Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Former federal judge explains how severe sentencing and mandatory minimums prompted his resignation

Last year I remember reading this local article about former US District Judge Kevin Sharp leaving the federal bench after only six years.  The former judge's complaints about mandatory minimum sentencing realities were partially spelled out in that article, but now I see this notable new Cato piece titled "Powerless on the Bench" which reprints Sharp's accounting for his decision.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Like a lot of judges who take the bench, I had limited experience in criminal law.  Criminal law is fairly simple — much simpler than the tax code or some of the other things that I had done.  But it soon became the hardest thing I did on the bench.  In civil cases, my rulings generally concerned money.  But in criminal cases, when I said the “sentence is imposed as stated,” somebody was placed in handcuffs and led away by a U.S. marshal.

Early on, I sentenced a young man, Antonio, who was 27.  He was charged as a felon in possession of a firearm.  He had been convicted of two armed robberies at 17 years old.  At 27, Antonio is doing what we all hope a criminal defendant does after being convicted: he gets a job.  He is in contact with his family.  He does not do drugs . He does not drink.  But Antonio had been doing one thing that he should not have been.

Antonio was driving down the street and, without being too graphic, he and his girlfriend were engaged in an activity that caused him to cross slightly over the double-yellow line. The police saw it and pulled him over.  The police suspected his girlfriend was a prostitute, so they split Antonio and his girlfriend up and asked them questions. The police realized based on her answers that she in fact was Antonio’s girlfriend. Then, the police said, “OK, we are going to let you go.  Oh, by the way, do you mind if we search your car?” Antonio, forgetting that he had an unloaded pistol under the front seat of his car, responded, “No, go ahead.”

Antonio was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm.  Because he was convicted as an adult in his prior crimes, his mandatory minimum sentence was 15 years.  I read his case and thought this could not be right.  Fifteen years? What are “mandatory minimums”?  I did not fully understand what they were at the time.  I spent the next several days trying to figure out how to get around the minimum sentence — it cannot be done.

Regrettably, I did what I had to do.  I sentenced Antonio to 15 years.  I thought to myself, “What in the world are we doing?  Why would the government take away my ability to fashion a fair sentence?  I know what a judge is supposed to consider in determining how to fashion a sufficient sentence.  What I have done is in no way, shape, or form an appropriate sentence.”

Several years later, I had the same conversation with myself.  This time, the case involved a 22-year-old kid, Chris Young.  He was caught up with a group of members of the Vice Lords, a gang known for running cocaine and crack through middle Tennessee.  Chris was not a member of this gang.  He was an aspiring rapper who would hang out with members of the Vice Lords because one of the gang members had a studio. He was occasionally asked to make crack, but he did not know how.

Chris was arrested as part of a 30-person indictment for drug conspiracy.  Chris was such a minor player in the drug conspiracy — he did not even know how to make crack.  I think the only reason the DEA arrested him was because he happened to be at a gas station when they took down the Vice Lords’ leader.  He was at the wrong place with the wrong group at the wrong time.  The only evidence showing Chris’s connection to the gang were tapes from their wiretaps where Chris is talking to the gang’s leader about how he cannot figure out why the crack he has cooked did not turn out right.  The leader gets frustrated and finally says, “I’ll just come over and do it myself.”  That was basically the extent of it.

The prosecutor told Chris, “You can plead guilty, and we will give you twelve years.”  Chris is 22 and thinks, “12 years, no! I’m so minor in all of this, I will go to and win at trial.”  His lawyer convinces him that he should not go to trial, given his two prior drug convictions (one for less than half a gram of crack, which is about a sugar packet of crack) and the penalty he could face if convicted again — a mandatory life sentence.  At this point, the prosecutor changes his mind and says, “12 years was last week’s price — this week’s price is 22 years, and if you turn this down, next week’s price may be higher.”  A 22-year-old, Chris thought, “22 years is life! I’ll take my chances at trial.” Only three people of this 30-person group arrested, by the way, went to trial.  Everybody else pled guilty.  At trial, these three people, who happened to also be the lowest members of this conspiracy, all got life in prison.  Every single one of them.  Yes, the Vice Lords were selling a lot of drugs, but not Chris, and not the other two defendants who also decided to go to trial.  They all are behind bars for life.

Chris Young grew up in the projects, did not know his father, and saw his mother in and out of jail for her drug addiction.  When his mother had been sent to jail, Chris and his brother would stay in the house without electricity, water, or money for food.  They would eat out of garbage cans or ask neighbors to give them food.  When they were tired of the way that they smelled, they asked neighbors if they could take a shower.  This is how Chris grew up.  His brother eventually died.  It is unclear as to whether he committed suicide or was murdered.  I could not consider any of his hardships.  I could only look at how he was charged, and his charges led to his mandatory life sentence....

Members of Congress, in their desire to be elected and reelected, often show how tough on crime they can be, and they say, “Look, mandatory minimums are necessary so that we can take discretion away from the judges.”  But these legislators have not taken away discretion, they have just moved it to the prosecutor, who has a dog in the hunt.  If somebody said, “Well wait a minute, let’s not allow the prosecutor to do it but the defense counsel,” they would say “You’re insane!  Why would you do that?”  My position, then, is why would you give discretion to the prosecutor?

Because of the way that I grew up, as I saw criminal defendants come through my court, I would think about how I may have gone to high school or have worked at an oil refinery with these people.  These were real people who faced real consequences.  And, despite my position, I was told what to say.  I was just a messenger.  And I thought to myself, “Somebody else can be a messenger.  If real change is going to be made, then I need to do that on the other side of the bench.  Sure, I am giving up a lifetime appointment, but am I going to walk in here every day and do things that I do not think are just? The government can pay me for life to do that, but that is not enough for me.  The government does not pay me enough for this — I cannot be paid enough to do this.”

February 21, 2018 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

SCOTUS issues opinions on fees for prisoner suits and the impact of guilty pleas

The Supreme Court this morning handed down four new opinions in argued cases, and these two should be of interest to criminal justice fans:

Murphy v. Smith: "GORSUCH, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C.J., and KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GINSBURG, BREYER, and KAGAN, JJ., joined." From the start and end of the opinion for the Court:

This is a case about how much prevailing prisoners must pay their lawyers. When a prisoner wins a civil rights suit and the district court awards fees to the prisoner’s attorney, a federal statute says that “a portion of the [prisoner’s] judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded against the defendant. If the award of attorney’s fees is not greater than 150 percent of the judgment, the excess shall be paid by the defendant.” 42 U. S. C. §1997e(d)(2). Whatever else you might make of this, the first sentence pretty clearly tells us that the prisoner has to pay some part of the attorney’s fee award before financial responsibility shifts to the defendant. But how much is enough? Does the first sentence allow the district court discretion to take any amount it wishes from the plaintiff ’s judgment to pay the attorney, from 25% down to a penny? Or does the first sentence instead mean that the court must pay the attorney’s entire fee award from the plaintiff ’s judgment until it reaches the 25% cap and only then turn to the defendant? ....

At the end of the day, what may have begun as a close race turns out to have a clear winner. Now with a view of the full field of textual, contextual, and precedential evidence, we think the interpretation the court of appeals adopted prevails. In cases governed by §1997e(d), we hold that district courts must apply as much of the judgment as necessary, up to 25%, to satisfy an award of attorney’s fees.

Class v. United States: "BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C.J., and GINSBURG, SOTOMAYOR, KAGAN, and GORSUCH, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which KENNEDY and THOMAS, JJ., joined."  From the start of the opinion for the Court:

Does a guilty plea bar a criminal defendant from later appealing his conviction on the ground that the statute of conviction violates the Constitution?  In our view, a guilty plea by itself does not bar that appeal.

For a host of reasons, Class is much more consequential, and I hope to find some time to blog more about the opinion in the days ahead. In the meantime, I welcome comments on both the substance and division of the Justices in this latest SCOTUS activity.

February 21, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Texas board recommends clemency for condemned killer for first time in over a decade

As reported in this local article, headlined "In rare move, Texas parole board recommends clemency for death row inmate Thomas Whitaker," the state which executes the most murderers in modern times is the locale for a rare clemency recommendation for the next scheduled to die. Here are the details:

In an exceedingly rare move, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted Tuesday to recommend a lesser sentence for a death row inmate facing execution.

The board voted unanimously in favor of clemency for Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, a man who is set to die on Thursday evening. The decision now falls on Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who can approve or deny the recommendation to change Whitaker’s death sentence to life in prison. The last time the board recommended clemency for a death row inmate was in 2007.

Abbott said at a political rally Tuesday night that he and his staff would base his decision on the facts, circumstances and law. “Any time anybody's life is at stake, that's a very serious matter,” Abbott said. “And it deserves very serious consideration on my part.”

Whitaker, 38, was convicted in the 2003 murders of his mother and 19-year-old brother as part of a plot to get inheritance money. His father, Kent Whitaker, was also shot in the attack but survived and has consistently begged for a life sentence for his son.

“Victims’ rights should mean something in this state, even when the victim is asking for mercy and not vengeance,” Kent Whitaker said at a press conference at the Texas Capitol just before the board’s vote came in.

Keith Hampton, Thomas Whitaker's lawyer, choked up when announcing to the family and the press that the board had recommended clemency. Kent Whitaker's wife cried out and grabbed Whitaker, who let out a sob and held his head in his hands. “Well, we’re going to the governor’s office right now,” Hampton said.

In December 2003, Thomas Whitaker, then 23, came home from dinner with his family knowing that his roommate Chris Brashear was waiting there to kill them, according to court documents. When they entered the house, Brashear shot and wounded Thomas’ father and killed his mother, Patricia, and 19-year-old brother, Kevin. Suspicion turned toward Whitaker in the murder investigation the next June, and he fled to Mexico, according to court documents. He was arrested more than a year later, and his father begged the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office not to seek the death penalty.

Whitaker offered to plead guilty to two life sentences, but the prosecution rejected the offer, saying Whitaker wasn’t remorseful and was being manipulative, court records show. They sought the death penalty, and in March 2007, they got it. Brashear was given a life sentence.

Fred Felcman, the original prosecutor in the case, said Tuesday that the parole board made its decision only because of the father’s forgiveness and seemingly didn't take into account the large number of other people affected by the murders, including the victims, the county, the jury and Patricia’s family. He said the board also disregarded testimony from psychiatrists and their own investigators who said Whitaker was manipulative. “I’m trying to figure out why [the board members] think they should commute this, and why the governor should even give it a second thought,” said Felcman, who is first assistant district attorney at Fort Bend County....

Attached to Whitaker’s petition to the board were letters from former prison guards and at least seven death row inmates who thought the condemned man deserved the lesser sentence of life in prison. Kent Whitaker said Tuesday that the guards said he was never a threat, and one said he’d be an asset in general population.

Death row inmates attested to Whitaker’s helpful presence in a prison environment, saying he encouraged them to better themselves, helped those with mental illness and could easily calm inmates down. William Speer, who has been on death row since 2001 for a prison murder, wrote in 2011 that the prison system needs more men like Whitaker to keep other inmates calm. “Of all the people I have met over the years Thomas Whitaker is the person I believe deserves clemency the most,” Speer wrote, according to the petition. “He is one of the best liked inmates on this farm by the guards and other inmates, and he has worked the hardest to rehabilitate himself.”...

Despite the board’s surprise recommendation on Tuesday afternoon, Whitaker was still scheduled for execution on Thursday after 6 p.m. If Abbott rejects the recommendation and the Supreme Court justices dismiss his appeals, he will become the fourth man executed in Texas — and the nation — in 2018. There are three other executions scheduled in Texas through May.

Prior related post:

February 21, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Split en banc Fifth Circuit holds that Texas burglary convictions do not serve as predicates for federal Armed Career Criminal Act

I long ago gave up trying to keep up with all the intricate litigation and jurisprudence in circuit courts dealing with predicate offenses that can trigger the severe mandatory minimum sentences of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  But every so often, a big ACCA ruling comes down the pike, and today is one of those days as an en banc Fifth Circuit, splitting 8-7, has decided Texas burglary convictions cannot serve as an ACCA predicate.  The majority ruling by Judge Higginbotham in US v. Herrold, No. 14-11317 (5th Cir. Feb. 20, 2018)  (available for download below), gets off to this interesting start and then summarizes its holding 30+ pages later:

Three decades ago, Congress set the courts upon a new course for the sentencing of federal defendants, moving away from a long-in-place system that gave wide discretion to federal judges to impose sentences from nigh no prison time to effective life sentences.

But this discretion was not so wide in practice as in appearance — the judge’s sentence gave way when the prisoner left the court for prison.  The total time served by the prisoner was on his arrival determined in the main by a parole commission.  The commission determined release dates, and in a rough and crude way — relative to the work of the Sentencing Commission — anticipated the system now in place by using a scoring system that looked in part to a defendant’s criminal history.  In response to charges from the Left of disparate and from the Right of anemic sentencing, and thus with the support of both ends of the political spectrum, Congress shifted the focus to a defendant’s individual circumstances on the one hand and mandatory minimum sentences tailored to particular crimes on the other.  With much work from its newly erected Sentencing Commission, nourished by reflection, essential empirical study, and judges tasked with applying its regulations, this reform effort appears to now be understood by bench and bar, enjoying a measure of well-earned credibility.  Yet its relatively calibrated system of adjustments struggles with rifle-shot statutory efforts deploying an indeterminate calculus for identification of repetitive, sentence-enhancing conduct that add on to the sentence produced by the guidelines, such as the Armed Career Criminal Act. In setting a federal criminal sentence the district judge looks, in part, to both the number and type of a defendant’s prior convictions, a task complicated by the statute’s effort to draw on criminal conduct bearing differing labels and boundaries set by the various states.  Today, we continue to refine our efforts....

To summarize, the burglary provisions encoded in Texas Penal Code §§ 30.02(a)(1) and (3) are indivisible. Texas Penal Code § 30.02(a)(3) is nongeneric because it criminalizes entry and subsequent intent formation rather than entry with intent to commit a crime.  For these reasons, Herrold’s ACCA sentence enhancement cannot stand. We VACATE and REMAND to the district court to resentence him in accordance with our decision today. 

A lengthy dissent authored by Judge Haynes provides a succinct account of why this ruling is a big deal (and could be SCOTUS bound):

The majority opinion upends years of well-settled law. Just over a year ago, this court confirmed that Texas Penal Code § 30.02(a) is a divisible statute, and the Supreme Court denied certiorari.  United States v. Uribe, 838 F.3d 667 (5th Cir. 2016), cert. denied, 137 S. Ct. 1359 (2017). The effect of the majority opinion, in addition to unsettling established precedent, is to render all burglary convictions in the second-most populous state in the country nullities as far as the ACCA is concerned.  That is no small thing. In just a single year, Texans reported 152,444 burglaries, all of which now escape the ACCA’s reach. See TEX. DEP’T PUB. SAFETY, CRIME IN TEXAS 2015 6 (2015), http://www.dps.texas.gov/crimereports/15/citCh2.pdf.  From this misguided determination, I respectfully dissent.

Download Herrold slip op

February 20, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Notable account of a notable juror whose note had a notable impact on a scheduled Ohio execution

Prior posts here and here discussed a letter from a former juror in an Ohio capital case that prompted Governor John Kasich to grant a reprieve based on mitigating evidence that the juror said would have changed his vote at the penalty phase.  This story is told in full form in this new local article, headlined "This man stopped a Cincinnati killer's execution. Here's why he did it." Here are excerpts:

Ross Geiger isn’t some kind of activist when it comes to the death penalty. He’s never organized a candlelight vigil or stood outside a prison protesting an execution. He wants to be clear about that. “Everybody thinks I’m a crusader or something,” Geiger said. “They think I have no sympathy for the victims. That’s just not true.”

Yet Geiger did something last week that anti-death penalty activists rarely do. He stopped an execution. Earlier this year, the Loveland man wrote a letter to Gov. John Kasich because he was worried about the case of Raymond Tibbetts, a Cincinnati man who beat to death his wife, Sue Crawford, and stabbed to death his landlord, Fred Hicks, on the same day in 1997.

Geiger’s letter carried weight with Kasich, who delayed Tibbetts’ Feb. 13 execution until at least October, because Geiger served on the jury that convicted Tibbetts and recommended his death sentence....

Records related to Tibbetts’ clemency case with the parole board showed far more detail about Tibbetts’ background than was presented at the trial, Geiger said. He’d been abused as a child, put into foster care as a toddler and endured years of abuse and neglect, along with his siblings, the records showed.

At the trial, the jurors heard from a psychiatrist who’d examined Tibbetts, but no other witnesses. No family members. No other mental health professionals. None of the people Geiger found in the clemency paperwork. “I was astounded by the amount of material that was available (for the trial) that I never saw,” Geiger said. “There was an obvious breakdown in the system.”

The more he thought about it, Geiger said, the more upset he got. “The state had a duty to give me access to the information I needed to make the best decision I could,” he said. “It’s like if you have to take a big test, but you were deprived of the textbook.”

Geiger thought a long time about what he should do. He’s not a rabble rouser by nature. He’s raised two kids in suburban Cincinnati and works in the financial world. He considers himself a libertarian and said he was a rock-solid Republican at the time of the trial. He said he’s not opposed to the death penalty and he doesn’t believe he’s second-guessing the decision he made as Juror No. 2 in Tibbetts’ case. Given what he knew at the time, he said, the decision he made was correct.

But now he believes there is more he should have known. “I don’t really view it as changing my mind because the information wasn’t available at the time I was asked to make the decision,” Geiger said. “Based on the information available now, I don’t think justice was served in the case of Tibbetts.”

The appeals courts did not agree. A divided U.S. 6th Circuit panel ruled against Tibbetts, concluding any evidence the jurors didn’t hear would have been insufficient to change their minds about Tibbetts’ “moral culpability for such a brutal and horrific crime.” Prosecutors also have dismissed Geiger’s concerns. They say trials can’t be retried over and over every time a juror has second thoughts about a decision.

Kasich isn’t necessarily convinced, either. His reprieve gives the parole board time to reconsider clemency, but guarantees nothing. The execution still is set for Oct. 17.

Asked how he’d feel if Tibbetts died on that day, Geiger struggled to answer. He said he believes he did his job 20 years ago at the trial, and he believes he’s doing the right thing now by speaking up. “My motivation in writing that letter wasn’t to save an individual’s life,” Geiger said. “My prime motivation was to point out the errors.

“If we are going to trust the state to be our agents to execute people, then the state has a duty to get it right.”

Prior related posts:

February 20, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Dissenting from denial of cert, Justice Thomas complains Second Amendment has become "constitutional orphan"

The Supreme Court this morning issued this order list which is mostly full of denials of cert, but this lengthy opinion by Justice Thomas dissenting from the denial of certiorari in a case challenging California’s 10-day waiting period for firearms seems likely to garner plenty of attention.  Justice Thomas's dissent covers a lot of ground; I will leave it to others to dissect the Second Amendment particulars and be content here to quote from his closing complaints about Second Amendment jurisprudence since Heller:

The Ninth Circuit’s deviation from ordinary principles of law is unfortunate, though not surprising. Its dismissive treatment of petitioners’ challenge is emblematic of a larger trend.  As I have previously explained, the lower courts are resisting this Court’s decisions in Heller and McDonald and are failing to protect the Second Amendment to the same extent that they protect other constitutional rights.  See Friedman v. Highland Park, 577 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (THOMAS, J., dissenting from denial of certiorari) (slip op., at 1); Jackson v. City and County of San Francisco, 576 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (THOMAS, J., dissenting from denial of certiorari) (slip op., at 1).

This double standard is apparent from other cases where the Ninth Circuit applies heightened scrutiny. The Ninth Circuit invalidated an Arizona law, for example, partly because it “delayed” women seeking an abortion.  Planned Parenthood Arizona, Inc. v. Humble, 753 F. 3d 905, 917 (2014).  The court found it important there, but not here, that the State “presented no evidence whatsoever that the law furthers [its] interest” and “no evidence that [its alleged danger] exists or has ever [occurred].” Id., at 914–915.  Similarly, the Ninth Circuit struck down a county’s 5-day waiting period for nude-dancing licenses because it “unreasonably prevent[ed] a dancer from exercising first amendment rights while an application [was] pending.” Kev, Inc. v. Kitsap County, 793 F. 2d 1053, 1060 (1986).  The Ninth Circuit found it dispositive there, but not here, that the county “failed to demonstrate a need for [the] five-day delay period.” Ibid. In another case, the Ninth Circuit held that laws embracing traditional marriage failed heightened scrutiny because the States presented “no evidence” other than “speculation and conclusory assertions” to support them. Latta v. Otter, 771 F. 3d 456, 476 (2014).  While those laws reflected the wisdom of “thousands of years of human history in every society known to have populated the planet,” Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (ROBERTS, C. J., dissenting) (slip op., at 25), they faced a much tougher time in the Ninth Circuit than California’s new and unusual waiting period for firearms.  In the Ninth Circuit, it seems, rights that have no basis in the Constitution receive greater protection than the Second Amendment, which is enumerated in the text.

Our continued refusal to hear Second Amendment cases only enables this kind of defiance. We have not heard argument in a Second Amendment case for nearly eight years. Peruta v. California, 582 U. S. ___, ___ (2017) (THOMAS, J., dissenting from denial of certiorari) (slip op., at 7).  And we have not clarified the standard for assessing Second Amendment claims for almost 10.  Meanwhile, in this Term alone, we have granted review in at least five cases involving the First Amendment and four cases involving the Fourth Amendment—even though our jurisprudence is much more developed for those rights.

If this case involved one of the Court’s more favored rights, I sincerely doubt we would have denied certiorari.... The Court would take these cases because abortion, speech, and the Fourth Amendment are three of its favored rights.  The right to keep and bear arms is apparently this Court’s constitutional orphan.  And the lower courts seem to have gotten the message.

Nearly eight years ago, this Court declared that the Second Amendment is not a “second-class right, subject to an entirely different body of rules than the other Bill of Rights guarantees.” McDonald, 561 U. S., at 780 (plurality opinion). By refusing to review decisions like the one below, we undermine that declaration. Because I still believe that the Second Amendment cannot be “singled out for special — and specially unfavorable — treatment,” id., at 778–779 (majority opinion), I respectfully dissent from the denial of certiorari.

Even absent last week's horrific mass shooting in Florida, this opinion by Justice Thomas would be sure to get plenty of attention. And with debates over gun control seemingly now reaching a new pitch, this opinion adds an extra notable dimension to the developing discourse.

Though obviously not a sentencing case, I wanted to flag this dissent to (1) highlight the significant fact that Justice Thomas did not convince any of his colleagues to join his dissent, and thus (2) suggest this analogy: Justice Thomas is to constitutional limits on gun control laws as Justice Breyer is to constitutional limits on death penalty laws.

Justice Breyer has explained in various dissents why he thinks the Supreme Court should take up and consider further limits on capital punishment, but he has not succeeded over time to get additional Justices to join his campaign. Similarly, Justice Thomas is starting to make a habit of explaining why he thinks the Supreme Court should take up and consider further limits on gun control, but he has not succeeded over time to get additional Justices to join his campaign.

February 20, 2018 in Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Monday, February 19, 2018

SCOTUS back in action with a number of criminal cases up for oral argument

Thanks to the holiday weekend, the Supreme Court returns to action this week with only two days of oral argument.  But for fans of the SCOTUS criminal docket and intricate issues, it should be a glorious two days with this schedule (with compliments to SCOTUSblog for links/content):

Tuesday Feb 20 arguments:

Currier v. Virginia   Issue: Whether a defendant who consents to severance of multiple charges into sequential trials loses his right under the double jeopardy clause to the issue-preclusive effect of an acquittal.  Argument preview: Revisiting the double jeopardy conundrum (Corrected)

City of Hays v. Vogt  Issue: Whether the Fifth Amendment is violated when statements are used at a probable cause hearing but not at a criminal trial.  Argument preview: A deceptively complex Fifth Amendment question -- use of compelled statements at a preliminary hearing

 

Wednesday Feb 21 arguments:

Rosales-Mireles v. United States  Issue: Whether, in order to meet the standard for plain error review set forth by the Supreme Court in United States v. Olano that "[t]he Court of Appeals should correct a plain forfeited error affecting substantial rights if the error ‘seriously affect[s] the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings,’” it is necessary, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit required, that the error be one that “would shock the conscience of the common man, serve as a powerful indictment against our system of justice, or seriously call into question the competence or integrity of the district judge.”  Argument preview: Should forfeited Sentencing Guidelines errors normally be corrected?

Dahda v. United States.  Issue: Whether Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510–2520, requires suppression of evidence obtained pursuant to a wiretap order that is facially insufficient because the order exceeds the judge's territorial jurisdiction.  Argument preview: Should courts read statutory exclusionary rules broadly? 

February 19, 2018 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Conservatives urge Trump to grant pardons in Russia probe"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new Politico article.  Here are excerpts:

After months of criticizing special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, President Donald Trump’s supporters are issuing increasingly bold calls for presidential pardons to limit the investigation’s impact.  “I think he should be pardoning anybody who’s been indicted and make it clear that anybody else who gets indicted would be pardoned immediately,” said Frederick Fleitz, a former CIA analyst and senior vice president at the conservative Center for Security Policy.

The pleas for mercy mainly extend to the four former Trump aides who have already been swept up in the Russia probe: former campaign manager Paul Manafort, former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos.  But they don’t stop there.

“It’s kind of cruel what’s going on right now and the president should put these defendants out of their misery,” said Larry Klayman, a conservative legal activist. “I think he should pardon everybody — and pardon himself.”

Klayman and Fleitz spoke before Mueller indicted thirteen Russian nationals on Friday for staging an elaborate 2016 election interference operation in the United States. Democratic leaders said the hard evidence of Russian meddling underscores the importance of letting Mueller’s investigation run its course....

Trump’s lawyers and aides insist it’s premature to discuss even the possibility of pardons. “There have been no pardon discussions at the White House,” Ty Cobb, the White House attorney who leads the president’s official response to the Russia investigation, told POLITICO on Friday just hours before Mueller’s latest indictment was released.

After the Washington Post reported in July that Trump had tasked his aides with researching his pardon powers, Trump dismissed the story — while also making clear his view of the law. “While all agree the U. S. President has the complete power to pardon, why think of that when only crime so far is LEAKS against us. FAKE NEWS,” Trump tweeted....

Trump has issued one pardon since taking office, to the controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was facing criminal contempt of court charges for defying a court order to stop profiling Latinos.  That August action, in the face of strong political opposition, makes some conservatives think that Trump would be willing to defy his critics again. “He did it for Sheriff Joe, so I’m thinking he would do it for other circumstances as well,” [Tom] Fitton said.

There has been little sign of Congressional Republican support for the idea of pardons. In the days after Flynn pleaded guilty, South Carolina Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott both urged Trump not to pardon Flynn. Scott said it is important to have accountability and “a process that is clear and transparent.”

Pardons would also come at a high political cost, former George W. Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. “It’d just raise even more questions about Donald Trump if he pardons those closest to him because people will think he’s trying to protect himself.”

“You should let justice run its course,” he added.

Even some conservatives who support pardons in principle are wary of the severe political backlash they are certain to trigger.  Mike Cernovich, a conservative activist who has been affiliated with the alt-right but rejects that label, said he believes the moment for pardons has passed and that Trump needs to wait until after the November mid-term elections.  “If the Democrats take over, pardon everyone,” Cernovich said.  “They’re coming for you anyway.  They have their nuke with impeachment. You have your nuke with pardons.  And then settle in for an interesting two years.”

February 19, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Spotlighting disparities in jail stays over unpaid court fines in Pennsylvania

A helpful reader made sure I saw this impressive piece of reporting from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette under the headline "Modern-day debtors’ prisons? The system that sends Pennsylvanians to jail over unpaid court costs and fines."  I have probably not given as much attention here as I should to reporting and complaints about persons being incarcerated for failure to pay certain fines and fees, and this story caught my attention in its discussion of disparities in how judges justify sending folks to jail for failures to pay.  Here is an excerpt for that discussion:

U.S. Supreme Court and state court precedents forbid the government from locking up defendants too poor to pay.  District judges are supposed to jail only defendants who can afford to pay but “willfully” do not.  “The Constitution is very clear, the law is very clear, you cannot be jailed for failing to pay when you can’t pay,” said David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

But data show that is not always what happens.

People picked up on warrants for not paying court fees are brought before a district judge, who can hold an immediate payment determination hearing or postpone the proceeding. If the hearing is delayed, the district judge can set an amount that must be paid as collateral in order to allow the defendant to go free; that is supposed to ensure that the defendant will return for the hearing.  In many cases, that collateral equals the total payments owed.  Defendants who do not pay can be jailed until the first business day after 72 hours have passed.

District judges must fill out a Determination of Collateral form indicating why collateral is necessary and why the defendant can afford to pay it.

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review of more than 4,500 cases covering everyone jailed in 2016 in Pennsylvania for failure to post collateral (about 2,500 individuals) shows that in fewer than one in five cases, district judges appear to meet the standard in explaining why payment can be made.  They use statements such as “defendant has bank account” or “defendant has been working” or “gainfully employed.”

But in over 10 percent of cases involving more than 200 people, the district judges’ explanations for why a defendant can pay collateral seem to indicate just the opposite — that they don’t have the wherewithal.  Among the rationales: “defendant has no income; “defendant is homeless unable to pay; and “defendant has been evicted.”

The data show the system for meting out jail stays over unpaid court fines is wildly inconsistent among the state’s 67 counties and varies from one district judge to another....

The ACLU has been taking up cases around the state where it believes the law is not being followed in regard to payment determination hearings. It also has reached out to judges and district judges in an effort to make systemic changes.  “[M]any judges on both the courts of Common Pleas and magisterial district courts fundamentally misunderstand what constitutes a defendant’s ability to pay,” Andrew Christy, an ACLU of Pennsylvania attorney wrote regarding payment determination hearings last year for a legal publication.  A “lack of clear and uniform standards on what constitutes ability to pay” has been problematic and has driven the system to be unconstitutional, he wrote.

In many cases, the district judge offers rationales that the ACLU claims do not pass legal muster as to why a defendant should be able to post collateral.  The explanations include that the defendant’s family can pay; that the defendant receives public benefits; or that they have spent money on other expenses, such as tattoos.  “Has money for cigarettes, cell phone and to drink in bars,” read one form.  “Has cell phone, smokes cigarettes and has an I pad [sic],” read another.

February 19, 2018 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, February 18, 2018

"Donald Trump and the Undoing of Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy New York Times editorial.  Here are excerpts:

In the decade or so before Donald Trump became president, America’s approach to criminal justice was changing fast — reckoning with decades of destructive and ineffective policies that had ballooned the prison population and destroyed countless lives.  Red and blue states were putting in place smart, sensible reforms like reducing harsh sentencing laws, slashing prison populations and crime rates, and providing more resources for the thousands of people who are released every week.

President Obama’s record on the issue was far from perfect, but he and his first attorney general, Eric Holder Jr., took several key steps: weakening racially discriminatory sentencing laws, shortening thousands of absurdly long drug sentences, and pulling back on the prosecution of low-level drug offenders and of federal marijuana offenses in states that have legalized it.  This approach reflected state-level efforts and sent a message of encouragement to those still leery of reform.

Within minutes of taking office, Mr. Trump turned back the dial, warning darkly in his Inaugural Address of “American carnage,” of cities and towns gutted by crime — even though crime rates are at their lowest in decades. Things only got worse with the confirmation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who, along with Mr. Trump, appears to be stuck in the 1980s, when politicians exploited the public’s fear of rising crime to sell absurdly harsh laws and win themselves re-election.  Perhaps that’s why both men seem happy to distort, if not outright lie about, crime statistics that no longer support their narrative....

Under Mr. Trump, the Justice Department has pulled back from his predecessor’s investigations of police abuse and misconduct; resumed the use of private, for-profit prisons; and stopped granting commutations to low-level drug offenders who have spent years or decades behind bars.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sessions, who as a senator was one of the most reliable roadblocks to long-overdue federal sentencing reform, is still throwing wrenches into the works as Congress inches toward a bipartisan deal.  Mr. Sessions called the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a sweeping bill that would reduce some mandatory-minimum sentences, and that cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, a “grave error.”  That earned him a rebuke from the committee’s chairman, Senator Charles Grassley, who pointed out that the attorney general is tasked with enforcing the laws, not writing them.  “If General Sessions wanted to be involved in marking up this legislation, maybe he should have quit his job and run for the Republican Senate seat in Alabama,” Mr. Grassley said.

Mr. Grassley is no one’s idea of a justice reformer, but he supports the bill because, he said, it “strikes the right balance of improving public safety and ensuring fairness in the criminal justice system.”

So what has this administration done right?  The list is short and uninspiring.  In October, Mr. Trump declared the epidemic of opioid abuse a national emergency, which could be a good step toward addressing it — but he’s since done almost nothing to combat a crisis that killed more than 64,000 Americans in 2016.

In his State of the Union address last month, Mr. Trump promised to “embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.”  It’s great if he really means that, but it’s hard to square his assurance with his own attorney general’s opposition to a bill that includes recidivism-reduction programs intended to achieve precisely this goal....

The rhetoric from the White House and the Justice Department has emboldened some state and local officials to talk tougher, even if just as ignorantly, about crime.  The good news is that it’s not working as well anymore. In Virginia’s race for governor last fall, the Republican candidate, Ed Gillespie, attacked his opponent, Ralph Northam, with ads blaming him for violence by the MS-13 gang.

It was a despicable stunt, its fearmongering recalling the racist but effective Willie Horton ad that George H. W. Bush ran on in his successful 1988 presidential campaign.  Thankfully, Virginia’s voters overwhelmingly rejected Mr. Gillespie, another sign that criminal justice reform is an issue with strong support across the political spectrum.  In the era of Donald Trump, candidates of both parties should be proud to run as reformers — but particularly Democrats, who can cast the issue not only as a central component of a broader progressive agenda, but as yet another example of just how out of touch with the country Mr. Trump and his administration are.

February 18, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Notable White House personnel development that should help the cause of criminal justice reform

This recent press article about a new person joining the White House staff should hearten those hoping to see some form of federal criminal justice reform become a reality.  Here are the details:

Brooke Rollins is headed to Washington to join a new White House office run by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.  Rollins, 45, is a former aide to Texas Gov. Rick Perry and a member of Trump’s economic advisory committee.  Since 2002, she’s run the influential think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, which lobbies on a host of conservative issues in Austin.

Rollins has been working closely with the office she’ll join, Trump’s Office of American Innovation.  The office’s mission is to apply ideas from corporate America to solve the nation’s problems.  Kushner said in a statement he’s “grateful” to have Rollins join his team, where she’ll “continue executing on our key initiatives.”

Rollins already works closely with Kushner and his office on criminal justice reform, an issue she added to TPPF’s policy priorities and championed for more than a decade in Texas. Rollins recently paired with the Koch network on a $4 million, multi-state criminal justice reform project.

Trump campaigned promising to take a tough-on-crime approach. Rollins said the White House has been receptive to TPPF’s ideas on the issue, and the think tank recently added staff in D.C. to work specifically on criminal justice.  “They’re business oriented people and they want results fast,” Rollins said of the Office of American Innovation last year. “They see an organization like ours… and we’ve been able to implement that in Texas, and they want to understand how to do that here.”

Here are snippets of an op-ed piece that Rollins co-authored that was published just last week:

Far too many inmates are incarcerated when they could instead be rehabilitated. Of the 1.3 million people held in state prisons at the end of 2015, 197,200 had as their most serious offense a drug charge; 44,700 of those were for simple possession....

The emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation has a high dollar cost — $80 billion a year for incarceration, and an even higher cost in the diminution of the human spirit.

The system traps individuals in a soul-crushing cycle of poverty and prison, while doing next to nothing to make our streets safer or change the behavior of those who are going to be living among us when their time is served.

Proposals to address these challenges are not pie-in-sky do-gooderism; they are a clear-eyed assessment based on evidence and experience. We must ensure that individuals coming out of prison are better people than when they entered. Preparations for re-entry and reintegration into communities must begin on the first day of incarceration, not 90 days before they are released, as often happens now....

[S]tates have seen the results and are instituting programs focusing on education and training that are showing success in rehabilitating individuals and reducing recidivism. Everyone deserves a second chance.

Rollins will not be able to ensure federal criminal justice reforms become a reality ASAP, but her very hire suggests to me continuing commitment from at least some persons to have effective advocates for reform working within the White House.

February 18, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Should jail inmates face tougher sentencing for applauding charged cop killer as he was brought into jail?

A helpful reader alerted me to this interesting AP story, headlined "Jail inmates applaud career criminal accused of killing Chicago police commander, may face reprisals," that provides the basis for the question that is the title of this post.  Here are the particulars:

Five Cook County Jail inmates who applauded as the man charged with the fatal shooting of a Chicago police commander was led by their cell could face reprisals for their actions, a jail official said Friday.

Cara Smith, the chief policy officer for Sheriff Tom Dart, said a security video shows them clapping as suspect Shomari Legghette was being led past a crowded holding cell on Thursday after his first court appearance.  The inmates were in the holding cell awaiting action on their cases.  Legghette is charged with first-degree murder in Tuesday's shooting death of Commander Paul Bauer.

She said the five inmates were transferred overnight from Chicago to a jail in southern Illinois, where it will be more difficult for family and friends to visit them while they are in custody.

The jail also is forwarding to prosecutors the video and reports of the incident Thursday afternoon so they can use the information if the inmates are convicted, she said. "The conduct that those detainees engaged in was disgraceful... and speaks to their character," Smith said.  "We feel it should be considered by prosecutors in connection with their sentencing."  The video could be a "factor of aggravation" considered by a judge in sentencing.

But Steve Greenberg, a prominent Chicago defense attorney, said there is no way the inmates should be penalized for what he said is a clear exercise of their right to free speech.  "These inmates ... no matter how vile or disgusting you may think their expression is, they have an absolute right under the First Amendment to express those feelings and it is a violation of their rights as citizens to penalize them or consider that as aggravation," said Greenberg, who is not representing any of the men.

The video was taken moments after the 44-year-old Legghette appeared in court on charges of first-degree murder of a peace officer, armed violence, unlawful use of a weapon by a felon and possession of a controlled substance.

Police say they wanted to question Legghette Tuesday when he took off running and Bauer pursued him on foot. He caught Legghette near the James R. Thompson Center, a government building, where the two struggled and Legghette fell down the stairs.  Bauer either fell or ran after him to a landing where, Legghette, wearing a bullet proof vest and armed with a semi-automatic handgun, allegedly shot the 53-year-old Bauer six times.

February 17, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21)

Friday, February 16, 2018

Spotlighting how local district attorney elections have become focal point for criminal justice reform advocates

BnwxbIoIgAAVLkBThis notable NBC News piece, headlined "Criminal justice reformers aim big by targeting local DA races," reports on how greater modern attentiveness to the role of prosecutors in the criminal justice system is now leading to greater modern concern for who gets elected to these positions. Here is how it gets started:

If you can’t win big, go small. That’s the strategy gaining momentum among criminal justice reformers in the age of Trump, as the federal government hardens its approach to law enforcement.

Instead of pouring money and energy into squeezing change out of Washington, national civil rights organizations are teaming with local groups to push their agendas in county-level district attorney races, where a few thousand votes can determine who asserts the most influence over the local justice system.

Picking their targets carefully, and crunching election data to influence pivotal voter blocs — and benefiting from the largesse of liberal billionaire George Soros — these crusaders have already racked up big wins, most recently in Philadelphia, where civil rights lawyer Larry Krasner was elected chief prosecutor last year.

Using Krasner as proof that their strategy can work, the American Civil Liberties Union, Color of Change and like-minded political action committees are now fixating on several 2018 races, with Dallas at the front of a list that could also include Baltimore; Charlotte, North Carolina; Los Angeles; Oakland, California; San Diego and St. Louis, as well as parts of Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Oregon.

Each will involve teams of campaign strategists and targeted voter-education drives, from public forums to digital advertising, and the hiring of formerly incarcerated men and women to canvass neighborhoods, asking voters to demand that candidates pledge to curb mass incarceration — and to cast ballots for those who agree. In some cases, political action committees will steer donations to campaigns that embrace their vision. In others, reformers are recruiting upstart candidates.

“We want to send a clear message that these are the real issues and the litmus test in the election, and to demonstrate the public demand for it,” said Scott Roberts, a senior campaign director at Color of Change, which organizes online campaigns focused on ending injustices against African-Americans. “We can put out a press release, but the candidates, the people who are trying to get votes, will respond on a deeper level when they’re hearing about it from people as they are out campaigning.”

This is a new development in American politics, where district attorney races have rarely attracted outside attention, let alone intense interest from voters. Incumbents usually run unopposed, research has found. And when they do face opposition, they usually win, with races focused on the candidates’ character and experience, or controversial cases, rather than discussions of policy.

“That conventional wisdom has been turned on its head,” said David Alan Sklansky, a professor at Stanford Law School who studies prosecutors and how they wield power. “In a growing number of races, people have defeated incumbents by running on platforms that are very policy heavy. They’re not calling for more punishment, but more sensible policies,” from police oversight to criminal sentencing.

The trend began about five years ago, when Ken Thompson defeated longtime Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes. Since that 2013 election, self-described reform candidates have taken office in Chicago, Denver, Houston, and Orlando, Florida, and in smaller jurisdictions in Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas. Many were lifted into office by outcries over police shootings, wrongful convictions or the disproportionate numbers of poor people and minorities behind bars.

The movement has been supported by new research into the causes of the three-decade rise in prison populations, which peaked in 2009, long after crime began to decline. In his 2017 book, "Locked In," Fordham University law professor John Pfaff blamed prosecutors, “the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system,” for driving drastic increases in felony cases, all but a tiny fraction of which result in plea bargains. Those locally elected prosecutors, Pfaff wrote, are rarely held accountable by voters for their decisions.

But Pfaff also documented how reform candidates have started to challenge that narrative. Some have received donations from political action committees connected to Soros, who heads the Open Society Foundation. Some have received tactical help from national reform groups like the ACLU and Color of Change. But others haven’t, which Sklansky takes as evidence that the movement has been driven from the bottom as much as from the top.

February 16, 2018 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Interesting statements from Senate Judiciary Committee on Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 ... and now passage by 16-5 vote!

As I write this, the Senate Judiciary Committee is in the midst of a discussion of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, and the discussion is quite interesting (though relatively predictable given the articulated past and present positions of various members).   The discussion can be followed at the SJC website here, where one can also find a host of amendments offered by members and Senator Chuck Grassley's official statement.  Here is a portion of Senator Grassley's statement, which summarizes the bill and also why Senator Grassley has become its chief advocate:

Today, we’re also marking up the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. This legislation reforms mandatory minimum prison sentences to focus on the most serious drug offenders and violent criminals. This is a bipartisan bill that cuts costs, reduces crime, and optimizes the criminal justice system. It is supported by a diverse array of groups including FreedomWorks, the American Conservative Union, Prison Fellowship, Families against Mandatory Minimums, the NFL, the ACLU, and the NAACP.

It is also a bill with policies that enjoy broad national support. A recent poll showed that the American people strongly support improving our criminal justice system. 87% of Americans and 83% of Republicans believe that mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders should be replaced by a system focused on judicial discretion. 76% of Americans and 68% of Republicans believe the criminal justice system needs significant improvements. 87% of Americans and 80% of Republicans think we’re spending too much money on prisons that should be used instead for treatment, rehabilitation, law enforcement, and victim services.

The bill gives judges additional discretion in sentencing defendants with minimal non-violent criminal histories that may trigger mandatory minimum sentences under current law. It also applies some of these reforms retroactively, including the Fair Sentencing Act.  But before this happens, judges must first review eligible inmates’ individual cases, including criminal histories and conduct while incarcerated to determine whether a sentence reduction is appropriate.

Importantly, the bill preserves cooperation incentives to aid law enforcement in tracking down kingpins and stiffens penalties for individuals convicted of serious violent felonies. It also adds new mandatory minimums for certain crimes involving interstate domestic violence and the provision of weapons to terrorists and prohibited countries.

Additionally, it creates a new five-year sentencing enhancement for trafficking of heroin laced with fentanyl.  In addition, the bill establishes recidivism reduction programs to help prepare low-risk inmates to successfully re-enter society. Qualifying inmates may receive reductions to their sentences through time credits upon successful completion of recidivism reduction programming....

Yesterday, Attorney General Sessions sent us a letter setting forth his views on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.  When I read his letter, it was almost as if Senator Sessions was back on the Judiciary Committee.  But that’s the problem. He is now the Attorney General and is charged with executing the laws that Congress passes, not interfering with the legislative process.  Certainly we value input from the Department of Justice, but if General Sessions wanted to be involved in marking up this legislation, maybe he should have quit his job and run for the Republican Senate seat in Alabama.

I’ve talked to Attorney General Sessions about this bill many times. He opposes the elimination of mandatory minimums, as do I.  He believes in being tough on crime, and so do I. But I also believe in being fair.  This is a view shared by the last Republican Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, who testified in support of this bill last Congress. So we have one Republican Attorney General who thinks this bill is good policy, and one who has some concerns....

This bill is good public policy. It is the result of years of careful negotiations.  We’ve demonstrated that this bill has significant bipartisan support.  Twenty-two United States Senators are cosponsors, including more than half of the members of this committee.  I look forward to continuing to work with the administration and the House on a legislative solution that the President can sign into law.

A few prior related posts:

UPDATE: Around 12noon and after an interesting debate over an amendment proposed by Senator Cruz to strip the SRCA of its retroactivity provisions and other reforms, the full SJC voted finally on the bill as proposed and voted 16-5 in favor of it. Now the issue becomes whether Senate Majority Leader will bring the bill to the Senate Floor for a full vote. I fear he will not, but we shall see.

February 15, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

AG Sessions writes to Senator Grassley to say passages of SRCA "would be a grave error"

Via this new HuffPost piece, headlined "Jeff Sessions Opposes Bipartisan Drug Sentencing Reform Bill," I see that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has now officially weighed in on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 due to be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow morning. Here are the basics:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has come out swinging against a bipartisan drug sentencing reform bill that has the support of many of his former Republican colleagues in the Senate, warning that the legislation would be a “grave error” and not allow adequate punishment for “a highly dangerous cohort of criminals.”

In a Feb. 14 letter to his former colleague Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions wrote that he “strongly” urged the Senate to consider the ramifications of the bill.

“In recent years, convicted drug traffickers and other violent criminals have received significant sentencing breaks from the federal courts and the United States Sentencing Commission.” Sessions wrote. “Passing this legislation to further reduce sentences for drug traffickers in the midst of the worst drug crisis in our nation’s history would make it more difficult to achieve our goals and have potentially dire consequences.”

The full text of the three-page letter from AG Sessions to Senator Grassley is embedded in the HuffPost piece (and is also available here thanks to Politico), and it starts this way:

This letter presents the views of the Department of Justice on S. 1917, the "Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017." S. 1917 presents issues of very great importance to the public safety of the United States and will impact a number of cases.

The legislation would reduce sentences for a highly dangerous cohort of criminals, including repeat dangerous drug traffickers and those who use firearms, and would apply retroactively to many dangerous felons. regardless of citizenship or immigration status. In my opinion, if passed in its current form, this legislation would be a grave error....

I would strongly urge the Senate to consider carefully the potential ramifications of this legislation in its current form.  In recent years, convicted drug traffickers and other violent criminals have received significant sentencing breaks from the federal courts and the United States Sentencing Commission.  Passing this legislation to further reduce sentences for drug traffickers in the midst of the worst drug crisis in our nation's history would make it more difficult to achieve our goals and have potentially dire consequences.  In addition, as you know, the Administration supports helping former inmates who have served lawfully imposed sentences and have demonstrated a commitment to a better life, and is working closely with Congress to achieve a responsible reform along these lines.  Respectfully, this legislation runs counter to this serious Administration-wide effort.

A few prior related posts:

UPDATE: I just saw that Senator Grassley took to Twitter to respond to the letter from AG Sessions:

February 14, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Notable advocate for clemency on behalf of next condemned to die in Texas

According to this Death Penalty Information Center page, Alabama, Florida and Texas all have executions scheduled for February 22.  This new Los Angeles Times story, headlined "Texas father seeks clemency for son who tried to kill him," discusses the notable person making a notable pitch for clemency for the killer scheduled to be executed.  Here are excerpts:

In a week, Thomas "Bart" Whitaker, 38, is scheduled to be executed for plotting a 2003 attack that left his mother and brother dead and almost killed his father. That father, Kent Whitaker, is doing everything he can to halt the execution. Inspired by his Christian faith and his son's repentance, the 69-year-old retired construction firm comptroller hopes to have his son's sentence commuted.  "The death penalty in this case is the wrong punishment," he said.

Kent Whitaker forgives his son. He paid for lawyers to fight the death sentence at trial in 2007, and got down on his knees and begged prosecutors to seek a life sentence.

Texas is known for capital punishment, executing more inmates than any other state in the country — three this year, seven last year. But Kent Whitaker notes that it is also a victims' rights state, meaning his wishes should be taken into account. "Juries routinely defer to victims in cases to spare the life of a killer," he said.

Thomas Whitaker's last chance is a clemency petition filed with the seven-member Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which makes a recommendation to the governor by majority vote.  Clemency is rare.  One of Whitaker's attorneys won it for another convicted murderer, Kenneth Foster, hours before he was scheduled to die in 2007, based on arguments drawn from Scripture.  Parole board members in Texas are bound by their consciences, not the law, and some told the lawyer afterward that his biblical arguments had influenced their votes.

So in Thomas Whitaker's clemency petition, his attorney cited the Old Testament story of Cain, who after murdering his brother Abel was marked — but not killed — by God. He also cited the New Testament parable of the prodigal son, forgiven and accepted by his father after he strayed because he repented. "You have a collision between two interests. Every one of those board members is a death penalty supporter. A nd every one of them is there to protect victims' interests. They have to decide if it is more important to execute Thomas Whitaker or spare Kent Whitaker," attorney Keith Hampton said.

Board members don't confer about clemency: They send their votes to the state individually. Condemned inmates and their families can request to meet a member of the board, but it's not guaranteed.   Last week, board member James LaFavers, a former Amarillo detective, met Whitaker's son on death row. They spent two hours talking. On Tuesday, the chairman of the board, former Lubbock County Sheriff David Gutierrez, met with Kent Whitaker, his new wife and brother in Austin for half an hour.  The chairman didn't ask any questions, just listened as Kent Whitaker made his case for clemency. He said his son had been a model prisoner for 11 years, that the family had asked prosecutors not to seek the death penalty at trial and "it ought to mean something when a victim asks for mercy."

Thomas Whitaker has confessed to plotting the murder of his family. His father believes he has reformed behind bars. Prosecutors disagree.

Whitaker was a troubled teenager.  After he was arrested for breaking into his high school with friends to steal computers, his parents sent him to a private Christian school, then Baylor University and Sam Houston State University. But he stopped attending.  The night of the attack, the family went out to dinner to celebrate his graduation, unaware that it was a lie — he had missed too many classes....

As they entered their house in the Houston suburb, an accomplice shot them, fatally wounding his mother, Tricia, 51, and 19-year-old brother, Kevin. A bullet passed just inches from Kent Whitaker's heart. Thomas Whitaker was shot in the arm to make it appear he too was a victim.  He then called 911.  It would be years before he admitted his role in the crime. A thousand people attended the funeral at the largest church in the family's conservative suburb, Sugar Land — including Thomas Whitaker. "He sat there smiling, acting as victim, knowing that he killed them," prosecutor Fred Felcman said.  Shortly before Whitaker was to be charged in 2004, he fled to Mexico, where he was caught a year later.

Felcman argued at trial that Whitaker planned to kill his family for a million-dollar inheritance. He had two accomplices — the gunman, who pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence, and a getaway driver, who got 15 years in prison. Although Whitaker was not the triggerman, Felcman argued, he "was the ringleader. He literally led his family back to be assassinated."

Felcman said Kent Whitaker has been used by his son. "Most people have a conscience so they don't try to manipulate people outright. He does," Felcman said.  The prosecutor has tried 13 capital cases. About half resulted in death sentences. "There's certain crimes you have to forfeit your life for," he said, in part because it's the will of the people. "As soon as Bart Whitaker gets executed I will feel safer, and there are other people who feel that way, too."...

If the board doesn't grant clemency, Whitaker plans to attend his son's execution. When his son looks out of the glassed-in chamber, he wants him to see a caring face among the crowd. Kent Whitaker already has nightmares about what he will witness.   "I hope the board will focus on how this execution will affect those of us who are living," he said. "We've all worked hard to get past our grief, and we're all going to be thrown back into that, realizing that Bart's gone too, that he was the last member of my immediate family. It looks like I'm going to be victimized all over again. What kind of justice is that?"

February 14, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Reentry Court Research: An Overview of Findings from the National Institute of Justice’s Evaluation of Second Chance Act Adult Reentry Courts"

The title of this post is the title of this new report on findings about eight programs that received funding and technical assistance from the Bureau of Justice Assistance under the Second Chance Act of 2007.  Here is part of the report's abstract:

Background: There are myriad challenges associated with the reentry of formerly incarcerated individuals, coupled with a dearth of rigorous research examining reentry courts. It is well known that formerly incarcerated individuals face overwhelming obstacles, such as limited occupational or educational experiences to prepare them for employment, drug and alcohol addictions, mental and physical health challenges, strained family relations, and limited opportunities due to the stigma of a criminal record.  Reentry courts seek to address these challenges by assessing the individuals for risks and needs; linking them to appropriate community-based services; and overseeing the treatment process through ongoing court oversight, probation or parole supervision, and case management.  Under the Second Chance Act (SCA) of 2007 (Pub. L. 110-199), the Bureau of Justice Assistance funded reentry programs including the eight sites participating in this National Institute of Justice Evaluation of SCA Adult Reentry Courts.  This document provides a summary overview of the evaluation and complements three annual reports that provide more detailed information on the program processes and populations, research methods, and findings....

Results: Results were mixed across sites.  One site consistently demonstrated positive outcomes across the interview, recidivism, and cost analyses with the reentry court successfully delivering more substance abuse treatment and other services than what was received by the comparison group.  In addition, reentry court participants out-performed the comparison group in reduced recidivism (re-arrests and re-conviction) and reincarceration (revocation and time in jail or prison).  Two sites had neutral, trending toward positive, results with reduced participant re-arrests but with other outcomes (such as convictions and re-incarceration) not significantly different between the participants and the comparison group.  Two other sites had mixed results (e.g., participants had significantly fewer re-arrests but significantly increased re-incarceration) and two had negative results (e.g., participants had significantly more re-arrests and incarceration while other outcomes were no different between groups).  Cost findings were similarly mixed with two sites experiencing cost savings due mainly to lower recidivism costs and fewer victimization costs for reentry court participants ($2,512 and $6,710 saved per participant) and the remainder experiencing loss (ranging from just over -$1,000 to almost -$17,000 loss per participant). The research protocol and process evaluation findings are documented in three annual project reports; research caveats include a lack of detailed treatment service data. Also, reentry court program investment costs are described, but the comparison of cost estimates is limited to outcomes and does not include net benefits based on investment in non-reentry court case processing in the comparison group.

Conclusions: Key processes that set the one site with positive outcomes apart from the other sites was the high level of consistency and intensity of substance abuse treatment, wraparound services for multiple criminogenic needs, high intensity supervision, as well as an increased use of praise from the judge along with other incentives and sanctions.  In addition, the eligibility criteria for this site required that participants have a substance use disorder with risk levels ranging from moderate to high (based on their local risk assessment with a three point scale that ranged from low to high).  In contrast, other site eligibility criteria did not require a substance use disorder and participant risk levels were mostly high to very high (depending on the assessment tool used and their specific scoring and risk category criteria).  It is possible that the sites with less positive results did not have the appropriate level and type of services consistently available to best serve the varying risk levels of their participants.

This detailed report reinforces yet again the conclusion I often, somewhat depressingly, reach when looking at careful research on an important topic: many of our most pressing criminal justice problems are really complicated and lack simple solutions.

February 14, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Mapping the politics and making the case against the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017

Over at the Powerline blog, Paul Mirengoff has this lengthy post about the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 titled "Leniency Legislation Is Back."  The post title previews Paul's disaffinity for the SRCA, and his post explains why after some forecasting about the politics surrounding the bill.  I recommend his post in full, and here are excerpts:

The [SRCA] bill that died two years ago is before the Judiciary Committee.  It will breeze through that body. Three of the legislation’s main opponents two years ago — Jeff Sessions, David Perdue and David Vitter — are no longer on the committee (Sessions and Vitter are no longer in the Senate).  Sens. Orrin Hatch and Ted Cruz remain and are likely to oppose the bill again, and Sen. Ben Sasse, a new member of the committee, might join them. But the committee will approve the leniency legislation, most likely with only three dissenters.

What happens then? I hope McConnell will make the same calculation he made two years ago under similar circumstances. However, Team Leniency, which includes the Majority Whip (Sen. Cornyn) and the Judiciary Committee chairman (Sen. Grassley), will push hard for a vote.

Meanwhile, many potential opponents of the legislation are focused on other matters, most notably immigration reform. The opposition troops have not yet been rallied.

On the plus side, though, Sen. Tom Cotton, who along with Jeff Sessions led the charge against leniency legislation two years ago, has his eye on this ball, notwithstanding his key role in the immigration battle.

The biggest difference between now and two years ago is, of course, that Donald Trump is president, not Barack Obama. The second biggest difference, for purposes of the sentencing reform debate, flows from the first — Jeff Sessions is the Attorney General.

Sessions still vigorously opposes reducing the mandatory minimums. His view is shared, I think, by President Trump. I’ve heard that the White House might make its opposition known publicly this week.

If Trump is against the leniency bill, it would be especially pointless for McConnell to bring it to a vote. Why split the GOP members and force them to vote on highly controversial legislation when the president doesn’t want the bill and likely would veto it?

My main purpose in writing this post is to call attention to the push for leniency legislation — to rally the troops. As for the merits of the bill, there are three main reasons why I oppose it.

First, the current mandatory minimums have been instrumental in the dramatic decrease in violent crime the U.S. has enjoyed since they were instituted. Why change a system that has been so effective in reducing violent crime?

Second, the leniency legislation would apply retroactively, Thus, thousands of prisoners could petition to be released even though they haven’t completed their legally imposed sentences.  Given the high recidivism rate for federal drug offenders — around 70 percent — the legislation is guaranteed to yield more crime, and not just by those released early but also by those sentenced to less time under the bill.

Third, the leniency legislation grants judges too much discretion in sentencing.  We know from the high-crime era before mandatory minimums that liberal judges will abuse that discretion to go soft on serious offenders.  With a raft of new Obama-appointed judges, this error will likely produce the same sort of damage we lived through during that era....

As I said, the leniency bill is a done deal in committee. What counts now is how President Trump and Majority Leader McConnell respond.

I’m cautiously optimistic that the legislation will again die on the vine, but we shouldn’t simply assume that it will. We need to watch this one closely.

Paul's analysis and criticism of the SRCA is crude in a number of particulars, mostly because he is discussing and taking issue only with Title I of the SRCA dealing with sentencing reform, while ignoring the arguably more consequential parts of the bill dealing with corrections and the creation of a national crime commission.  But I still thought it useful to reprint the thinking and rhetoric of those inclined to be against the bipartisan criminal justice reform effort moving forward in the Senate this week.

A few prior related posts:

UPDATE: One reason I described Paul Mirengoff's criticisms of the sentencing part of the SRCA as crude is because I thought he had his data off about the "recidivism rate for federal drug offenders" which he pegs at "around 70 percent."   I just had a chance to check his numbers aided by this big report that the US Sentencing Commission released last year titled "Recidivism Among Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders." Here is one key statistic from the report's executive summary: 

Federal drug trafficking offenders had a substantially lower recidivism rate compared to a cohort of state drug offenders released into the community in 2005 and tracked by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  Over two-thirds (76.9%) of state drug offenders released from state prison were rearrested within five years, compared to 41.9 percent of federal drug trafficking offenders released from prison over the same five-year period.

Paul may have been thinking of the BJS report on state drug offenders when coming up with his 70 percent number, but the Commission data shows the recidivism rate to be much lower. That said, even a much lower predicated recidivism rate does not completely undercut his basis for arguing that retroactive application of sentencing reductions will "yield more crime."   By the same token, these recidivism realities themselves help make the case for corrections part of the SRCA; high rates of recidivism provide strong evidence that our prison system needs the kinds of "Recidivism reduction programming and productive activities" that appear in Title II of the SRCA.

February 13, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Retired Missouri judge now expressing regret about giving 16-year-old offender 241 years in prison for role in two armed robberies

Evelyn Baker, a retired Missouri circuit court judge, has this notable new opinion piece in the Washington Post under the headline "I sentenced a teen to die in prison. I regret it." Here are excerpts:

“You will die in the Department of Corrections.” Those are the words I spoke as a trial judge in 1997 when I sentenced Bobby Bostic to a total of 241 years in prison for his role in two armed robberies he committed when he was just 16 years old.

Bostic and an 18-year-old friend robbed a group of six people who were delivering Christmas presents to a needy family in St. Louis.  Two shots were fired.  A bullet grazed one person, but no one was seriously injured.  The two then abducted and robbed another woman — who said she was groped by Bostic’s accomplice before the two released her. They used the money they stole from her to buy marijuana.  Despite overwhelming evidence against him, Bostic chose to go to trial.  He was found guilty.

Bostic had written me a letter trying to explain his actions, but despite this, he had not, in my view, demonstrated sufficient remorse.

I told him: “You are the biggest fool who has ever stood in front of this court. . . . You made your choice. You’re gonna have to live with your choice, and you’re gonna die with your choice. . . . Your mandatory date to go in front of the parole board will be the year 2201.  Nobody in this room is going to be alive in the year 2201.”

I thought I was faulting Bostic for his crimes.  Looking back, I see that I was punishing him both for what he did and for his immaturity.  I am now retired, and I deeply regret what I did.  Scientists have discovered so much about brain development in the more than 20 years since I sentenced Bostic.  What I learned too late is that young people’s brains are not static; they are in the process of maturing.  Kids his age are unable to assess risks and consequences like an adult would.  Overwhelming scientific research shows that children lack maturity and a sense of responsibility compared with adults because they are still growing.  But for the same reason, they also have greater capacity for reform.

That’s perhaps not surprising.  As a society, we recognize that children and teens cannot and do not function as adults.  That’s why below a certain age you cannot vote, join the military, serve on a jury or buy cigarettes or alcohol....

Most courts have understood the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision to mean that the Constitution prohibits sentences like the one I gave to Bostic.  While I did not technically give him “life without parole,” I placed on his shoulders a prison term of so many years combined that there is no way he will ever be considered for release.  He won’t become eligible for parole until he is 112 years old — which means he will die in prison, regardless of whether he rehabilitates himself or changes as he grows older.

I see now that this kind of sentence is as benighted as it is unjust.  But Missouri and a handful of other states still allow such sentences, and the Missouri courts have affirmed the sentence I handed down.

This week, the Supreme Court will consider whether to take Bostic’s case and, if the justices do, they will decide whether his sentence is an outcome the Constitution can countenance.  The court should take the case and give Bostic the chance I did not: to show that he has changed and does not deserve to die in prison for something he did when he was just 16.

Imposing a life sentence without parole on a child who has not committed murder — whether imposed in a single sentence or multiple sentences, for one crime or many — is wrong.  Bostic was immature, and I punished him for that.  But to put him, and children like him, in prison for life without any chance of release, no matter how they develop over time, is unfair, unjust and, under the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision, unconstitutional.

I am pleased to see a judge who imposed a functional LWOP sentence now recognizing and advocating that functional LWOP sentences create the same constitutional concerns as formal LWOP sentences that the Supreme Court found to violate the Eighth Amendment in Graham.  That said, I find it a little rich this judge now asserting that she "learned too late" that juvenile brains are different than adult brains.  Also, as the judge's commentary hints and as this local article from a few years ago about the case confirms, it seems Bostic's decision to go to trial rather than his crimes largely accounts for his need now to seek constitutional relief from the Supreme Court:

Bostic is serving a vastly greater sentence than Hutson, his accomplice, who received 30 years and will be eligible for parole six years from now.

Both men were accused of firing guns that night. The only difference: Bostic went to trial and Hutson pleaded guilty.

February 13, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Monday, February 12, 2018

Interesting tales of a local grand jury that decided some drug cases were not as criminal as a ham sandwich

This recent local article from Arizona, headlined "Tucson grand jurors rebel against drug prosecutions," provides an interesting report on some interesting work by a local grand jury.  Here are highlights:

You may have heard that saying: If prosecutors want to, they could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. It’s a knock on how much control prosecutors hold over the grand juries to whom they give evidence for possible indictments.

The 269th Pima County Grand Jury could not be controlled like that.  That 16-member grand jury met from July to October last year, one of two county grand juries meeting twice a week in Tucson at the time.  But this one was led by a criminal-defense attorney and populated by freethinkers who took to heart their role as “conscience of the community.”

They went so far as to decline to indict people even though there was enough evidence to show probable cause, foreman Natman Schaye and others told me. That, in essence, is grand-jury nullification — not carrying out the law because, in the jury’s opinion, it is unjust.  “There were cases where we felt like, maybe there’s probable cause, but this is not something that we believe should result in a felony,” Schaye said.

Rick Myers, a well-known Tucsonan who is a member of the Arizona Board of Regents, also was on the Notorious 269th. What bothered him was the many cases of small quantities of drugs that were charged as Class 4 felonies, as state law dictates. He said he began making a distinction between what’s actually a “crime” and what’s “breaking the law.”

The reason, another grand juror, Jodi Kautz, said was: They were presented with possession cases involving drug amounts as tiny as 2/100th of a gram, a trace amount. “We left every day frustrated, and frustrated for society,” Myers said. “There’s a whole lot of people getting charged for things that are not hurting other people.” As a grand juror, he said, “You want to not just be a rubber stamp. You want to do what’s right.”...

Deputy County Attorney Malena Acosta, who runs the grand juries, and Thomas Weaver, the chief criminal deputy, told me the number of drug cases is a function of the number of arrests by police. “We respond to what comes through the door,” Weaver said. “If we’re getting more cases presented to us, then there will be more cases charged.”

He also noted that a significant proportion, maybe half, of the cases brought to them are never brought to a grand jury, because of problems with the cases. And it’s not as if the prosecutors have a choice on how to charge the possession cases involving any drug except marijuana.  Meth, cocaine, heroin — whatever someone has, and however much, that will earn them a class 4 felony.  Marijuana possession can be treated as a misdemeanor.

LaWall explained her thinking on charging decisions: “If police officers bring us cases, and the evidence is there, we make our decisions based on legal reasoning. If the evidence proves a crime was committed, we have an ethical obligation to follow the law.”  She also noted that her office has created various programs that are alternatives to prison for drug offenders, but they occur after they are convicted, so they’d have to be charged to take part.

As to the grand jurors’ decision to reject some cases with adequate evidence, Acosta said that really isn’t their place.  They take an oath to follow the law before taking their seats, she said. “If somebody has a particular agenda, I suppose they can go to the Legislature and say, ‘We don’t like this law, maybe you should change it.’ But the grand jury isn’t the place for that kind of activity,” she said.

Joel Feinman was happy to hear of grand jurors exercising their usually unused muscles.  The Pima County public defender has been compiling data on the steadily growing number of felony cases and drug prosecutions in an effort to reduce jail stays and prison sentences.  His most stunning discovery concerned the amount of drugs possessed by those charged in the 725 felony drug cases his office has received in the last five months.  The median amount in all those cases, he said, was 0.496 of a gram.  “Felony filings are at an all-time high, felony drug filings are at an all-time high — and are a plurality of the cases — and the median amount is half a sugar packet,” he said.

That’s what bothered some of the grand jurors of the Notorious 269th.  “The drugs are the ones that bug me,” said Myers, the regent. “I feel like we have a puritanical view of even a minuscule amount of drugs.” Said Schaye: “It’s tremendously frustrating. We put far too many people in prison, and it does no good.”... “We all took it extremely seriously, because these are people’s lives. A felony really screws you over.”

February 12, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Yes, Trump is embracing criminal justice reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this new opinion piece that struck me as notable for any number of reasons: the piece appears in the right-leaning Washington Examiner and is authored by well-known conservatives Ken Blackwell and Ken Cuccinelli.  The piece also ends with a call for Congress to catch up to states in the criminal justice reform arena.  Here are excerpts:

Throughout the last election cycle, there came fevered predictions from many commentators on the Left that, given candidate Donald Trump’s frank messaging about returning to "law and order" and confronting violent crime in American cities, criminal justice reform efforts were officially dead in the water.  Criminal justice reform appears “bleak in the age of Trump,” stated one article. “How Criminal Justice Reform Died,” intoned another.

Such fatalism was both misplaced and inaccurate. Misplaced, because the lion’s share of successful criminal justice reforms over the last ten years have advanced at the state and local levels, not in D.C.— mainly by southern red states. With oversight over roughly 90 percent of the country’s incarcerated population, the states will always be the primary mover of criminal justice policies, not the federal government.

But such predictions have now been proven inaccurate as well, given recent remarks made by now-President Trump about the need for federal prison reform....

Society is justified in expecting individuals to take ownership not just for their actions, but also for their reformation. This is hampered, however, when the weight of accumulated barriers to re-entry becomes a millstone. Research has been clear that getting a job upon release is among the most critical steps to reducing a person’s likelihood for recidivism. When President Trump and others say society has a “great interest” in helping ex-offenders get on the path of self-sufficiency, he’s speaking a well-established truism.

Fortunately, conservative states have long since begun helping ex-offenders land on their feet upon release. Chief among them: Texas, long known as a “tough on crime” stalwart. In 2007, state lawmakers passed a $241 million “justice reinvestment” package to increase capacity for substance abuse and mental health treatment and expand probation and parole services, as well as community-based diversion programs. This avoided the immediate need for $2.1 billion in spending just to meet their expected needs for new prison capacity.

More recently, Texas has passed indemnity laws to insulate employers and landlords from liability when they extend a job or lease to ex-offenders.  This makes it less likely that a criminal record will be an insuperable barrier to work or finding a place to live. Communities in Texas have been getting safer at the same time.  Crime rates have fallen by 31 percent, while incarceration rates have fallen by more than 20 percent. Eight prisons have been shuttered even as Texas’ population has soared, saving millions in annual operating costs.

In 2012, Georgia began investing in efforts aimed at reducing recidivism, including an expansion of in-prison educational resources.  They’ve since reduced their prison population and nearly eliminated its backlog of inmates awaiting transfer, all the while reducing crime by 8 percent and saving $25 million.  A large reform package passed in Louisiana last year has similar aims of steering less serious offenders away from incarceration and into more effective community-based programs. South Carolina, Utah, Alaska, Kentucky, and others have passed comprehensive reforms, as well.

As we mentioned above, the states are the natural gatekeepers for criminal justice reform.  But Congress has shortcomings within its own prison system to address, and is quickly running out of excuses for doing so.  President Trump, whom so many on the Left falsely assumed would spell the end of reform, has instead sounded a clarion call to advance it. He was right for doing so, as many conservative states have proved, and it's time Congress took up that challenge as well.

February 12, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 now has 20 sponsors in the Senate but...

1518381838864this Roll Call article suggests Senators cannot figure out how to break a "logjam" that is created by the Attorney General and Prez Trump. The Roll Call article is headlined "Senators Ponder How to Break Criminal Justice Logjam: With Trump not on board with bipartisan bill, 'we’re stuck,' Grassley says," and here are excerpts:

Senate Judiciary Committee members grappled Thursday with the best strategy to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system, since the leading bill has broad bipartisan support but the White House apparently backs only one part of it.

Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa set a markup next week for a bill that represents a hard-negotiated compromise — first struck in 2015 — that backers say would pass the Senate with a bipartisan supermajority if brought to the floor. It is expected to easily advance from the committee and could be a signature legislative accomplishment for the Senate.

A broad and politically varied coalition of lawmakers and advocacy groups off Capitol Hill generally back the overhaul, which has two main components. One section aims to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and the other aims to ease re-entry for prisoners.

But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t bring a version of the legislation to the floor in the last Congress because of opposition to the sentencing section from law enforcement groups and some Republican senators, Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas told the committee Thursday. And now, President Donald Trump has voiced support only for the prison changes.

Cornyn, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican leader, said, “I honestly don’t see a path forward” this year for the broader bipartisan bill. “I’m worried that if we just revisit the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which failed during the Obama administration, given this change in the new administration and its views on the sentencing reform component of it, we’re going to have nothing to show for our efforts,” said Cornyn, using the bill’s formal title. “I know we all tried to work together on this and it just didn’t work out.”

Instead, Cornyn said the committee’s best opportunity to move a criminal justice bill would be his legislation, proposed along with Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, which contains only provisions aimed at easing re-entry for prisoners — “and then building on that as we can” with an amendment process on the floor. That process could include amendments on sentencing, based on a bill introduced in previous sessions by Lee and Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.

Grassley responded that the compromise bill would be the best way to get the sentencing and prison provisions into law. The measure currently has 19 co-sponsors, and he said the backers are seeking more. “It’s a matter of process and around here — nothing gets done unless it’s bipartisan,” Grassley said. “And I don’t often agree with Sen. Durbin, but we put together a bill that we worked really hard and we think it’s the only way of advancing both bills.”

Whitehouse said he would support both ways of moving forward since the sentencing bill was proposed five years ago, but that Cornyn’s strategy “actually might provide a more realistic way of getting this matter resolved.” The Senate, however, could end up in the same place if the prison bill gets to the floor and then a supermajority of senators add the sentencing portion back in with an amendment, Whitehouse said. “Waiting here for there to be the ultimate global concord to sort this out has yielded five years of nothing and I’m ready to go forward,” Whitehouse said.

Grassley countered, however, that there could still be senators who would block the prison bill from the floor if they knew there were more than 60 senators supporting a sentencing amendment. “That’s what we face,” Grassley said. “There’s some people around here [who] are just a little bit afraid of what you call an Assistant U.S. Attorneys Association and they’re stopping everything from being done that is so successful in the other states. When people are willing to stand up to those leaders of the Senate, we’ll get something done in both areas.”

Interestingly, this new Axios article has an entry, headed "Grassley twists Trump’s arm for criminal justice reform," reporting on an interview that suggests Senator Grassley might seek to use his political capital with the President to try to get the SRCA into law:

Grassley didn't deny the White House’s cool reception of his bill, but he plans to use his substantial political clout to press Trump to change his mind.

As I've reported, Trump bends over backwards to keep Grassley happy. He knows that as Judiciary Chairman, Grassley played a crucial role in delivering two of Trump's biggest successes so far: the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and a modern record for circuit court judges in a president's first year.

"I've carried a lot of water for the White House," Grassley told me. "They ought to give some consideration for the close working relationship we’ve had on issues we agree on." "I think people at the White House have not wanted to go against Gen. Sessions," he added, before closing with a sentence crafted perfectly to appeal to Trump's ego. "This is an opportunity for a bipartisan victory by the President of the United States."

I think the best way to convince Trump to support this bill is to move it for votes ASAP in the full Senate and House.  I suspect that if 70+ Senators and 300+ members of the House vote for these reforms, which seems quite possible, the Prez will be inclined to sign it.  For that reason, perhaps we should start a hash tag campaign: #voteonSRCA2017.

A few prior related posts:

February 11, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"The American people have spoken: Reform our criminal justice system"

Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, has this notable new Hill commentary with a headline that I have used as the title of this post. Here are excerpts:

Republicans and Democrats are both invested in fixing the justice system, which makes it difficult for either side to politicize this effort.  That wouldn’t be smart politics anyway. Polls show widespread support for specific reforms that will lower the swelling prison population, save money, and make communities safer.  This support is strong among voters in both parties, as well as Independents and women, who are swinging elections in this country.

Three-quarters of American voters think the country’s criminal justice system needs to be significantly improved, according to a poll conducted earlier this year by the conservative polling firm Public Opinion Strategies on behalf of the Justice Action Network.  That conviction is shared equally among Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Robert Blizzard, who conducted the poll, said, “I can’t think of a more positive issue to run on that has more bipartisan support.”  His advice matters, as his firm polls for more than a quarter of the Republicans in the House....

Congress must now stop using the president as an excuse not to bring criminal justice bills to a vote.  The House and Senate are both expected to consider legislation later this year that would implement some of the reforms that voters crave, and the president’s words on the world’s grandest political stage gave Congress a clear runway to act.

Any credible pollster out there would tell members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to tackle this issue and “go big before you go home.”  Voters, by wide margins, favor major changes to our criminal justice system.  Nine out of 10 American voters believe we should break down the existing barriers that make it harder for people leaving jails to find work and support their families.  Republicans are just as likely to hold that view as Democrats.

That is overwhelmingly good news for supporters of “ban the box” or “fair chance hiring” policies, which dozens of states have adopted that would prevent public employers from asking job applicants whether they have been convicted of a crime before they have a chance to explain their qualifications for the job.  Two-thirds of all voters want Congress to enact this policy at the federal level, and Republican governors from Kentucky, Georgia, Arizona, Oklahoma and Indiana have recently taken up this cause.

Attitudes of Americans toward incarceration have shifted dramatically since a generation of Republicans and Democrats enacted tough-on-crime policies at the state and federal levels in the 1980s and 1990s.  Voters now demand more policies that give judges and the justice system more discretion to tailor punishments specifically to individual crimes and cases.

One of the best examples of this shift is the overwhelming opposition to mandatory minimum sentences.  Some 87 percent of voters want judges to have more discretion to sentence nonviolent offenders on a case-by-case basis rather than saddle them with formulaic sentencing requirements that have clogged our prisons with people convicted of nonviolent crimes.  That includes 83 percent of Republicans.

It’s mind-boggling that this issue is controversial in Washington. Not only do Americans want to change how many people we lock up and for how long, they also want policies that will get them back on track.  Some 85 percent of voters think the primary goal of our justice system should be to rehabilitate people so they can become productive, law-abiding members of society. Americans now understand that investing in more treatment rather than more prisons will ultimately make us all safer when these individuals do not return to crime.

Americans no longer believe everyone who commits a serious but nonviolent crime should automatically wind up in prison. Some 87 percent of voters would like governments at the state and federal levels to shift some of the money spent incarcerating nonviolent offenders toward alternative programs, like electronic monitoring, community service or probation. A majority 59 percent feel strongly about it.

Budget concerns are one driver of these changing attitudes.  American voters overwhelmingly believe we spend too much money locking people up, and should spend more on treating drug addiction, helping victims and preventing future crimes.  Voters also want to see more oversight of prisons to ensure taxpayer funds are being spent responsibly.

Prior related post:

February 11, 2018 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

California judge rejects state efforts to limit reach of new parole eligibility rules approved by voters via Proposition 57

As reported in this AP piece, "California must consider earlier parole for potentially thousands of sex offenders, maybe even those convicted of pimping children, a state judge said Friday." Here is more about a notable ruling about a notable effort to limit the reach of a notable ballot initiative:

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Allen Sumner preliminarily ordered prison officials to rewrite part of the regulations for Proposition 57.  The 2016 ballot measure allows consideration of earlier parole for most state prison inmates, but Gov. Jerry Brown promised voters all sex offenders would be excluded.

That goes too far, Sumner said in rejecting Deputy Attorney General Maria Chan's argument that the ballot measure gave state officials broad discretion to exclude any class of offenders whose release might harm public safety. "If the voters had intended to exclude all registered sex offenders from early parole consideration under Proposition 57, they presumably would have said so," Sumner said.

He said the scope of exclusions should be narrowed to only those now serving time for a violent sex offense. And he said the Corrections Department must better define what falls into that category. The judge said those who already served their time for a sex crime, even a violent one, and now are imprisoned for a different crime should be eligible for early release.

The language in Prop. 57 "left way too much wiggle room," opening the door to Sumner's ruling, said Mark Zahner, chief executive of the California District Attorneys Association that opposed the initiative. "There's a great danger of truly violent people being released early and people who commit, in this case, sex offenses that involve violence being released early."

The Governor's Office declined comment. Corrections officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment or say whether they plan to appeal. They also did not provide an estimate of how many offenders might be affected.

The ruling Friday could allow earlier parole for more than half of the 20,000 sex offenders now serving time, said Janice Bellucci, a Sacramento attorney and president of California Reform Sex Offender Laws. Her lawsuit on behalf of sex offenders argued that the rules conflict with the ballot measure's language and voters' intent in approving Proposition 57. Bellucci argued the measure requires earlier parole consideration for any sex crime not on the state's narrow list of 23 violent felonies, which includes murder, kidnapping and forcible rape.

That could allow earlier parole for those convicted of raping a drugged or unconscious victim, intimately touching someone unlawfully restrained, incest, pimping a minor, indecent exposure and possessing child pornography. The judge said corrections officials can make the case for excluding those offenders as they rewrite the regulations, but Bellucci said she will sue again if officials go too far.

The full 18-page ruling discussed here is available at this link.  Here is a key paragraph from the opinion's conclusion: 

Under Proposition 57, “Any person convicted of a nonviolent felony offense . . . shall be eligible for parole consideration after completing the full term for his or her primary offense.”  CDCR adopted regulations defining the term “nonviolent offender” to exclude anyone required to register under section 290, regardless of their current commitment offense.  CDCR’s overbroad definition must thus be set aside.

February 11, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, February 10, 2018

"Bail Reform and Risk Assessment: The Cautionary Tale of Federal Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this new Note appearing in the latest issue of the Harvard Law Review.  Here is how it starts:

Across the country, from New Jersey to Texas to California, bail reform is being debated, implemented, and litigated at the state and local levels.  Lawmakers and the public are learning that cash bail is excessive, discriminatory, and costly for taxpayers and communities.  With promises to replace judicial instincts with validated algorithms and to reserve detention for high-risk defendants, risk assessment tools have become a hallmark of contemporary pretrial reform.  Risk assessment tools have proliferated despite substantial criticisms that the tools depend upon and reinforce racially biased data and that the tools’ accuracy is overblown or unknown.  Part I of this Note examines contemporary bail practices, recent reforms, and risk assessments’ promises and shortcomings. Part II discusses federal sentencing reform, which originally sought a more empirical approach to criminal justice but failed.  Part III applies the lesson of sentencing reform to bail reform today.  Despite endorsing empirical tools, legislatures are prone to interfering with the evidence that informs those tools or with the tools themselves.  Even after reforms, system actors retain misaligned incentives to incarcerate too many people.  Technocratic instruments like risk assessments may obscure but cannot answer tough, fundamental questions of system design. But recent pretrial reforms have shown early signs of progress. If risk assessments are paired with adequate safeguards, sustained reductions in incarceration and progress toward equal treatment may be possible.

February 10, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Should there be (and will there be) an appeal of federal judge's imposition of "shorter sentence because ... of [defendant's] decision to be sterilized"?

Mf-law-day-bbf-3-5-4-15-300x160In this post a couple of days ago, I noted the remarkable federal sentencing story out of Oklahoma in which a defendant was seemingly seeking a reduced sentence in a fraud case because she followed a judge's suggestion in this order that she consider taking steps to be "rendered incapable of procreation."  This follow up article, headlined "Oklahoma woman gets shorter prison sentence because she got sterilized," the defendant's decision to follow the judge's suggestion seemingly reduced her sentence a few months. Here are the details:

A judge Thursday showed leniency to a drug-using mother of seven because she had surgery to prevent further pregnancies.  Summer Thyme Creel, 34, was sentenced to a year in federal prison and three years on supervised release for passing counterfeit checks.  She was ordered to pay $15,246 in restitution.

Creel voluntarily underwent the medical procedure in November after the Oklahoma City federal judge suggested it in a scheduling order. "She will receive a shorter sentence because she made that decision," U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot said before announcing the punishment.  Friot on Thursday also defended his sterilization suggestion, saying the U.S. Supreme Court "has yet to recognize a constitutional right to bring crack- or methamphetamine-addicted babies into this world."

In his order last June, the judge called Creel a habitual user of crack cocaine and methamphetamine. He wrote in that order she had given up her parental rights to six of her seven children and likely had used illegal drugs while pregnant.  He then wrote he would consider at sentencing medical evidence Creel had undergone a sterilization procedure "if (and only if) she chooses to do so."

Creel had faced up to 16 months in federal prison under sentencing guidelines intended to keep punishments uniform across the country.  Judges do not have to follow the guidelines, though, and the maximum possible punishment for Creel's offense was 10 years in prison.  The unusual order — first reported by The Oklahoman — attracted national and international attention.  The judge has been both praised and condemned.

"When I read the order, I was horrified,” Lynn Paltrow, founder of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told The Washington Post. "We find it highly unlikely that this judge has asked any man how many children he fathered and used that in his sentencing determination."  The judge Thursday did not directly comment on the public criticism.

He did state his order last year had made clear that "the decision as to whether to be sterilized would be for Ms. Creel and Ms. Creel alone to make." He also explained he would not have counted it against Creel if she had decided against the procedure. "She would have come before the court in the same posture as any other habitual criminal," he said. "Her fertility would have been a non-issue."

The judge chided a prosecutor for telling him in a sentencing memorandum Creel has "a fundamental constitutional right to procreate." The prosecutor in the memo had cited a 1942 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found unconstitutional Oklahoma's Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act. "This is rather curious," the judge said of the prosecutor's position on the issue. The judge then pointed out the 1942 decision had involved involuntary sterilization. He said the prosecutor apparently overlooked that fact.

Creel was punished Thursday for her involvement in a fraudulent check-cashing ring that used information from stolen mail to manufacture counterfeit checks. "Theirs was a systematic and successful identity theft scheme," the judge said.  She pleaded guilty last year to one federal counterfeiting offense.  She admitted she had passed a $202.22 counterfeit check in 2014 at a Walmart in Moore.

She has prior theft and counterfeit check convictions in county courts but always received probation.  She originally had sought probation in her federal case. That possibility ended when she was arrested for passing a $121.71 counterfeit check at a Hobby Lobby in Midwest City a month after pleading guilty.

She also has tested positive for methamphetamine use — twice — since her guilty plea. The second time, the judge had her jailed pending sentencing. Her defense attorney, Brett Behenna, told the judge Creel has had a tough life and became caught in a cycle of poverty. He said she turned to illegal drugs as an escape....

"I'm sorry for the mistakes that I made," Creel told the judge. Another participant in the scheme, Amber L. Perkins, 43, was sentenced last March to five years in prison and ordered to pay $159,753 in restitution.

This five-page order that the Judge Friot issued in conjunction with the sentencing leaves no doubt that the defendant's sterilization decision was a consequential factors in his sentencing decision. Here are the closing paragraphs of the order:

If anything was clear from the court’s June order, it was that the decision as to whether to be sterilized would be for Ms. Creel and Ms. Creel alone to make.  The short of the matter is that Ms. Creel will get the benefit of her decision to be sterilized.  She will receive a shorter sentence because she made that decision.  But a decision not to be sterilized would not have counted against Ms. Creel for sentencing purposes — she would have come before the court in the same posture as any other habitual criminal. Her fertility status would have been a nonissue.  Moreover, if we assume, as the government urges, that the court’s approach to sentencing in this case might raise a constitutional issue, the court will note that the Supreme Court has yet to recognize a constitutional right to bring crack or methamphetamine addicted babies into this world.

Accordingly, in determining the sentence to be imposed upon Ms. Creel, the court will take into account all of the factors spelled out in 18 U.S.C. § 3553, a determination which will give Ms. Creel the benefit of her decision to be sterilized.

As federal sentencing gurus know, any appeal of this sentencing proceeding would be generally subject to a reasonableness standard of review. Though I have not read the full record, I am still inclined to consider Judge Friot's work here unreasonable because he unduly suggested that sterilization was an essential (and perhaps exclusive) way for this defendant to "earn" a below-guideline sentence. 

I generally believe (and often have argued) that a wide range of considerations can and should be brought to bear as a federal sentencing judge considers, under 18 U.S.C § 3553(a), what sentence will be "sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes set forth" by Congress.  But it strikes me as highly problematic for a judge, prior to sentencing, to tell a defendant that a reduced sentence will be possible if (and perhaps only if) the defendant engages in specific life-altering personal behavior.  The procreation dynamics here are particularly concerning in light of some ugly history on this front; but I would also be troubled if a judge said to a defendant, for example, I will likely cut you a sentencing break only if you divorce that spouse who pressured you into criminal activity or only if you contractually commit to giving 50% of all future salary to charity.

That all said, and as my post title suggests, I suspect that there will not be an appeal of this sentence by the federal government (or the defense) and so we will not likely see a higher court reviewing Judge Friot's work here.  But, of course, that should not prevent the court of public opinion from chiming in, perhaps using the comments here.

Prior related post:

February 10, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

New Utah death penalty study may add momentum to repeal efforts

This local article, headlined "New study of Utah’s use of the death penalty suggests life without parole costs less, prompts another call to abolish capital punishment," reports on a new report which could help jump start efforts to abolish the death penalty in the Beehive State.  Here are the details and some context:

A group of Utah attorneys, advocates and state staff have spent the last year studying the state’s death penalty. The working group, created by Utah’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, examined several areas, including costs, aggravating factors and public attitude.  The CCJJ report, released Friday [and available here], noted there were “fundamental difficulties inherent in analyzing death penalty policy.” The group did not make any recommendations or proposed changes to Utah’s current capital punishment system.

But a group called Utah Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty said the report shows that a significant amount of money has been spent seeking death sentences without much in return.  They called on lawmakers to abolish capital punishment in Utah. “This report should give pause to anyone who thought that because capital punishment is so rarely used in Utah that the cost of maintaining a death penalty would be negligible,” director Kevin Greene said in a statement. “... The millions of dollars that we have been wasting on the death penalty should either be returned to the taxpayers in the form of a tax cut or used for crime prevention or to help victims of crime.”

Here’s what the study found:

Cost estimates for the price of the death penalty in Utah are limited, the group noted. Legislative analysts in 2012 estimated that a death sentence and decades of appeals costs $1.6 million more than a life-without-parole sentence. Another more recent report estimated that Utah and its counties have spent almost $40 million to prosecute the 165 death-penalty eligible cases that have been filed in the last two decades. Only two cases in that time have resulted in a death sentence....

Utah currently has over 60 aggravating factors in the homicide law that allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty — and state lawmakers are contemplating adding even more. At a recent legislative hearing, some expressed concern that Utah may have too many crimes that qualify for the death penalty, and that an appeals court could torpedo the capital punishment law for being too broad. In the CCJJ report, the group noted that they could not come to an agreement about whether the number of aggravating factors should be limited. They noted that most states rarely remove aggravating factors — and instead have been adding more through the years.

The working group looked at several polls about Utahns’ attitude toward the death penalty, noting that there have been conflicting results. Two polls showed Utahns support the death penalty, while two others showed less support for execution in favor of life-without-parole sentences. The group concluded it was “probably reasonable to suggest simply that public support for the death penalty in Utah is declining over previous highs.”

Utah legislators came close to outlawing the death penalty in 2016 — but the bill never reached the House floor before the midnight deadline on the last night of session. Criminal justice reforms groups have said another push to end capital punishment in Utah is likely during this legislative session — though a bill to abolish it has not yet been public.

Since 2010, Utah prosecutors have filed 119 aggravated murder cases, according to Utah court data. Such cases can result in punishments of 25 years to life, life in prison without the possibility of parole, or death. Only one of those cases — a retrial of a 1993 case — resulted in a death sentence.

Of the nine men currently on Utah’s death row, two were originally convicted as long ago as 1985. All but one of the rest were convicted before 1999, although one case was retried in 2015 and resulted in a second capital murder conviction.  All nine have ongoing appeals underway in state or federal court.

The last execution was carried out in 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad for the 1984 murder of Michael Burdell, a Salt Lake City lawyer, during Gardner’s failed escape attempt from the 3rd District courthouse.

Notably, in the not too distant past, a significant number of states abolished the death penalty formally or functionally.  As reflected in this DPIC page, from 2007 through 2013, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland became abolitionist states.  Since 2013, the only significant legislative action on this front took place in Nebraska; but the death penalty repeal passed by state senators in 2015 was rejected by voters in a 2016 referendum. In light of this recent history, I think it would be a pretty big deal if abolition efforts picked up steam in Utah.

February 10, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, February 09, 2018

Lamenting latest data on how federal Bureau of Prisons administers its compassionate release program

This new press release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, headlined "New Data Reveals BOP Still Neglecting Compassionate Release," reports on the release of new data about a notable piece of federal prison law and administration. Here is much of the full release (with links from the original):

FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) President Kevin Ring today commented on the release of new data related to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) compassionate release program. Last August, 12 U.S. senators wrote to the BOP seeking information on the number of individuals who were granted early release pursuant to the program. In its response dated January 16, the BOP revealed that the agency has granted a mere 306 petitions while denying more than 2,400 over the past four years.  Prisoners facing unimaginable circumstances wait an average of 4.7 to 6.5 months for a response, and 81 prisoners died while waiting for an answer.

“We are disappointed but not surprised,” Ring said. “Even as interest in prison reform grows, we find that the BOP is not using its authority to reduce the number of low-risk, high-cost individuals in federal prisons. This failure hurts families and taxpayers without improving public safety.

“The fact that 81 individuals died waiting for a response to their petitions for compassionate release is a moral outrage. We as a country can do better than this. Congress should act now to streamline the process and inject some common sense and dignity to this program,” Ring said.

FAMM has been a longtime advocate for expanding federal and state compassionate release programs, which authorize early release for prisoners facing extreme circumstances, such as a terminal or age-related illness. Last year, FAMM helped to establish the Campaign for Compassionate Release, a coalition of diverse organizations who support the creation, expansion, and robust use of compassionate release.

February 9, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Should (encouraged!?!) sterilization be a permissible federal sentencing factor in mitigation?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by a remarkable federal sentencing story out of Oklahoma reported in this local article headlined "Woman underwent sterilization procedure at judge’s suggestion." Here are the details:

At a judge's suggestion, an admitted drug user involved in a counterfeit check ring underwent a medical procedure preventing her from having more children.

Summer Thyme Creel, 34, had the elective procedure in November after the judge wrote he could consider it at her sentencing if she chose to do so. Her sentencing is now set for Thursday in Oklahoma City federal court.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot made the unusual suggestion in an order last June. He noted in the order Creel had given up her parental rights to six of her seven children and likely had used illegal drugs while pregnant with some of them. "I spoke with her in detail about it and she voluntarily wanted to do it," her court-appointed defense attorney, Brett Behenna, said.

A prosecutor is urging the judge not to consider the procedure as a factor at sentencing. "Creel not only has a fundamental constitutional right to procreate ... but she admits that she had an interest in an elective sterilization procedure even before the court's order of June 16," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Perry told the judge in a sentencing memo.

"Furthermore, Creel's decision to have (or not have) additional children is sufficiently removed from the type of criminal activity involved in this case that such a factor is irrelevant to determining a sentence," the prosecutor wrote.

Creel has a lengthy criminal record involving theft and counterfeit check crimes. She is listed in court records over the last two years at addresses in Oklahoma City, Checotah and Lawton. She was charged for the first time in federal court in 2016. A federal grand jury alleged she and others participated in a counterfeit ring that relied on mail stolen from mailboxes.

Creel pleaded guilty a year ago to a single count in the indictment for using a $202.22 counterfeit check at a Walmart in Moore in 2014. Her sentencing has been delayed for a number of reasons, the first time because she couldn't show up in court. She was in the Oklahoma County jail for using a counterfeit check at a Hobby Lobby in Midwest City....

In delaying the sentence the first time, the judge made note of both Creel's criminal past and her history as a mother. "By virtue of a series of relationships with various sires over approximately the last 14 years, Ms. Creel has given birth to seven children out of wedlock," the judge wrote in the June order.

"Comparing the dates of Ms. Creel's periods of habitual use of crack cocaine and methamphetamine ... with the dates of birth of her seven children, it appears highly likely that some of Ms. Creel's children were conceived, carried and born while Ms. Creel was a habitual user of these illicit substances," the judge wrote.

"It comes as no surprise, therefore, that, in 2012, Ms. Creel relinquished her parental rights with respect to six of her seven children 'after an Oklahoma Department of Human Services investigation for failure to protect the children from harm.' Her seventh child was born in 2016," the judge wrote.

The judge then pointed out he can consider at sentencing any information concerning the background, character and conduct of an offender. Finally, he told Creel in his order that at her sentencing she "may, if (and only if) she chooses to do so, present medical evidence to the court establishing that she has been rendered incapable of procreation."

The June order referenced in this story, which runs only two pages, can be accessed at this link.  It closes by noting that Congress has provided via 18 U,S.C § 3661 that "No limitation shall be placed on the information concerning the background, character, and conduct of a person convicted of an offense which a court of the United States may receive and consider for the purpose of imposing an appropriate sentence." I am inclined also to note that in 18 U.S.C § 3553(a)(1) Congress ordered federal judges to consider "the history and characteristics of the defendant" at sentencing.  So there is certainly a statutory basis for Judge Friot to defend his approach to Ms. Creel's case.  I am eager to hear readers' thoughts as to whether Judge Friot's approach is sound and wise even if it may be statutorily defensible.

February 8, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Brennan Center releases report on "Criminal Justice One Year Into the Trump Administration"

As detailed in this press release, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law has produced this new report about federal criminal justice developments in the first year of the Trump era. Here is an overview via the press release:

Criminal Justice One Year Into the Trump Administration examines how the executive branch has used memoranda or more subtle changes in enforcement strategy to reverse Obama-era reforms and implement a more draconian law enforcement strategy.  Their efforts threaten to increase the federal prison population and disrupt state and local movements for reform that have broad, bipartisan backing.

“From day one at the Inauguration podium, Trump immediately shifted how federal officials talk about criminal justice issues,” said Inimai Chettiar, the director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “He has sounded false alarms about rising crime nationwide and wrongly linked immigration to both this phantom increase and the opioid crisis. He preys on people’s fears to try to justify these ineffective and overreaching policies from his administration.”

Researchers note that:

  • The administration’s changes to policy have so far focused on increasing aggressive prosecutorial practices, changing federal drug enforcement policy, decreasing oversight of problematic police practices, and resurrecting rhetoric around fear of crime.

  • In fiscal year 2017, arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials rose by more than 30 percent. Arrests of individuals with no criminal conviction increased 146 percent from fiscal year 2016. ICE increased its use of detainers, or requests that local law enforcement hold someone in custody and hand them over to federal law enforcement authorities, by 65 percent. And, the number of detainers that local law enforcement declined to honor also rose.

  • Opioid deaths are expected to rise in 2017 and surpass the record of nearly 50,000 deaths in 2016.

  • The White House is poised to support federal legislation that improves formerly incarcerated individuals’ reentry into society, but has not made a commitment to back federal sentencing reform efforts with bipartisan support.

“In some areas the effects of Trump’s changes to policy are not yet clear,” said Ames Grawert, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.  “But that is not the case when it comes to immigration. Under his tenure, more people are entering ICE’s system and fewer are leaving it.  The Department of Homeland Security expects the daily population in immigration detention centers will increase by 25 percent.  That will not only have significant impact on the lives of the individuals put behind bars, but on the nation’s criminal justice system as a whole.”

February 8, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ohio Gov Kasich issues reprieve days before scheduled execution so clemency process can consider new juror letter

In this post last week, I asked via the post title "Are Governors considering capital clemency inclined to give great weight to capital jurors calling for a commutation?".  This question was prompted by the release of a letter from a a former juror in an Ohio capital case urging Governor John Kasich to grant a reprieve based on mitigating evidence that he said he had neverand that would have changed his vote at the penalty phase.

Today I just learned of a partial answer to my question in this new press report headlined "Kasich issues temporary reprieve for condemed killer." Here are the interesting details:

Gov. John Kasich on Thursday issued a temporary reprieve for Raymond Tibbetts, a Cincinnati man who was scheduled to be executed Tuesday.

“Kasich issued the reprieve in light of a letter he received on January 30 from a juror on Tibbetts’ case,” a statement from the governor’s office said. “Because the Ohio Parole Board issued its report and recommendation without considering the letter, Kasich has asked the board to convene a hearing for the purpose of considering the letter and the issue it raises.”

In his letter, the juror said that he would not have voted 20 years ago to execute Tibbetts, who killed his wife and an elderly man, if he’d known the extent to which Tibbetts was abused as a child.

Kasich reset the execution for Oct. 17.

UPDATE: A helpful reader showed me this link with Gov Kasich's full statement, as well as this local article which includes the prosecutor's reaction to this reprieve:

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, whose office sought a death sentence for Tibbetts, said he understands the governor's decision to delay, but he believes the original sentence should stand.

"It's pretty serious business when you're going to execute someone," Deters said. "It's frustrating for a lot of people, but the reality is this: If the governor has questions, it's his job to stop it.

"Would I have done something different? Maybe. But I don't know what he knows, and he's the governor."

February 8, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Reviewing how crime and punishment (but not AG Sessions' approaches) have changed in recent decades

Over at FiveThirtyEight, Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux has this extended piece that is a kind of retrospective on the evolution of crime and punishment in the US over the last 30 years, with a particular focus on the perspectives of AG Sessions. The piece is headlined "Jeff Sessions Is Trying To Take Criminal Justice Back To The 1990s," and here is how it gets started:

Thursday is the first anniversary of Jeff Sessions’s confirmation as attorney general. Over the past year, he has announced that he would seek to increase the use of the federal death penalty; reversed a series of Obama-era memos that instructed federal prosecutors not to go after the marijuana industry in the states that have legalized it; and directed prosecutors to slap drug suspects with the most serious charge they can prove.

None of these policies would have seemed out of place 30 years ago. And, in fact, it’s clear that Sessions has set his sights on returning the country’s criminal justice system to the days of harsh penalties for crime and hardline drug laws. The problem: A lot has changed over the last three decades — in particular, crime and our understanding of how to fight it.

Thirty years ago, there were open-air drug markets in big cities from New York to Los Angeles, residents of those cities were robbed or even killed on public transportation, and the murder rate was near its all-time high. At the crest of the crime wave, harsher penalties for criminals like mandatory minimum sentences and expanded use of the death penalty seemed like a reasonable response to a devastating national crisis, and most Americans supported them.

But today, the crime rate is much lower than in the 1990s, and Sessions’s policies are out of step with most public opinion. Moreover, many criminologists view his strategy as a throwback that’s unlikely to significantly curb violence or drug crime.

That’s because since these policies were implemented, decades of social science research has led experts like David Kennedy, a professor of criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, to conclude that they don’t work well enough to justify their cost. “The evidence shows that they’re expensive, there’s enormous human damage, and they’re not actually effective in deterring crime,” he said.

Sessions has long established himself as a hard-liner on criminal justice issues: As Alabama’s attorney general, he proposed a crime bill that would have made the death penalty mandatory for a second conviction for drug trafficking. As the U.S. attorney general, he’s billed his new policies as a rejection of the “soft” strategies on crime that characterized the Obama administration, arguing that capital punishment and long sentences deter criminals and that pot is a “gateway drug” for harder substances and addiction.

There’s no question that crime did start to drop precipitously during the era of harsher penalties. And in 2010, the homicide rate hit a four-decade low, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Though most experts agree that the harsher strategies alone can’t explain the decline, there’s still no consensus about why the crime rate started to drop three decades ago. Scholars do note that it was already falling before many tough-on-crime measures were widely introduced, and they have offered theories from improved policing to the roaring economic growth of the 1990s to explain the change.

Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said Sessions deserves some credit for calling attention to the recent uptick in the murder rate, which rose for the second consecutive year in 2016 after a 25-year decline. But Rosenfeld, who studies the causes behind crime rate shifts, and other mainstream criminal justice experts reject the notion that the Obama-era criminal justice reforms, like the decision not to pursue mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, caused an increase in violent crime. Instead, Rosenfeld blames the increased violence in part on the drug market, with more demand for heroin because of the opioid epidemic. Rosenfeld also said that tensions between African-American communities and the police could be a factor.

And there’s even debate about whether the violent crime rate — as opposed to just the murder rate — is actually increasing. With a criminal justice outlook that seems more suited to the 1990s than today, Sessions finds himself implementing policies on sentencing, capital punishment and drug enforcement — particularly marijuana — that are out of sync with much of the country.

February 8, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 on the agenda for the Senate Judiciary Committee coming meeting

A helpful colleague made sure I saw the exciting news appearing at the very bottom of this agenda for an Executive Business Meeting of the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary.  After a long list on nominees, we see on that agenda this item:


II. Bills
S.1917 Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (Grassley, Durbin, Graham, Feinstein, Lee, Leahy, Flake, Whitehouse, Klobuchar, Booker)   

I think this notice means that there is now some tangible movement (dare I say momentum) on one very significant federal criminal justice proposal.  Clicking though to the text of S.1917 Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, one discovers that this bill has a whole lot of stuff stuffed into its three big sections. For example, "TITLE I — SENTENCING REFORM" includes, inter alia:

Sec. 101. Reduce and restrict enhanced sentencing for prior drug felonies."

Sec. 102. Broadening of existing safety valve....

Sec. 106. Mandatory minimum sentences for domestic violence offenses....

Sec. 108. Inventory of Federal criminal offenses.

Sec. 109. Fentanyl.

And "TITLE II — CORRECTIONS ACT" includes, inter alia:

Sec. 202. Recidivism reduction programming and productive activities.

Sec. 203. Post-sentencing risk and needs assessment system....

Sec. 207. Promoting successful reentry.

Sec. 208. Parole for juveniles.

Sec. 209. Compassionate release initiative.  

And "TITLE III — NATIONAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE COMMISSION ACT" would create another notable federal criminal justice entity.

I can state with confidence that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is surely opposed to the provisions in Title I of this bill, but I he may be supportive of Title II and maybe even Title III. And, of course, since he is no longer in the Senate, Jeff Sessions does not get a vote on legislation, and it will be interesting to see (assuming there is a vote tomorrow of sometime soon) whether there are many (or any) strong opponents of this bill even in this huge form.

February 7, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

AG Sessions gives full accounting of his full law-and-order approach to his work as Attorney General

Jeff-sessions-attorney-general-630x354Last night, Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered this extended speech at the Reagan Alumni Association's Celebration of President Reagan's Birthday.  I recommend the full text as a window into how the current AG thinks about and approaches various law enforcement issues, and here are some highlights that ought to interest sentencing fans:

[President Reagan] was elected to stop the dramatic rise in crime that arose after the Great Society.  The violent crime rate tripled from 1964 to 1980.  Robbery tripled. Rape tripled. Aggravated assault nearly tripled. Murder doubled.  The people were not happy.  Personal safety was a huge issue.  The last liberal, as was said, was mugged.

By 1980, judicial activism looked triumphant.  It was praised as a virtue and not a vice.  Originalism seemed to have gone the way of the Dodo.

Ronald Reagan was elected to fix this situation.  He was the law & order candidate — that’s for sure.  It was not Jimmy Carter.  Nixon had run on law and order successfully.

President Reagan promised change and he delivered.  His achievements with regard to legal reform are nothing short of remarkable.  They have not been fully appreciated....

President Reagan was a strong leader and a good boss.  There was never any doubt about what he expected from us.  And I drew a lesson from that: a strong leader is one who makes his expectations simple and clear.  When I became a United States Attorney, I told my staff, “I know why Ronald Reagan put me here: to put crooks in jail and to protect the treasury.”

We took on violent crime, drug dealers, the Miami cocaine cowboys, the mafia, government corruption, waste fraud, and abuse in government programs.

President Reagan signed into law a number of legal reforms that empowered the law enforcement effort.  There was the elimination of parole, the issuing of sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences in certain cases, the elimination of bail on appeal, and increased bail for dangerous criminals before trial.  We increased the DEA, FBI, ATF, and federal prosecutors.  Many states followed Reagan’s leadership.

I was a prosecutor before these laws went into effect and I was a prosecutor after these laws went into effect.  I can tell you firsthand that they were transformational. These were the biggest changes in law enforcement since the founding of this country.  These laws were critical to re-establishing law and order.

When a criminal knows with certainty that he is facing hard time, he is a lot more willing to cooperate.  When the sentence is uncertain and up to the whims of the judge, criminals are a lot more willing to take a chance.  The certainty of a significant sentence does, in fact, have a deterrent effect.  And the recidivist can’t commit his crimes if he is in the slammer.

We got tough about drug abuse because — as surely as night follows day — violence, addiction and death follow drug activity.  And those who were put in jail in the mid-to-late 1980s could not commit crimes in the 1990s, which is when the steep decline in crime became most apparent.

I mentioned how dire the situation was in 1980.  That was before Reagan. After the changes that we made were put in place, from 1991 to 2014, the violent crime rate was cut in half. So were the murder rate and the robbery rate.  Aggravated assault was cut by 47 percent, and rape was cut by more than one third.  These are remarkable achievements that made this country a better place.  So when I look up at my portrait of Ed Meese on the wall of my conference room, that’s what I think about.  And that example inspires the work that we do every day.

Under President Trump, we are determined to advance President Reagan’s work of restoring the rule of law.  President Trump sent us an order to support our men and women in blue and to “reduce” crime in America.  We embrace that goal and intend to achieve it.  Of course, the anti-crime effort often goes unnoticed no matter how important....

We are hammering violent groups — especially the vicious MS-13.

We are not going to pretend that there is not a law against marijuana, or that it’s not bad for you....

We don’t think illegal drug use is “recreation”.  Lax enforcement, permissive rhetoric, and the media have undermined the essential need to say no to drug use — don’t start.  And we are identifying pill mill doctors and sending large members to the slammer.

We have taken many other steps to restore the rule of law at the Department.  But I’ll be the first to acknowledge that we still have work to do.  There have been some very sharp criticisms about the Department.  I hear these criticisms and welcome the discussion.  Sunlight truly is the best disinfectant.  We will not ignore these problems or hide our heads in the sand.

Much of what we are doing is behind the scenes — matters I can’t discuss publicly.  I’m sure that you can understand why.  We will also make sure that all our employees are treated fairly.

February 7, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

ABA House of Delegates enacts resolution urging prohibition of death penalty's application to those under 21

Images (5)As reported in this ABA Journal posting, the "ABA House of Delegates on Monday asked all death penalty jurisdictions to ban capital punishment for any offender who committed their crime at the age of 21 or younger." Here is more:

In the report accompanying the resolution, the chairs of the Death Penalty Due Process Review Project and the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice wrote: “In light of this evolution of both the scientific and legal understanding surrounding young criminal defendants and broader changes to the death penalty landscape, it is now time for the ABA to revise its dated position and support the exclusion of individuals who were 21 years old or younger at the time of their crime.”

The language of Resolution 111 makes clear that the ABA is not taking a position “supporting or opposing the death penalty.”

In a motion to amend, Robert L. Weinberg, a past president of the District of Columbia Bar and the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, proposed removing that language. He brought up a CLE session held earlier during this midyear meeting by Cassandra Stubbs of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. “We stand almost alone among the progressive democracies in adhering to capital punishment,” he said....

Michael Byowitz, the Board of Governors’ liaison to the Death Penalty Due Process Review Project, rose to speak in opposition to Weinberg’s amendment.... Byowitz said marginal efforts chipping away at the use of the death penalty are the most effective ways of addressing the problem. “We will be ignored if we are perceived in many of the councils that matter as against the death penalty,” he said. “Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”...

The amendment was defeated in a divided vote. Resolution 111 was passed overwhelmingly.

The full Resolution and Report can be accessed at this link.  The report runs a dozen pages and concludes this way:

In the decades since the ABA adopted its policy opposing capital punishment for individuals under the age of 18, legal, scientific and societial developments strip the continued application of the death penalty against individuals in late adolescence of its moral or constitutional justification.  The rationale supporting the bans on executing either juveniles, as advanced in Roper v. Simmons, or individuals with intellectual disabilities, as set forth in Atkins v. Virginia, also apply to offenders who are 21 years old or younger when they commit their crimes.  Thus, this policy proposes a practical limitation based on age that is supported by science, tracks many other areas of our civil and criminal law, and will succeed in making the administration of the death penalty fairer and more proportional to both the crimes and the offenders.

In adopting this revised position, the ABA still acknowledges the need to impose serious and severe punishment on these individuals when they take the life of another person.  Yet at the same time, this policy makes clear our recognition that individuals in late adolescence, in light of their ongoing neurological development, are not among the worst of the worst offenders, for whom the death penalty must be reserved.

February 6, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Prez Trump trumpets again his interest in getting "really, really tough, really mean with the drug pushers and the drug dealers"

As noted in this prior post, Prez Trump last week in his State of the Union address spoke about "reforming our prisons" and the need to "get much tougher on drug dealers."  The first comment, coming on the heels of other prison reform talk, has garnered the most attention among criminal justice reform advocates.  But the second comment ought also get some attention, especially because Ronald Bailey has highlighted at Reason that Prez Trump doubled-down on these comments this week.

This Reason commentary, headlined "Trump Wants Us 'To Get Really, Really Tough, Really Mean with the Drug Pushers': Doubling down on a drug war that has failed for 40 years," take a critical look at what the President is saying. Here is how is starts (with links from the original):

What's the best way to address the national problem of opioid abuse and overdose deaths? "My take," President Donald Trump declared in Ohio yesterday, "is you have to get really, really tough, really mean with the drug pushers and the drug dealers. We can do all the blue ribbon committees we want—[applause]—we have to get a lot tougher than we are."

The president's dismissal of blue ribbon commissions is somewhat perplexing, since he ordered that one be created just last March—the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. In any case, the president is evidently eager to rev up the war on drugs.

What might the president mean by getting really tough on drug pushers? One clue might be his phone call to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte last April. "I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem," Trump said. "Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that."

As big a blustering blowhard as our president is, I trust that he is not actually contemplating Duterte-style extrajudicial killings when he says "we have to get a lot tougher than we are." Nevertheless, it is clear that the president has learned nothing from the failures of the war on drugs. Over the past four decades, the government has spent more than trillion dollars, locked up millions of Americans, and undermined our civil liberties, especially our Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure, to stop the drug trade. Despite all the resources wasted and lives lost, the prices of illicit drugs have generally declined.

Prohibitionists claim that the drug war has reduced drug-related crime, decreased drug-related disease and overdose, and disrupted and dismantled organized criminal enterprises. But in a paper last year for the Cato Institute, George Mason University economists Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall show that "prohibition is not only ineffective, but counterproductive, at achieving the goals of policymakers both domestically and abroad. Given the insights from economics and the available data, we find that the domestic War on Drugs has contributed to an increase in drug overdoses and fostered and sustained the creation of powerful drug cartels."

February 6, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, February 05, 2018

Reviewing the potential import and impact of Prez Trump's talk of prison reform

Matt Ford at The New Republic has this new piece with this full headline" "A Chance for Criminal Justice Reform Under Trump: Despite his fear-mongering over crime, the president recently promised to help ex-prisoners 'get a second chance at life'."  Can he deliver?"  Here are excerpts from the second half of the piece (with a particular paragraph stressed for additional comment):

Some Republican leaders in deep-red states have taken aggressive steps in recent years to reshape how their own states approach crime and punishment. Georgia has overhauled its criminal code and juvenile-justice system, leading to noticeable declines in its prison population. Texas rewrote its probation and parole guidelines and expanded treatment options for mental health and drug addiction. Kentucky expanded its pretrial services programs as part of a broader push towards bail reform.

At the same time, conservative policy organizations have taken up the cause. The Koch brothers and their network of nonprofit advocacy groups are reform’s most prominent backers on the right, drawing some skepticism from the left. The result is an unusually broad alliance in modern American politics that brings together the Heritage Foundation and the American Conservative Union alongside the ACLU and the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

Credit for this trend’s arrival at the White House apparently goes to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and and a close adviser. In recent months, Kushner has met with key Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Congress, reform-oriented governors, and advocacy groups. The issue may also carry some personal resonance for Kushner: His father, Charles Kushner, received a two-year prison sentence for tax evasion and other crimes in 2005.

So far, the administration is keeping mum on its exact vision for reform. When asked for more details about the president’s plan, the White House provided a factsheet that described the depth of the problem as well as Trump’s meetings with Republican state officials who’ve tackled the issue in their own backyard. The document contained no specific policy proposals, but those meetings could still provide a window into what sort of policy proposals the Trump administration might favor from Congress. “Kansas improved its juvenile justice system to help make sure young offenders do not become repeat offenders,” Trump noted at a criminal justice summit he hosted at the White House in January. “Kentucky is providing job training to inmates and helping them to obtain professional licenses upon release, and it’s been very successful.”

Proposals like those overlap with policies favored by Democrats, to an extent.  Liberals typically focus on preventing or limiting how Americans enter prison in the first place, through sentencing reform, diversion programs, or decriminalization for nonviolent drug offenses.  Conservative policymakers, on the other hand, tend to gravitate toward measures that help prisoners successfully reenter society like prison education and work-release programs.

But Trump’s rhetoric of late gives hope for bipartisan efforts in Congress to push through a criminal-justice reform bill this year.  While Trump prides himself as a master dealmaker, he’s been content to let Republican lawmakers and his top advisers sketch the details of major legislation on health care, tax reform, and immigration. As long as he’s not actively hostile to whatever lawmakers send him, reformers could find Trump more amenable to the final package if they can convince him it’s a win.

More important, Trump’s lip service to prison reform could be a political boost for reformers in deep-red states.  Any serious effort to reverse mass incarceration will take place in the state criminal-justice systems, where roughly 90 percent of American prisoners are housed.  By endorsing some type of reform, the president could bolster local efforts against challenges from the right.

Trump’s electoral victory, driven by his fear-mongering over crime, raised fears among many reformers that the moment for taking substantive, bipartisan steps against mass incarceration has passed.  Instead, he’s proving that the shift could be more durable than expected.

The paragraph that I have emphasized here strikes me as an especially important aspect of Prez Trump's recent reform talk even if major or significant federal statutory reform fails to emerge from Congress anytime soon.  Just as the "Right on Crime" movement has helped enable state-level politicians feel comfortable supporting criminal justice reform consistent with conservative principles, the avowed commitment by Prez Trump to prison reform allows state-level politicians to feel they can support prison reform consistent with supporting the President.  Indeed, effective criminal justice advocates in red states now may be able to call out any opponents of prison and reentry reform for seeking to undermine or resist what President Trump says is important for Making America Great Again.

February 5, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Examining whether juve life with parole in Maryland really means a real chance at parole

This lengthy new Washington Post article, headlined "The life sentence he got as a teen came with a chance at parole. But is it a real chance?," provides a deep dive into what parole eligibility means these days in one state and highlights why there is sure to be debates and litigation over the Supreme Court's rulings in Graham and Miller for many years to come.  Here are excerpts:

Walter Irving Maddox was on the phone making New Year’s Eve plans when he heard a knock on the door of his secluded cottage steps from the creek where he’d spent decades hauling crabs.  He laid the phone on a bed.  From the other end of the line, his girlfriend heard voices.  Then, sharp banging and doors slamming, followed by groans and gurgling.

The metallic sound, she would soon learn, was neighborhood teenager, James E. Bowie, pummeling 68-year-old Maddox with an aluminum baseball bat.  Bowie was a high school dropout, fueled by drugs and anger.  He never intended to hurt Maddox so severely, just to subdue him while a friend grabbed the waterman’s cash, he said recently.

Maddox, now 90, was never the same. “It just destroyed his memory,” said Maddox’s son, who shares his father’s name. “They took his life away from him, but they didn’t finish the job.”

Bowie was 17. He was sentenced in 1997 to life in prison with the possibility of parole — a possibility his lawyers say exists on paper, but carries no real chance for release.

Maryland is one of three states, with California and Oklahoma, that requires the governor’s signature to parole inmates sentenced to life. In the last two decades, no Maryland governor has signed off on a parole board recommendation to release a lifer like Bowie who committed his crime before he turned 18.  Bowie has spent his 20s and 30s in prison, more time locked up than he was on the outside.

“My life experience stopped at 17,” Bowie, now 40, said in interviews from state prison in Hagerstown, Md., for attempted murder and robbery. “I needed to be punished for what I did and needed to have time to be corrected, but the rest of my life is overkill.  I’m not the same person I was.”

His case is one of four being considered this week by the state’s highest court in Annapolis in a challenge to the legality of the Maryland parole system.  Prison reform advocates say the system is unconstitutional because while the punishment in the cases involving juvenile offenders technically includes parole, the state hasn’t paroled any inmate in that position in more than 20 years.

The office of Attorney General Brian Frosh says Bowie’s sentence is legal and his challenge is premature.  He hasn’t been recommended for parole or formally denied release by any governor. “If they are unhappy with the way parole is implemented, their issue is with the executive branch,” said Frosh’s spokeswoman Raquel Coombs.

The question for the Maryland Court of Appeals is whether a young person can be sentenced to life without what advocates say is any realistic chance of parole. The outcome of the cases could affect an estimated 300 lifers locked up for crimes they committed as juveniles....

“The Supreme Court has been so clear and so forceful about how the landscape has changed,” said Sonia Kumar of the American Civil Liberties Union, an attorney challenging Maryland’s parole system in a separate federal case. “There really isn’t any excuse for why Maryland is still operating the way it is and denying people who were sent to prison as kids any hope of relief no matter how thoroughly they’ve turned their lives around,” she said.

The Maryland attorney general’s office says the fact that parole on life sentences is infrequent and has declined “is not proof of a constitutional violation” but rather “proof, perhaps, of changes in the way that governors and parole commissioners exercise their discretion, but nothing more.”

Inmates with life sentences with the possibility of parole must serve at least 15 years before being considered for release. Parole commissioners, appointed by the governor, review records, notify victims and interview the prisoner before making a recommendation to the governor, who must act within 180 days.  In Bowie’s case, the parole board recommended him for a rehearing after his first review in 2007.  Changes to the system, the attorney general’s office says, must come from the legislature or the governor. But legislation to take the governor — and politics — out of the parole process, proposed again this session, has been stymied for years in part because of opposition from elected state prosecutors.

Between 1969 and 1994, three Maryland governors paroled 181 lifers. As governor, Parris N. Glendening in 1995 said resolutely he would sign no paroles in life-term cases, standing in front of a state prison to announce: “A life sentence means life.” In the following two decades, court records show none were paroled. Governors rejected recommendations on 24 lifers — juveniles and adults — without explanation.

More recently, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has approved parole for two adult inmates sentenced to life.  Like each governor since Glendening, he also has used separate clemency powers to reduce prison sentences and bring early release for a small number of lifers.  But reform advocates say acts based on prerogative do not fix an unconstitutional life sentence or the parole system.

“Not only is the governor not bound by any standards or forced to consider any particular factors, but the governor is not required in any way to explain his decision,” said James Johnston, director of the Youth Resentencing Project within the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, which has brought dozens of court challenges throughout the state, including Bowie’s.

The three other cases before the appeals court this week involve crimes committed by teenagers who are now serving life and in one case a term of 100 years: a 1989 home invasion in Prince George’s County that resulted in three deaths; a 1999 murder in Baltimore; and a 2004 shooting outside Randallstown High School that paralyzed a student.

February 5, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Mass molester Larry Nassar gets another 40 to 125 years in his third and final sentencing

Though civil suits resulting from former sports doctor Larry Nassar's many crimes seem likely to go on for a very long time, today I believe all of the criminal cases against the bad doctor concluded with a final state sentencing.  This local article, headlined "Nassar gets another 40-125 years," starts its account of this latest sentencing this way:

Former Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to another 40-125 years in prison for sexually molesting hundreds of young girls. Eaton County Circuit Court Judge Janice Cunningham handed down the sentence Monday. "I am not convinced that you believe what you did was wrong," Cunningham said. "Clearly you are in denial ... I do not believe there is a likelihood that you can be reformed."

Before he was sentenced, the disgraced doctor said he was sorry for his crimes during his last sentencing hearing Monday. "It's impossible to convey the depth and breadth of how sorry I am to each and everyone involved," he said. "The visions of your testimony will forever be present in my thoughts."

Since last month, more than 200 women spoke over nine days in two county court rooms about the impact the sexual abuse inflicted by Nassar has had on their lives. "You are a doctor and you took an oath to do no harm, but you harmed more than 250 young women," Cunningham also said Monday. "You will spend the rest of your life in prison, left with the memories of destroying your family and so many others around you."

Larissa Boyce — the first to tell a Michigan State University official about Nassar 20 years ago but was not believed — said Friday in a public statement that this moment cannot be forgotten. “This is a life-changing time in our society, in our culture and in our world,” Boyce said.

Prior related posts:

February 5, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Yet another notable pitch for "why Conservatives should support criminal justice reform"

Long time readers know I have been talking a long time about a "new right" on a range of sentencing and corrections issues (though recalling this post on the topic back in January 2005 lead me to realize that the new right is not so new circa 2018). And lately it is hard now to pull up Fox News and not see some discussion of some criminal justice reform issue. Today's example is in this form of this new Fox News commentary authored by Texas Representative Jerry Madden titled "Here's why Conservatives should support criminal justice reform." U recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

Criminal justice reform may wind up being the most significant conservative policy change in Washington this year. That may sound surprising to some, but not to anyone who has been watching this movement in conservative states over the last decade.

Starting in Texas, conservatives of all stripes – fiscal, social, constitutional, or otherwise – have found favor with reforms to the criminal justice system that focus on increasing public safety and cutting costs to taxpayers. This is, seemingly, a very commonsense goal. But take a look at how most states and the federal government operate and you will find that well-functioning, well-focused systems are far from the norm.

The results are undeniable: Texas has lowered its overall crime rate 31 percent, putting it at levels that have not been seen since 1967. In that time, the Lone Star State has closed eight prisons and lowered the incarceration rate. This flies in the face of the old, mistaken ways of viewing criminal justice policy that considers incarceration the default rather than one tool of many to protect public safety.

At the heart of the Texas reforms is the idea that the nearly all of those incarcerated will eventually return to society after serving their sentence and therefore they must be rehabilitated to ensure that they do not return to a life of crime. Prisons cannot be mere people warehouses. For the offenders who commit to it, there is a real opportunity for redemption and second chances.

To no conservative’s surprise, the federal government lags behind in this area. The budget for the Bureau of Prisons is growing out-of-control. The BOP’s budget is now over 25 percent of the total budget for the Justice Department – a massive line item for an already over-indebted government. The outdated policies passed by Congress in the 1980s and 1990s are in desperate need of updating to match what states have shown to be successful.

There are two bills currently before Congress that will push for conservative changes. Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, both Republicans, are the lead sponsors on two prison reform bills that focus on preparing prisoners for re-entry. These bills don’t reduce the sentences for crimes, but rather encourage inmates to participate in recidivism-reducing programming by offering incentives that include more phone calls and visits with family, and earned time to spend the end of their sentence in a halfway house, home confinement, or community supervision....

There is further encouragement coming from, of all places, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. President Trump has stated the case well: there is a path to remain “very tough on crime, but we will provide a ladder of opportunity to the future.” In his listening session at the White House recently, the president further explained: “My administration is committed to helping former inmates become productive, law-abiding members of society.” President Trump has made it clear that this is an issue that conservatives across the country can rally behind.

With the state examples as proof, and with a push from conservatives in the White House and Congress, criminal justice reform is a clear winner for the right. It is time for Congress to move on conservative reform as soon as possible.

February 4, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, February 03, 2018

New York makes deal to bring (sort-of) free electronic tablets to all state prisoners

150717153234-jp5mini-hr-780x439As reported in this CNN article, headlined "In New York, all 51,000 state prisoners will get their own tablet computers," a notable form of technology is now on its way to a notable New York population. Here are some of the details:

Inmates in New York state prisons will soon be able to read e-books, listen to music and email family members while in prison -- all from their own tablet computers.

The New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision entered into a deal with JPay that will provide all New York state prison inmates with a tablet.  JPay is a company that provides technology and services that help those who are incarcerated stay connected with people outside prison, according to the company's website.

There are approximately 51,000 inmates in New York state prisons, the corrections department said.  Anthony J. Annucci, the department's acting commissioner, called the development a "groundbreaking move."

"As we continue to use technology to make our prisons safer, we will also leverage it to improve operations and interactions with family and friends by expanding services to our population," Annucci said Tuesday during a state legislative budget hearing.

Annucci said the tablets would provide inmates with "the ability to access free educational material."  Prisoners will also able to file grievances with the prison directly from the tablets.

The New York state government said it won't pay anything for the inmates' tablets. They are free as part of a deal between the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and JPay to start a pilot electronic financial system designed to let family and friends send money to people in prison more easily, according to the department.

The department didn't say when the tablet program would go into effect. Other states have recently implemented similar programs. Both Georgia and Colorado have started programs that provide inmates with tablets. Georgia is also working with JPay.

In a statement announcing the "alternative learning tablets" in Georgia, officials said the tablets will allow inmates to "maintain and enhance family communications; and assist with their re-entry into society." Connecticut recently announced plans to implement a similar program in its prisons.

At a Criminal Justice Policy Advisory Commission meeting on January 25, Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple said that his agency plans to introduce tablets into the correctional system "sometime in the spring." "These tablets are an embedded network where there is no risk of victimization with the use of Wi-Fi, but it has a lot of capability to keep people connected with technology," Semple said.

The CNN report does not fuly explain what is fully going on here, especially with respect to the functioning economics. Helpfully, this local article provides these additional details:

JPay makes a tablet known as the JP5, which is specialized for prisons.  The tablets will be on a secured network with access only to pre-approved apps and features and not a typical Internet browser, according to the company.

The tablets will connect to the email program through kiosks with secured lines in the prisons.  The company pledged to install the needed infrastructure and perform maintenance on its own dime. The state is not set to make any money off the tablets, according to DOCCS.

The tablets will, however, provide a potential revenue stream to JPay. Each will come pre-loaded with certain pre-approved books and educational materials.

But inmates will be able to purchase certain add-ons, such as music, through JPay. The company didn't say Thursday how much those extras would cost.

Inmates will also have to pay to send emails on the tablets, according to JPay. The company will keep the money; the state won't be taking a commission.

"Similar to purchasing a song on iTunes or an online game, incarcerated individuals will have the same opportunity to purchase entertainment and media products and download them onto the JP5 device," JPay said in a statement. "There are fees associated with those purchases, as well as sending emails."

February 3, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, February 02, 2018

Are Governors considering capital clemency inclined to give great weight to capital jurors calling for a commutation?

In my sentencing class, we have been talking about all the different players in the sentencing drama, and those stories often come into especially sharp relief as we move into our capital punishment unit.  And, coincidentally, after an execution in Texas last night, Ohio has the next scheduled execution in the US so that my students can have a front-row seat concerning all the players that become involved in the sentencing drama as a death sentence gets ever closer to being carried out.

Against that backdrop, the question in the title of this post arises as a result of the news, reported at the end of this article: Ohio "Governor Kasich has faced calls in recent weeks to spare Tibbetts because attorneys say he suffered from opioid addiction.  On Thursday, a former juror in Tibbetts’ capital murder trial wrote a letter urging Kasich to grant him a reprieve.  The juror said he has since seen mitigating evidence that he had never seen at trial and he would not have recommended the death penalty if he heard about Tibbetts’ history of abuse and addiction."

The full text of the intricate four-page letter from juror Ross Allen Geiger to Ohio Gov Kasich is available at this link.  It makes for an interesting read, and here an excerpt:

All of these things lead me to one conclusion and that is that the system was and seems to be today very flawed in this case.  The State of Ohio (through Hamilton County) called on me to fulfill a civic duty one that included an unenviable task of possibly recommending death for another man.  I fulfilled this duty faithfully. Governor, if we are going to have a legal process that can send criminals to death that includes a special phase for mitigation shouldn’t we get it right?  Shouldn’t the officers of the court (primarily the defense attorneys) treat the life or death phase with great attention to detail and the respect it deserves?

In conclusion, Tibbets is guilty and has forfeited forever his right to freedom.  If the death penalty is reserved for the “worst of the worst”, that is murderers that truly have no potential for redemption, then I ask you to grant mercy to Tibbets.  Based on what I know today I would not have recommended the death penalty....

February 2, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

US District Judge finds unconstitutional Florida's process to restore voting rights to disenfranchised felons

As reported in this local press article, "Florida routinely violates the constitutional rights of its citizens by permanently revoking the "fundamental right" to vote for anyone convicted of a felony, a federal judge ruled Thursday." Here is more about this notable ruling:

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said the Florida "scheme" unfairly relies on the personal support of the governor for citizens to regain the right to vote. In a strongly-worded ruling, he called the state's defense of voter disenfranchisement "nonsensical," a withering criticism of Gov. Rick Scott, the lead defendant in the case.

"Florida strips the right to vote from every man and woman who commits a felony," Walker wrote. "To vote again, disenfranchised citizens must kowtow before a panel of high-level government officials over which Florida's governor has absolute veto authority. No standards guide the panel. Its members alone must be satisfied that these citizens deserve restoration … The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not."

Walker wrote: "If any one of these citizens wishes to earn back their fundamental right to vote, they must plod through a gauntlet of constitutionally infirm hurdles. No more. When the risk of state-sanctioned viewpoint discrimination skulks near the franchise, it is the province and duty of this Court to excise such potential bias from infecting the clemency process."

The judge condemned a system that he said gives "unfettered discretion" to four partisan politicians, and cited as proof a comment Scott made at one hearing when he said: "We can do whatever we want."

Scott's office issued a statement late Thursday, hinting at an appeal. "The discretion of the clemency board over the restoration of felons' rights in Florida has been in place for decades and overseen by multiple governors," said a statement attributed to Scott's communications director, John Tupps. "The process is outlined in Florida's Constitution, and today's ruling departs from precedent set by the United States Supreme Court."...

Scott was the principal architect of the current system that requires all felons to wait at least five years after they complete their sentences, serve probation and pay all restitution, to apply for right to vote and other civil rights. Scott and the Cabinet, meeting as a clemency board, consider cases four times a year, and usually fewer than 100 cases each time. It can take a decade or longer for a case to be heard, and at present the state has a backlog of more than 10,000 cases.

Scott imposed the restrictions in 2011, soon after he was elected, with the support of three fellow Republicans who serve on the Cabinet, including Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, now a leading candidate for governor. Scott's actions in 2011 reversed a policy under which many felons, not including murderers and sex offenders, had their rights restored without application process and hearings. That streamlined process was instituted in 2007 by former Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican and now a Democratic member of Congress. "We've known this policy was unjust, and today a federal judge confirmed it's also a violation of constitutional rights," Crist wrote on Facebook....

Walker's decision came nine days after the state approved a ballot measure that, if passed in November, would automatically restore the voting rights of about 1.2 million felons, not including convicted murderers and sex offenders. That proposal will appear as Amendment 4 on the Nov. 6 ballot in Florida.

A leader of the initiative is Desmond Meade of Orlando, a law school graduate of Florida International University and a convicted felon waiting to have his rights restored. Meade said the judge's decision validated the work of more than a million Florida voters who signed petitions that helped get the measure on the ballot. "The system is broken, and now we know not only is it broken, but the courts are saying it's unconstitutional," Meade said.

Walker, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, ruled that Florida's lifetime ban on the right to vote violates the First and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which are the guarantees of freedom of expression, due process and equal protection under law. Throughout his 43-page ruling, Walker cited the arbitrariness of Florida's system. Felons routinely have been denied their voting rights because they have received speeding tickets or failed to pay child support.

"So the state then requires the former felon to conduct and comport herself to the satisfaction of the board's subjective — and frankly, mythical — standards," Walker wrote. "Courts view unfettered governmental discretion over protected constitutional rights with profound suspicion."...

The judge gave both sides in the case until Feb. 12 to file briefings on how to permanently remedy the constitutional deficiencies in Florida's system. Scott and Cabinet members are scheduled to hear the next round of clemency petitions in March.

District Judge Walker's 43-page opinion is available in full at this link.  Because I am a fan of expanding the franchise as much as possible, I am always pleased to see a ruling that has the potential effect of broadening voting rights and remedies.  But because Florida's restoration procedures are styled as a form of clemency and court have historically be chary about finding constitutional problems with or limits on clemency powers, I am unsure if this ruling will withstand likely appeals.

February 2, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Prez Trump speaks again about prison reform at the 2018 House and Senate Republican Member Conference  

As noted here a few days ago, President Donald Trump in his very first State of the Union address said that prior reform was on his agenda for the coming year.   Lest anyone think he was not serious about this issue, today in remarks at the 2018 House and Senate Republican Member Conference he spoke again about the topic.  From this official transcript, here is what Prez Trump had to say today:

We can reform our prison system to help those who have served their time get a second chance at life.  And I’ve watched this, and I’ve seen it, and I’ve studied it.  And people get out of prison, and they made a mistake.  And not all — some are very bad, but many are very good.  And they come home and they can’t get a job.  It’s sad.  They can’t — there’s — they can’t get a job.

Now, the best thing we’ve done to fix that, Paul, is the fact that the economy is just booming.  I mean, that fixes it better than any program we can do, anything we can do at all.  But the economy is so strong now and so good, and so many companies are moving in that I really believe that problem — it’s a big problem — is going to solve itself.  But we’re working on it.

I find notable (and a bit amusing) Prez Trump's assertion about prison reform that he has "studied it" (and I am not quite sure what "it" he is referencing).  Moreover, because I hope to see significant reforms coming out of Congress, I am bit concerned that Prez Trump is here also suggesting that the prisoner reentry problem "is going to solve itself."

Still, with Prez Trump's two statements this week about prison reform, following a White House meeting on this issue a few weeks ago, it now seems he is genuinely interested in this topic. That reality bodes well for the prospect of some measure of federal reform making it through Congress and to his desk.  But what developing reform might specifically look like, and just how it gets implemented, are the critical follow-up realities.  And, of course, nothing should be considered a done deal in DC until it is truly a done deal.

A few prior recent related posts:

February 1, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Spotlighting prisoners still stuck in federal prison because of absence of retroactive application of Fair Sentencing Act

Kara Gosch has this new Washington Post commentary headlined "Thousands are stuck in prison — just because of the date they were sentenced." Here are excerpts:

Eugene Downs sits in federal prison years longer than justice demands.  On Aug. 2, 2010, Downs was sentenced to a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years for conspiring to distribute at least 50 grams of crack cocaine.  The very next day, President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, a law that limited mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine and the number of cases subject to them.

If Downs had been sentenced one day later, he would now be free, because the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the sentence for distribution of 50 grams of crack cocaine to five years.  Incidentally, Downs’s co-defendants were all sentenced after Aug. 2 and benefited from the lowered penalties.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled there is nothing it can do to help Downs....

Thanks to efforts from civil rights and criminal-justice-reform organizations, the Obama administration signed onto the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the drug quantity ratio between powder and crack cocaine that triggers the mandatory minimums from 100-1 to 18-1.  The law’s disparity is still unjustified, but the 2010 reform was a big step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the law failed to account for people already in prison under the outdated penalties. According to a document generated by the Sentencing Commission for Congress, 3,147 people could benefit from retroactivity of the law. Eight-nine percent of these prisoners are black. Eugene Downs, who is African American, is just one of them.

Legislation to apply the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively has garnered bipartisan support in Congress. In 2015, the Judiciary committees in both the House and the Senate approved legislation that would have made Downs eligible for early release. Unfortunately, election-season politics and demagoguery from a handful of Republicans, including then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, doomed the bill.

There is some hope: Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) reintroduced the proposal last year with reforms that would reduce sentences for an even greater number of low-level drug offenses. Many of those provisions would be made retroactive. House Republicans have yet to reintroduce a similar bill in their chamber, but Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has put criminal-justice reform on his list of priorities for 2018.

Still, President Trump has not indicated that he shares in the bipartisan enthusiasm for sentencing reform. While he recently convened a White House meeting with governors and conservative allies to extol the virtues of second chances and rehabilitation, his decision to put Sessions in charge of the Justice Department is not promising.

In any case, the retroactive application of the reformed sentencing laws should be an exception for “tough on crime” crusaders. Sometimes unfair laws punish people who deserve a second chance. We cannot allow the random day on which people are sentenced to prison be their primary obstacle to justice.

Regular readers surely know I am deeply sympathetic to the concept of giving broad retroactive effect to ameliorative changes in sentencing laws.  But the story of Eugene Downs strike me a bit peculiar in this context because, as noted in 2010 posts here and here, the Fair Sentencing Act was approved by both houses of Congress on July 28, 2010 and received plenty of media attention on July 29, 2010.   Arguably, one could blame Prez Obama for Eugene Downs' fate because he waited a week to sign the FSA.  Perhaps more properly, one should probably blame an attorney for Eugene Downs' fate for failing to seek a sentencing continuance in light of a pending critical legal change.

January 31, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Top Trends in State Criminal Justice Reform, 2017"

The title of this post is the title of this short "Policy Brief" from The Sentencing Project.  Here is how it gets started:

The United States is a world leader in incarceration rates and keeps nearly 7 million persons under criminal justice supervision.  More than 2.2 million are in prison or jail, while 4.6 million are monitored in the community on probation or parole.  Changes in sentencing law and policy, not changes in crime rates, have produced the nation’s high rate of incarceration.  Scaling back incarceration will require changing policy and practice to reduce prison populations, address racial disparity, and eliminate barriers to reentry. In recent years a number of states have enacted reforms designed to reduce the scale of incarceration and impact of the collateral consequences of a felony conviction.  This briefing paper describes key reforms undertaken in 2017.

SENTENCING REFORMS

Lawmakers in several states enacted reforms to reduce the number of persons in prison and improve fairness in the criminal justice system.  Most notably, Louisiana authorized legislation, Senate Bill 139, which expanded probation eligibility to people convicted of third-time nonviolent offenses and first-time low-level violent offenses. The bill also expanded eligibility for treatment alternatives and drug courts.  The state amended parole practices, including lowering time served requirements before parole consideration, and authorized parole consideration for those sentenced to life at a time when their offense-type qualified for parole.  Other states — Arkansas, Hawaii, Michigan, and Montana — adopted a range of reforms, including expanding probation eligibility, reclassifying low-level felonies to misdemeanors, streamlining parole review mechanisms, and limiting prison admissions for technical violations.

January 31, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Mass molester Larry Nassar in state court for his third and final sentencing

When a person has committed a whole lot of serious crimes, he may well face a whole lot of serious sentencings.  Former doctor Larry Nassar is the latest high-profile example of this reality, and this AP piece reports that he is today in Michigan state court for his third sentencing proceeding.  Here are detail about this final sentencing and some of the continuing buzz about his last state sentencing:

The final sentencing hearing began Wednesday for disgraced former sports doctor Larry Nassar, who will again be confronted by scores of victims as he faces another prison sentence for molesting gymnasts at an elite Michigan club run by an Olympic coach.

Judge Janice Cunningham has set aside several days for roughly 60 people who want to confront Nassar or have their statement read in court. The hearing could unfold much the same as a hearing last week in another county where a different judge allowed more than 150 women and girls to confront Nassar about his abuse. That hearing ended with Nassar getting sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison, with the judge describing it as Nassar's "death warrant."

The practice of allowing accusers to speak even if they are not tied directly to a case has raised questions about fairness. But attorneys say the victim statements probably pose little risk on appeal, especially since Nassar pleaded guilty, agreed to allow the statements and is expected to get another long prison sentence as part of his deal with prosecutors. "If you get what you bargained for, then you really can't argue that you were prejudiced in any way," said Margaret Raben, former leader of a Michigan association of criminal defense attorneys.

It's not uncommon for prosecutors to introduce "aggravating" evidence at sentencing to support their request for a severe punishment. But the parade of victims offering emotional accounts of their abuse to the face of an abuser went well beyond the typical hearing. Raben said there was a "horrible dynamic" last week in Judge Rosemarie Aquilina's courtroom, even if the judge had the option to allow so many people to speak in a case that involved just seven victims.

"Her obvious delight was just off the wall," Raben said, referring to Aquilina's "death warrant" remark and others. "I am not defending Larry Nassar at all, but what I saw with her was a real abandonment of judicial demeanor. ... The process doesn't change because everybody hates the defendant. That is the absolute glory, or should be, of the American justice system."

A fellow Ingham County judge, William Collette, said Aquilina's handling of the hearing was "outrageous." Others, however, have praised her treatment of victims and their parents.

The case on Cunningham's docket Wednesday in Eaton County centers on Nassar's assaults at Twistars, a Lansing-area gymnastics club that was run by 2012 Olympic coach John Geddert. Nassar admits penetrating three girls with his hands when he was supposed to be treating them for injuries.

So far, 57 victims want to speak in court or submit statements. Attorney Mick Grewal said 11 of his clients have signed up, including some who were inspired by the 150-plus young women and girls who appeared in Aquilina's court. He called it a "cathartic experience." "Now they're at a point in their healing process where they want to confront Larry, and they want to show the world that they are survivors and they are strong and they are part of this movement," Grewal said. "It helps them through the healing process."

He said the Nassar cases are extraordinary in the number of victims who have come forward. "The only case that's out there that's even similar in stature is Penn State, and this is now six times as big as Penn State, maybe seven times," Grewal said, referring to boys who said they were sexually abused by assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

Prior related posts:

January 31, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Prez Trump, in his first State of the Union address, mentions "reforming our prisons" and need to "get much tougher on drug dealers"

As had been predicted (see this prior post), President Donald Trump in his very first State of the Union address said that prior reform was on his agenda for the coming year.  But later in this speech, he suggested that he supported an even tougher criminal justice response to our nation's drug problem.  These were both very small parts of a very long speech, and here is the context with key sentences highlighted from this official text

As America regains its strength, this opportunity must be extended to all citizens.  That is why this year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance....

In 2016, we lost 64,000 Americans to drug overdoses: 174 deaths per day. Seven per hour.  We must get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge.  My Administration is committed to fighting the drug epidemic and helping get treatment for those in need. The struggle will be long and difficult — but, as Americans always do, we will prevail.

With these sentences and sentiments, I believe Prez Trump has defined the terms of what is truly possible on the federal criminal justice reform front in 2018. It would seem "back-end" prison reforms to facilitate earlier release from prison for all federal offenders and enhanced reentry efforts are quite possible and may truly be a priority for the Trump Administration; it would also seem that "front-end" sentencing reforms to reduce mandatory minimum terms for drug trafficking offenses many not be possible and may be actively opposed by the Trump Administration. Interesting times.

A few prior recent related posts:

January 30, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

A SCOTUS amicus opportunity to reiterate some of my views on sentence finality

The Supreme Court has three(!) upcoming arguments concerning the proper application of the federal prison term modification rules that Congress set out in 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2): Hughes v. United States and Koons v. United States are due to be argued March 27, and Chavez-Meza v. United States will likely be argued in late April.  The fact that the SCOTUS has decided to take up three cases dealing with § 3582(c)(2) highlights the range of intricate issues that sentence modification motions can present.  And the first of these cases, Hughes, deals with the initial issue of who is even eligible for sentence modification and presents further questions about how to deal with the 4-1-4 divide among the Justices in the leading prior ruling of Freeman v. United States, 564 U.S. 522 (2011).

As readers know, I have written up some of my perspectives on "sentence finality" in an law review article, "Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences", and in a number of prior posts (some of which are reprinted below).  I was encouraged recently to channel some of these ideas into an amicus brief in Hughes, and a terrific set of lawyers at Sidley Austin LLP played the leading and central role in making this amicus brief a reality.  Here is the "Summary of Argument" from this just-filed brief:

The standard presumption in favor of finality for criminal judgments need not and should not be elevated over other critical criminal justice interests when a defendant seeks only to modify an ongoing prison sentence based on new legal developments.  See Douglas A. Berman, Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences, 4 Wake Forest J.L. & Pol’y 151, 174–75 (2014). Through sentence-modification provisions like the one at issue in this case, see 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), Congress has expressed its concerns for those other criminal justice interests by creating a significant sentencing exception to the usual presumption in favor of finality.  Appreciating the importance of getting sentences right while an offender is still serving a prison term, Congress has astutely elevated substantive sentencing goals like accuracy, fairness, and uniformity over concerns about finality in this context.  Section 3582(c)(2) serves well the purposes of fitness and fairness: its sentence-modification provisions eliminate unwarranted disparities in federal sentencing, promote the government’s legitimate substantive penological interests, foster societal respect for the criminal justice system, and save long-term costs associated with excessive terms of incarceration.

The question of statutory interpretation presented in this case, i.e., what does the term “based on” mean, should be resolved in favor of clear congressional policy and purpose. Defendants who commit crimes of similar severity under similar conditions should receive similar sentences.  When it is functionally apparent that a particular amended guideline was applicable in a defendant’s case, it ought not matter whether that defendant’s plea agreement contained calculations applying the since-reduced guideline.  A contrary interpretation, one that unnecessarily narrows eligibility for relief under § 3582(c)(2), would turn congressional policy on its head, wrongly elevate finality interests over those Congress sought to champion, and lead to systemic injustice.  The Court should take this opportunity to embrace a broad interpretation of “based on” that comports with overriding congressional policy.  Accordingly, petitioner should be eligible for relief under § 3582(c)(2) because his sentence was “based on” a Guidelines range that has been subsequently lowered.

Some (of many) prior posts on sentencing finality:

January 30, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Expansion of the Federal Safety Valve for Mandatory Minimum Sentences"

Download (7)The title of this post is the title of this relative short "Issue Brief" from FreedomWorks authored by Jason Pye and Sarah Anderson. The five-page document provides a basic overview of the federal statutory safety valve in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) which, as the brief explains, provides "an exception to mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders with little to no criminal history." Here are excerpts:

The Sentencing Reform Act, Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, and the Smarter Sentencing Act proposed an expansion of eligibility for the safety valve by increasing the number of criminal history points an offender may have on his or her record.  The safety valve does not prevent an eligible offender from serving time in prison.  It does, however, reduce overcrowding and allows the limited number of prison beds to be used for violent criminals.  The safety valve also restores a partial measure of judicial discretion, allowing a judge to sentence below a statutory mandatory minimum, should the judge believe the sentence is too harsh for the offense committed....

Since the creation of the federal safety valve, more than 80,000 federal offenders have received fairer, more just sentences.  These lesser sentences for nonviolent, low-level drug offenders allow limited prison resources to be used on violent, repeat offenders who are true threats to public safety....

The proposed changes to the federal code to expand the safety valve to offenders who have up to three or four criminal history points, with exceptions for some of those points coming from more serious or violent offenses, is a modest, common sense change.  Nothing in the safety valve prevents judges from sentencing prisoners at or above the mandatory minimum even if they are eligible for the safety valve, but simply allows judicial discretion to ensure that prison resources are being used where they can best protect public safety, and not wasted on nonviolent, low-level drug offenders.

In the 115th Congress, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has reintroduced the Sentencing Reform and Correction Act and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has reintroduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, both of which include an expansion of the federal safety valve.  Although the Sentencing Reform Act has not yet been reintroduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, sponsored by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) would serve as a likely vehicle for sentencing reforms similar to those found in the Sentencing Reform Act.

Should the House Judiciary Committee markup the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, FreedomWorks urges the committee to include an expansion of the federal safety valve that would allow judicial discretion in sentencing qualifying offenders to ensure that lengthy sentences and prison resources are spent on criminals who represent a serious threat to our communities. 

In addition to being a helpful review by a notable organization of one piece of the federal sentencing system, this document strikes me a timely and astute effort to start building the case for incorporating at least a little bit sentencing reform into the prison reform efforts that now are gaining steam in Congress. Because it appears to have the blessing of Prez Trump and maybe even Attorney General Sessions, the Prison Reform and Redemption Act right now looks like the proposed federal legislation with the greatest chance of enactment. This Issue Brief wisely highlights why it would be a wise decision to add a modest sentencing reform provision into that proposal.

January 30, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)