment.  At the same time, prosecutors in four of the 16 counties that impose the most death sentences in the U.S. were defeated by candidates who expressed personal opposition to the death penalty or pledged to reform their county’s death penalty practices.  In Kansas, pro-death penalty groups spent more than $1 million to defeat four state supreme court justices who had voted to overturn several death sentences, but voters retained all four justices.

DPIC’s review of the 20 people executed in 2016 indicated that at least 60 percent of them showed significant evidence of mental illness, brain impairment, and/or low intellectual functioning.  This suggests that, in spite of the constitutional requirement that the death penalty be reserved for the “worst of the worst” offenders, states continued to execute prisoners whose mental illness or intellectual disabilities are similar to impairments the Court has said should make a person ineligible for the death penalty.

I have reprinted above the DPIC graphic emphasizing the continued decline in the number of death sentences imposed each year because, as I have said before, I view that metric as the most significant and consequential in any serious discussion of the present status and future prospects of capital punishment throughout the US.

December 21, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Detailing how global financier George Soros has been funding efforts to take out local prosecutors

161215_soros-map_v1I often think about the slogan "Think globally, act locally," and that phrase jumped to mind when I saw this fascinating Daily Signal article headlined "The ‘Staggering’ Campaign of Liberal Billionaire George Soros to Swing Local Prosecutor Elections." Soros is a "global player" in many respects, and yet this lengthy article highlights his latest local efforts. Here are excerpts:

Soros, 86, an American hedge fund manager and philanthropist, is No. 22 on the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires, with a net worth estimated at $20 billion. He finances a variety of liberal political causes, including ones related to education, immigration, climate change, and the environment. Soros’ philanthropic network, the Open Society Foundations, has spent more than $13 billion over the past three decades on initiatives to defend human rights abroad and shape the democratic process in Eastern Europe.

Soros gave an unprecedented $27 million to various 527 groups trying to defeat President George W. Bush in his 2004 re-election campaign, describing the effort as a “matter of life and death.” Soros also helped launch the Democracy Alliance, a group of major liberal donors seeking to advance progressive policymaking by investing in organizations such as Center for American Progress, Media Matters for America, and Organizing for Action, which was set up to advance the agenda of President Barack Obama.

Soros has not personally spoken with or met any of the candidates he supported in district attorney races this year and last, his advisers say. In most of the dozen prosecutor races he helped finance, Soros did not coordinate at all with the candidate he supported, they said. Instead, he operated independently by giving money to various state-level political action committees (PACs) and a national “527” unlimited-money group, each identified by a variation on “Safety and Justice.”

The form of his contributions depended on local and state campaign finance laws, Soros’ advisers say, and in some cases, as in Harris County, the collaboration was more direct.

Soros’ efforts are part of a new, broader push by progressives to locate, prepare, and fund challengers to unseat incumbent prosecutors. Such upsets are notoriously difficult to achieve in local district attorney races, where name recognition and outside interest are usually low and voters give deference to the candidate with a record. “Criminal justice reform efforts must take many forms,” Whitney Tymas, an adviser on Soros’ project challenging sitting prosecutors, said in a statement to The Daily Signal. Tymas added:

Changing laws and redirecting funding streams is critical. Because of the enormous discretion vested in those who enforce the laws, including prosecutors, it is also important to elect officials who are committed to public safety and equal justice. These officials are a key leverage point in a complicated system.

David Alan Sklansky, a Stanford University professor and former federal prosecutor, told The Daily Signal that only a “handful” of races for the 2,500 district attorneys’ offices nationwide included candidates with “reform-oriented” agendas, and of those that did, most did not involve contributions from Soros. “In a number of high-visibility district attorney races around the country, incumbents this year were unseated by challengers who promised a more moderate approach to criminal justice, backing away from a simple ‘tough on crime’ agenda and paying more attention to fairness, proportionality, and equity,” Sklansky said. “Many of these successful candidates also pledged to improve the investigation of police shootings, to rein in prosecutorial misconduct, and to be more vigilant in avoiding and correcting wrongful convictions.”

Still, Soros’ role in local prosecutor races is significant. It touches counties big and small, urban and rural; northern, southern, western, eastern, and midwestern. In total, Soros spent nearly $11 million on 12 district attorney races this election cycle, campaign filings show. A Democrat candidate supported by Soros ultimately won in 10 of the 12 races.

The trend of outside funding worries opponents of Soros’ tactics, including veteran district attorneys who say the outsize contributions threaten prosecutorial independence, which is especially important in a role as powerful and all-encompassing as theirs. “The amount of money we are talking about is staggering,” said Joshua Marquis, the district attorney of Clatsop County, Oregon, since 1994 and a board member of the National District Attorneys Association. “And it’s amplified because it’s extremely difficult to raise money as a prosecutor,” Marquis told The Daily Signal...

Soros so far has backed only Democrats in district attorney races, but his advisers insist his support for candidates isn’t based on political party and say Soros would consider making a large contribution to a “reform-minded” Republican prosecutor....

Prosecutors drive critical decisions in the criminal justice system, choosing when, whether, and against whom to bring criminal charges, as well as making recommendations for sentencing and setting the terms of plea negotiations. These decisions are receiving more scrutiny at a time where there is a growing bipartisan consensus around the need to reduce incarceration, provide more alternative punishments, and expand rehabilitation opportunities for low-level drug offenders.

As part of this effort, Soros, along with progressive groups advocating racial justice and gender equality, is trying to elect more minority prosecutors in response to what he sees as an insufficient response by incumbent district attorneys to the fatal shootings of black men by police officers. Several candidates who Soros backed are members of minority groups.

The Reflective Democracy Campaign, an arm of the progressive Women Donors Network, found in a 2015 study that 95 percent of elected local prosecutors were white. “Of course, what was happening with Black Lives Matter and police shootings was a huge wake-up call [for progressives, who began] realizing how much power these offices have and the need for us to be focused on getting great people elected,” Andrea Dew Steele, president of Emerge America, a candidate-training organization for Democratic women, said in an interview with The Daily Signal. “District attorney races have historically just been completely ignored, like most down-ballot races, in the progressive and Democratic community,” Steele said. “I am just thrilled to see that if you give a little bit of love to these races, a small investment yields a huge outcome.”

In Chicago’s Cook County, Soros funded one of several groups that helped Kim Foxx, who is black, defeat the incumbent state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez, in the Democratic primary. Foxx then easily beat her Republican general election opponent. Alvarez drew widespread criticism for her handling of the 2014 fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald, a black 17-year-old. She took 13 months before charging the Chicago police officer who shot and killed McDonald, a delay that sparked protests.

“Soros’ funding was a big factor in my loss, obviously,” Alvarez, the first female and first Hispanic candidate to be elected as Cook County’s top prosecutor, said in an interview with The Daily Signal. “Some people want to say I lost my election simply because of the McDonald video, but I felt this movement prior to my charging that officer. When you have these outside influences, it’s scary because they don’t know the climate—that Chicago has a serious violent crime problem, a serious gun problem.”...

Soros and allied progressive groups say they will continue grooming and supporting prosecutor candidates who share their goals. Steele, of Emerge America, says she already is looking ahead to the 2018 elections, with plans to recruit and train at least 25 Democratic women to run in district attorney races.

Women, she says, are uniquely sensitive to the consequences of incarceration and, as prosecutors, are likely to use their powers more carefully. “I am hopeful that Emerge will have women running for district attorney in 2018 and make it onto Soros’ radar screen,” Steele said. “The George Soroses of the world can’t get the outcomes they desire unless you have great candidates. So what we are doing is a critical piece.”

She does not apologize for the aggressive outreach, arguing that because a state’s top prosecutors are elected, the process to become one is inherently political. “All of these races are political,” Steele said

Marquis, of the National District Attorneys Association, says he doesn’t doubt the sincerity of Soros and of progressive groups. He emphasizes that many members of the association, which represents state-level district attorneys across the U.S., support reform. Indeed, the National District Attorneys Association made headlines earlier this year when it endorsed compromise legislation in Congress meant to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders in the federal prison system.

Yet Marquis said he worries that despite these efforts, some incumbent members of the association could lose their jobs to better-funded challengers. “This is the source of great conversation among district attorneys,” Marquis said. “A lot of us are sitting around saying, ‘What if it’s me next? What if I am targeted?’”

December 21, 2016 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

"Free the Vote: Unlocking Democracy in the Cells and on the Streets"

The title of this post is the title of this new short publication from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and The Sentencing Project.  This webpage review the publication's contents and mission:

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and The Sentencing Project have issued Free the Vote: Unlocking Democracy in the Cells and on the Streets, reporting on the racially discriminatory and ever-growing problem of felony disenfranchisement. The denial or abridgement of the right to vote for 6.1 million people with felony criminal convictions is a stain on our democracy.

The millions of Americans who are currently prevented from voting due to felony convictions are more than twice the difference of the popular vote in the contentious 2016 presidential election. Particularly striking is that one in 13 Black Americans of voting age is disenfranchised because of a felony conviction—a rate four times greater than non-Black Americans.

The issue is compounded by the fact that often, for redistricting purposes, incarcerated people are counted as residents of largely white rural areas where prisons are predominately located (i.e., prison-based gerrymandering). Thus, Black urban communities, from which the incarcerated population disproportionately comes, lose the critical voices of persons with felony convictions, who not only are denied a fundamental stake in the democratic process, but also who could provide insight into issues of criminal justice reform, employment, and educational opportunities.

“Felony disenfranchisement laws are shamefully nothing new,” said Leah Aden, Senior Counsel at LDF. “In the era following slavery disenfranchisement laws were tailored to limit the political power of newly-freed Black people. These racially discriminatory laws gained steam in recent decades as the failed ‘war on drugs’ and “tough on crime” policies incarcerated millions of Black and Latino Americans, continuing to weaken the voting power of communities of color.”

“Disenfranchisement policies are fundamentally at odds both with democracy and with the need to support individuals in their reentry from prison,” says Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project. “By extending the right to vote to people in prison and with criminal records, we can both build a more inclusive democracy and make our communities safer.”

Among its findings, Free the Vote highlights:

◾ The impact of felony disenfranchisement laws on Black voting strength at the state level. In Florida, for example, more people with felony convictions are disenfranchised than in any other state, with Black disenfranchisement rates exceeding a fifth (21%) of the adult Black voting age population. Similar data comes out of other states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.

◾ Prison-based gerrymandering exacerbates the negative effects of felony disenfranchisement. In the city of Anamosa, Iowa, a councilman from a prison community was elected to office from a ward which, per the Census, had almost 1,400 residents—about the same as the other three wards in town. But 1,300 of these “residents” were prisoners in the Anamosa State Penitentiary. Once those prisoners were subtracted, the ward had fewer than 60 actual residents.

◾ Only Maine and Vermont do not restrict voting based on a felony conviction. Both states allow individuals to vote from prison via absentee ballot. Recently, there have been successful efforts to reform felony disenfranchisement policies in Maryland, Virginia, and California.

◾ Following the historic and substantial participation of people of color in the 2008 and 2012 elections, felony disenfranchisement laws that curb voting power remain a barrier to expanding America’s voting population. These laws discourage future generations from exercising the learned behavior of voting and receiving the benefits of having their voices reflected in the political process.

LDF and The Sentencing Project aim to not only ameliorate felony disfranchisement laws, but also to eradicate them. Together, we can free the vote for people who have been made vulnerable by harmful and discriminatory laws and in turn, strengthen our collective democracy.

December 20, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Wisconsin Sentencing in the Tough-on-Crime Era: How Judges Retained Power and Why Mass Incarceration Happened Anyway"

5493-165wThe title of this post is the title of this new book by my FSR colleague and LawProf Michael O’Hear. For sentencing fans, this new book would surely make a great stocking stuffer, as this text from the publisher's website suggests:

The dramatic increase in U.S. prison populations since the 1970s is often blamed on the mandatory sentencing required by “three strikes” laws and other punitive crime bills. Michael M. O’Hear shows that the blame is actually not so easy to assign. His meticulous analysis of incarceration in Wisconsin — a state where judges have considerable discretion in sentencing — shows that the prison population has ballooned anyway, increasing nearly tenfold over forty years.

O’Hear tracks the effects of sentencing laws and politics in Wisconsin from the eve of the imprisonment boom in 1970 up to the 2010s. Drawing on archival research, original public-opinion polling, and interviews with dozens of key policymakers, he reveals important dimensions that have been missed by others.  He draws out lessons from the Wisconsin experience for the U.S. as a whole, where mass incarceration has cost taxpayers billions of dollars and caused untold misery to millions of inmates and their families.

Praise

“Serious students of modern sentencing reforms — as well as everyone eager to understand the roots of, and potential responses to, modern mass incarceration — must have this book on their reading list. O’Hear thoroughly canvasses the dynamic story of Wisconsin’s uniquely important sentencing reform history.”
—Douglas Berman, author of the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog

“Fascinating political and social history. O’Hear puts national criminal justice trends into a single-state frame, providing much sharper insights than often come from trying to look at the entirety of this very big country. This is first-rate work.”
—Frank O. Bowman III, University of Missouri School of Law

December 20, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 19, 2016

"The Structure of Federal Public Defense: A Call for Independence"

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

Independence is a foundational requirement for any good system of public criminal defense.  The Constitution guarantees anyone charged with a crime the right to a defense attorney regardless of ability to pay, and that attorney has the ethical obligation to provide a zealous defense, free from any conflicting outside influence.  And yet the system of federal public defense is funded, managed, and supervised by the very judges in front of whom defenders must vigorously defend their clients.  The arrangement creates serious constitutional, ethical, and policy problems.  This Article proposes a solution: an independent federal defense agency.  The agency proposed, the Center for Federal Public Defense (CFPD), would administer federal defenders’ offices, manage the system of appointed private attorneys, and seek funding from Congress for indigent defense services.

The Article places the discussion of the proposed organization in the context of other independent agencies that do not fit neatly into a single branch of government, sometimes described as “boundary organizations.”  In many ways, federal public defense is ideally suited for placement outside of the formal branches of government.  Many congressionally created independent organizations are structurally problematic because of separation-of-powers concerns that arise from the agencies’ enforcement or rulemaking authority.  Federal public defense attorneys, however, neither make rules nor enforce them.  And because of the nature of their work, they legitimately require insulation from direct government control — including from the Judiciary.  In a criminal justice system that relies on its adversarial nature to function properly, it would be inconceivable to have judges decide who is hired in a prosecutor’s office, how much they should be paid, or how and whether prosecutors should investigate individual cases. It would be equally problematic to have the Judiciary act as the voice of the Department of Justice in Congress when explaining resource needs and seeking appropriations. And yet the Judiciary currently does all of those things with respect to the defense function. It should not, and the fix is straightforward: the creation of an independent defender organization.

December 19, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Judicial panel concludes judge committed no misconduct in the sentencing of Brock Turner

This new local article, headlined "Panel clears judge of bias in sentencing of Brock Turner," provides a notable postscript to what became a national sentencing story earlier this year. Here are the basics:

A commission cleared Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky Monday of misconduct in his light sentencing of a former Stanford student who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman outside a college party.

The Commission on Judicial Performance had received thousands of complaints and petitions that Persky — who on June 2 sentenced Brock Allen Turner to six months in county jail, three years’ probation and lifetime registration as a sex offender — was biased in his sentencing decision. The district attorney’s office had asked for six years in state prison, while the defense had requested four months in county jail with up to five years probation.

“Neither the judge’s statements about the impact of prison and the defendant’s future dangerousness — factors that the judge was required to address on the record — nor any other remarks made by Judge Persky at the sentencing hearing constitute clear and convincing evidence of judicial bias,” the panel concluded unanimously.  Based in San Francisco, the panel include six public members, two lawyers, and three judicial officers.

The 12-page panel decision is available at this link, and here is a key paragraph from its introductory section:

The commission has concluded that there is not clear and convincing evidence of bias, abuse of authority, or other basis to conclude that Judge Persky engaged injudicial misconduct warranting discipline.  First, the sentence was within the parameters set by law and was therefore within the judge’s discretion.  Second, the judge performed a multi-factor balancing assessment prescribed by law that took into account both the victim and the defendant.  Third, the judge’s sentence was consistent with the recommendation in the probation report, the purpose of which is to fairly and completely evaluate various factors and provide the judge with a recommended sentence. Fourth, comparison to other cases handled by Judge Persky that were publicly identified does not support a finding of bias.  The judge did not preside over the plea or sentencing in one of the cases. In each of the four other cases, Judge Persky’s sentencing decision was either the result of a negotiated agreement between the prosecution and the defense, aligned with the recommendation of the probation department, or both.  Fifth, the judge’s contacts with Stanford University are insufficient to require disclosure or disqualification. 

Some (of many) prior related posts on the Brock Turner case:

December 19, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Prez Obama grants another large bunch of commutations as well as a big batch of pardons

Big pre-holiday news on the federal clemency front is reported in this new White House blog posting: "President Obama Grants 153 Commutations and 78 Pardons to Individuals Deserving of a Second Chance." Here are the details as reported by White House Counsel Neil Eggleston:

Today, President Obama granted clemency to 231 deserving individuals — the most individual acts of clemency granted in a single day by any president in this nation’s history. With today’s 153 commutations, the President has now commuted the sentences of 1,176 individuals, including 395 life sentences. The President also granted pardons to 78 individuals, bringing his total number of pardons to 148. Today’s acts of clemency — and the mercy the President has shown his 1,324 clemency recipients — exemplify his belief that America is a nation of second chances.

The 231 individuals granted clemency today have all demonstrated that they are ready to make use — or have already made use — of a second chance. While each clemency recipient’s story is unique, the common thread of rehabilitation underlies all of them. For the pardon recipient, it is the story of an individual who has led a productive and law-abiding post-conviction life, including by contributing to the community in a meaningful way. For the commutation recipient, it is the story of an individual who has made the most of his or her time in prison, by participating in educational courses, vocational training, and drug treatment. These are the stories that demonstrate the successes that can be achieved — by both individuals and society — in a nation of second chances.

Today’s grants signify the President’s continued commitment to exercising his clemency authority through the remainder of his time in office. In 2016 alone, the President has granted clemency to more than 1,000 deserving individuals. The President continues to review clemency applications on an individualized basis to determine whether a particular applicant has demonstrated a readiness to make use of his or her second chance, and I expect that the President will issue more grants of both commutations and pardons before he leaves office. The mercy that the President has shown his 1,324 clemency recipients is remarkable, but we must remember that clemency is a tool of last resort and that only Congress can achieve the broader reforms needed to ensure over the long run that our criminal justice system operates more fairly and effectively in the service of public safety.

This news is sure to bring holiday cheer to all those advocating for Prez Obama to go big on this front before he heads home.  These grants now have me thinking Obama may end his time in office with more than 2000 clemency grants.

Some recent (post-Election Day) posts on Prez Obama and clemency:

December 19, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Philippine Prez Duterte talking up conducting thousands of executions yearly if death penalty restored

In prior posts here and here, I noted the eagerness of the Philippines new Prez to rachet up a "war on drugs" to almost unheard-of new levels.   This article from ABS-CBN News, headlined "Duterte threatens up to 6 executions daily if death penalty is restored," highlights the latest dimension of this story:

President Rodrigo Duterte has issued a grim warning, saying he will carry out daily executions of criminals once the death penalty is restored. 

"Ibalik mo sa akin 'yan...araw-arawin ko yan. Lima, anim," he said during Senator Manny Pacquiao's 38th birthday celebration in General Santos on Saturday. (Give it back to me, and I will perform daily executions. Five, six.)  "You destroy my country, I destroy you," he added.

The president believes capital punishment failed to deter crime in the past only because only few executions were carried out.

Death penalty in the country was abolished under the 1987 Constitution -- the first Asian country to do so -- but was reinstated under President Fidel V. Ramos in 1993 in response to increasing crime rates. It was again abolished under President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2006, reducing the harshest penalties to life imprisonment and reclusion perpetua.

Even before being elected in the 2016 polls, Duterte has been pushing for the revival of death penalty, saying it would serve as retribution for those who committed heinous crimes.

In a meeting after it was clear he won the elections, Duterte told some lawmakers he favors hanging over lethal injection as means of execution.

A bill seeking to reinstate the death penalty has recently been approved at the sub-committee level in the House of Representatives, and a principal author is optimistic on an "overwhelming" support from his colleagues. Pacquiao, who had filed Senate Bill 185 proposing that death penalty be reimposed and the penalties be increased for heinous crimes involving dangerous drugs in October, is positive that fellow senators would back the bill.

Prior related posts:

December 19, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Anyone eager to predict how many last-month clemencies Prez Obama will grant?

NA-CM807_CLEMEN_9U_20161217145706The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new Wall Street Journal article headlined "Barack Obama Weighs Final Requests for Clemency: President has cut short the sentences of 1,023 inmates, more than the previous 11 presidents combined." Here are excerpts:

Barack Obama, who has granted clemency more often than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, is expected to perform more acts of mercy during his final weeks in office....

Mr. Obama’s critics, including the incoming attorney general, say his use of clemency for a large class of convicts has been a disturbing power grab. But supporters say a law that reduced drug penalties six years ago created severe injustices for those sentenced before it. They also note that Mr. Obama has granted clemency for a relatively small percentage of the large number of people who have sought it.

These trends are a centerpiece of Mr. Obama’s legacy on criminal justice reform. Legislation that would have further reduced sentences for less-serious drug offenders foundered in this fall’s highly charged political climate. But as with other parts of the president’s agenda that were snubbed by Congress—including immigration, gun control and climate policies — Mr. Obama has turned to his executive authority in the absence of more sweeping and durable legislative action. “He’s essentially rejuvenated clemency as a presidential power,” said White House Counsel Neil Eggleston. “But he has never seen it as a replacement for criminal justice reform.”...

Mr. Trump’s pick for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has described Mr. Obama’s clemency record as an “alarming abuse of the pardon power.” The former prosecutor views the rollback of tough drug sentences as a threat to public safety. Mr. Obama, a former constitutional law professor, sees long, mandatory sentences as damaging excesses from the war on drugs, particularly in the African-American community.

In 2016, Mr. Obama has cut short the sentences of 839 inmates, the most commutations ever granted in a single year, according to the Justice Department, with more possibly on the way. That brings his total to 1,023, or more than the previous 11 presidents combined. Adding Mr. Obama’s 70 pardons, which go further than commutations by wiping out convictions and restoring civil liberties, puts his clemency record just behind Mr. Johnson’s 1,187 grants.

Civil-rights advocates are demanding a more sweeping review that would dent the prison population much faster than the current case-by-case analysis. “We do not know whether the next president will support clemency efforts or criminal justice reform,’ says a late November appeal to President Obama from dozens of groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Sentencing Project, JustLeadershipUSA and the Brennan Center for Justice. “But we do know that until Jan. 20, you alone have the power to deliver both mercy and justice to those who deserve it.”...

Mr. Obama has received more requests for clemency than any other president, in part because of efforts to encourage inmates to petition for one if they were sentenced before a 2010 law that reduced the disparity between sentences for crack and cocaine offenses. Mr. Sessions spearheaded that legislation, which lightened penalties for crack users, but he opposes applying it to inmates retroactively. So does the nation’s largest police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed Mr. Trump.

But in one indicator that Mr. Obama is more cautious than some critics suggest, he has granted 3% of nearly 35,000 requests; only George W. Bush granted a smaller percentage, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center. Obama also has offered fewer pardons than any president in the past century, though more are expected before he leaves office.

I am tempted to predict that Prez Obama will grant at least a few hundred more prison commutations and also a few hundred pardons before leaving the Oval Office on January 20, 2017.  This is a nothing but a blind guess and I have absolutely no insider knowledge here.  What I do have is a deep disappointment that Prez Obama did not make any apparent effort to change the structure of the modern federal clemency process, which so many commentators (myself included) have rightly criticized as dysfunctional.

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Some recent (post-Election Day) posts on Prez Obama and clemency:

UPDATE:  In the comments to this post and also in an email to me, sentencing and clemency guru Mark Osler expressed justified frustration over the fact that the WSJ article and its chart fail to give respect to the large number of clemencies that Prez Gerald Ford granted in response to offenses related to evasion of the draft during the Vietnam war. (This Fusion article from May provides an effective review of this oft-forgotten clemency story and its continued relevance in a drug war era.)  Mark sent me this update comment of criticism, along with the additional chart here produced by Pardon Power papa P.S. Ruckman.

Complains Prof Osler: "No, Obama has NOT 'granted clemency more often than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson.'   And the chart the WSJ used (and you reprinted) is wrong.  Neither include the Ford clemency grants. That matters, too --- the streamlined Ford process outside of DOJ, which was successful, was the one Obama rejected in favor of the bureaucracy-laden CP14."

December 18, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

So many states with so many interesting marijuana reform stories ... only partially covered at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

Especially since the election, I have found the stories and debates surrounding capital and non-capital sentencing reforms to be filled with even more intrigue and uncertainty than usual.  And yet, even as sentencing law and policy gets even more dynamic, I continue to find legal and policy and practice developments in the marijuana reform space to be on a whole different level.  Part of this reality comes from the fact that marijuana reform right now is such a diverse state-by-state story nationwide, with big new developments occurring literally from corner to corner of the United States.  For example, in this new round-up of notable headlines at my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform blog, there is news of note from Alaska and California and Florida and Maine (as well as from fly-over states like Ohio and Montana).

Of course, all criminal justice reform stories are ultimately state-by-state stories in the United States.  Still, the fact that we see so much state-level reform an innovation in the teeth of continued federal blanket prohibition seems to me an important reminder of how decentralized power in this great country can be if folks take the time to try to avoid undue obsession with the laws and policy that emerge only from inside the Beltway.  And here are a few more more recent posts from MLP&R further reinforcing this essential story: 

December 18, 2016 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Duties of Capital Trial Counsel Under the California 'Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016'"

The title of this post is the title of this timely and interesting new article authored by Robert Sanger now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Every trial lawyer who is handling a capital case in California or who has handled a capital case for which the decision of the California Supreme Court is not final on a pending habeas corpus petition, needs to be aware of certain specific duties and strategies required by The Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016, Proposition 66, enacted by the voters on November 8, 2016.  The Act imposes new duties on capital trial counsel following a judgment of death, will require more prompt discharge of other duties and may even present an opportunity.  While the article focuses on trial counsel, post-conviction counsel will need to be familiar with much of this same information to both effectively work with trial counsel, to seamlessly raise issues and, eventually, to evaluate trial counsel’s conduct.

Trial counsel’s new duties include the duty to proactively assert herself as counsel of record after judgment by objecting and engaging in strategies in the trial court in response to the Act.  Trial counsel will have to advise her client during a difficult period and, when habeas counsel is appointed, work closely with that counsel to investigate and file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus.  The duty to object, the duty to engage in strategies to protect the client and the duty to counsel the client must be commenced in the trial court by trial counsel as soon as there is a judgment of death.  These duties will also extend to cases which may be transferred to the Superior Court by the California Supreme Court.  In addition, immediately upon appointment of habeas counsel and throughout the entire course of the habeas proceedings, counsel will have a more urgent duty than she did pre-Act to be available and responsive to assist habeas counsel.

Objections must be made to the Act on statutory grounds as well as both California and United States Constitutional grounds.  Some of the objections will be systemic and others will be case specific.  There are reasons for the trial court, or, eventually, the higher courts, to find the Act inoperable, unconstitutional or otherwise to stay or delay the process.  The Act is inoperable because it is not self-executing and because it is unfunded.  The Act is unconstitutional because it violates the right to habeas corpus, interferes with the jurisdiction of the courts generally and specifically regarding capital cases, violates the separation of powers and the single subject rule and, if applied retroactively, violates the ex post facto clause.  The Act also contributes to the overall unconstitutionality of the flawed capital punishment system in California.

Under the Act, trial counsel must also take specific action regarding the “offer” of counsel by the trial judge and the “orders” made pursuant to the “offer.”  Strategically, delay in implementation of the “offer” and the orders pursuant thereto may be required to assure appointment of qualified counsel, to avoid the premature commencement of the habeas filing limitation and to allow trial counsel to prepare the files, materials and record necessary for habeas counsel to commence work.  Trial counsel will have a duty to advise the client regarding the client’s rights following the “offer” which will be critical in light of the trial judge’s apparent power to make a finding that the client has waived habeas counsel, potentially forever.

Finally, trial counsel will have to make critical decisions and will have an important role regarding any potential claims of actual innocence or ineligibility of the client for execution.  For instance, trial counsel must decide with the client and habeas counsel what information will or will not be disclosed and what litigation strategy will be employed to resist waiver of privileges that purport to be compelled under the Act.  Finally, if there are grounds for factual innocence or ineligibility for the sentence of death, trial counsel must work with habeas counsel in presenting them early enough to obtain additional time to file the initial petition, if appropriate.

December 18, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Is there any way to predict how Trump judges will develop sentencing jurisprudence?

The question in this post is prompted by this new Politico article headlined "Trump set to reshape judiciary after GOP blockade: The Senate left town with 99 judicial vacancies, as well as the current Supreme Court opening."  Here are excerpts:

Mitch McConnell’s refusal to confirm many of President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees has set the table for Donald Trump to dramatically reshape the judiciary over the next four years, as the Republican Senate set a modern record for the fewest confirmations of lifetime judicial appointees.

The Senate GOP confirmed just 20 lifetime judicial appointments to district and appeals courts in its two years in the majority, the lowest number by far in the past 28 years, according to a Congressional Research Service report obtained by POLITICO.  That means that President-elect Trump will have major sway over the courts next year, starting with the Supreme Court and going all the way down to the district level.

The Senate left town last week with 99 judicial vacancies covering district and appeals courts, as well as the current Supreme Court opening.  There are 52 Obama nominations to those courts pending, with Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland the most prominent nominee still waiting for action....  Most, if not all of Obama's nominations, will be wiped away next year by Trump and Senate Republicans.

There are also 38 judicial emergencies, according to the federal judiciary.  Republicans had mulled confirming some judges if Hillary Clinton had won, GOP sources said before the election, but since Trump prevailed Republicans believed there was little reason to do any judicial confirmations in the lame duck.  The Senate last voted on a judge on July 6, when Brian Martinotti was confirmed to a New Jersey district court....

Over eight years, Obama got roughly the same number of judges confirmed as Bush.  The Senate confirmed 323 district, circuit and Supreme Court judges for Obama and 322 for Bush, according to CRS.  President Bill Clinton enjoyed 370 such confirmations. That’s led McConnell to claim that he treated “President Obama fairly with respect to his judicial nominations."

But Democrats said they had treated Bush far better in his last two years as president. “Our constitutional duty of advise and consent is not about comparing one president to another. It is to ensure our Federal courts have the judges they need,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the outgoing top Democrat on judicial matters, in a statement as Congress left town last week. “Right now, that is not the case when one of every nine judgeships across the country is vacant.”

I have truly no idea whether or how or when Trump insiders will focus seriously on filling judgeships in lower federal courts, but the persons who end up filling all these vacancies will certainly have a major impact on sentencing law and policy as developed through constitutional and non-constitutional sentencing jurisprudence. When and how Prez-Elect Trump names a replacement for Justice Scalia in the weeks ahead may provide some window into how the Trump Administration will approach lower federal court appointments, but I have a feeling judicial appointments could be a kind of "work-in-progress" for the entire first term of the Trump Administration.

December 17, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Prosecutorial Misconduct: The Best Defense Is a Good Defense"

A helpful reader altered me to this recent on-line law review essay in which LawProf Fredrick Vars responds to a notable law review article by LawProf Michael Perlin.  These first two paragraphs from the essay should whet the appetite for those who may be eager to consume both writings:

In “Merchants and Thieves, Hungry for Power”: Prosecutorial Misconduct and Passive Judicial Complicity in Death Penalty Trials of Defendants with Mental Disabilities, Professor Michael L. Perlin persuasively argues that prosecutorial misconduct leads many people with mental disabilities to be sentenced to death and executed.  Toward the end of his article, he compiles over a dozen previously-proposed reforms aimed at improving prosecutorial practice.  As explained below, I am not optimistic about the prospects of these reforms, either to be adopted or to be highly effective.  I think more could be accomplished by directing resources and training to the other side of the equation — public defenders.  A smaller number of counties each year account for the majority of death sentences and executions.  We need to better equip front-line public defenders in those counties to identify and counter prosecutorial misconduct, and, more broadly, to provide competent representation in capital cases, particularly those involving mental disabilities.that engages.

Perlin is optimistic that recent death row exonerations will be a turning point in the battle against prosecutorial misconduct in capital cases involving defendants with mental disabilities.  He hopes that one particularly egregious case, in which no one questioned the defendants’ guilt, will be a watershed like the Birmingham church bombings, the most notorious of which took place just a few minutes from my home.  I share Perlin’s hope but not his optimism.  The bombing helped push forward the civil rights movement because everyone could empathize with the four little girls dressed in their Sunday best. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quite credibly described the bombing as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.”  Mentally disabled death row inmates, even the innocent ones, live on the other side of a divide wider even than race in the 1960s. Few of us can identify closely with exonerated inmates. As a result, only the accumulation of exonerations, not one signature event, reveals the flaws in the process and shifts public opinion gradually against the death penalty.

December 17, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Friday, December 16, 2016

Noticing that other states are now messing with Texas for being capital punishment's capital

This new Vice article, headlined "Texas Is No Longer America's Death Penalty Capital," reports on the unique features of 2016 in the modern history of the death penalty in the United States. Here are highlights:

Texas has long been the heartland of the death penalty in America. Since capital punishment was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, the Lone Star State has executed 538 people — more than the next top six states combined. But 2016 saw a precipitous drop in the number of executions in the state. Thanks in part to new judicial scrutiny of death sentences, just seven Texans were executed this year, the fewest since 1996.

For the first time since 2001, Texas is not the most execution-happy state in the country — that grisly title belongs to Georgia, which executed nine people. This is the first year since 1984 that Texas didn't execute a single black person. And juries sentenced just three new Texas defendants to death for the second year in a row. The data was highlighted in a report released Thursday by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty [available here]....

One way to understand the decline is by looking at the people on death row who weren't executed. The Court of Criminal Appeals — the highest criminal court in the state — granted stays of execution to seven people who were scheduled to die this year, a higher number than normal: From 2012 through 2014, the court only granted three stays, according to the coalition. "The rising number of stays suggests that the Court of Criminal Appeals is registering the concerns about the fairness and accuracy of our state's capital punishment system," Kathryn Kase, executive director of the nonprofit criminal justice legal group Texas Defender Service, told me in an email. "These stays give the court opportunities to remedy the failures of past death penalty practices for which Texas has been roundly criticized."

In several of the cases where inmates received stays, the court leaned on a 2013 state law that gives inmates whose convictions were based on discredited science the opportunity for a new trial. Reformers say the law is among the most progressive in the country at fighting junk science in the courtroom.... Gregory Gardner, an attorney who represented two Texas death row defendants who received stays of execution this year — and a third client who was executed — believes the junk science law to be a powerful tool for defendants. "It shows how many convictions in the late 90s and the turn of the century were based on this crappy science that's been discredited," he said. "It's scary because we know people in Texas have been executed because of it in the past."

Of course, just because executions are down doesn't mean the ones taking place aren't still controversial. According to the anti-death penalty coalition's report, almost half of the people executed in the state in the last two years had a significant mental impairment. Similarly, the fact that Texas didn't execute any black people this year doesn't mean the death penalty is suddenly race-blind. All three of the Texas defendants sentenced to death in 2016 were black, and 80 percent of new death sentences in the state over the last five years have been imposed on people of color. Research has also consistently shown that murders of white victims are more likely to result in a death sentence than murders of minority victims....

And it's possible that Texas's slump in executions won't last. The state has already scheduled nine executions in the first six months of 2017. Even so, the reduction in new death sentences may augur a future where seven executions a year isn't celebrated as a noteworthy dip, but questioned as a macabre reality. "The courts are finally being more careful with these cases," Gardner told me. "We've seen the number of death sentences plummet, and I think that trend will continue."

December 16, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Why Congress May Bring Criminal Justice Reform Back to Life"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new Marshall Project analysis by Bill Keller, which carries the subheadline " Four reasons a bipartisan bill has a better chance than you think." Here are excerpts:

It’s no wonder criminal-justice reformers woke up from Election Day 2016 with a sense of existential gloom. Given candidate Donald J. Trump’s law-and-order bluster, his dystopian portrayal of rising crime and an ostensible war on the police, and a posse of advisers who think the main problem with incarceration is that we don’t do enough of it, the idea that justice reformers have anything to look forward to is at best counterintuitive.

It is reasonable to expect that President Trump and his choice for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, will dismantle at least some of what their predecessors leave behind. Based on what they have said, the Trump-Sessions Justice Department may well roll back federal oversight of troubled police forces, escalate the war on drugs, enlarge the share of the corrections business that goes to private companies, accelerate deportations of undocumented immigrants and use the threat of financial sanctions to challenge so-called sanctuary cities....

But those inclined to look for silver linings may find one on Capitol Hill.... I can think of four reasons the prospects of federal reform are actually better in 2017.

First, it is not an election year. Nothing makes members of Congress squirm like the specter of attack ads portraying them as coddlers of criminals. There is reason to think those Willie Horton-style gotchas have lost some of their potency, but the prospect tends to make members of Congress more risk-averse in even-numbered years. And the lobbying alliance in favor of reform has grown and diversified and offers supportive candidates some political cover. It now includes significant numbers of police executives and prosecutors, who say our tendency to over-criminalize and over-punish wastes money and human potential without making us safer.

Second, President Obama will be gone. Some of the resistance to this year’s sentencing bill was a reluctance to give the president a parting victory. His heartfelt embrace of criminal-justice reform in the final years of his presidency was — through no fault of his own — the kiss of death in a hostile Congress.

Third, at least one of the hard-core Senate opponents of sentencing reform will no longer be there. That would be Jeff Sessions, the Republican senator from Alabama. True, as attorney general he will be in a position to encourage a presidential veto. But he will not be joining the obstructionists who this year never let a bill come to a vote at all. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley, said in October that if his party leadership had brought the bill to the floor, it would have garnered 65 to 70 votes — enough to override a veto.

And fourth, the Republican leadership will be looking very hard for bipartisan successes to demonstrate that Washington is no longer in a state of ideological paralysis. On the short list of things Congress could do to reassure voters that government is back in business, criminal justice ranks near the top. The subject attracts libertarians who have come to see the machinery of criminal justice as another example of overbearing government, conservative Christians who see the criminal justice morass as dehumanizing, fiscal conservatives who have noticed that incarceration is expensive, and policy wonks who see a “corrections” system that largely fails to correct.

December 16, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Circuit judges Diane Sykes and William Pryor reportedly on top of Prez-Elect's SCOTUS short-list

This new CNN article reports that we may not be getting a SCOTUS nominee from Prez-Elect Donald Trump anytime soon and that the current front-runners are both federal circuit judges. Here are the details:

It will be some time before Donald Trump announces a nominee to fill the vacancy left by Antonin Scalia, according to transition insiders.

But two names continue to emerge to the top of the president elect's list of potential Supreme Court justices. Judges Diane Sykes and William Pryor are among the top contenders, according to multiple sources

The Supreme Court vacancy is "actively being discussed," but there is no timetable at the moment, Trump transition aide Jason Miller told reporters Thursday. "The President-elect, he had previously put out a list of 20 very qualified individuals from which he would select. I know that they have continued to narrow that list down," Miller said. "He himself has said that's probably a shorter list of 5 or 6 folks that are near the top of that, that's being narrowed down to. And again, but this is another one where it's an absolute utmost priority, so we need to make sure we get this one right."

Trump first mentioned Sykes and Pryor after a February debate -- and the two conservatives are among the only ones Trump has mentioned by name. However, aides acknowledge that given the size of the list and Trump's previous approach to filling vacancies, things are subject to change.

Sykes, 58, sits on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Marquette University School of Law grad voted to uphold Wisconsin's voter ID law and also sided with businesses in challenging the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate. While some conservatives view Sykes favorably, others expressed concern given her age.

Pryor, a staunch conservative, called Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision making abortion legal, the "worst abomination in the history of constitutional law." The 54-year-old Tulane Law University grad sits on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

As regular readers should know, Judge Pryor would be an especially interesting pick for sentencing fans because of his recent and continuing service as a member of the US Sentencing Commission. Indeed, if Judge Pryor were to get the nomination, an interesting issue would arise concerning his continued service as a member of the USSC. I do not think there are any major legal or ethical problems with a sitting SCOTUS Justice also being an active member of the USSC, but I suspect others might believe it more appropriate for Judge Pryor to resign his position on the Commission if elevated to SCOTUS.

A few prior related Trumpian SCOTUS posts:

December 16, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Post-Hurst hydra chews up all death sentences in Delaware via new retroactivity ruling

6a00d83451574769e201b8d1a7e505970c-320wiRegularly readers know I use the term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe the aftermath litigation in various courts in various states as judges sort ought what Supreme Court ruling in Hurst v. Florida must mean for past, present and future capital cases. Today the post-Hurst hydra took another big bite out the the death penalty in the First State as reported in this AP article:

A Delaware Supreme Court ruling earlier this year declaring the state's death penalty law unconstitutional is retroactive, meaning an inmate convicted of killing a police officer must be resentenced to life in prison, the justices said in a follow-up decision Thursday.

The ruling came in an appeal by Derrick Powell, who was convicted of killing Georgetown police Officer Chad Spicer in 2009, but it likely means that 11 other former death-row inmates also will be spared from execution.

In August, a majority of the justices said Delaware's death penalty law was unconstitutional because it allowed judges too much discretion in sentencing and did not require that a jury find unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant deserves execution.

That ruling came after the U.S. Supreme Court said Florida's death sentencing law, which also gave judges the final say, was unconstitutional. Alabama is the only other state that allows judges to override jury decisions on whether an offender should get life in prison or the death penalty.

In its 15-page decision Thursday, the Delaware court said its August ruling invalidating the state's death penalty law was a "watershed procedural ruling" that must be applied retroactively.

The full opinion in Powell v. Delaware is available at this link.

December 15, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Interesting review of impact of Prop 47 on drug cases and offenders in California

Prop-47-jpgThis lengthy local article takes a remarkable and effective deep dive into the impact and import of California's Prop 47 two years after its passage. The piece carries a lengthy headline that serves as a kind of summary: "Two years after Prop 47, addicts walk free with nowhere to go: In 2014, California Voters Freed About 13,500 Low-Level Offenders From Crowded Prisons and Jails. But Many Ex-inmates Have Traded Incarceration for a Cycle of Homelessness, Drug Abuse and Petty Crime." Here are excerpts:

Two years after it was approved by California voters, Prop 47 has scaled back mass incarceration of drug addicts, but successful reform is woefully incomplete.  Proponents celebrate how the law freed at least 13,500 inmates like Lopez from harsh sentences in crowded prisons and jails, but Prop 47 has done little to help these people restart their lives. Instead, the unprecedented release of inmates has exposed the limits of California’s neglected social service programs: Thousands of addicts and mentally ill people have traded a life behind bars for a churning cycle of homelessness, substance abuse and petty crime.

Prop 47 earmarked millions saved in prison costs for inmate rehabilitation, but not a penny has been spent. Meanwhile, the state’s shortage of treatment programs is more glaring than ever. Expanding rehab would be expensive, but it is still a cheaper, more effective and more humane strategy for addressing addiction than locking drug abusers in prison.

"The problem is, if you don’t actually do anything to change conditions of their lives, they’re going to be back on the streets anyway," said Elliot Currie, a University of California, Irvine criminologist.  "What’s to prevent them from going back to the same old ways when they get out? The answer is nothing."

This alarming lack of support services is one key finding in a landmark investigation by USA TODAY Network-California journalists who spent seven months analyzing the impacts of Prop 47, a sweeping criminal justice reform law that has been debated and demonized but rarely understood. To uncover the ramifications of the law, reporters from four publications — The Desert Sun, The Ventura County Star, The Record Searchlight and The Salinas Californian — filed 65 records requests, scrutinized thousands of pages of public documents and performed over 50 interviews with policymakers, academics, police, district attorneys, public defenders, drug addicts and former felons. Among our findings:

  • California police have dramatically deprioritized drug busts in the wake of Prop 47, arresting and citing about 22,000 fewer people in 2015, a 9.5 percent decrease in the first year since the possession of meth, heroin and cocaine was downgraded to a misdemeanor.

  • Nearly 200,000 felony convictions have been retroactively erased by Prop 47 as of September, according to a first-ever analysis.  Government agencies were not required to track how many convictions were reduced, so journalists gathered public records from 21 counties to calculate a statewide estimate.  Many former felons will be slow to take advantage of their restored rights because they are unaware their convictions have been downgraded.

  • For those who are aware, however, Prop 47 offers an unparalleled chance for better jobs.  Tens of thousands of people no longer have to report felony convictions on job applications, making them drastically more employable than they’ve been in years or decades.

Michael Romano, a Stanford law expert who helped write Prop 47, stressed in a recent interview the law has been "amazingly successful" in its primary goal, which was always to get low-level drug offenders out of California’s crowded, damaging prison system.  But tackling drug addiction and mental illness, which plague so many who were released under the law, is a task that will require investing hundreds of millions of dollars in community treatment programs across the state.   "It is incumbent on local governments to engage this problem," Romano said. "Prop 47 was not a cure-all. It’s not a panacea.  It is one piece in an extraordinarily complicated puzzle — perhaps the most complicated puzzle in our communities."

December 15, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Making the case for AG-nominee Jeff Sessions as an advocate for crime victims

Paul Cassell and Steven Twist have this notable new FoxNews commentary run under the headlined "Why Jeff Sessions, a conservative attorney general, would be best for crime victims." Here are excerpts:

As two crime victims’ rights advocates and law professors, we welcome the announcement that President-elect Trump will nominate Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions to be the next attorney general of the United States.  Senator Sessions has a long and robust record of fighting for justice, and more specifically for enforceable victims’ rights.  If confirmed by the Senate, he will undoubtedly be a powerful voice for crime victims as the chief law enforcement officer of the United States.

Our enthusiasm about Senator Sessions stems from the fact that he was an early supporter of amending the U.S. Constitution to protect rights for crime victims.  This idea was first proposed by a Task Force assembled by President Ronald Reagan and later endorsed by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  The Victims’ Rights Amendment was first introduced in Congress in 1996 by Senators Dianne Feinstein and Jon Kyl.  Senator Sessions strongly advocated for the amendment and will be the country’s first Attorney General to cast votes for amending the Constitution to give rights to crime victims....

The Senator’s strong bipartisan record on behalf of crime victims does not end there.  Senator Sessions crossed the aisle to work with Senator Feinstein to preserve restitution rights for crime victims and to provide stronger protections for victims of child abuse.  He joined with the late-Senator Ted Kennedy to reduce sexual assaults in prison. He worked with Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin to address sentencing disparities in federal drug laws and increase penalties for the most serious drug traffickers.  And in many other ways, he fought against weakening the federal criminal laws whenever they posed an undue risk of creating even more victims of crime.

More impressive still is his courage as a prosecutor to take up the cause of pursuing justice for crime victims through the prosecution of their attackers. He stood against headwinds of the Old South to prosecute KKK criminals in Alabama. He prosecuted Klansman Henry Francis Hays, son of Alabama Klan leader Bennie Hays, for abducting and killing Michael Donald, a black teenager.

As a prosecutor, Senator Sessions established a record as aggressive, but fair. He remained focused on the ethical duty to do justice. We are excited about the prospect of an attorney general who sees the need for expanding rights and services for crime victims, and who has demonstrated the heart, the courage, and the leadership to head a Department of Justice that will ensure justice is pursued for all, including and especially for the crime victim.

December 14, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)