Thursday, October 05, 2017

AG Sessions announces new initiatives to address violent crime

As explained in this press release, the Attorney General today announced, as the title of the release puts it, the "Reinvigoration of Project Safe Neighborhoods and Other Actions to Reduce Rising Tide of Violent Crime." Here is the text of the press release:

Today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced several Department of Justice actions to reduce the rising tide of violent crime in America. Foremost of those actions is the reinvigoration of Project Safe Neighborhoods, a program that has been historically successful in bringing together all levels of law enforcement to reduce violent crime and make our neighborhoods safer for everyone.

In announcing this recommitment to Project Safe Neighborhoods, the Attorney General issued a memo directing United States Attorneys to implement an enhanced violent crime reduction program that incorporates the lessons learned since Project Safe Neighborhoods launched in 2001.

In a statement on the program, the Attorney General said: "According to the FBI, the violent crime rate has risen by nearly seven percent over the past two years, and the homicide rate has risen by more than 20 percent. We cannot be complacent or hope that this is just an anomaly: we have a duty to take action.

“Fortunately, we have a President who understands that and has directed his administration to reduce crime. The Department of Justice today announces the foundation of our plan to reduce crime: prioritizing Project Safe Neighborhoods, a program that has been proven to work.

“Let me be clear – Project Safe Neighborhoods is not just one policy idea among many. This is the centerpiece of our crime reduction strategy.

“Taking what we have learned since the program began in 2001, we have updated it and enhanced it, emphasizing the role of our U.S. Attorneys, the promise of new technologies, and above all, partnership with local communities. With these changes, I believe that this program will be more effective than ever and help us fulfill our mission to make America safer."

The Attorney General also announced the following Department of Justice initiatives to help reduce violent crime:

-Additional Assistant United States Attorney Positions to Focus on Violent Crime – The Department is allocating 40 prosecutors to approximately 20 United States Attorney’s Offices to focus on violent crime reduction.

-More Cops on the Streets (COPS Hiring Grants) – As part of our continuing commitment to crime prevention efforts, increased community policing, and the preservation of vital law enforcement jobs, the Department will be awarding approximately $98 million in FY 2017 COPS Hiring Grants to state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies.

-Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force’s (OCDETF) National Gang Strategic Initiative – The National Gang Strategic Initiative promotes creative enforcement strategies and best practices that will assist in developing investigations of violent criminal groups and gangs into enterprise-level OCDETF prosecutions. Under this initiative, OCDETF provides “seed money” to locally-focused gang investigations, giving state, local, and tribal investigators and prosecutors the resources and tools needed to identify connections between lower-level gangs and national-level drug trafficking organizations.

-Critical Training and Technical Assistance to State and Local Partners – The Department has a vast array of training and technical assistance resources available to state, local and tribal law enforcement, victims groups, and others. To ensure that agencies in need of assistance are able to find the training and materials they need, OJP will make available a Violence Reduction Response Center to serve as a “hot line” to connect people to these resources.

-Crime Gun Intelligence Centers (CGIC) – The Department has provided grant funding to support a comprehensive approach to identifying the most violent offenders in a jurisdiction, using new technologies such as gunshot detection systems combined with gun crime intelligence from NIBIN, eTrace, and investigative efforts. These FY 2017 grants were awarded to Phoenix, AZ, and Kansas City, MO.

-Expand ATF’s NIBIN Urgent Trace Program – The Department will expand ATF’s NIBIN Urgent Trace Program nationwide by the end of the year. Through this program, any firearm submitted for tracing that is associated with a NIBIN “hit” (which means it can be linked to a shooting incident) will be designated an “urgent” trace and the requestor will get information back about the firearm’s first retail purchaser within 24 hours, instead of five to six business days.

October 5, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Gorsuch Joins Court’s Liberals Over Protections for Criminal Defendants"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Wall Street Journal article which is primarily focused on the Supreme Court oral argument yesterday in Class v. US.  Because Class is a quirky case dealing with appeal rights and because no formal opinions have been issued this Term for Justice Gorsuch to join (and because Justice Gorsuch also voted on Wednesday to vacate an injunction protecting from execution a death row defendant in Alabama), I think this WSJ headline is a bit overblown and perhaps even misleading.  But I still consider the headline revealing, as is its account of SCOTUS argument which prompted it.  Here are excerpts:

Justice Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s appointee to the Supreme Court, joined liberal colleagues Wednesday in sharply questioning government arguments that criminal defendants forfeit all rights to appeal after entering a plea bargain.

Since his April appointment, Justice Gorsuch’s remarks and votes nearly always have placed him on the court’s right. This week’s arguments suggested, however, that like his late predecessor, Justice Antonin Scalia, Justice Gorsuch’s legal philosophy sometimes may lead him to split with fellow conservatives and back procedural protections for criminal defendants.

Wednesday’s case involved Ronald Class, a High Shoals, N.C., retiree who in May 2013 illegally parked his Jeep Wrangler in a U.S. Capitol lot. Police found the vehicle contained several loaded weapons, including a 9mm Ruger pistol, a .44-caliber Taurus pistol and a .44- caliber Henry rifle. Although he had a North Carolina concealed weapons permit, Mr. Class was arrested under a federal law prohibiting guns on the Capitol grounds.

According to the government’s brief, Mr. Class told Federal Bureau of Investigation agents that “he was a ‘Constitutional Bounty Hunter ’ and a ‘Private Attorney General’ who traveled the nation with guns and other weapons to enforce federal criminal law against judges whom he believed had acted unlawfully.” Mr. Class later reached a plea bargain with prosecutors and was sentenced to 24 days’ imprisonment and a year of supervised release. Although plea bargains typically restrict appeals from defendants, Mr. Class then sought to have his conviction overturned on several grounds, including that he had a Second Amendment right to take his guns to the Capitol.

A federal appeals court dismissed the appeal in an unsigned order, noting that Mr. Class had told the trial judge he understood the plea bargain required him to forgo all but a few technical forms of appeal. But on Wednesday, an attorney for Mr. Class said that Supreme Court precedents established that defendants retained the right to raise constitutional claims even after pleading guilty.

A Justice Department attorney, Eric Feigin, argued that the government was entitled to assume Mr. Class had waived all appeals. “There’s a serious information imbalance here. Only the defendant knows what kinds of claims he might want to bring after a guilty plea and in what respects he doesn’t intend his guilty plea to be final,” he told the court.

Justice Gorsuch appeared incredulous. “Mr. Feigin, is this information asymmetry problem a suggestion that the government lacks sufficient bargaining power in the plea bargaining process?” he asked. “No, your honor,” Mr. Feigin said.

Federal and state prosecutors win more than 90% of criminal cases without persuading a jury; defendants nearly always agree to plead guilty under threat of harsher punishment should they be convicted after opting for a trial.

Picking up on a question by Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Gorsuch suggested that a defendant who pleads guilty admits the factual allegations in an indictment — but not that those actions necessarily are illegal. “You’re admitting to what’s in the indictment. Isn’t that maybe the most natural and historically consistent understanding of what a guilty plea is?” Justice Gorsuch said.

Justice Gorsuch’s remarks Wednesday followed similar pro-defendant positions he took Monday. That case involved a Filipino with permanent U.S. residency who had been convicted of burglary and who argued that the criteria Congress adopted authorizing deportation of immigrants for committing violent crimes were unconstitutionally vague.

A few prior related posts:

October 5, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Via Fox News, Senators Grassley, Durbin, Lee and Whitehouse start a renewed pitch for their Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act

This new Fox News commentary, headlined "Bipartisan criminal justice reform is how Congress is supposed to work — the time is now to get it done," carries this notable byline: "Sen. Chuck Grassley, Sen. Dick Durbin, Sen. Mike Lee, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse." And here is some of what these four Senators have to say:

In 2015, a diverse group of lawmakers set out to rethink our approach to federal prison sentences. Our goal: improve public safety and the rule of law by ensuring that penalties match their crime. Many months of thoughtful deliberation yielded a product that earned broad bipartisan support in Congress and from organizations around the country and across the political spectrum. And though the political winds in Washington have shifted, that broad support for comprehensive sentencing reform remains strong.

This week, we are reintroducing the “Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act” as we continue to build on the most sweeping criminal justice reform effort in a generation.

Crafted by Republican and Democratic leaders, this legislation aims to safely and sensibly reduce excessive sentences. It recalibrates prison sentences for certain drug offenders and gives judges greater sentencing flexibility while keeping stiff penalties in place for violent criminals. The bill preserves important law enforcement tools to take down large criminal organizations while expanding outlets to shield low-level nonviolent offenders from lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences. It eliminates mandatory life sentences for three-strike drug offenders and gives judges authority to retroactively apply the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses involving crack and powder cocaine.  The bill also includes “back end” reforms to curb recidivism by helping inmates successfully re-enter society.

We believe this is the right mix of reforms to give nonviolent offenders who’ve done significant time for their crime a second chance to rejoin their families and contribute to our communities while also reducing taxpayer costs and empowering law enforcement to keep dangerous criminals off our streets.  Our bipartisan work represents hard-fought consensus to a long-established problem. In recent years a unique and growing chorus of voices from across the political spectrum prompted a number of proposals in Congress to reform sentencing laws.  However, until now, none garnered enough support to move forward. It became clear that if we wanted to truly make progress on this issue, we would have to come together, check our differences at the door, and focus on areas where we could reach agreement....

We are encouraged by engagement from the White House on this comprehensive criminal justice reform effort. Last Congress, our bill was supported by hundreds of organizations from a variety of industries and political perspectives, including the NAACP and the Charles Koch Institute. It was also endorsed by a broad range of faith-based organizations and law enforcement leaders. We continue to welcome input from stakeholders and our colleagues in government and the law enforcement community as we make additional improvements. This bill represents the way Congress is supposed to work, and is well-positioned to be one of the most significant bipartisan achievements of the 115th Congress. It also represents an important step in our nation’s ongoing quest for justice.

Our founders declared that Americans have the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Our criminal justice system needs to reflect these values. That means seeking justice for both the victim and the accused.  Our colleagues in Congress supporting these reforms may not always see eye to eye on every proposal, but we are committed to upholding America’s promise of justice for all.

UPDATE: I now see that the full text of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 — all 168 pages! — is available at this link.

October 4, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

SCOTUS vacates by 6-3 vote lower federal court injunction which would have blocked planned Alabama execution

As reported in this local article, the "U.S. Supreme Court today cleared the way for Alabama's planned execution Thursday of inmate Jeffery Lynn Borden for the Christmas Eve 1993 shooting deaths of his estranged wife and her father in Gardendale." Here is more:

The U.S. Supreme Court issued an order granting the request of the Alabama Attorney General's Office to vacate the injunction blocking the execution that had been issued by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals last week.  The Attorney General's Office had appealed the 11th Circuit's order to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.  In today's order from the U.S. Supreme Court three justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonja Sotomayor — said they would have denied the Attorney General's request and kept the injunction blocking the execution in place.

The execution is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore.

Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger has this post noting that the issue that led to the injunction concerned efforts by the condemned to contest lethal injection methods based on Alabama use of midazolam in its execution protocol.   Over at SCOTUSblog, Amy Howe has this post with a few additional particulars.

October 4, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

After recent SCOTUS win, Duane Buck gets plea deal to avoid any possible return to death row

As reported in this local article, headlined "Condemned inmate Duane Buck escapes death penalty," a Texas murderer consolidated a recent Supreme Court victory assailing his death sentence with a plea deal that ensure he will not return to death row. Here are the details from the start of the article:

Duane Buck — wearing handcuffs, leg irons and the yellow jail uniform of a high-profile inmate — doubled over in his courtroom chair and sobbed. "I'm sorry," he said.

It was the last act of a decades-long battle to execute the 54-year-old convicted killer for a double murder, ending not with lethal injection but a plea deal in a Harris County court.

Buck's courthouse deal was the third Harris County death penalty case stemming from a successful appeal resolved with a plea bargain instead of a retrial under District Attorney Kim Ogg. Buck, whose case went to the U.S. Supreme Court and was sent back to Houston for a retrial because of concerns about racist testimony in his 1997 trial, escaped death row by admitting guilt in the shooting rampage that killed two and injured two others.

The family of Buck's victims, however, were having none of his contrition. "The boy is a cold-blooded murderer," Accie Smith told reporters after the brief hearing. "He is not a victim of racism. He's a cold-blood, calculating murderer."

Smith is one of the older sisters of Debra Gardner, Buck's girlfriend, whom he killed along with her friend Kenneth Butler. After a night of drugs, alcohol and arguing with Gardner in July 1995, Buck broke into her home and shot four people. The victims included his sister, Phyliss Taylor, and his friend Harold Ebenezer, who both survived.

After Tuesday's plea, the slain woman's daughter recounted how she hung from Buck's back as a 13-year-old and tried to keep him from attacking her mother. "You took my mom," said Shenell Gardner. "We both get to live with this. I know what I feel; you feel as well."

The battle to execute Buck began when he was sentenced to die for the slaying of his girlfriend and Butler. After 20 years on death row and several appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year granted Buck a new sentencing hearing because of testimony from an expert who told jurors that Buck was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is black.

Gardner's family members, who are black, said they felt betrayed by the NAACP and black ministers who took up Buck's cause. "They threw us under the bus. What happened today is a travesty and it's a disgrace," Smith, the victim's sister, said. "I will never understand why his life is more important than her life."

On Tuesday, Ogg said she did not believe prosecutors could secure the death penalty again. The defense team would have shown that for 22 years, Buck has been a model prisoner, so he is unlikely to be a future danger. Also, his sister, whom he shot, has argued for leniency in his case.

Instead of going to trial, Ogg offered Buck the opportunity to admit guilt to two additional counts of attempted murder, hoping to stack the deck when the parole board reviews Buck's case in 2035. "A Harris County jury would likely not return a death penalty conviction today in a case that's forever been tainted by the specter of race," she said. The top prosecutor said she hopes the resolution of Buck's case will mark the end of race being used against defendants in capital cases. "Race is never evidence," Ogg said.

The dilemma with Buck getting a life sentence, by either a jury trial or a plea deal, is that he is sentenced according to the law at the time of the crime. Ogg said it was important to keep Buck behind bars for the rest of his life. A sentence of "life without parole" is not an option, even if both sides agreed to it, because that punishment did not exist in 1995.

Prior related posts on SCOTUS ruling:

October 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Interesting comments from the new Justice during reargument of vagueness issues in Sessions v. Dimaya

The first week of oral argument in front of the Supreme Court in the 2017 Term includes reargument in two immigration cases, Sessions v. Dimaya and Jennings v. Rodriguez, that raise constitutional question that could have a range of implications for a range of criminal justice issue.  Dimaya is a follow-up on the (new?) doctrines the Supreme Court started developing in Johnson v. US finding a portion of the Armed Career Criminal Act void for vagueness, and Rodriguez involves broad issues of detention length and due process.

Dimaya was argued yesterday, and I have not yet had a chance to read this full argument transcript closely.  But a quick scan of the transcript with a focus on what the new Justice, Neil Gorsuch, had to say revealed that he is already showing a commitment to textualism and seems quite engaged with interesting issues at the intersection of civil and criminal sanctions.  For example, consider this passage at the start of a question a series of questions for the government's lawyer:

First, getting back to the standard of review and the distinction between criminal and civil, this Court seems to have drawn that line based on the severity of the consequences that follow to the individual, but that seems to me a tough line here to draw because I can easily imagine a misdemeanant who may be convicted of a crime for which the sentence is six months in jail or a $100 fine, and he wouldn't trade places in the world for someone who is deported -- deported from this country pursuant to a civil order or perhaps the subject of a civil forfeiture requirement and loses his home.

So how sound is that line that we've drawn in the past, especially when the civil/criminal divide itself is now a seven-part balancing test, not exclusive, so there may be more than seven factors as I understand it.  And I look at the text of the Constitution, always a good place to start, and the Due Process Clause speaks of the loss of life, liberty, or property.  It doesn't draw a civil/criminal line, and yet, elsewhere, even in the Fifth Amendment, I do see that line drawn, the right to self-incrimination, for example. So help me out with that.

Time will tell how this line of inquiry might find expression in opinions of Justice Gorsuch or other justices in the months ahead. Notably, elsewhere in the transcript, it appears the advocates and other Justices follow-up on points made by Justice Gorsuch in ways that provide further proof that the addition of a single new Justice does serve in some ways to change the entire Court.

UPDATE:  Not very long after this post went up, Kevin Johnson posted at SCOTUSblog this analysis of the Dimaya oral argument under the title "Faithful to Scalia, Gorsuch may be deciding vote for immigrant." Here is his final paragraph:

In sum, the oral argument suggests that Dimaya has a fair chance of prevailing in the Supreme Court.  Gorsuch, the possible deciding vote in the case, seemed willing to apply Scalia’s opinion in Johnson to Dimaya’s case -- maybe even more faithfully than Scalia himself would have done.  And Gorsuch had ready responses to line-drawing and other problems that might arise if the vagueness doctrine were held to invalidate the immigration statute’s residual clause.

October 3, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Five notable GOP Senators introduce Mens Rea Reform Act of 2017

Download (3)As reported in this press release, yesterday "Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Mike Lee (R-UT), Ted Cruz (R-TX), David Perdue (R-GA), and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced legislation to strengthen criminal intent protections in federal law."  Here is more from the press release:

Their bill, the Mens Rea Reform Act of 2017, would set a default intent standard for all criminal laws and regulations that lack such a standard.  This legislation would ensure that courts and creative prosecutors do not take the absence of a criminal intent standard to mean that the government can obtain a conviction without any proof a guilty mind....

“Prosecutors should have to show a suspect had a guilty mind, not just that they committed an illegal act, before an American is put behind bars,” Sen. Lee said. “Unfortunately our federal laws contain far too many provisions that do not require prosecutors to prove a defendant intended to commit a crime.  The result is criminal justice system that over penalizes innocent acts which only undermines the rule of law."

“I’m proud to join Sen. Hatch in addressing one of the biggest flaws in our modern criminal justice system,”Sen. Cruz said. “Currently, the federal government can send men and women to prison without demonstrating criminal intent.  As Congress works to address criminal justice reform, the Mens Rea Reform Act needs to be enacted to protect the rights of all Americans.”

The press release includes "Statements of Support" from John Malcolm of the Heritage Foundation, Norman Reimer of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and David Patton of the Federal Defenders of New York.   And in conjunction with this bill introduction, Senator Hatch Senator Hatch yesterday delivered this speech on the Senate floor about the need for mens rea reform.  Here are excerpts from that speech:

Like many of my colleagues, I believe Congress has criminalized far too much conduct and has mandated overly harsh penalties for too many crimes. A number of my colleagues have sought to address these problems by cutting prison sentences, altering statutory minimums, or releasing prisoners earlier for good behavior. But as we seek to reform the criminal justice system, we must be careful not to overlook one of the major roots of the problem: the lack of adequate criminal intent requirements in federal criminal statutes....

Unfortunately, many of our current criminal laws and regulations contain inadequate mens rea requirements — and some contain no mens rea requirement at all. This leaves individuals vulnerable to prosecution for conduct they believed to be lawful.

In recent years, as Congress and federal agencies have criminalized more behavior, they have often been vague about mens rea requirements, or even silent about mens rea altogether. In a 2014 Tennessee Law Review article, Michael Cottone investigated how many federal criminal statutes there are in the US code. Mr. Cottone explained that “tellingly, no exact count of the number of federal statutes that impose criminal sanctions has ever been given.” Most scholars agree there are approximately 5,000 federal statutes that impose criminal sanctions. But those criminal statutes do not include the nearly 300,000 federal regulations that also carry criminal penalties.

With so many criminal laws on the books, it’s far too easy for Americans to break federal laws unwittingly, with no understanding whatsoever that their behavior is illegal. For example, did you know it’s a federal crime to write a check for an amount less than $1 dollar? Or that it’s a federal crime to allow a pet to make a noise that frightens wildlife on federal land? Even more incredibly, did you know it’s a federal crime to keep a pet on a leash that exceeds six feet in length on federal land?

Mr. President, these are only a few examples of unlawful activities that reasonable people could not reasonably be expected to know. What’s worse, many of these unlawful activities are punishable by time in prison. This is not only ridiculous; it’s immoral. The lack of adequate mens rea requirements in our federal criminal code subjects innocent people to unjustified punishment....

Our bill sets a default intent requirement of willfulness for all federal criminal offenses that lack an intent requirement. Additionally, the bill defines willfulness to mean that the person acted with knowledge that his or her conduct was unlawful. Naturally, our bill does not apply to any offenses that Congress clearly intended to be strict liability offenses. Our proposal has garnered widespread support from a variety of organizations, including the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Koch Industries, the Federal Defenders, the US Chamber of Commerce, the Federal Defenders, and the Heritage Foundation, just to name a few. Importantly, our bill does not remove any crimes from the books, nor does it override any existing mens rea standards written in statute. Moreover, it does not limit Congress’s authority to create new criminal offenses—including strict liability offenses.

Mr. President, mens rea really is a simple issue. Individuals should not be threatened with prison time for accidently committing a crime or for engaging in an activity they did not know was wrong. If Congress wants to criminalize an activity, and does not want to include any sort of criminal intent requirement, Congress should have to specify in statute that it is creating a strict liability offense.

I believe this simple legislative solution will go a long way in reducing harsh sentences for morally innocent offenders. It will also push back against the overcriminalization of innocent behavior. As I’ve said many times, any consideration of criminal justice reform or sentencing reform is incomplete without reforms to mens rea requirements.

I cannot yet find the full text of the Mens Rea Reform Act of 2017 on-line, but I suspect it is very similar if not identical to the previously introduced Mens Rea Reform Act of 2015 available here.  It does not seem that Senator Hatch was a cosponsor of the 2015 version of this bill, so I think it is a very good sign that Senator Hatch is now apparently leading the charge for this reform (and doing so by stressing that he believes Congress has "mandated overly harsh penalties for too many crimes").

As long-time readers recall (and as detailed in some prior posts below), there is reason to believe that misguided opposition to this kind of mens rea reform by the Obama Administration and some Democrats contributed to the failure of bipartisan sentencing reforms to make it through Congress.  I am hopeful (but not optimistic) that the current Administration is more supportive of this kind of mens rea reform; I am also hopeful that this bill might be linked to broader sentencing reform efforts and that both might get moving forward in the legislative process in the coming weeks and months.

Some recent and older related posts:

October 3, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"What’s Behind the Decline in the Death Penalty?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Marshall Project Q&A with Prof Brandon Garrett inspired by his new book, "End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice."  Here is how the Q&A gets set up, along with the concluding Qs and As:

There are four men left on death row in Virginia, and only 31 people were sentenced to death in the entire U.S. last year, compared with more than 300 per year in the mid-1990s. The numbers are stark, but if you ask the experts — lawyers, scholars, activists, judges — why the death penalty has begun to fade in the U.S., you get all sorts of answers, many of them frustratingly vague.

The crime rate dropped, so there have been fewer murders to punish. A few states abolished the punishment outright. The cost of death penalty cases went up, and prosecutors grew worried about their budgets. States passed laws making life without parole an option for certain aggravated murders, meaning there was a sufficiently harsh alternative to the death penalty. All those DNA exonerations raised the specter of an innocent person being killed. In elections for district attorney, voters in Houston and Philadelphia replaced death-penalty champions with skeptics.

University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett’s new book, “End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice,” represents a major new effort to untangle these factors. He also analyzes the decline for lessons that might be applied to the criminal justice system as a whole. We discussed his findings by email....

If the crime rate goes back up, do you think there will be more death sentences, or have these standards of better lawyering changed the game enough to survive big political shifts?  What happens if there is a return to the murder rates of the 1980s?

The American death penalty has always been more about political posturing than a genuine attempt to make the punishment fit the crime. Meanwhile, crime continues to decline.  If murder rate trends do completely reverse, then there could be pressure to take more tough-on-crime approaches.  But I think people have learned the lesson the hard way that you can’t death-sentence or imprison your way out of crime.  We now know when jurors hear the whole story, even in death penalty cases, they are reluctant to impose death sentences.  Even if more prosecutors suddenly started seeking the death penalty, the results would likely not be good for them.

In your book, there is a tension about the future: On the one hand, the decline of death sentences has shown how “mercy” among jurors can triumph given the right conditions; on the other hand, the decline has led to a massive expansion of life-without-parole sentences, which Pope Francis has called "hidden death sentences."  How do you resolve that tension?  What do you think opponents of long sentences should do going forward to bring more mercy into the system?

Only about 2,800 prisoners sit on death row today, but over 50,000 prisoners are serving life without parole, and about 200,000 prisoners have life sentences, according to a Sentencing Project report.  I tell the story in my book of Joseph Sledge, who received two life sentences, and since he did not get a death sentence, he was not entitled to receive lawyers from the state once his appeals ran out.  For decades, he filed habeas petitions himself and wrote letters.  After almost 40 years in prison in North Carolina, a letter to an innocence project led to DNA tests that proved his innocence.

We need to do something about the explosion of these life sentences in America.  We have replaced the death penalty with the “other death penalty.”  Even juveniles can still get life-without-parole sentences, although the Supreme Court has said it cannot be mandatory.  To imprison people, sometimes very young people, with no hope of release or redemption is inhumane.

October 3, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, October 02, 2017

Anyone have any wise insights after latest and worst US mass shooting?

I am soon to go off-line to prepare and then teach my 1L Criminal Law class in which we are starting an in-depth discussion of homicide laws.  In the wake of horrific events in Las Vegas, which according to the latest reports, involved a gunman's murder of "at least 58 people" and hundreds more injured, I am eager to say something wise to my students before we get started with our regular programming.  But I am not sure I have much wisdom on this front. 

As some long-time readers may recall, after some recent past mass shooting, especially Sandy Hook, I talked up the possibility of smart gun technologies being at least a partial plausible "solution" to mass shootings and extensive gun violence.  (A bunch of those prior posts are linked below.)  But I am not sure such technology could have made any difference in this latest evil killing, and I am sure that the failure of the Obama Administration or progressive states to make any progress on the smart gun front in recent years likely signals that it would be foolish to hope or expect a technological remedy to our massive gun violence problem.

Notably, Nicholas Kristof already has this op-ed up at the New York Times headlined "Preventing Future Mass Shootings Like Las Vegas."  Here are some of his closing sentiments, which strike me as thoughtful, if not quite wise:

It’s too soon to know what, if anything, might have prevented the shooting in Las Vegas, and it may be that nothing could have prevented it. In some ways, these mass shootings are anomalies: Most gun deaths occur in ones or twos, usually with handguns (which kill far more people than assault rifles), and suicides outnumber murders.

But in every other sphere, we at least use safety regulations to try — however imperfectly — to reduce death and injury.  For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has seven pages of rules about ladders, which kill 300 people a year.  Yet the federal government doesn’t make a serious effort to reduce gun deaths, with a toll more than 100 times as high.

The best example of intelligent regulation is auto safety.  By my calculations, we’ve reduced the auto fatality rate per 100 million miles driven by more than 95 percent since 1921. There was no single solution but rather many incremental efforts: seatbelts, air bags, padded dashboards, better bumpers, lighted roads, highway guardrails, graduated licenses for young people, crackdowns on drunken driving, limits on left turns, and so on.  We haven’t banned automobiles, and we haven’t eliminated auto deaths, but we have learned to make them safer — and we should do the same with guns.

The analogy between driving/cars and guns does not quite work for a variety of reasons, but there is surely a kind of wisdom in the idea that we can and should try to improve gun safety in a variety of incremental ways without the political and practical problems posed by proposals involving prohibitions.  And, perhaps ironically, Prez Donald Trump may be better positioned than any recent president to navigate the challenging gun politics that often impeded efforts to improve gun safety.  Though I have little reason to believe Prez Trump will be eager to make improving gun safety a political priority, not long ago I had little reason to believe that there would ever be a Prez Trump.  

A few recent and older related posts:

October 2, 2017 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (27)

First big SCOTUS order list has lots of big "cert denied" decisions in big sentencing cases

In prior posts here and here and here, I flagged a couple of commentaries that had flagged Supreme Court cert petitions to watch with the start of a new SCOTUS Term.  A lot of folks have been paying particular attention to two sex offender cases, Karsjens v. Piper (concerning the constitutionality of Minnesota Sex Offender Program), and Snyder v. Does (concerning retroactive application of Michigan's sex offender registry). 

This morning, the Supreme Court released this 75-page order list in which it denied cert on both of these closely-watched cases.  The order list also reveals SCOTUS also denied cert in a number of other cases of likely interest to sentencing fans, such as various cases concerning the application of the Eighth Amendment limit on LWOP juve sentences set out in Graham and Miller.  As detailed in this post last week, the Supreme Court already added a few criminal cases to its docket as it got back to work for the Term.  But none of the new cases it has taken up are likely blockbusters or possibly as consequential as the cases it now has officially decided not to review. 

For a variety of reasons, I am not too surprised by these denials of cert.  Despite my own wishful thinking that the addition of Justice Gorsuch might juice the parts of the docket I find most exciting, I am largely expecting a relatively quiet Term on the sentencing front.  That all said, hope springs eternal, and hope for some exciting grants might be renewed when the fine folks at SCOTUSblog figure out which cases are missing from this new order list and become hot prospects as "relisted" petitions.

October 2, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, October 01, 2017

"South Dakota Swaps Lawyers for Tablets in Prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this Courthouse News Service article that struck me as linguistically and conceptually amusing on a number of levels. Substantively, however, I am not sure anyone should be amused by what the body of the story reports:

Sometime in the next few days, inmates in South Dakota prisons will start counting on tablet computers – not a state-funded, in-prison attorney or paralegal – to help them with their cases.  The South Dakota Department of Corrections did not renew a contract for attorney Delmar “Sonny” Walter and his paralegals, who since the early 2000s have assisted the state’s prison population with research and filing of legal documents ranging from habeas petitions to child support documents.

Corrections secretary Denny Kaemingk told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader the move will save taxpayers money. But one prisoner’s rights attorney has concerns.  “What’s someone who can’t read or write or can’t do so fully effectively or without mental illness supposed to do with a tablet?” said David M. Shapiro, clinical assistant professor of law at Northwestern University’s Roderick MacArthur Justice Center. “It’s a pennywise, pound-foolish approach.”

This past May, the state announced every one South Dakota’s approximately 3,000 inmates would receive a free tablet computer.  This allows the inmates longer phone calls, subscriptions to online movies and music, and text messaging with loved ones. Inmates also now have access to law-references websites such as Westlaw and LexisNexis. It was a change supported by Walter, the on-site attorney, but he’s doubtful the technical upgrade is a substitute for legal insight from professionals.

“The things we did made the institution run smoother,” Walter said, noting his staff did everything to help inmates -- most legal novices unfamiliar with complex documents -- with everything from knowledgeably preparing appeals to making copies to helping inmates with medication requests.  “We helped the inmates get into court in a number of ways, and now they won’t have that stuff.”

In 1999, a state judge ruled the prisons must provide “legal assistance” for inmates.  The program -- which cost the state $276,000 in 2017 -- has never been luxurious.  “In Springfield (the Mike Durfee State Prison) we were basically in a closet,” Walter said. “These inmates had maybe two to four hours a week. They often had to choose between a doctor’s appointment or researching their case.”...

He predicts the state will soon see another access lawsuit. “A book isn’t going to make you a lawyer. These people need legal assistance.”...

In the past year, falling revenue has forced South Dakota to cut back on projects and revise spending goals. In part, providing inmates with tablets was an effort to lower re-offense rates and reduce taxpayers’ burden.  Shapiro, the Northwestern law professor, argues this nickel-and-dime cost-cutting distracts from a bigger problem.  “At the end of the day, America has more people locked up than any other country on earth,” he said in a phone interview. “A reduction in incarceration would lead to genuine savings.”

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

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Yale Law School clinic report looks at "Parole Revocation in Connecticut: Opportunities to Reduce Incarceration"

A helpful reader alerted me to this new report released by The Criminal Justice Clinic at Yale Law School.  This press release from the school's website provides some background and a kind of summary of the report, which carries the title "Parole Revocation in Connecticut: Opportunities to Reduce Incarceration":

A new report highlights opportunities for the State of Connecticut to reduce the high rate of incarceration attributable to its parole revocation process. The report was written by the Samuel Jacobs Criminal Justice Clinic (“CJC”) at Yale Law School.

The report details the findings of a research project that began in the fall of 2015 after Governor Dannel Malloy announced the Second Chance Society initiative.  To support that initiative, CJC agreed to undertake a study of parole revocation in Connecticut to explore ways to reduce incarceration and to facilitate the reintegration of parolees into society....

As part of the CJC study, students and faculty personally observed 49 parole revocation hearings in Connecticut in November 2015.  Shortly after these observations, they reported the following findings to state officials:

  • The Board of Pardons and Paroles (BOPP) revoked parole in 100% of the observed cases.
  • BOPP imposed a prison sanction in 100% of observed cases.
  • Nearly all parolees in the observed cases waived their due process rights in the parole revocation process.
  • No parolee appeared with appointed counsel, even though several parolees seemed clearly to qualify for state-provided counsel under the constitutional standard.
  • The typical procedures at parole revocation hearings made it difficult for parolees to contest disputed facts or to present mitigating evidence. Without counsel, incarcerated parolees did not have a meaningful opportunity to develop evidence in support of their claims.

In 2016, CJC administered a follow-up survey to parolees whose hearings it had observed.  The survey revealed that most parolees did not understand the rights that they had waived during the parole revocation process.  The survey also revealed that 79% of the parolees interviewed had lost jobs as a consequence of parole revocation....

Over the last two years, BOPP has begun to implement reforms to its parole revocation practices in response to the CJC study. In 2017, BOPP asked that CJC present additional recommendations in writing, which led to the release of this report.

September 28, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

SCOTUS grants cert on a bunch of criminal cases, including at least one possibly exciting sentencing case

Over the weekend in this post, I flagged a bunch of interesting criminal cases flagged in this lengthy In Justice Today accounting of cert petitions to watch as the Supreme Court got back in action with its end-of-the-summer "long conference."  Today, via this short order list, the Supreme Court reported out some of the results of its work at the long conference.  Specifically, the court granted certiorari in 11 cases (three of which about military courts are consolidated).  Interestingly, though I did not see any of the cases I have been watching on the "certiorari granted" order list, it seems at least five of the case that do appear on the latest order list involve criminal issues:

16-1027 COLLINS, RYAN A. V. VIRGINIA

16-1371 BYRD, TERRENCE V. UNITED STATES

16-1466 HAYS, KS V. VOGT, MATTHEW JACK D. (N.B.: "Justice Gorsuch took no part in the consideration or decision of this petition.")

16-8255 McCOY, ROBERT L. V. LOUISIANA (N.B.: the "a writ of certiorari [is] limited to Question 1 presented by the petition")

16-9493 ROSALES-MIRELES, FLORENCIO V. UNITED STATES

Based on a too-quick bit of Google searching, it appears that the first two cases above deal with Fourth Amendment car searches, the Vogt case deals with Fifth Amendment procedure, McCoy is a state capital case seemingly dealing with right to counsel issues, and Rosales-Mireles is a federal sentencing appeal!  I am hopeful that SCOTUSblog will soon have their usual terrific coverage of all of today's grants with links to the filings.  I suspect that hard-core sentencing fans will be most interested in the final two cases listed above, but I will need to see the filings before I will know just how excited to get about these new cases on the SCOTUS docket.

Meanwhile, for all the cases in the cert pool being watched by others, we will need to wait until at least Monday morning to know more about their fate.  For those rooting for cert grants, not being on today's order list is not a good sign.  But a lot of cases get relisted after the long conference, and thus there is still a decent chance at least a handful more criminal cases of note will be added to the docket in the coming weeks.

UPDATE Not minutes after I finished this post, I see Amy Howe has this long post reviewing all of today's cert grants, and here is part of her accounting of the criminal cases:

The Fifth Amendment’s “self-incrimination clause” provides that no one “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” In City of Hays, Kansas v. Vogt, the justices will consider the scope of that clause – specifically, whether the Fifth Amendment is violated when statements are used at a probable cause hearing but not at a criminal trial.... 

In Collins v. Virginia, the justices have agreed to clarify the scope of the “automobile exception” to the warrant requirement – specifically, whether it applies to a car parked on private property, close to a home....

Byrd v. United States: Expectations of privacy in rental car for someone who is not an authorized driver;

Rosales-Mireles v. United States: Standard for the court of appeals to correct a plain error;

McCoy v. Louisiana: Whether it is unconstitutional for defense counsel to concede a defendant’s guilt over the defendant’s objection.

Today’s grants are likely to be argued in either January or February.

September 28, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

US Sentencing Commission releases big new report on "Federal Alternative-to-Incarceration Court Programs"

ThVRFS1G7AThe US Sentencing Commission has this morning released this 100-page report titled "Federal Alternative-to-Incarceration Court Programs."  Here is part of the report's introduction:

During the three decades that it has been in existence, the United States Sentencing Commission (Commission) repeatedly has considered the important issue of when an alternative to incarceration is an appropriate sentence for certain federal defendants. The original 1987 Guidelines Manual provided for alternative sentencing options such as probation for certain low-level federal offenders, and the Commission thereafter amended the guidelines on several occasions to increase the availability of alternative sentences as sentencing options. Despite these amendments, the rate of alternative sentences imposed in cases governed by the sentencing guidelines has fallen steadily during the past three decades, including after United States v. Booker, and Gall v. United States, which increased federal judges’ discretion to impose alternative sentences. In recent years, the Commission has prioritized the study of alternatives to incarceration as a sentencing option.

Many federal district courts around the country, with the support of the Department of Justice (DOJ), have begun creating specialized court programs to increase the use of alternatives to incarceration for certain types of offenders, most commonly for those with substance use disorders. These programs have developed independently of policy decisions of both the Commission and the Judicial Conference of the United States.  Commentators, including judges who have presided over these court programs, have urged the Commission to amend the Guidelines Manual to encourage such programs and provide the option of a downward departure to a non-incarceration sentence for defendants who successfully participate in them and who otherwise would face imprisonment based on their guideline sentencing ranges.

As part of its recent priority concerning alternatives to incarceration, the Commission has studied these emerging court programs. The Commission’s study has been qualitative rather than quantitative at this juncture because of a lack of available empirical data about the programs.  In late 2016 and early 2017, Commission staff visited five districts with established programs, interviewed program judges and staff, and observed proceedings.  On April 18, 2017, the Commission conducted a public hearing about such specialized federal court programs, at which the Commission received testimony from experts on state “drug courts” and other “problem-solving courts” as well as from federal district judges who have presided over three of the more established alternative-to-incarceration court programs.

This publication summarizes the nature of these emerging federal alternative-to-incarceration court programs and will highlight several legal and social science issues relating to them. Part II defines key terms and concepts, discusses the history of alternative-to-incarceration court programs, which originated in the state courts nearly three decades ago, and then specifically describes the types of specialized federal court programs that have been created in recent years.  Part III discusses legal issues related to the federal court programs, including how they fit within the legal framework created by the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (SRA) and modified by the Supreme Court in 2005 in Booker.  Part IV identifies social science issues related to the programs, including issues related to the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of the federal court programs.

Part V concludes by identifying several questions about the federal court programs that policymakers and courts should consider in deciding whether, and if so how, such programs should operate in the federal criminal justice system in the future.

September 28, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Should New Jersey be more regularly championed for its profound success in reducing prison populations and crime rates?

New-jersey-clipart-toonvectors-5159-140The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article, headlined "Why is the N.J. prison population shrinking? (It's not just about less crime...)," which highlights how and how successful the Garden State has been in reducing its prison population.  Here are excerpts from the article:

The big house is getting smaller. Fewer people are going to prison in New Jersey these days and the numbers continue to drop, according to an analysis of state Department of Corrections data over the past five years.

Those incarcerated in New Jersey — including men and women in prison, juveniles in detention, and detainees still in halfway houses — dropped this year to 19,619, from 21,123 in 2013. That marked a decline of more than 15 percent.

In fact, the state's inmate population has fallen more from its peak in the 1990s than any other state in the country, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based criminal justice reform group. Since 1999 — when more than 31,000 people were behind bars in New Jersey — the number of inmates has plunged by more than a third. "New Jersey leads the nation in prison population reduction," said Todd Clear, a prison policy expert at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice.

Crime has been going down in New Jersey in recent years. But that doesn’t really tell the story of what's happening in the state's prisons, according to Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project. "It's not necessarily one shift that can produce a shift of this magnitude," he said, attributing much of it to the creation of the state's drug courts that focus on diverting people from prison, as well as changes in the parole system that make it less likely someone will be put back behind bars for minor technical violations of their parole.

The corrections department data underscores the impact on how the state treats drug crime. The percentage of those serving time for drug crime is down more significantly than for inmates convicted of any other offense.... According to corrections department officials, a five-year phase-in under Gov. Chris Christie of mandatory drug courts for non-violent offenders, which was expanded to all 21 counties across the state, redirected thousands from state prison and into drug treatment programs.

At the same time, they credited the so-called "ban the box" legislation prohibiting employers from discriminating against people with expunged criminal records, as well as accelerating some expungements, increasing the type of convictions that can be expunged and reducing the waiting period to expunge an entire juvenile record, have given some inmates a better opportunity of finding a job and staying out of prison....

Department of Corrections officials said with the decline in inmate population, they have consolidated facilities and closed some units, reducing overtime costs. "This practice allowed us to undertake much-needed renovations in our facilities," said spokesman Matthew Schuman. "In fact, as part of our consolidation program, we closed Mid-State Correctional Facility in June 2014."

Mid-State reopened in April 2017 as the first licensed, clinically driven drug treatment program provided by the NJDOC. At the same time, a similar substance use disorder program for female offenders became operational at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.

Unfortunately, this new article does not address what has become of crime rates and recidivism rates during this period in which New Jersey has been shrinking its prison population, but I think the data is also encouraging.  Specifically, crime data for New Jersey here and here suggests crime has gone down as much if not more in NJ than elsewhere in the country and the state even seems to be largely avoiding the crime spikes that a number of other regions have seen in the last two years.  And this local article from last years reports that the state's corrections "Chief of Staff Judith Lang ... said New Jersey’s recidivism rate has lowered from 48 percent to 32 percent" thanks in part to state investment in reentry services.

Though outgoing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will be leaving office with very low approval ratings, the citizens of New Jersey and all those interested in criminal justice reform should praise his efforts in this arena and the broader achievements of all New Jersey policymakers and officials in recent years.  Especially if New Jersey continues to keep crime rates and prison populations low, the state will continue to be an important success story for modern criminal justice reforms that other jurisdictions should aspire to emulate.

September 27, 2017 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Grover Norquist calls criminal justice reform one of the "conservative movement’s most important recent accomplishments"

Anti-tax icon Grover Norquist has this notable Wall Street Journal commentary under the headline "Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform: You don’t hear about it much, but 31 mostly red states have reduced both crime and imprisonment." Here is how it starts:

Every so often I’m asked to list the conservative movement’s most important recent accomplishments.  One always ranks near the top: criminal justice reform.

With leadership from Republican governors and legislators and groups such as Right on Crime, conservatives have pushed to rein in runaway prison spending and adopt cost-conscious correctional policies that improve public safety.  Starting 10 years ago in Texas, more than half of all states have now shifted course, changing laws to ensure that violent offenders serve hard time while those who are not a danger are steered toward less expensive alternatives that can help alter the paths of their lives and make communities safer.

Taxpayers benefit.  In 2007 the Pew Charitable Trusts projected that state prisons would grow 14% over five years, costing states $27.5 billion more.  Instead, the reforms have bent the curve.  The state prison population is down 5%.  Between 2010 and 2015, 31 states reduced both crime and imprisonment, proving that fiscal discipline and safe streets can go hand in hand.

September 27, 2017 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Will SCOTUS Let Fear of Sex Offenders Trump Justice?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Reason commentary by Jacob Sullum spotlighting two cases I have tracked on this blog as they have made their way up to the Justices. Here is how the piece starts and ends:

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, locking up sex offenders after they have completed their sentences is not punishment, and neither is branding them as dangerous outcasts for the rest of their lives.  Two cases the Court could soon agree to hear give it an opportunity to reconsider, or at least qualify, those counterintuitive conclusions.

Karsjens v. Piper is a challenge to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP), which since 1994 has confined more than 700 people who were deemed too "sexually dangerous" to release after serving their prison terms.  Although these detainees are supposedly patients rather than inmates, in more than two decades only one of them has ever been judged well enough to regain his freedom....

Another case pending before the Supreme Court, Snyder v. Doe, is an appeal of a 2016 decision in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that Michigan's Sex Offender Registration Act, ostensibly a form of civil regulation aimed at protecting public safety, is so punitive that its requirements cannot be applied retroactively without violating the constitutional ban on ex post facto laws.  The 6th Circuit noted that the law "has grown into a byzantine code governing in minute detail the lives of the state's sex offenders," including onerous restrictions on where they may live, work, and "loiter."....

The Supreme Court has let fear of sex offenders, a despised minority that includes many people who pose no real danger to their fellow citizens, trump traditional concerns about due process and just punishment.  By hearing these cases, it can begin to repair the damage it has done to those principles.

September 27, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

US Supreme Court, voting 6-3, issues last-minute stay of execution in Georgia

As revealed in this new order and explained in this local article, the "U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay of execution tonight to condemned killer Keith Tharpe, three and a half hours after he was scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection." Here are the basics:

In a 6-3 decision, the court’s justices were apparently concerned about claims that one of Tharpe’s jurors was racist and sentenced Tharpe to death because he was African-American. Three justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch — dissented.

The high court will now decide whether to hear Tharpe’s appeal, and, if it doesn’t, the court said the stay of execution shall terminate automatically. But that will not happen tonight.

Tharpe’s lawyers were overjoyed with the decision. “We’re gratified the court understands this case merits thoughtful consideration outside the press of an execution warrant,” said Brian Kammer, one of Tharpe’s attorneys. “We are extremely thankful that the court has seen fit to consider Mr. Tharpe's claim of juror racial bias in regular order."

Prior related post:

September 26, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Acting DEA head officially resigns

As reported here by the New York Times, the "acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration will resign at the end of the week, according to law enforcement officials, who said he had become convinced that President Trump had little respect for the law." Here is more about a not-too-surprising departure:

The official, Chuck Rosenberg, who twice served as chief of staff to the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey and remains a close confidant, had grown disillusioned with Mr. Trump.  The president fired Mr. Comey in May, and then in July told law enforcement officers “please don’t be too nice” when handling crime suspects.

Mr. Rosenberg forcefully rejected Mr. Trump’s comment, sending an email to all D.E.A. employees at the time to tell them that they should not mistreat suspects.  “We must earn and keep the public trust and continue to hold ourselves to the very highest standards,” Mr. Rosenberg wrote in the internal email.  “Ours is an honorable profession and, so, we will always act honorably.”...

Mr. Rosenberg, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2015, is a career prosecutor.  Under President George W. Bush, he served as the United States attorney in both southern Texas and eastern Virginia.

In late July, Mr. Rosenberg, told the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, that he did not want to be considered as the permanent administrator of the D.E.A.  Mr. Rosenstein, who wrote a memo that Mr. Trump briefly cited as his rationale for dismissing Mr. Comey, then asked whether Mr. Rosenberg wanted to remain at the Justice Department, and Mr. Rosenberg said he did not.

In a message to D.E.A. employees on Tuesday, Mr. Rosenberg said, “The neighborhoods in which we live are better for your commitment to the rule of law, dedication to the cause of justice and perseverance in the face of adversity.”

“You will continue to do great things,” he added. “I will continue to root for you, now from the sidelines.”

September 26, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

DOJ seeking DC Circuit en banc review of panel ruling finding 30-year mandatory minimums unconstitutionally excessive for Blackwater contractors who killed Iraqis

In this post last month, I noted the remarkable split DC Circuit panel opinion in US v. Slatten, No. 15-3078 (DC Cir. Aug. 4, 2017) (available here).  I am now not surprised to learn from this news report that the "Justice Department asked a full federal appeals court Monday to review a decision to throw out the first-degree murder conviction of one former Blackwater Worldwide security guard and the sentences of three others in shootings that killed 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007."  Here are the details:

Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey B. Wall approved the decision, which was expected and filed by appeals lawyers for the department’s criminal division, to seek a full court review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, after a three-judge panel ruled Aug. 4.

The panel said a trial court “abused its discretion” in not allowing Nicholas A. Slatten, 33, of Sparta, Tenn., to be tried separately from his three co-defendants in 2014 even though one of them said he, not Slatten, fired the first shots in the massacre.  Slatten was convicted of murder.

By a separate, 2-to-1 vote, the panel also found that the 30-year terms of the others convicted of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter — Paul A. Slough, 37, of Keller, Tex.; Evan S. Liberty, 35, of Rochester, N.H.; and Dustin L. Heard, 36, of Maryville, Tenn. — violated the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”  They received the enhanced penalty because they were also convicted of using military firearms while committing a felony, a charge that primarily has been aimed at gang members and never before been used against security contractors given military weapons by the U.S. government.

The Justice Department filing called the panel’s sentencing finding “as wrong as it is unprecedented,” saying the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld longer sentences for lesser crimes. “By its plain terms, the statute applies to defendants, who used their most fearsome weapons to open fire on defenseless men, women, and children,” the department said. “Far from being unconstitutional, these sentences befit the ‘enormity’ of defendants’ crimes.”

The government also cited “legal and factual errors” in the ruling granting Slatten a retrial, noting the “great international consequence” of his prosecution for “a humanitarian and diplomatic disaster.” A retrial in “a prosecution of this magnitude (including reassembling the many Iraqi witnesses) poses considerable and uncommon challenges,” the department wrote, urging the full court to reconsider “in a case of such exceptional importance.”

In their own filing Monday, attorneys for the four men asked the full court to toss out the case on jurisdictional grounds and so reverse the panel’s finding that civilian contractors supporting the Pentagon could be prosecuted under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act....

A group representing family members and friends of the four tweeted a statement from Slatten last month that said, “Public outrage may be our only chance at true justice for all four of us. While it may be too early to seek pardons for my brothers from President Trump, he especially needs to hear from you.”

I have been meaning to write more about the extraordinary Eighth Amendment analysis in the Slatten decision, but I have been holding back in part due to my sense that en banc or even certiorari review may be forthcoming. The jurisprudential and political elements of this case are truly fascinating, and I really have no idea if the full DC Circuit and/or SCOTUS may want to take up this hot potato of a case. And in the wake of the Arpaio pardon, perhaps Prez Trump will be inclined to jump into the case at some point, too.

Prior related post:

September 26, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Alliance for Justice assails Third Circuit nominee Stephanos Bibas for his criminal justice work and writings

As revealed in this post from June, I was stoked when sentencing scholar (and my occasional co-author) Stephanos Bibas was nominated by Prez Trump for an open seat on the Third Circuit. But, though Prof Bibas has gotten lots of support from lots of folks across the political aisle, the folks at Alliance for Justice have released this critical new report his record and AFJ President Nan Aron say that in his coming confirmation hearing the "onus is on him to alleviate concerns about his approach to the rights of individuals who might find themselves before him in court."

I surmise that AFJ releases a critical report about every one of the nominees put forward by AFJ, but my professional connections to Prof Bibas and his working in the sentencing arena prompted me to review this particular AFJ report about his work and writings.  This AFJ press release summarizes the report's articulated concerns:

Among other things, AFJ’s report notes:

  • Bibas has written about the treatment of prisoners in ways that are unsettling and raise questions about his respect for their constitutional rights. In a 2012 book, he praises colonial-era punishments such as public whippings that inflict pain and humiliation on convicted persons, suggesting that public shaming is not practiced enough today.  This philosophy regarding punishment would be seriously harmful in a federal judge charged with reviewing countless sentencing decisions that will have enormous and lasting impacts on the lives of real people.  Bibas also argues that prisoners could be forcefully conscripted into the military.

  • In an article, Bibas insisted that while over-incarceration is real, it is not reflective of racial disparities in the justice system or society as a whole as the “liberal” “narrative” maintains.  He also argued that the growth in the prison population was “driven mainly by violent and property crime, not drugs.”

  • Bibas has shown a serious misunderstanding about the nature of drug addiction, having argued that it is not a disease but something that addicts can choose to overcome.

  • Bibas signed an open letter criticizing the University of Pennsylvania’s adoption of new procedures for investigating and resolving sexual assault complaints on campus. The letter made troubling statements suggesting that victims are in part responsible for assaults, and advocated for the university to adopt an adjudicative system for these cases that closely mirrors the criminal justice system. The Supreme Court has discouraged schools, which are supposed to provide safe learning environments for all students, from attempting to replicate criminal investigations and prosecutions on campus.

  • While serving as a prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, Bibas used federal prosecutorial, law enforcement, and court resources to bring charges against a cashier at a veterans’ hospital cafeteria for allegedly stealing seven dollars. On the morning of the trial, he turned over evidence corroborating the defense that records suggest he may have withheld for some time. The cashier was acquitted, and the prosecution faced scorching media criticism.

For a host or reasons, I am disinclined to engage with the particulars of the AFJ report.  But I am inclined to predict that Prof Bibas, based on his past criminal justice work and writings, will be much more inclined to respect criminal defendants' rights than many other past and future judicial nominees.

Prior related post:

September 26, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, September 25, 2017

Reviewing the racial bias and other concerns surrounding Georgia's planned execution of Keith Tharpe

CNN has this new article reviewing issues being raised in the run-up a scheduled execution in Georgia.  The article is headlined "Questions of racial bias surround black man's imminent execution," and here are excerpts:

The state of Georgia is set to carry out its second execution of the year on Tuesday, when it plans to put to death Keith Tharpe, who was sentenced in 1991 for murdering his sister-in-law.  But Tharpe, 59, and his attorneys are seeking a stay of execution, based in part on racist comments a juror made after the trial had ended.  Tharpe is black and the now-deceased juror who made the comments was white.

The attorneys are not claiming that Tharpe is innocent of the crimes for which he's been convicted. Rather, they are arguing that his death sentence should be overturned because of juror misconduct.  They say Tharpe's death sentence was the result of a racially biased juror who, in a post-trial interview seven years after Tharpe's conviction and sentencing, used the n-word and wondered "if black people even have souls."

A biased juror, they argue, violates Tharpe's constitutional rights to a fair trial, guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.  They also argue that the juror lied during jury selection, concealing the fact that he knew the victim's family. Furthermore, the attorneys say Tharpe is intellectually disabled, which would make it illegal for him to be executed under federal law....

At the time of his crime, September 25, 1990, Tharpe and his wife were estranged. Prosecutors said Tharpe stopped his wife and sister-in-law in the road as they drove to work, according to court filings from the federal district court. The documents say he took his sister-in-law, Jacquelin Freeman, to the back of the vehicle and shot her with a shotgun before throwing her into a ditch and shooting her again, killing her. An autopsy showed Freeman had been shot three times.  Prosecutors alleged Tharpe then raped his wife and took her to withdraw money from a credit union, where she was able to call police for help, according to the documents. Three months later, convicted of malice murder and kidnapping, Tharpe was sentenced to death. 

Tharpe's current case centers on the post-conviction testimony of Barney Gattie, a white juror in Tharpe's trial....  Brian Kammer, Tharpe's attorney with the Georgia Resource Center, said Gattie showed in his interview that he "harbored very atrocious, racist views about black people."  Tharpe's lawyers claim Gattie, who is now deceased, used the n-word with the lawyers throughout the interview, in reference to Tharpe and other black people....

Georgia law states that juror testimony cannot be used to impeach the verdict, or render it invalid -- even if it involves racial bias, Kammer said.  At the time Gattie made the statements in question, this rule kept Tharpe's attorneys from being able to use them to prove his death sentence was the result of racial bias.  In Georgia, defendants can only receive a death sentence if the jury reaches the decision unanimously.

But Kammer and his team are relying on some recent United States Supreme Court decisions to back their motion for a stay of execution.  The central one, Kammer told CNN, is Pena-Rodriguez v Colorado.  In March, the US Supreme Court held in a 5-3 vote that laws like Georgia's are invalidated when a juror "makes a clear statement that indicates he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.

Essentially, a juror's racial bias constitutes a violation of a defendant's rights to an impartial jury guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, and prevents defendants from being able to prove a violation of their constitutional rights.  "A constitutional rule that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed -- including, in some instances, after the verdict has been entered -- is necessary to prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts, a confidence that is a central premise of the Sixth Amendment trial right," Kennedy said.

Tharpe's request for a stay was denied by the 11th Circuit Court on September 21.  A federal district court denied Tharpe's motion seeking a reopening to federal habeas proceedings on September 5, the day before the state issued a warrant for his execution.

September 25, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Anthony Weiner given 21 months in federal prison after his plea to "transferring obscene material to a minor"

Anthony Weiner was scheduled to be sentenced at 10am this morning in the Southern District of New York federal courtroom, and apparently US District Judge Denise Cote did not need very long to figure out what sentence she thought fitting.  This AP piece provides a blow-by-blow, and here are excerpts:

A prosecutor has urged a judge in New York City to sentence Anthony Weiner to a significant prison sentence to end his “tragic cycle” of sexting.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Kramer told a Manhattan federal court judge Tuesday that Weiner on three occasions in 2016 asked a 15-year-old girl to display her naked body online and to perform for him. The prosecutor noted that sexting had already ruined Weiner’s congressional career and spoiled his run for mayor of New York City before he began interacting with the teenager. Kramer said Weiner should go to prison for between 21 months and 27 months....

Anthony Weiner called his crime his “rock bottom” as he spoke just before a judge in New York City sentences him for his sexting crime. Weiner fought back tears and occasionally cried Monday as he read from a written statement on a page he held in front of him in Manhattan federal court. He said he was “a very sick man for a very long time.” He asked to be spared from prison.

The Democrat’s lawyer, Arlo Devlin-Brown, had asked that Weiner serve no prison time....

Anthony Weiner has been sentenced to 21 months in prison for sexting with a 15-year-old girl in a case that may have cost Hillary Clinton’s the presidency.... Anthony Weiner must report to prison by Nov. 6 to begin serving his 21-month sentence for sexting with a 15-year-old girl.

As his sentence was announced Monday, the former Democratic congressman from New York dropped his head into his hand and wept, then stared straight ahead.  After the hearing ended and Judge Denise Cote left the bench, he sat in his seat for several minutes, continuing to cry.  Weiner was also fined $10,000.  After his sentence is served, he must undergo internet monitoring and must have no contact with his victim. He must also enroll in a sex-offender treatment program.  

Before announcing the sentence, Cote said there was “no evidence of deviant interest in teenagers or minors” on Weiner’s part.  She also said he is finally receiving effective treatment for what she said has been described as “sexual hyperactivity.”

 Prior related posts:

September 25, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Terrific review of SCOTUS petitions to watch from folks at In Justice Today

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I have previously flagged In Justice Today, a publication of Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, for its copious coverage of a range of criminal justice issues.  Today, I am flagging this extraordinary lengthy In Justice Today accounting of cert petitions to watch as the Supreme Court gets back in action with this "long conference" this week.  Here is the start and just a small part of this very helpful (and link-filled) review of criminal cases that could make their way to the SCOTUS merits docket:

Starting on Monday, the Court has dozens of criminal justice related certiorari petitions to consider. Here are the ten petitions we’re following closely, which cover issues including civil commitment, sex offender registries, non-unanimous jury verdicts, death in prison sentences for juveniles, the death penalty, prosecutorial misconduct, Double Jeopardy protections, and solitary confinement...

Karsjens v. Piper.  On September 25, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider a class challenge to Minnesota's controversial civil commitment regime, the Minnesota Sex Offender Program....

Snyder v. Doe. Over the past decade, Michigan has created one of the most punitive registry schemes in America....  The State of Michigan filed a petition seeking review of the Sixth Circuit’s legal determination that the retroactive application of the sex offender registration laws constituted ex post facto punishment.

Lambert v. Louisiana. In 48 states, juries in criminal cases must return unanimous verdicts. Louisiana and Oregon are the only exceptions; both states permit convictions when only 10 of 12 jurors find the defendant guilty....  Even though the non-unanimity approach only prevails in two jurisdictions, the case arrives at the Court with significant momentum....

Johnson v. Idaho. This term, the Court will have the opportunity to address the question left open in Miller: whether “the Eighth Amendment requires a categorical bar on life without parole for juveniles.” 567 U.S. at 469. In Johnson v. Idaho, the petitioner, Sarah Johnson, challenges the constitutionality of juvenile life-without-parole (JLWOP)....

Ohio v. Moore. In Ohio v. Moore, the State of Ohio is challenging the Ohio Supreme Court’s conclusion that Graham’s prohibition on life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who commit non-homicide offenses also forecloses a term-of-years prison sentence, imposed for multiple non-homicide crimes, that exceeds the juvenile’s life expectancy....

Three other pending petitions — Willbanks v. Missouri Department of Corrections, Garza v. Nebraska, and Castaneda v. Nebraska — present essentially the same question, albeit from the opposite posture. In each, the petitioner challenged the constitutionality of his lengthy aggregate term-of-years sentence, imposed consecutively for several different felony offenses....

Hidalgo v. Arizona. Abel Daniel Hidalgo has asked the Court to consider the constitutionality of Arizona’s death penalty scheme, both in light of its failure to meaningfully narrow the class of murders that are death-eligible and because evolving standards of decency show that, as a categorical matter, the death penalty is unconstitutional....

Farnan v. Walker asks the Court to resolve questions about qualified immunity in the context of prison officials making determinations that a prisoner should be placed in solitary confinement....

September 24, 2017 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Friday, September 22, 2017

Discussing opioid epidemic, AG Sessions says he is "convinced this is a winnable war"

I have never been too keen on using war rhetoric to describe any activities other than actual war, and I was struck by the phrase quoted in the title of this post appearing toward the end of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' latest speech about the opioid epidemic.  Here is an excerpt from the close of the speech as prepared for delivery to law enforcement in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania:

[T]o help fight the overprescribing of opioid painkillers, I announced last month that we will allocate new resources to find and prosecute the fraudsters who help flood our streets with drugs.

The first new resource is a data analytics program at the Department called the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit. This team will help us find the tell-tale signs of opioid-related health care fraud by identifying statistical outliers. Fraudsters might lie, but the numbers don’t.

The second is that I’ve assigned 12 experienced prosecutors to focus solely on investigating and prosecuting opioid-related health care fraud cases in a dozen “hot-spot” locations around the country -- places where they are especially needed. And one of those will be in Western Pennsylvania.

And, today, I am announcing that we will be awarding nearly $20 million in federal grants to help law enforcement and public health agencies address prescription drug and opioid abuse. This is an urgent problem and we are making it a top priority. I believe that these new resources and new efforts will make a difference, bring more criminals to justice, and ultimately save lives.

And I’m convinced this is a winnable war.

But in order to end this crisis, we must work together. Eighty-five percent of all law enforcement officers serve at the state and local level, and your work is essential to our success. Strengthening partnerships between law enforcement officers at all levels is a central theme of my tenure at the DOJ, and I hope you will help me do that.  Each of you has a difficult job, but it is a job worth doing, and a job that your communities are depending upon. And you can know this: you have our thanks, and we have your back.

September 22, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

"Legal vs. Factual Normative Questions & the True Scope of Ring"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Emad Atiq available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

When is a normative question a question of law rather than a question of fact?  The short answer, based on common law and constitutional rulings, is: it depends.  For example, if the question concerns the fairness of contractual terms, it is a question of law.  If it concerns the reasonableness of dangerous risk-taking in a negligence suit, it is a question of fact.  If it concerns the obscenity of speech, it was a question of fact prior to the Supreme Court’s seminal cases on free speech during the 1970s, but is now treated as law-like. This variance in the case law cannot be explained by traditional accounts of the law/fact distinction and has fueled recent skepticism about the possibility of gleaning a coherent principle from judicial rulings.

This Article clarifies a principle implicit in the settled classifications.  I suggest that judicial practice is consistent: it can be explained by the distinction between normative questions that are convention-dependent and those that are convention-independent.  Convention-dependent normative questions, or those that turn essentially on facts about conventions (roughly, what we do around here) are reasonably classified as questions of law.  By contrast, convention-independent normative questions, which turn primarily on fundamental moral norms, are properly classified as questions of fact.  This principle, echoed in recent holdings, clarifies law/fact classifications in such diverse areas as torts, contracts, First Amendment law and criminal procedure.

The principle also promises to resolve a looming constitutional controversy.  In Ring v Arizona, the Supreme Court held that all factual findings that increase a capital defendant’s sentence must be decided by the jury under the 6th Amendment.  Two recent denials of cert. suggest that members of the Court wish to revisit, in light of Ring, the constitutionality of judges deciding whether a criminal defendant deserves the death penalty.  Applying the principle to Ring, I argue that the question of death-deservingness is a convention-independent normative question, and for that reason should be deemed a factual question for the jury.

September 22, 2017 in Blakely Commentary and News, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Ohio intermediate appeals court, finding functional LWOP sentence excessive for multiple burglaries, cuts 50 years off term

A helpful former student alerted me to an interesting state appeals court ruling in my own backyard handed down last week. Even though the ruling in State v. Gwynne, 2017-Ohio-7570 (5th Dist. Sept. 11, 2017) (available here), is pretty brief, the issues raised by both the case facts and the state appeals ruling could occupy an entire modern sentencing course. Here are some snippets that should prompt sentencing fans to check out the full opinion:

Defendant-Appellant [stole] from at least 12 different nursing homes and assisted living facilities in both Delaware and Franklin counties over the course of eight years. Detectives were unable to connect all of the property to its rightful owners. During part of appellant’s spree, she was employed as a nurse’s aide.  After she was fired for suspicion of theft, however, she continued to dress as a nurse’s aide, in order to enter nursing homes and steal from residents while appearing to be a legitimate employee....

At the change of plea hearing, appellant admitted that she had been stealing from nursing home residents since 2004, four years earlier than the earliest charge in the indictment.  Some residents she knew and worked with, others she did not.  She claimed a cocaine habit was to blame, and that she took cash as well as other items to sell to support her habit.

At the sentencing hearing held on November 7, 2016, the trial court indicated it had reviewed the PSI, sentencing memoranda from the state and appellant, as well as the victim impact statements.  The state recommended 42 years incarceration.  Counsel for appellant advocated for intensive supervision community control, and a period of time in a community based correctional facility.

After considering all of the applicable sentencing statutes, and making all of the required findings, the trial court imposed a sentence of three years for each of the 15 second degree felony burglaries, 12 months for each of the third degree felony thefts, 12 months for each of the fourth degree felony thefts, and 180 days for each first degree misdemeanor receiving stolen property.  The court ordered appellant to serve the felony sentences consecutively, and the misdemeanor sentences concurrently for an aggregate of 65 years incarceration....

Appellant was 55 years old at the time of her sentencing....

We do not minimize the seriousness of appellant's conduct. On this record, however, we find the stated prison term of 65 years does not comply with the purposes and principals of felony sentencing....  A sentence of 65 is plainly excessive.  It can be affirmatively stated that a 65 year sentence is a life sentence for appellant.  Even a sentence of 20 years, considering the purposes and principles of sentencing and weighed against the factual circumstances of this case, would seem excessive.

The sentence is an emotional response to very serious and reprehensible conduct.  However, the understandably strong feelings must be tempered by a sanction clearly and convincingly based upon the record to effectuate the purposes of sentencing.  The sentence imposed here does not do so.  It is disproportionate to the conduct and the impact on any and all of the victims either individually or collectively.  It runs the risk of lessening public respect for the judicial system.  The imposition of a 65 year sentence for a series of non-violent theft offenses for a first-time felon shocks the consciousness.  We therefore find by clear and convincing evidence that the record does not support the sentence.....

We agree, however, with the trial court’s findings relating to the necessity of a prison sentence, and that consecutive sentences are warranted.  We therefore modify appellant’s sentence pursuant to R.C. 2953.08(G)(2) ... [to reach] an aggregate term of 15 years of incarceration.  Given the facts of this case, we find 15 years incarceration consistent with the principles and purposes of sentencing.

Though much can be said about this case, the scope of imprisonment considered at every level of this case startles me and yet I fear startles few others. Prosecutors, even after getting a plea, claimed that this woman at age 55 needed to be subject to 42 years incarceration, at the end of which she would be 97 years old.  The judge apparently decided that was not harsh enough, and thus imposed a sentence that would run until this woman was 130!  Thanks to an unusual appeals court ruling, this defendant now has to be grateful she will only be imprisoned until age 70.  Wowsa.

September 21, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Interesting account of gender discrimination in Wyoming alternative sentencing boot camp program

In part because women are a disproportionately small share of criminal offenders, they can experience a disproportionately large share of discriminatory treatment in the operation of criminal justice systems.  An interesting example of this reality comes from this new BuzzFeed News article headlined "Women Are Spending Years In Prison Because Wyoming Won’t Let Them Into Its All-Male Boot Camp."  The piece's subheadline provide a summary of the story: "Taylor Blanchard faced up to 10 years in prison for a crime that would’ve sent men to boot camp for six months to a year. Her fight could change the fate of countless women in Wyoming."  Here are excerpts:

For the past three months, 23-year-old Blanchard had been trying to get into [boot camp] programs.  The one in her home state, Wyoming, lasts six months to a year.  People who finish it successfully can then ask a judge to transfer them into probation, a halfway house, or placement with a family member, effectively shaving years of prison time off their sentences.

Blanchard ticked all the boxes for acceptance, except for one.  The Wyoming Department of Corrections has never housed a woman in boot camp, and it wasn’t going to start with her. Which is how Blanchard ended up in Florida, shipped out of state instead of accommodated in her own. And it’s how she became the central figure in a federal lawsuit accusing the WDOC of discriminating against female inmates.

Across the country, women in prisons and jails are often housed in different conditions than their male peers.  The criminal justice system was built for men, and prison activists say that little thought has been given to providing equal services — much less special considerations — for women, even as their population has ballooned in recent decades....

Wyoming’s boot camp, formally called the Youthful Offenders Program at the Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp, is known widely among public defenders. Open to first-time offenders under 25, the program is made up of “physical training, drill and ceremony, and a paramilitary base program focusing on appearance, life skills, and behavior,” according to the state; about half of those who enter boot camp complete the program successfully.

In an interview with BuzzFeed News, [Blanchard’s court-appointed attorney, John] LaBuda called it a “really good program,” one that teaches discipline but also allows inmates to get their GED or drug and alcohol counseling, or sometimes learn a trade. But when the state first offered the program in 1987, it only housed men; that has continued for 30 years. No attorney or judge, to the state or anyone else’s knowledge, has ever tried to place a female client into the boot camp....

In July, [Blanchard’s civil] lawyers filed suit in federal court, alleging the WDOC was violating her constitutional rights by denying her an opportunity offered to men. [John Robinson and Stephen] Pevar also had the idea to turn Blanchard’s case into a class-action lawsuit. As Pevar wrote in a July email to WDOC lawyers, “Wyoming was not only violating Ms Blanchard’s rights but has been violating the rights of women for many years now who are in her situation. We needed to do something about it.” (In 2013, the ACLU settled a similar lawsuit that opened up a Montana prison boot camp to women, though the program is now ending for both men and women.)

The lawsuit’s proposed class includes current inmates at Lusk’s women’s prison who were first-time offenders under 25 at the time of their sentencing — women who were eligible to be recommended to the Youthful Offenders Program but weren’t given the chance because of the boot camp’s men-only tradition. The proposed class also includes young Wyoming women who will face the same situation in the future. But Pevar doesn’t yet know how many women actually fall under this umbrella, if a judge does approve the lawsuit as a class action. He and Robinson have requested the WDOC reveal the names of eligible women currently at Lusk, a prison with a capacity of 293 women. WDOC has not yet provided these names. Blanchard’s attorneys are also trying to get referrals from public defenders like LaBuda currently representing eligible young women.

The class could end up being 20 people or it could be 200, Pevar said, but the goal is for each woman to get put into boot camp, either immediately or by going back in front of their sentencing judges. (The WDOC would provide each woman with an independent attorney for the latter proposed process.) “We feel that's the only fair way to vindicate the Constitutional rights of the women whose lawyers didn't ask for the recommendation,” Pevar said. No monetary award for the women is involved.

In late August, the WDOC filed a motion to dismiss the suit, arguing that women have never been denied the opportunity to go to bootcamp. It’s just that they’ve never tried to go to bootcamp, it said, until Blanchard. The corrections department also argued Blanchard hadn’t exhausted all of remedies before filing suit, and that her complaint is moot because she’s already been placed in boot camp elsewhere.

September 21, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

"Jeff Sessions’s evidence-free crime strategy"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Hill commentary authored by prominent criminologist David Kennedy. Here are excerpts: 

The emerging Department of Justice crime-control strategy is a criminologist’s nightmare. Over the last thirty years researchers, law enforcement leaders and communities have pushed for smarter, better violence prevention — spurred in large part by the incredible violence and community destruction of the crack era, and the utter failure of existing approaches to do anything about it.

It’s paid dividends. We now know a lot about what works and what doesn’t. That knowledge begins, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions himself says, with the fact that “the vast majority of people just want to obey the law and live their lives. A disproportionate amount of crime is committed by a small group of criminals.”

That’s exactly right. The most important discovery about violence in the last decades is that it’s what Harvard University researcher Thomas Abt calls “sticky.” Studies in city after city show that very small, active networks of extraordinarily high-risk victims and offenders — about one-half of 1 percent of the population — are associated with 60 percent to 75 percent of all homicide, and that 5 percent or so of blocks and street corners is similarly associated. And while many people use drugs, those involved in meaningful drug distribution — particularly the most active and violent of them — are also relatively few.

So what should we to do about this “small group of criminals?” It’s a critical question. Sessions has called for a return to the “war on drugs” menu — more law enforcement, mandatory minimums and long sentences, even the anti-drug D.A.R.E. program — plus a new focus on heavy immigration enforcement and a withdrawal from DOJ attention to police misconduct. But we now know for a fact that these things don’t work, and can actually make matters worse.

To understand why, and to see what does work, we should look to the groundbreaking front-line police and community actors who have been developing creative solutions that are more effective, less harmful and profoundly more respectful of traumatized and alienated communities than the old and demonstrably ineffective and discredited menu. They’re embracing new ways of focusing community engagement, social services and law enforcement to both protect and ensure accountability amongst Sessions’ “small group of criminals.” Work I’ve been involved in has law enforcement, community leaders and service providers sit down face-to-face with gang members and drug dealers, emphasize that the community hates the violence, offer to help anybody who wants it and explain the legal risks that come with violence. The result can be dramatic reductions in both violence and enforcement....

The best new crime prevention work recognizes the absolute centrality of what scholars call “legitimacy” — the community perception that authorities are respectful, unbiased, well-intentioned and have the standing to expect compliance. Breaking the bond between communities and the law does profound damage. As legitimacy goes down, crime reporting and cooperation with police and prosecutors go down, and violence goes up. Recognizing the absolute centrality of trust, police are backing away from stop-and- frisk and “zero tolerance” and working hard to reduce police violence and enhance accountability.

The opposite is clearly happening now in Hispanic communities, newly terrified of immigration enforcement: Houston police chief Art Acevedo says robbery, assault, and rape reporting by Hispanic communities are all down, the latter by 43 percent. The administration’s new policies may in fact be creating a safety net for predators....

And draconian sentencing — despite its frequent common-sense appeal — simply isn’t that effective. Violent crime is overwhelmingly a young man’s game, and long sentences just keep prisoners locked up well after they would have stopped of their own accord: a Stanford study shows that three-strikes “lifers” released recently under California prison reform had a 1.3 percent recidivism rate, against nearly 45 percent for other California inmates. They don’t deter that well, in part because criminals discount their futures just like middle-class home buyers do: offenders have been found to view a 20-year prison sentence as only about six times as severe as a one-year stint. Offenders frequently don’t know that the massive federal sentences they may be exposed to even exist until they’re charged and it’s much too late.

Enforcement has also proved utterly pointless with respect to drug markets, where locked-up dealers are easily replaced by new ones. The drug war was incapable of keeping drugs out of the country, from being produced domestically or from being sold and bought freely. It’s unlikely to do better in an age of fentanyl mail-ordered over the dark web. And as for D.A.R.E. — words fail. Criminologists are a cranky bunch, but there’s one thing that they all agree on: D.A.R.E. doesn’t work. By peddling misinformation about the dangers of drug use and telling huge numbers of impressionable kids that drugs and drug use are everywhere, the program can even increase abuse.

We need effective crime reduction strategies, just as we did in the '80s: Even before some cities recently started to see recent increases in homicide, violence suffered by poor minority communities — especially, young black men — was at intolerable levels. The opioid epidemic is hitting the country so hard it is reversing historic gains in life expectancy. We know enough to do better this time. We should do so, not willfully repeat the glaring and horrific mistakes of the recent past.

September 20, 2017 in National and State Crime Data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

It's Alive!!: Senators Grassley and Durbin talking about reintroducing federal Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act

Ae5cc-aliveRoughly two years ago, when Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Grassley secured a 15-5 vote in committee to move forward the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (remember that?), I was for a brief period optimistic about the possibility of significant reform to the federal sentencing system.  Regular readers may recall my skepticism about the prospect of major statutory sentencing reform back in summer 2013 when some were eager to believe, in the words one commentator, that "momentum for sentencing reform could be unstoppable."  But once Senators Grassley got on board and shepherded the SRCA though the Senate Judiciary Committee, I really started to think big reform really could happen.  But, of course, a host of predictable and unpredictable forces stopped significant federal statutory sentencing from ever becoming an Obama era reality.

I provide this backstory because it should temper any significant excitement from this new news release from Senator Grassley headlined "Senators to Reintroduce Landmark Criminal Justice Reform Package."  Here are the basics (with my emphasis added):

The bipartisan authors of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act are preparing to reintroduce their comprehensive legislation to review prison sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders, reduce recidivism, and save taxpayer dollars.  The legislation, led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, improves judicial discretion at sentencing for low level offenders and helps inmates successfully reenter society, while tightening penalties for violent criminals and preserving key prosecutorial tools for law enforcement.  The senators plan to reintroduce the bill as they continue to work with stakeholders to make additional updates.

“Last Congress, we worked in a bipartisan manner to develop a proposal that empowers judges, saves taxpayer dollars and gives low-level, non-violent offenders another shot at rejoining the productive side of society. Since that time, we’ve been meeting with colleagues and stakeholders to improve the bill and grow support.  While the political landscape in Washington has changed, the same problems presented by the current sentencing regime remain, and we will continue to work with colleagues in Congress and the administration, as well as advocates and members of the law enforcement community, to find a comprehensive solution to ensure justice for both the victims and the accused, and support law enforcement in their mission to keep our communities safe,” Grassley said.

“This legislation is the product of more than five years of work on criminal justice reform,” said Durbin. “It’s also the best chance in a generation to right the wrongs of a badly broken system.  The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth.  Mandatory minimum sentences were once seen as a strong deterrent. In reality they have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, our country must reform these outdated and ineffective laws that have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. We believe this legislation would pass the Senate with a strong bipartisan vote — it’s time to get this done.

The fact that a new version of the SRCA has not yet been introduced, and that Senator Grassley is talking about working with stakeholders to improve the bill in light of the changed political landscape, has me thinking that some interesting moves my be afoot in an effort to get this bill finally to a floor vote. I think Senator Durbin is quite right that a thoughtful federal statutory sentencing reform bill will get a strong bipartisan vote if it gets to the floor. The big question is whether a new version of the SCRA can get to the Senator floor anytime soon.

September 20, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

"Jeff Sessions may have been a fine Senator, but he has proven to be a feckless Attorney General."

The title of this post is a sentence from the first part of  this lengthy commentary by Gregg Jarrett at Fox News headlined "Sessions should resign, but not before taking action against Clinton, Comey and Rice."  The bulk of the commentary makes the case for bringing criminal cases against Hilary Clinton, James Comey and Susan Rice, and here is how it starts and ends:

Jeff Sessions should never have accepted the position of Attorney General of the United States. His leadership has proven unproductive and ineffectual....

Jeff Sessions either wittingly or unwittingly bungled his confirmation hearing, which led to the recusal that is said to have angered Trump and alienated the AG from the president. Regardless, Sessions’ performance as Attorney General ever since has been notable only for a series of failures to act when action is demanded.

The moment the President of the United States no longer has confidence in his Attorney General, it is time for him to submit his letter of resignation. But first, Sessions can restore integrity to the Department of Justice and salvage his own tattered reputation by taking aggressive action against Comey, Clinton and Rice.

Then he should quietly bow out.

September 19, 2017 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Advancing Justice: An Agenda for Human Dignity & Public Safety"

62043-5988c6b7f4018The title of this post is the title of this all-day event taking place next month (October 26) in Washington DC. The event is sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute and Charles Koch Foundation, and here is how this registration page briefly describes the event:

Criminal justice and policing reforms have made tremendous gains at both the state and federal level in the last several years.  However, the ongoing opioid crisis, questions around violent crime, and continued police militarization show us that there is still much to be done.

On Thursday, October 26, please join the Charles Koch Institute for a one-day conference in Washington, D.C. to identify the next set of criminal justice reform priorities, and showcase a broad coalition of policy makers, academics, think tanks, and community activists who've helped bring us this far.  Together, we are committed to supporting the best ideas and lending our voice to the national conversation for an advancement in human dignity and greater public safety. We hope you can join us.

I am honored to be one of the speakers at this event, and this speakers page details the impressive array of individuals who will be participating. I will be on a break-out panel titled "A Fight over Federalism: The Future of Marijuana Policy." Here are a few other panel titles that ought to be of interest to sentencing fans:

September 19, 2017 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Can an assistant public defender in California make nearly $300,000 per year?

Upon seeing this local article, headlined "Taxpayer cost for mass murderer Scott Dekraai’s case tops $2.5 million," I was starting to do a post on the high costs of problematic capital cases in California. (Regular readers may recall that the Dekraai case made headlines last month, as blogged here, when Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals excluded the death penalty as a punishment option due to law enforcement misconduct linked to a jail informant program.)  Here is how that article gets started:

If all goes as expected, the worst mass killer in Orange County history, Scott Dekraai, will be sentenced Friday, Sept. 22, to eight terms of life without parole, one term each for the people he fatally shot in Seal Beach six years ago.

But the sentence comes with a relatively high price tag after a judge rejected the death penalty and concluded local prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies had engaged in misconduct, according to records and interviews. As of Sept. 6, the Dekraai case has cost taxpayers at least $2.5 million, according to an analysis by the Southern California News Group.

But the question now in this title of this post emerges from my back-of-the-envelop assessment of this line item in cost analysis appearing in the article: "Assistant public defender Scott Sanders – $842,635: 50 percent of his total compensation, adjusted yearly, for five years and 10 months." If I am understanding this line item, it suggest that an assistant public defender received "total compensation" of nearly $1.7 million in less than six years, which amounts to annual salary of nearly $300,000. Though I will never begrudge a good lawyer making a good salary, the prospect of a public defender making this much on a yearly basis would certainly undermine the notion that all public defenders are over-worked and under-paid.

Because a quick web search brings up data suggesting that the average public defender annual salary in LA is more like $97,000, I am thinking there is something hinky in the numbers being used for accounting the costs of the Dekraai case.  And, perhaps even more to the point, this article with or without accounting errors, highlights how hard it is to really properly assess the complete costs to taxpayers of our criminal justice systems.

September 19, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Pushing back on criticisms of AG Sessions returning Justice Department to "failed mindset of its past"

In this post last week, I noted the National Review commentary authored by two former US Attorneys which focused on the Sessions charging/sentencing memo to complain that "Attorney General Jeff Sessions has returned the Justice Department to the failed mindset of its past."  I now have just noticed that Andrew McCarthy has penned this lengthy response at National Review under the headline "On Criminal Justice, Sessions Is Returning DOJ to the Rule of Law."  Here is an excerpt:

The authors lament that Sessions has reinstituted guidelines requiring prosecutors “to charge the most serious offenses and ask for the lengthiest prison sentences.” This, the authors insist, is a “one-size-fits-all policy” that “doesn’t work.” It marks a return to the supposedly “ineffective and damaging criminal-justice policies that were imposed in 2003,” upsetting the “bipartisan consensus” for “criminal-justice reform” that has supposedly seized “today’s America.”

This is so wrongheaded, it’s tough to decide where to begin.  In reality, what Sessions has done is return the Justice Department to the traditional guidance articulated nearly four decades ago by President Carter’s highly regarded attorney general, Benjamin Civiletti (and memorialized in the U.S. Attorney’s Manual).  It instructs prosecutors to charge the most serious, readily provable offense under the circumstances. Doesn’t work? This directive, in effect with little variation until the Obama years, is one of several factors that contributed to historic decreases in crime. When bad guys are prosecuted and incarcerated, they are not preying on our communities.

The thrust of the policy Sessions has revived is respect for the Constitution’s bedrock separation-of-powers principle. It requires faithful execution of laws enacted by Congress.... Absent this Justice Department directive that prosecutors must charge the most serious, readily provable offense, the executive branch becomes a law unto itself.  Bending congressional statutes to the executive’s policy preferences was the Obama approach to governance, so we should not be surprised that a pair of his appointed prosecutors see it as a model for criminal enforcement, too.  But it is not enforcement of the law.  It is executive imperialism....

Criminal statutes can be modified by legislation, which reflects the judgment of the people’s representatives.  The fact that they have not been, notwithstanding the purported “consensus” for “reform,” suggests that the public is not convinced of the need for such modification — or, perhaps, that our representatives grasp the need for a check on the judges. Unable to change the law, the “reformers” are reduced to arguing that justice happens only when prosecutors ignore the law.  If you’re Jeff Sessions and you say, “No, you know, I think we’ll have them follow the law,” you’re a Neanderthal....

Vance and Stewart have a point when they object to Attorney General Sessions’s unfortunate fondness for what they call “adoptive forfeiture policies.”  As we at National Review have contended (as has Justice Clarence Thomas, Kevin Williamson reminds us), civil asset forfeitures are property seizures without due process of law.  A federal spoils system incentivizes police to grab with both hands. Regardless of their effectiveness against drug lords, such forfeitures should be halted — the police should be required to proceed by criminal forfeiture and prosecution, with the due-process safeguards that entails. But that is because civil forfeitures offend the Constitution, not because they feed a left-wing narrative about fractured police–community relations.

Attorney General Sessions is enforcing the law, and doing so within a noble Justice Department tradition of giving force to Congress’s expression of the public will.  He is not altering the law by executive fiat, the preference of President Obama, Attorneys General Holder and Lynch, Professor Vance, Mr. Stewart, and the bipartisan minority they portray as a “consensus.”

There is a great deal I don’t like about the legal system either.  Statist government has enacted far too many laws, such that the federal government has criminalized too much of what used to be the province of state regulation — or unregulated private behavior.  The drug laws do have severe penalties and may work injustice in some cases — although fewer than Vance and Stewart suggest: Though the hands of federal judges are tied by mandatory minimums, they are not bound to follow advisory sentencing guidelines or prosecutorial recommendations.  I would certainly be open to mitigating penalties in exchange for thinning out the federal penal code and transferring areas of enforcement responsibility back to the states.  The point, however, is that this has to be done by legislation, not by executive autocrats under a stealthy distortion of prosecutorial discretion.

If Professor Vance and Mr. Stewart are right that we are in a new era, if the public has truly been won over to the notion that incarcerating criminals is counterproductive, the next step is very simple: Pass laws that amend the penal code.  In the meantime, the Justice Department’s job is to enforce the laws we have.  As Attorney General Sessions recognizes, that means charging the most serious, readily provable offense.

There is more to this commentary, and it merits a full read.  I have emphasized the points about the rule of law and the distinct roles of the distinct branches because it stands as the most conceptually principled defense of the Sessions Memo on prosecutorial policies.  At the same time, this defense lack a bit of nuance in failing to acknowledge that a large measure of congressional dysfunction, rather than the obvious will of the people, is precluding amendments to the federal penal code.

In red and blue states nationwide for nearly a decade, in various initiative votes from California to Oklahoma and from Alaska to Florida, the American people and their representative have been amending penal codes to be less harsh in many ways (especially to nonviolent offenders and marijuana users).  But very little similar work has gotten done in Congress largely because leadership will not even allow reform bills to come up for a full vote.  There are good reasons to think we could and would get many amendments to the federal penal code if up-or-down votes were allowed on various leading reform proposals --- e.g., the GOP-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee voted 75% in support of a massive sentencing reform bill in October 2015.  In light of the reality that significant federal sentencing reform seems to gets significant majority support when it gets a vote, one cannot quite say that full enforcement of existing federal criminal laws is fully compliant with the will of the people.

September 19, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, September 18, 2017

"Why Did a Federal Judge Sentence a Terminally Ill Mother to 75 Years for Health Care Fraud?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this recent law.com article about a notable (and notably harsh) federal sentencing.  Here are some of the details, with some commentary to follow:

A federal judge in Texas sentenced a terminally ill woman to 75 years in prison last month for bilking Medicare — an apparent record sentence for the U.S. Department of Justice for health care fraud.

Marie Neba, 53, of Sugar Land, Texas, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon of the Southern District of Texas on eight counts stemming from her role in a $13 million Medicare fraud scheme.  Neba, the owner and director of nursing at a Houston home health agency, was convicted after a two-week jury trial last November.  At the sentencing on Aug. 11, the government recommended a 35-year imprisonment, said Michael Khouri, who started representing Neba as her private attorney shortly after the trial... 

The unusually lengthy sentence for what health care fraud legal experts call a relatively routine case has them scratching their heads, even in this recent era of the federal government’s crackdown on health care fraud.  Neba, the mother of 7-year-old twin sons, was diagnosed in May with stage IV metastatic breast cancer that has spread to her lungs and bones, according to Khouri, who has filed an appeal of the conviction and the sentence.  She currently is receiving chemotherapy treatments and is in custody in a federal detention center.  “Marie Neba is a mother, a wife and a human being who is dying. If there is any defendant that stands before the court that deserves a below-guideline sentence … it’s this woman that stands before you,” Khouri argued before Harmon at the sentencing hearing, according to a transcript recently obtained by ALM....

Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who heads the government interaction and white-collar practice group at Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale in Chicago, said given the circumstances, he would have expected Neba to receive a sentence of several years in prison.  “Nothing is surprising in that she went to jail and not for six months,” he said. “But how you get anything close to 75 years is beyond me and makes no sense at all.  In 35 years, I have never heard of the government’s [prison term] recommendation being doubled by the judge, particularly when the government is asking for a tough sentence anyway.”

Gejaa Gobena, a litigation partner at Hogan Lovells and former chief of the DOJ Criminal Division’s Health Care Fraud Unit, concurred. “We prosecuted hundreds of cases and never had a sentence approaching anywhere near this,” Gobena said.

Legally, the answer to how the long sentence came about is not that difficult: Harmon, applying several enhancements under the federal sentencing guidelines, imposed the statutory maximum prison term on each charge, and then ran them consecutively.  “I am not a heartless person. I think I am not. I hope I am not,” Harmon told Neba before announcing the sentence. “It must be a terrible experience that you are going through, Ms. Neba, and I don’t want you to think that by sentencing you to what I am going to sentence you to that I’m trying to heap more difficulties on you because I am not. … It’s just the way the system works, the way the law works. You have been found guilty of a number of counts by a jury, and this is what happens.”

Even so, historically, the case is highly unusual, breaking the previous record by 25 years.  Since a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in December 2007 that reaffirmed that the federal sentencing guidelines are merely advisory, federal trial judges have much greater latitude to impose what they think are appropriate sentences, even if the guidelines call for higher or lower sentences.  The longest health care fraud sentence prior to Neba’s came in 2011, when Lawrence Duran, the owner of a Miami-area mental health care company, was sentenced to 50 years for orchestrating a $205 million Medicare scheme that defrauded vulnerable patients with dementia and substance abuse. The next longest? Forty-five years in 2015 for a Detroit doctor who gave chemotherapy to healthy patients, whom federal prosecutors then called the “most egregious fraudster in the history of this country.”

According to court documents, Neba, from 2006 to 2015, conspired with others to defraud Medicare by submitting more than $10 million in false claims for home health services provided through Fiango Home Healthcare Inc., owned by Neba and her husband and co-defendant, Ebong Tilong. Using that money, Neba paid illegal kickbacks to patient recruiters for referrals and to Medicare beneficiaries who allowed Fiango to use their Medicare information to bill for home health services that were not medically necessary nor provided, and, all told, received $13 million in ill-gotten Medicare payments, the documents said.

Neba was convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud, three counts of health care fraud, one count of conspiracy to pay and receive health care kickbacks, one count of payment and receipt of health care kickbacks, one count of conspiracy to launder monetary instruments and one count of making health care false statements.

Four co-defendants, including Tilong, have pleaded guilty in the case. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 13....

Harmon, through her case manager, declined to comment on the case. The transcript, however, reveals several factors that influenced her decision to impose the lengthy prison term, including: “Most importantly,” Neba’s sentencing guideline range of life imprisonment (though Harmon was proscribed by statutory maximums from imposing a life sentence);..... Neba’s attempt to obstruct justice by telling a co-defendant, before arraignment in the federal courthouse, “to keep to her story,” specifically “not to tell anybody that she, [the co-defendant], was paying the patients.”

Neba’s decision to go to trial on the charges, rather than plead guilty and provide some sort of government assistance, also played a role in her sentence. Had she pleaded guilty to one or more of the charges “at the very beginning without obstruction of justice,” and received the highest credit for cooperation for doing so, Neba’s sentencing guideline range would have been 14.5 years, federal prosecutor William Chang told Harmon during the hearing. “Had the same thing happened and she received no [credit] whatsoever, it would be 21.8 years,” he added. “If she had gone to trial and been convicted, but no obstruction of justice, the sentence would have been 30 years on the calculation of the guidelines. So, we want the court to understand the United States’ principal position for what it seeks.”

Khouri, Neba’s attorney, said he plans to challenge on appeal the manner in which the sentencing guideline range was calculated and argue, among other matters, that the sentence is excessive.

I have quoted so much of this press report because the more details it provides, the more perverse the entire federal sentencing system seems along with the perversity of this particularly extreme sentence. For starters, though we supposedly have a federal sentencing system designed to sentence a defendant based principally on the seriousness of her offense, this defendant's guideline range ballooned from less than 15 years imprisonment to life imprisonment essentially because she put the government to its burden of proof at a trial and said the wrong thing to a co-defendant.

Trial penalty guideline calculations notwithstanding, now that the guidelines are advisory, a prosecutor and a judge would need to be able to justify such an extreme functional LWOP sentence based on all the 3553(a) statutory factors. No matter how seriously one regards health care fraud, I cannot fully understand how any of these factors (save the guideline range) can support this extreme sentence in this not-so-extreme case of fraud.  If reasonableness review has any substance whatsoever, and if the facts in this article are accurate, it seems to me that this sentence ought to be found substantive unreasonable.

September 18, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Might Justice Gorsuch juice up the SCOTUS sentencing docket ... perhaps starting with IAC case from Arkansas?

The SCOTUS sentencing docket has felt relatively muted to me in recent years, due in part to transition issues after Justice Scalia's unexpected death and due in part to Apprendi and Booker jurisprudence no longer garnering much of the Court's attention.  Of course, the application of Eighth Amendment doctrines after Miller and Graham and vagueness doctrines after Johnson can and will continue to provide grist for the SCOTUS sentencing mill, and it also still seems no SCOTUS Term would be complete without a few capital cases on the docket.  Nevertheless, with SCOTUS soon to have its “long conference” in which the Justices will consider all the cert petitions that stacked up over the summer, I find myself not really expecting exciting cert grants on many (or perhaps any) issues that will rev up sentencing fans.

That said, and as the title of this post suggests, perhaps new personnel at SCOTUS could mean some new juice for the SCOTUS sentencing docket.  As noted in this post from May, Justice Gorsuch has opted out of the cert pool, and I suspect that could lead him to be more engaged with criminal cases that may get short shrift through the cert pool screening process. In addition, as detailed in this prior post, Justice Gorsuch had a remarkable little concurrence in a federal mandatory-minimum sentencing case, Hicks v. US, No. 16-7806 (S. Ct. June 26, 2017) (available here), right before all the Justices left for summer vacation.  Though these tea leaves hardly ensure that the new guy is a vote for cert in all the sentencing cases I find interesting, it remains fun to speculate whether Justice Gorsuch's libertarian-leaning instincts might make him more inclined to vote to review petitions of criminal defendants than some of his colleagues.

If Justice Gorsuch is looking for cert worthy sentencing cases, Carissa Byrne Hessick tees one up in this new post over at PrawfsBlawg, titled "Thompson v. Arkansas and Ineffective Assistance of Counsel at Sentencing."  Here is how that posting gets started:

Earlier this summer, I helped write a cert petition for the US Supreme Court.  The case involves an ineffective assistance claim out of Arkansas.  The petitioner, Mario Thompson, was represented at trial by a lawyer who didn’t do very much on his behalf.  Among other things, the lawyer failed to investigate or prepare any sort of meaningful mitigation case for sentencing.  On collateral attack, a state judge held that the lawyer failed to provide effective assistance of counsel at sentencing. But the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed.

Arkansas has a rule that a defendant who is claiming a violation of her Sixth Amendment right to counsel cannot show prejudice if she did not receive the maximum available sentence.  This rule is inconsistent with the reasoning of Glover v. United States, 531 U.S. 198 (2001).  And although Arkansas is the only jurisdiction to have adopted this particular rule, there is a split over the appropriate prejudice standard for ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing claims.  The Second, Third, Sixth, and Tenth Circuits have adopted what I think is the correct legal standard.  The courts of last resort in Louisiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin have adopted that same standard.  But Arkansas and the Fifth Circuit have adopted different prejudice standards.  And several federal district courts have started to question how they ought to assess these claims.

September 18, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Noting judicial resistance (and legal questions) as Ohio law pushes judges to avoid state prison sentences for certain offenders

This fascinating article in the Columbus Dispatch, headlined "Some Ohio counties leery of Kasich program to divert low-level offenders from prison," highlights a novel and controversial new  sentencing law in Ohio that some local judges and official plainly dislike. Here are excerpts:

The 43-year-old career criminal broke into three Obetz businesses — a market and two pizza parlors — by smashing windows or door glass with rocks and concrete blocks over a four-day period last summer.  A Franklin County Common Pleas judge sent him to prison for two years, a decision that was upheld last week by the county court of appeals.  But under a program in which Franklin County will be required to participate beginning next July, the state will penalize the county for sending such an offender to prison.

The Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison program, approved by legislators in June as part of the state budget, seeks to reduce the prison population by diverting nonviolent, low-level felons to probation, local jails or community-based programs.  In return, the counties will receive grants from the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to offset the cost of supervising, treating or jailing those offenders in their communities.

The program, advocated by prisons Director Gary Mohr and Gov. John Kasich, has received opposition from judges and prosecutors across the state since it was proposed.  Most judges don’t like it because “it infringes on our discretion by telling us there are certain felons we can’t send to prison,” said Judge Stephen L. McIntosh, the administrative judge for Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

Some counties have decided that the grant money being offered by the state won’t be enough to cover the costs of keeping offenders in the community who otherwise would have gone to prison.  Others have offered a harsh assessment of a program that gives grants to judges in exchange for keeping certain offenders out of prison.  “Essentially what judges are being offered is a bribe,” Stark County Common Pleas Judge Kristin Farmer said in August when she and her colleagues on the bench encouraged their county commissioners not to participate in the program this year....

Franklin and Stark are among the state’s 10 largest counties, all of which are mandated under the law to participate in the program beginning July 1, 2018.  Franklin County’s Common Pleas judges will meet Tuesday to decide whether to participate in the program before the mandate kicks in, McIntosh said.  Last week, Cuyahoga County joined Stark in deciding not to implement the program until next summer. “The state’s offer of resources is completely inadequate to the demands that it will put on our local jails and our systems,” Armond Budish, the Cuyahoga County executive, said in a news release....

Under the program, offenders convicted of fifth-degree felonies, the lowest felony level, are not to be sentenced to prison unless they’ve committed a violent offense, a sex crime or a drug-trafficking offense.  The state correction department estimated that 4,000 such offenders were sent to prison last year.  If a participating county sends someone to prison in violation of the criteria, their grant money will be docked $72 a day for each day the offender is held in a state facility.

Clinton County Common Pleas Judge John W. “Tim” Rudduck has been participating since October in a pilot program to test the concept and is a vocal supporter of its benefits. “I’m looking at it from the perspective of a single judge in a semi-rural county with limited resources,” he said.  “The money we have received has been instrumental in developing resources (to support alternatives to prison) that we never had before.”  Before the program was implemented, some offenders were going to prison simply because Clinton County didn’t have the resources to treat or supervise them in the community, he said.

The program is voluntary for 78 counties. So far, 48 counties have agreed to implement the program....  A system in which some Ohio counties follow the program and other don’t is “patently unconstitutional,” said Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien.  The Ohio Constitution, he said, requires “uniform operation” of all laws.  That concept is violated when a defendant receives a prison sentence in one county for an offense for which he would be prohibited from receiving prison in another.

Those “equal protection” concerns are almost certain to lead to legal challenges for the program, said Paul Pfeifer, executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference.  “I’d fully expect a test case to be filed on that issue,” said Pfeifer, a former state Supreme Court justice and state senator.  His organization, which represents all judges in Ohio, has expressed concerns about the program, but wants to work with judges to make its implementation as smooth as possible now that it’s the law, he said.

September 18, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, September 16, 2017

"Criminalizing Race: Racial Disparities in Plea Bargaining"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Carlos Berdejó available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Most of the empirical research examining racial disparities in the criminal justice system has focused on its two endpoints — the arrest and initial charging of defendants and judges’ sentencing decisions.  Few studies have assessed disparities in the steps leading up to a defendant’s conviction, where various actors make choices that often constraint judges’ ultimate sentencing discretion.  This article addresses this gap by examining racial disparities in the plea-bargaining process, focusing on the period between the initial filing of charges and the defendant’s conviction.

The results presented in this article reveal significant racial disparities in this stage of the criminal justice system. White defendants are twenty-five percent more likely than black defendants to have their principal initial charge dropped or reduced to a lesser crime.  As a result, white defendants who face initial felony charges are less likely than black defendants to be convicted of a felony.  Similarly, white defendants initially charged with misdemeanors are more likely than black defendants to be convicted for crimes carrying no possible incarceration or not being convicted at all.

Racial disparities in plea-bargaining outcomes are greater in cases involving misdemeanors and low-level felonies. In cases involving severe felonies, black and white defendants achieve similar outcomes.  Defendants’ criminal histories also play a key role in mediating racial disparities.  While white defendants with no prior convictions receive charge reductions more often than black defendants with no prior convictions, white and black defendants with prior convictions are afforded similar treatment by prosecutors.  These patterns in racial disparities suggest that prosecutors may be using race as a proxy for a defendant’s latent criminality and likelihood to recidivate.

September 16, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, September 15, 2017

Deputy AG Rosenstein hints at possible changes to federal corporate-crime prosecution policies

As reported in this Politico piece, the "Justice Department's No. 2 official indicated Thursday that the federal government's policy on prosecuting corporate crime is under review and he suggested that changes to the department's stance on the issue are coming." Here is more:

"It’s under review and I anticipate that there may be some change to the policy on corporate prosecutions," Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Thursday during a question-and-answer session following a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "I don’t have any announcement about that today, but I do anticipate that we may in the near future make an announcement about what changes we’re going to make to corporate fraud principles."

The department's current policy, announced by Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in September 2015, aimed to increase prosecutions of individuals responsible for criminal acts committed during work for corporations. The so-called Yates memo was seen in part as a reaction to criticism of the anemic number of prosecutions of individuals on Wall Street or at big banks for crimes related to the economic meltdown in 2008.

Rosenstein did not indicate what portions of the Yates memo are likely to be overhauled or halted. He also said that he favors prosecutions of individuals in appropriate cases. "Corporations, of course, don’t go to prison. They do pay a fine," Rosenstein said. "The issue is can you effectively deter corporate crime by prosecuting corporations or do you in some circumstances need to prosecute individuals. I think you do."

DAG Rosenstein also talked a bit about possible changes to DOJ policies on marijuana enforcement, and I cover those comments here over at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

September 15, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, September 14, 2017

New York Times reporting that Prez Trump back in May urged AG Sessions to resign then rejected his letter of resignation

This new New York Times article reports on notable details of the history of recent tensions between Prez Trump and AG Sessions under the headline "Trump Humiliated Jeff Sessions After Mueller Appointment."  Here is how it gets started:

Shortly after learning in May that a special counsel had been appointed to investigate links between his campaign associates and Russia, President Trump berated Attorney General Jeff Sessions in an Oval Office meeting and said he should resign, according to current and former administration officials and others briefed on the matter.

The president blamed the appointment of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, on Mr. Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s Russia investigation — a move Mr. Trump believes was the moment his administration effectively lost control over the inquiry. Accusing Mr. Sessions of “disloyalty,” Mr. Trump unleashed a string of insults on his attorney general.

Ashen and emotional, Mr. Sessions told the president he would quit and sent a resignation letter to the White House, according to four people who were told details of the meeting. Mr. Sessions would later tell associates that the demeaning way the president addressed him was the most humiliating experience in decades of public life.

The Oval Office meeting, details of which have not previously been reported, shows the intensity of Mr. Trump’s emotions as the Russia investigation gained steam and how he appeared to immediately see Mr. Mueller’s appointment as a looming problem for his administration. It also illustrates the depth of antipathy Mr. Trump has had for Mr. Sessions — one of his earliest campaign supporters — and how the president interprets “disloyalty” within his circle of advisers.

Mr. Trump ended up rejecting Mr. Sessions’s May resignation letter after senior members of his administration argued that dismissing the attorney general would only create more problems for a president who had already fired an F.B.I. director and a national security adviser. Mr. Trump once again, in July, told aides he wanted to remove Mr. Sessions, but for a second time didn’t take action.

The relationship between the two men has improved marginally since midsummer, as Mr. Sessions has made a public display of hunting for the leakers among the administration’s national security officials. His allies said that despite the humiliation, the attorney general has stayed in the job because he sees a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity as the nation’s top law enforcement official to toughen the country’s immigration policies.

September 14, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Fragmentation and Democracy in the Constitutional Law of Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this recently published paper that I recently noticed authored by Richard Bierschbach.  Here is its abstract:

Scholars have long studied the relationship of structural constitutional principles like checks and balances to democracy.  But the relationship of such principles to democracy in criminal punishment has received less attention.  This Essay examines that relationship and finds it fraught with both promise and peril for the project of democratic criminal justice.  On the one hand, by blending a range of inputs into punishment determinations, the constitutional fragmentation of the punishment power can enhance different types of influence in an area in which perspective is of special concern.  At the same time, the potentially positive aspects of fragmentation can backfire, encouraging tunnel vision, replicating power differentials, and making it easier for more well-resourced voices to drown out others.  Thus, the same structure that generates valuable democratic benefits for punishment also falls prey and contributes to serious democratic deficits.  But despite its drawbacks, we cannot and should not abandon the Constitution’s fragmented approach to crime and punishment.  The more promising move is to look for ways to make different loci of influence and representation more meaningful within our existing framework, doing more to ensure that multiple voices are heard.

September 14, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Jared Kushner convening White House meeting on federal prison programming and reentry issues

As reported in this Washington Post piece, headlined "Kushner to gather bipartisan group to come up with ideas for federal prisons," an event scheduled for today in the White House suggests criminal justice reform issues are not completely dormant at the federal level. Here are the details:

President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, will convene a roundtable Thursday at the White House to gather recommendations for improving mentoring and job training in federal prisons, a departure from the administration’s focus on more punitive crime-fighting measures.  A bipartisan group of about two dozen elected officials, religious leaders and business leaders were invited to the first major criminal justice-related event held by the Kushner-led Office of American Innovation, which in recent months has brought together technology executives to search for ways to make government more efficient.

Kushner’s interest in corrections policy is personal: His father, Charles Kushner, a real estate executive, was sentenced in 2005 to two years in federal prison after pleading guilty to tax evasion. Jared Kushner has said the experience gave him a glimpse of the challenges inmates and their families face in and outside of prison.  “There is a lot of agreement from the left and the center and the right that once a person has committed a crime we should make sure we give them the best opportunities to try to live a productive life after serving their time,” Kushner told The Washington Post in a telephone interview.  “We’re not looking to train better criminals.”

The event, which had not been officially announced as of Wednesday morning, comes after a months-long push by Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions for more aggressive prosecution of drug offenders and illegal immigrants.  In May, Sessions jettisoned an Obama administration policy that instructed federal prosecutors to avoid charging low-level criminals with drug offenses that would trigger severe mandatory-minimum sentences, a shift projected to boost the prison population.  Those efforts are at odds with a growing consensus that the mandatory-minimum sentences that proliferated during the “war on drugs” fueled crowded, costly prisons that unduly burden taxpayers and do not improve public safety.  A number of states, including several led by Republicans, are curbing their inmate populations and even closing prisons by reducing mandatory-minimum sentences and expanding parole and probation.

Kushner’s private discussions in recent months with members of Congress and outside groups have included sentencing reform, according to participants, but Thursday’s meeting is more narrowly focused on preparing inmates to reenter society.  Neither Sessions nor his newly appointed Bureau of Prisons director, retired Army Gen. Mark S. Inch, will attend, although some Justice Department officials are expected to participate.

Criminal justice advocates invited to the roundtable said the gathering is a positive first step, and they called for expanding drug and mental health treatment, vocational training, mentoring programs and placement in halfway houses. “Regardless of what you think about who goes to prison or how long they need to be there, most people come out eventually, so let’s make sure they are better off than when they came in,” said Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries, a leading conservative proponent of reducing incarceration levels.  “Of course I want to see the dialogue on criminal justice issues continue and looked at comprehensively.  We need a holistic solution.”

The federal prison population is expected to grow by 2 percent over the coming year, rising by 4,171 inmates, to a total of 191,493, and reversing the downward trend of the past four years, according to the Trump administration’s proposed budget.  Yet the proposal calls for a 14 percent reduction in federal prison jobs, including 1,850 fewer corrections officers.  Many of those positions are vacant.  The Justice Department is seeking $10 million to cover the costs of food, health care, transportation and programs for the additional inmates, but it’s unclear how much money would be allocated to education and vocational training....

Asked about federal funding, Kushner said, “We’re not at a place where we are prescribing solutions. We’re bringing people together and generating ideas. If prisoner reentry programs are successfully executed, it’s usually a good investment.”  A request for recommendations from participants before the conference said, “While suggestions for the investment of Federal resources are appreciated, please also be sure to highlight opportunities that do not require Federal funding.”

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.) has introduced a bill that would require federal prisons to assess inmates’ needs and offer rehabilitation programs. Co-sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the measure requests $250 million over the next five years for prison education programs.

Among the elected officials slated to participate in Thursday’s program are Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Republican Govs. Matt Bevin of Kentucky and Sam Brownback of Kansas.

September 14, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

"Brock Turner: Sorting Through the Noise"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper recent posted to SSRN authored by Michael Vitiello. Here is the abstract:

This article begins with a quick test. The author asks his readers to spend a few moments reacting to “Brock Turner.” In response, no doubt, many think, “Stanford rapist,” “white privilege,” “special treatment for an elite college athlete,” and perhaps, “illegal sentence."  Certainly, that reaction is not surprising, given racial bias in sentencing and special treatment for elite college athletes.

The public response to Judge Aaron Persky’s sentence was quite negative even before Stanford Law Professor Michele Landis Dauber, a family friend of the victim, began a recall effort. The recall efforts have kept the case in the public’s eye.  While some members of the public and profession have spoken out against the recall, it seems to be on pace to get on the ballot in the fall of this year.

As troubling as Turner’s sentence is for many observers, issues posed by a judicial recall are quite distinct.  The article challenges the media for its role in inflaming public opinion about the case.  While the sentence seems far too short in light of Turner’s conduct, an examination of California sentencing criteria, as well as the probation report that Judge Persky relied on in determining Turner’s sentence, makes the case more complicated than widely reported in the media.  Even assuming that one disagrees with Judge Persky’s sentence, the article argues that California has led the nation in over reliance on long prison sentences, the result of all-too-familiar-get-tough-on-crime rhetoric. That has led the state to spend unnecessary billions of dollars warehousing offenders who do not represent a serious public safety risk.  The article concludes that judicial recall will result in unnecessary additional years of imprisonment for criminal defendants because judges, consciously or unconsciously, may fear for their livelihood if vocal members of the public deem their sentences too lenient.

September 13, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Former US Attorneys lament AG Sessions' charging memo as returning Justice Department to "failed mindset of its past"

This notable new National Review commentary, headlined "On Criminal Justice, Sessions Is Returning DOJ to the Failed Policies of the Past," is authored by Joyce Vance, the former US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, and Carter Stewart, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio.  Here are excerpts, with some commentary to follow:

True to form, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has returned the Justice Department to the failed mindset of its past.  In implementing his own tough-on-crime mantra, he has required prosecutors, in virtually all cases, to charge the most serious offenses and ask for the lengthiest prison sentences.

Americans have seen this one-size-fits-all policy in action before. It doesn’t work. Today’s America is often a world where everyone adheres to their confirmed views and there is little exchange of information and ideas across political divides. So, when the rare issue comes along that generates a bipartisan consensus, it should be worth seriously considering.

Criminal-justice reform is one of those issues.  Yet Attorney General Sessions continues to roll back previously instituted changes that were beginning to reduce America’s prison population, the justice system’s costs, and crime.  He is doing so despite the consensus that produced those changes. We should not let this rare opportunity to reform a badly broken criminal-justice system fade away, nor should we permit the consensus on reform to shatter under the consuming cover of national scandal.

Sessions’s charging policy memo, editorials, and planned state tour to push for a crackdown on crime all resemble ineffective and damaging criminal-justice policies that were imposed in 2003. Although those policies’ stated goal was originally to create nationwide uniformity in the justice system, they resulted in the proliferation of questionable prosecutions, and the Bureau of Prisons’ population swelled to its highest level in history, consuming almost one-third of the Department of Justice’s annual budget. One side effect of this fiasco that lingers today is the broken relationship between police departments and the communities they are sworn to serve and protect. The attorney general is aggravating that tension with his recent revival of adoptive forfeiture policies, giving local and state law enforcement a federal benediction to seize the property of suspected criminals. Distrust impedes community cooperation with law enforcement, and increased incarceration rates do little to decrease crime.

The excessive reliance on arrests and extended incarceration was unsustainable, it disparately impacted racial minorities and the poor, and it had a negligible impact on public safety.  People leaving prison are too often unable to find jobs because of their criminal records, and two-thirds of them re-offend within three years. It has become obvious that we must do more than just incarcerate people to make our communities safer.

That’s why, in 2013, DOJ promulgated the “Smart on Crime” initiative, which returned charging discretion to federal prosecutors and directed them to use a three-pronged approach: implement priorities for prosecuting the most serious crimes, advance prevention programs, and develop strategies to help people successfully re-enter the community after they’ve served their time. At its core, this approach recognized that each criminal defendant is a person, often with families and friends who care deeply about them....

“Tough on crime” strategies that rely on lengthy prison sentences and property seizure may permit politicians to sharpen their image in the eyes of voters, but they run afoul of justice and fail to deliver results. At the same time DOJ was modernizing its criminal-justice polices, many states were doing so as well.  Since 2007, 23 states have reformed their sentencing laws to focus law-enforcement resources on the most dangerous crimes. Often, federal law-enforcement officials worked hand in hand with their state and local counterparts to achieve progress. In Alabama, the legislature created a new felony category for the lowest level of drug and property offenses, sending offenders to less expensive and more effective community corrections programs instead of prison.  Ohio eliminated the disparity in criminal penalties between crack and powder cocaine offenses and raised the threshold requirements for felony-theft sentencing. As a result of similar policies, Texas has closed three prisons since 2005 and still enjoyed a 29 percent drop in crime. Georgia and North Carolina have adopted justice-reinvestment programs and had similar success.

As former U.S. Attorneys, we know firsthand that families across our country care about the safety of their communities above all else. We worked hand in hand with law enforcement, members of the community, and victims of crime to pursue those individuals who were the most dangerous. But we also know that an approach that uniformly imposes the harshest penalties on everyone risks damaging community trust and cooperation for generations, jeopardizing safety as a whole. Rehashing tough-on-crime policies based on disproved assumptions is a recipe for failure. The Department of Justice should move forward with its Smart on Crime public-safety and criminal-justice policies, using a proven approach that has reduced prison populations, costs, and crime in states that have implemented it. Justice is about more than just putting people in prison.

This commentary hits many of the themes now common to advocacy for smart-on-crime approaches over tough-on-crime approaches to crime and punishment. But it fails to grapple with the (too simple) reality that nationwide crime rates went down dramatically from 1991 to 2014 when tough-on-crime approaches defined much of the Justice Departments work and that crime rates started moving up significantly not long after DOJ promulgated its "Smart on Crime" initiative. Because of these crime data, AG Sessions and many others likely do not accept the assertion in this commentary that tough-on-crime postures by DOJ have a "negligible impact on public safety." Thanks to prior crime declines and recent crime increases, I think they actually believe tough-on-crime approaches, at least at the federal level, are absolutely essential to public safety.  Put differently, I suspect that AG Sessions now sees smart-on-crime approaches as the "failed mindset" and thus he seems very unlikely to be moved by these kinds of commentaries.

September 13, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

New op-ed and op-doc from New York Times takes on "A ‘Frightening’ Myth About Sex Offenders"

David Feige has a new op-ed and a short video documentary unpacking and attacking the notion that sex offender recidivism rates are extraordinarily high.  This op-ed is headlined "When Junk Science About Sex Offenders Infects the Supreme Court," and this op-doc is titled "A ‘Frightening’ Myth About Sex Offenders."  Here is how the op-ed starts and ends:

This month the Supreme Court will have a rare opportunity to correct a flawed doctrine that for the past two decades has relied on junk social science to justify punishing more than 800,000 Americans.  Two cases that the court could review concern people on the sex offender registry and the kinds of government control that can constitutionally be imposed upon them.

In Snyder v. Doe, the court could consider whether Michigan’s broad scheme of regulating sex offenders constitutes “punishment.”  The other case, Karsjens v. Piper, examines the constitutionality of Minnesota’s policy of detaining sex offenders forever — not for what they’ve done, but for what they might do.

And while the idea of indefinite preventive detention might sound un-American or something out of the film “Minority Report,” the larger problem is that “civil commitment,” like hundreds of other regulations imposed on those required to register, has been justified by assertions about the recidivism of sex offenders. But those assertions turn out to be entirely belied by science.

For the past 24 years, Minnesota has detained sex offenders released from prison in a “therapeutic program” conveniently located on the grounds of a maximum-security prison in Moose Lake.  The “patients” are kept in locked cells, transported outside the facility in handcuffs and leg irons, and subjected to a regimen that looks, sounds and smells just like that of the prison it is adjacent to.

But unlike prison, this “therapeutic” program, which aims to teach the patients to control their sexual impulses and was initially designed to last from two to four years, has no fixed end date. Rather, program administrators decide which patients are safe enough to release.  In the 24 years it has existed, not a single “patient” has ever been fully released.  There are now about 850 people in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, some with no adult criminal record, and others who, despite having completed every single program ever offered at the facility, have remained civilly committed for over 20 years.

While civil commitment is perhaps the most extreme example of punishments imposed on people convicted of sex crimes, it is by no means the only one. Driven by a pervasive fear of sexual predators, and facing no discernible opposition, politicians have become evermore inventive in dreaming up ways to corral and marginalize those forced to register — a category which itself has expanded radically and come to include those convicted of “sexting,” having consensual sex with non-minor teenagers or even urinating in public.

These sanctions include being forced to wear (and pay for) GPS monitoring and being banned from parks, and draconian residency restrictions that sometimes lead to homelessness.  In addition, punishments can include, on pain of re-incarceration, undergoing interrogations using a penile plethysmograph, a device used to measure sexual arousal.  They have also included requirements that those on the registry refrain from being alone with children (often including their own) and barred from holding certain jobs, like being a volunteer firefighter or driving an ice cream truck.

And when these restrictions have been challenged in court, judge after judge has justified them based on a Supreme Court doctrine that allows such restrictions, thanks to the “frightening and high” recidivism rate ascribed to sex offenders — a rate the court has pegged “as high as 80 percent.”  The problem is this: The 80 percent recidivism rate is an entirely invented number....

Now more than ever, Americans should be able to look to our highest court and expect decisions that are based on reason and grounded in science rather than fear.  The court must rule wisely and bravely, including being willing to acknowledge its mistake and finally correct the record.  More than 800,000 Americans have needlessly suffered humiliation, ostracism, banishment re-incarceration and civil commitment thanks to a judicial opinion grounded in an unsourced, unscientific study.  Simple decency and perhaps more important, intellectual honesty demands better.

A few prior recent related posts:

September 12, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wishing for comparable efforts to contest severity in light of legal attacks on leniency of Arpaio pardon

The title of this post is my reaction to this Politico article headlined "Legal groups move to challenge Trump's Arpaio pardon."  The article reports on just some of the copious efforts to contest Prez Donald Trump's first use of his clemency authority.  Here are the basics:

Two advocacy groups moved on Monday to challenge Donald Trump’s pardon of controversial former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, alleging that the president's move was unconstitutional because it undermined the power of the federal judiciary.

A public interest law firm, the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, sought to file an amicus brief in an Arizona district court, where Arpaio is seeking to vacate a conviction after Trump granted him a pardon last month. The brief was initially turned down by a judge on procedural grounds.  A second group, the Protect Democracy Project, also filed an amicus brief on Monday arguing that the pardon is unconstitutional....

The [MacArthur Justice Center] brief contends that Trump’s pardon of Arpaio violated the Constitution because “it has the purpose and effect of eviscerating the judicial power to enforce constitutional rights.”  The MacArthur Justice Center lawyers argue that, while broad, presidential pardon power can not be used to undermine the judiciary’s ability to enforce the Bill of Rights or the Fourteenth Amendment.  The Arpaio pardon, the lawyers argue, “eviscerates this Court’s enforcement power...by endorsing Arpaio’s refusal to comply with federal court orders.” The brief also takes issue with the breadth of Trump’s pardon, noting that the “text of the pardon is so broad that it purports to allow Arpaio to run for Sheriff again...and escape criminal liability for future contempt.”

Protect Democracy’s lawyers similarly contend that the pardon violates the separation of powers “because it unconstitutionally interferes with the inherent powers of the Judicial Branch.” They also argue that the pardon goes beyond the president’s power — “We are aware of no case in this Court, the Ninth Circuit or the Supreme Court that has upheld a pardon matching the extraordinary circumstances here, where the contempt is used to enforce court orders protecting the rights of private litigants,” the lawyers write — and violates due process.

This extended post by William Jacobson over at Legal insurrection, headlined "DOJ sides with Joe Arpaio, as groups ask Ct to declare Pardon unconstitutional," rightly notes the uphill battle these arguments face and concludes that "it seems highly unlikely that the court would declare that a pardon which on its face is constitutional is not because it involves contempt of court." It also details and links the four briefs sought to be filed against the Apraio pardon:

I full comprehend all the political and legal reasons why the Arpaio pardon bothers folks, and I will never tell thoughtful advocates that they are wasting their time by filing amicus brief even when the law seems against them.  But, as the title of this post indicated, I still rue the reality that partisan politics so readily energizes a bunch of folks spend lots of time and resources attacking one act of remarkable leniency while so many acts of remarkable severity in our criminal justice systems so rarely engenders even a peep from outside advocates.

September 12, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Looking at criminal justice reform through the lens of federal budget debates

Last week the Center for American Progress (CAP) released this advocacy document titled "Congress Can Lead on Criminal Justice Reform Through Funding Choices." Though the document is already a bit dated now that a stop-gap funding bill went through Congress late last week, this CAP issue brief still provides a useful primer on how budgets passed by Congress always play a role in criminal justice reform at both the federal and state level. Here is how this document gets started:

As Congress returns from the August recess, one of its most pressing goals will be to pass a series of appropriations bills to fund the federal government for fiscal year 2018, which begins October 1, 2017. Criminal justice stakeholders across the country are paying particularly close attention to the FY 2018 Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) appropriations bill. This bill not only controls the funding levels for federal criminal justice entities but also sets the amounts available to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for grants to state and local government counterparts as well as researchers and service providers.

The importance of federal criminal justice resources has become even more pronounced in recent years as the movement to reform criminal justice systems and practices has gained steam. While comprehensive efforts to reduce the size of the federal criminal justice system face headwinds from the Trump administration’s “law and order” policies, congressional leaders have the opportunity to provide federal leadership on this issue through their funding choices.  After all, the overwhelming majority of the country’s total incarcerated population — approximately 90 percent — is in state and local systems, not the federal system.

The House and Senate appropriations committees have marked up their respective appropriations bills, providing almost $2.2 billion for the DOJ’s discretionary grant programs for FY 2018. These grant programs represent the primary assistance that the federal government makes available to state and local public safety agencies each year.  They also are one of the federal government’s main vehicle for supporting, enhancing, and in some cases influencing state and local criminal justice agencies.  The two appropriations bills are likely headed to a floor vote in September.  The bills are different from each other, but both are certainly a dramatic improvement on the budget proposed by President Trump, which cuts DOJ’s discretionary grant funding by $310 million.

Congress should ensure that funding priorities are aligned to address the critical and emerging criminal justice issues facing communities today.  This issue brief examines four such important funding areas: 1) promote diversion into mental health and substance use treatment instead of incarceration; 2) reduce incarceration rates and levels; 3) eliminate the criminalization of poverty; and 4) increase support for indigent defense.

September 12, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 11, 2017

"Guideposts for the Era of Smart Decarceration"

Download (5)The title of this post is the title of this notable document produced by the Smart Decarceration Initiative and authored by Carrie Pettus-Davis, Matthew Epperson and Annie Grier. (The document was released earlier this year, but was just recently brought to my attention.)  Here is part of its executive summary:

Reducing the United States’ overreliance on incarceration requires deliberate action. Proponents of smart decarceration recognize the need for clearly articulated areas of targeted intervention — or guideposts — to inform the multifaceted nature of criminal justice reform.  An important first step as we enter the era of decarceration is to merge the collective goals and strategies of diverse and highly invested stakeholders.

Despite the expansion of efforts to reduce jail and prison populations and reform criminal justice policy and practice, a comprehensive, inclusive, and actionable approach has been relatively absent from the conversation.  Such an approach is only possible if criminal justice stakeholders agree upon the foundational objectives that can generate lasting decarceration. In this report, we offer guideposts and actionable strategies for the era of smart decarceration in America.

This document was written by leaders of the Smart Decarceration Initiative (SDI). SDI is a joint initiative of Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Chicago and is located at the Center for Social Development at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work. SDI’s mission is to build social capacity to reduce incarceration rates in ways that are effective, sustainable, and socially just.  Smart decarceration will only be achieved when three simultaneous goals are accomplished:

• Substantially reduce the incarcerated population in jails and prisons;

• Redress race, economic, and behavioral health disparities of those involved in the criminal justice system;

• Maximize public well-being and public safety.

SDI is grounded in four guiding concepts:

1. Changing the narrative on incarceration and the incarcerated. A smart decarceration approach must soberly question the utility and function of incarceration and actively welcome currently and formerly incarcerated individuals as leaders in decarceration efforts.

2. Making criminal justice systemwide innovations. Criminal justice transformation that leads to smart decarceration will require advances in all sectors of the criminal justice system, including law enforcement, court systems, jails and prisons, and probation and parole.

3. Implementing transdisciplinary policy and practice interventions. Smart decarceration will be complex and comprehensive and will require integrating perspectives from multiple disciplines to produce substantive policy reforms and practice innovations.

4. Employing evidence-driven strategies. A smart decarceration approach must both generate new evidence for optimal reforms and use existing evidence to guide decision-making and program development. Methods must be integrated to continuously examine and assess the effects of policy and practice interventions, thus developing further evidence from which to act.

This report, Guideposts for the Era of Smart Decarceration, is a result of our efforts to build consensus and articulate priorities that stakeholders have identified as feasible and likely to produce meaningful impact in the era of decarceration. Integral to ensuring that smart decarceration is achieved is that the ideas and needs of multiple stakeholders are represented.

This report contains a set of guideposts and action steps for stakeholders identified over a three-stage process of soliciting input from 307 advocates, practitioners, reformers, and researchers. Stakeholders were engaged in this process between September 2014 and September 2016. The purpose of Phase 1 was to show where to focus decarceration efforts. Phase 2 was used to reveal the prioritization of specific action steps that could be taken to promote decarceration in ways that are consistent with smart decarceration goals and guiding concepts. Phase 3 articulated universal policy strategies to facilitate decarcerative change....

Twelve priority areas for decarceration were generated during Phase 1. These priorities included: (1) sharing data and resource allocation; (2) incorporating assessments of risks and needs; (3) implementing evidence-driven innovations; (4) reorienting responses to severity of the crime; (5) resetting norms and narratives; (6) incorporating multiple and new perspectives; (7) responding to behavioral and physical health needs; (8) improving reentry; (9) reducing collateral consequences; (10) building diversionary systems; (11) curtailing sentencing; and (12) narrowing the funnel to incarceration....

September 11, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Does latest US Sentencing Commission data hint at the emerging impact of the new Sessions memo?

The question in the title of this post is the result of my (perhaps premature) effort to see the development of a (slight) new trend in the latest federal sentencing data reported this past week by the US Sentencing Commission.  These latest data appear in this standard quarterly data report from the USSC titled simply FY 2017 Quarterly Report on Federal Sentencing Data, which "contains preliminary data on cases in which the offender was sentenced during the first three quarters of fiscal year 2017."  The first three quarters of FY17 runs October 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017, which in turn means nearly the last two months of the most recent reported data reflect sentencings that took place after Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued in early May 2017 his charging and sentencing memorandum directing federal prosecutors to more regularly seek within-guideline sentences.

Critically, lots of predictable and not-so-predictable factors can impact federal sentencing data from month to month and year to year.  So, it can be a mistake to see trends or assert causal links based on just a little bit of data.  Nevertheless, I cannot help but find notable and note here the data points on Table 12 of the new USSC data, which provides quarter-by-quarter data on within-guideline and outside-guideline sentence.  That Table shows that in every full quarter after former Attorney General Eric Holder announced his "Smart on Crime" policies in August 2013, at least 20% of all sentences were judge-sponsored below-guideline sentences.  But in the very last quarter now, the USSC data show than only 19.8% of sentences were judge-sponsored below-guideline sentences.

Of course, this is a really small change and one might reasonable suggest that we ought to focus mostly on changes to government-sponsored below-guideline sentences when thinking about the impact of the new Sessions memo.  But I still thought this little data development was worthy of noting in this post; it is certainly one I will be watching in the months ahead as we get more USSC data on federal sentencing patterns in the second half of 2017.

September 10, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Notable data on marijuana case processing after Brooklyn DA pledge to limit prosecutions

Marijuana-cases-chart-07This WNYC piece provides some interesting data about local marijuana prosecutions in a part of NYC.  The piece's headline provides the essential highlights: "Brooklyn DA's Pledge to Reduce Marijuana Prosecutions Makes Little Difference." And here are some of the details:

In 2014, Brooklyn’s new District Attorney Ken Thompson made national headlines when he said his office would decline to prosecute low-level marijuana cases, so long as the defendant had no serious criminal record and wasn’t selling the drug.

Noting that two-thirds of these misdemeanor cases wind up being dismissed, Thompson said they did nothing to promote safety and wound up hurting people of color, in particular. “In 2012, over 12,000 people in Brooklyn were arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana,” he said, during his inauguration. “Mostly young black men.”

Thompson died of cancer last autumn. He was replaced (at his own request) by his first deputy, Eric Gonzalez, who continued the marijuana policy. But according to WNYC’s analysis, this supposedly groundbreaking change had less impact than many expected.

Using data from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, WNYC found the Brooklyn DA was only slightly less likely to prosecute people for marijuana possession after Thompson took office in 2014. In 2010, almost 90 percent of arrests were prosecuted. That figure fell to almost 78 percent in 2014, and in 2016 roughly 82 percent of arrests were prosecuted. In other words, most people are still going to court because the Brooklyn DA only throws out about one out of every five low-level marijuana arrests.

“I expected to see the number to be higher,” said Kassandra Frederique, New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports marijuana legalization.

WNYC also found racial disparities among those who benefited most from the DA’s policy. Last year, the Brooklyn DA declined to prosecute fewer than 20 percent of misdemeanor marijuana arrests involving blacks and Latinos. By contrast, that figure was more than 30 percent for whites and Asians.

Marijuana-cases-chart-08Scott Hechinger, a senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, which represents low-income people, said he wasn’t surprised by any of this. “It still felt like the people who we were meeting were predominantly black and brown,” he said, when asked what changed after 2014. “And it still felt like an enormous waste of time, energy and money.”...

Gonzalez, the acting district attorney, has a theory for why most defendants are still prosecuted, like Iglesias. “One of the things about our marijuana policy was that it was limited to possession cases,” he explained in an interview with WNYC. “What we think may be happening is that a lot of these arrests is public smoking of marijuana.”

In other words, the district attorney's office still prosecutes those caught puffing a joint in a public place. That’s something many people didn’t fully grasp in 2014 when Thompson announced the policy change.

Both smoking and possession are classified by the state as the same misdemeanor (criminal possession in the fifth degree), the most common low-level charge. There was no way to separate smoking from mere possession from the data provided WNYC. (Several people WNYC interviewed at Brooklyn Criminal Court said they were arrested for smoking in public, including a 17-year-old boy who claimed the police nabbed him in a case of mistaken identity. All of the defendants we met were black or Latino and young.)

Gonzalez, who is running to hold onto his position this fall, said he was troubled by WNYC's finding that blacks and Latinos are more likely to be prosecuted. “I am committed to making sure my office does not contribute to racial disparities," he said. "If it takes me to be more aggressive in declining to prosecute more cases I’m willing to do that."...

Public defenders and legalization advocates now say there is only one way to correct the racial imbalance. They want the DA to stop prosecuting all marijuana cases. “This goes to a deeper need for us to talk institutionally about how the systems work for certain groups of people,” said Frederique.

But Gonzalez, the acting DA, argued that his policy is achieving positive results. Brooklyn declines to prosecute a greater share of cases than any other borough. He also said the DA’s policy put more pressure on the NYPD to make fewer arrests. Almost 17,000 people were arrested for low level marijuana possession in 2010. That number fell to 4,300 in 2016. “We’ve moved a long way,” he stated. “I’m committed to continuing to look at this issue and figuring out, can we have a system in which no one gets arrested for marijuana use where there’s no public safety value?”

Normally I would flag a story focused on marijuana over at my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog, but the case-processing and prosecutorial discretion issues raised here are surely of interest to sentencing fans.  And this post also provides an excuse to review some recent posts of note from MLP&R:

September 10, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)