Tuesday, March 22, 2016

DOJ bragging about Smart on Crime initiative focusing on "more significant drug cases"

Yesterday the Department of Justice issued this official press release titled "New Smart on Crime Data Reveals Federal Prosecutors Are Focused on More Significant Drug Cases and Fewer Mandatory Minimums for Drug Defendants."  Here is how the release gets started:

The Justice Department today revealed new data from its innovative Smart on Crime Initiative that show charging decisions by federal prosecutors in fiscal year 2015 resulted in prosecutors' focusing on more serious drug cases and fewer indictments carrying a mandatory minimum.  Meanwhile, prosecutions of high-level drug defendants have risen and cooperation and plea rates remained effectively the same.

“The promise of Smart on Crime is showing impressive results,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates.  “Federal prosecutors are consistently using their discretion to focus our federal resources on the most serious cases and to ensure that we reserve harsh mandatory minimum sentence for the most dangerous offenders.  By ensuring fair and proportional sentencing, these policies engender greater trust in our criminal justice system, save federal resources and make our communities more safe. "

As part of the department’s Smart on Crime Initiative — announced in August 2013 — federal prosecutors were instructed to ensure the department’s finite resources are devoted to the most important law enforcement priorities implicating substantial federal interests and to promote fair enforcement of our laws, especially for low-level, non-violent drug offenders.

Since that announcement, prosecutions of serious drug defendants — such as those involving a weapon or leaders of a conspiracy — have increased, and there has been virtually no change in the rates at which defendants cooperate with the government or plead guilty.  During the same time, the department has seen steady reductions in charges that trigger mandatory minimums and fewer federal drug charges for low-level, non-violent offenders.

Notably, this Politico article reports that not everyone may think these developments represent good news:

Some lawmakers have sounded skeptical that lowering the number of federal drug prosecutions is something the Obama administration should be celebrating.  "I've heard that argument that 'we're always focusing on higher people that's why the numbers are down' for over 25 years. I do not believe that," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this month. "

Sessions acknowledged that the federal prisons are saving money as a result of fewer convicts coming their way, but he questioned the wisdom of that approach as heroin use has picked up dramatically across the country.  "The prison population is declining at a rapid rate.  It was 5,000 down last year.  The budget for the prisons is being reduced as a result of a substantial decline in population.  And at the same time, the drug use is surging and death are occurring. And on my opinion, it's going to get worse," Sessions said.

However, Yates said Monday she remains hopeful that Congress will pass criminal justice reform legislation that will give federal prosecutors and judges even more discretion in drug cases.  "At the risk of sounding maybe naïve and overly optimistic, I really believe we have a very good chance of getting sentencing reform because it’s one of the few things out there for which there really is bipartisan support," the deputy attorney general said.  "We have people on both ends of the spectrum that actually agree that this needs to happen, so you got to hope that when you have that, that we can actually bring this over the finish line.”

March 22, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, March 21, 2016

Some interesting recent discussions of religion and the death penalty

Long-time readers know I have long been intrigued by (and uncertain about) the intersection of strong religious beliefs and strong opinions on the death penalty. For that reason, these recent pieces caught my eye:

From the New Yorker here, "The Catholic Movement Against Capital Punishment"

From Patheos here, "Why Authentic Christians Must Oppose the Death Penalty"

From RawStoy here, "Bible: 6 Ways Jewish Bernie Sanders Is More Like Christ, Christian Donald Trump More Like Anti-Christ"

The last of these pieces talks about a lot more than the death penalty, but I figured it might help generate some extra fun comments.

March 21, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

SCOTUS rejects original lawsuit brought by Nebraska and Oklahoma against Colorado over marijuana reform

Legal gurus closely following state-level marijuana reforms have been also closely following the lawsuit brought directly to the Supreme Court way back in December 2014 by Nebraska and Oklahoma complaining about how Colorado reformed its state marijuana laws.  Today, via this order list, the Supreme Court finally officially denied the "motion for leave to file a bill of complaint" by Nebraska and Oklahoma against Colorado.  This is huge news for state marijuana reform efforts, but not really all that surprising.  (It would have been bigger news and surprising if the motion was granted.)

Notably, Justice Thomas authored an extended dissent to this denial, which was joined by Justice Alito.  Here is how this dissent stats and ends:

Federal law does not, on its face, give this Court discretion to decline to decide cases within its original jurisdiction. Yet the Court has long exercised such discretion, and does so again today in denying, without explanation, Nebraska and Oklahoma’s motion for leave to file a complaint against Colorado.  I would not dispose of the complaint so hastily. Because our discretionary approach to exercising our original jurisdiction is questionable, and because the plaintiff States have made a reasonable case that this dispute falls within our original and exclusive jurisdiction, I would grant the plaintiff States leave to file their complaint....

Federal law generally prohibits the manufacture, distribution, dispensing, and possession of marijuana.  See Controlled Substances Act (CSA), 84 Stat. 1242, as amended, 21 U. S. C. §§812(c), Schedule I(c)(10), 841–846 (2012 ed. and Supp. II).  Emphasizing the breadth of the CSA, this Court has stated that the statute establishes “a comprehensive regime to combat the international and interstate traffic in illicit drugs.”  Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1, 12 (2005).  Despite the CSA’s broad prohibitions, in 2012 the State of Colorado adopted Amendment 64, which amends the State Constitution to legalize, regulate, and facilitate the recreational use of marijuana.  See Colo. Const., Art. XVIII, §16.  Amendment 64 exempts from Colorado’s criminal prohibitions certain uses of marijuana. §§16(3)(a), (c), (d); see Colo. Rev. Stat. §18–18–433 (2015).  Amendment 64 directs the Colorado Department of Revenue to promulgate licensing procedures for marijuana establishments. Art. XVIII, §16(5)(a).  And the amendment requires the Colorado General Assembly to enact an excise tax for sales of marijuana from cultivation facilities to manufacturing facilities and retail stores. §16(5)(d).

In December 2014, Nebraska and Oklahoma filed in this Court a motion seeking leave to file a complaint against Colorado.  The plaintiff States — which share borders with Colorado — allege that Amendment 64 affirmatively facilitates the violation and frustration of federal drug laws.  See Complaint ¶¶54–65.  They claim that Amendment 64 has “increased trafficking and transportation of Coloradosourced marijuana” into their territories, requiring them to expend significant “law enforcement, judicial system, and penal system resources” to combat the increased trafficking and transportation of marijuana.  Id., ¶58; Brief [for Nebraska and Oklahoma] in Support of Motion for Leave to File Complaint 11–16.  The plaintiff States seek a declaratory judgment that the CSA pre-empts certain of Amendment 64’s licensing, regulation, and taxation provisions and an injunction barring their implementation. Complaint 28–29.

The complaint, on its face, presents a “controvers[y] between two or more States” that this Court alone has authority to adjudicate. 28 U. S. C. §1251(a).  The plaintiff States have alleged significant harms to their sovereign interests caused by another State.  Whatever the merit of the plaintiff States’ claims, we should let this complaint proceed further rather than denying leave without so much as a word of explanation.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform.

March 21, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Rounding up commentary highlighting why I am just not that into SCOTUS nomination of Chief Judge Merrick Garland

32249482_400x400In this initial post about Prez Obama's selection of Chief DC Circuit Judge Merrick Garland as his latest and likely last SCOTUS nominee, I expressed some reasons I was initially disappointed by the selection.  Since that time, I have read a little bit of the copious commentary about Chief Judge Garland and much of it suggests Judge Garland is a first-rate jurist who would make a perfectly fine Justice.

But I remain troubled that Prez Obama, after he has talked and talked and talked about the importance of criminal justice reform and of "life experience earned outside the classroom and the courtroom," decided to nominate to the Supreme Court yet another former federal prosecutor and long-time DC Circuit judge who seems to have garnered nearly all of his professional experiences inside the classroom and the courtroom.  Of particular concern for me, I suppose, is that Chief Judge Garland's professional experiences have come from inside all the same classrooms and courtrooms in which all the other Justices learned.

Because I am generally assuming GOP Senate leaders will be keeping their oft-stated promise not to even hold a hearing to consider Chief Judge Garland,  I do not plan to blog much about his nomination in the weeks ahead.  But, having seen already a bunch of old and new commentary that captures some of my thoughts about the nomination, I thought it useful here to do a mini-round up:

From Bloomberg View here, "Obama Picked a Stellar Judge. He Could Have Done Better."

From Salon here, "Inside Merrick Garland’s troubling record: Why he could take the Supreme Court right in one very important regard; No one is saying that Merrick Garland is a conservative, but his stance on criminal justice is cause for concern"

From Vox here, "Is Merrick Garland more conservative than Antonin Scalia on criminal justice issues?" 

From Grits for Breakfast here, "In praise of do-nothing Republicans on SCOTUS nominee"

The first of these linked pieces, authored by Noah Feldman, astutely comments on the symbolism of the nomination of Chief Judge Garland that has me most put off:

[E]ven if Garland is blocked, there’s a symbolic message in his nomination.  That message is that diversity isn’t very important on the Supreme Court, and that what matters is a career of legal excellence from which one emerges unscathed by the taint of controversy, risk, or (God forbid) strong opinion strongly expressed.

That hasn’t always been the case. The Supreme Court was one of the first institutions in American life where it was widely agreed that diversity counted — and that included diversity of background, experience, and viewpoint. Nearly a century ago, people were already speaking of the court as having a Western seat, a Catholic seat, a Jewish seat, and a scholar’s seat — evidence for the time of a fairly broad spectrum of desirable representation.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s justices came from the Senate, the Securities and Exchange Commission, governorships, private practice, and the academy.  They had staked out controversial, risky positions on the most important issues of the day.  William O. Douglas had crusaded against the New York Stock Exchange.  Hugo Black was considered the most radical Senator.  Think Elizabeth Warren, not Merrick Garland.

To his credit, Obama has aimed at diversity in picking two women, one of them Latina.  Their professional experiences weren’t all that varied from the other justices, but that was fine, considering their other virtues.

But was it really necessary for the president to go so far as to nominate possibly the safest candidate in the entire U.S. judiciary?  I like and respect Garland, and I’m sure he’d make an excellent justice.  He embodies many of the legal virtues that I try to teach.  Yet the basis for his selection depends on his plain-vanilla career.  It manifests the extreme care that he’s exercised in a long and distinguished professional path....

The contrast with Antonin Scalia, whom Garland would replace, is striking.  Scalia, who died in February, was also a white, male, Harvard Law graduate who’d worked in the Department of Justice.  But as a law professor, he’d staked out strong opinions and earned a reputation as a conservative intellectual leader.

It’s old news that Robert Bork’s confirmation process changed the rules of the game, driving presidents of both parties to stealth nominees.  But it’s still worth noting that Garland’s nomination is the new high water-mark of non-controversial court appointments.

This time, a fight was inevitable.  Obama could’ve used the chance for a nomination that would make the fight interesting.  He didn’t.  That may be a testament to his shrewd political mind, but it's still cause for reflection and regret.

March 21, 2016 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

South Dakota bans all juve LWOP sentences

As reported in this local article, as of last week "South Dakota has banned the practice of sentencing children to life in prison without the possibility of parole."  Here is more about this notable legislative development:

Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed SB 140 sponsored by Sen. Craig Tieszen, into law on Wednesday. In making this change, South Dakota joins states such as Wyoming, Nevada and West Virginia in implementing less punitive accountability measures for children.

“Every year I try to bring at least one bill that I truly believe in while knowing it will be a struggle,” said Sen. Tieszen. “I believe that children, even children who commit terrible crimes, can and do change. And, I believe they deserve a chance to demonstrate that change and become productive citizens. In the end, I gathered a very diverse set of legislators from across the political spectrum and passed the bill with solid margins.”

SB 140 eliminates all life sentences for people who were younger than 18 at the time of their crimes.  Fifteen states now ban life-without-parole sentences for children.

“South Dakota is helping to lead important change in the ways that we hold our children accountable,” said Jody Kent Lavy, director and national coordinator at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “Teenagers who commit serious crimes will now have an opportunity after several years to demonstrate that they have been rehabilitated and are ready to re-enter society. Jurisprudence and adolescent development research document that appropriate sentences consider children’s age at the time of a crime, the trauma they have experienced and their capacity for change.”

March 20, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Making an empirical case for the relative efficacy of post-Plata realignment in California

A trio of criminologists make a data-driven case for some positive aspects of California's experiences with realignment in this Washington Post opinion piece headlined "Releasing low-level offenders did not unleash a crime wave in California."  Here are excerpts (with a link to the report that provides the empirical basis for its claims):

Some fear that reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes and letting low-level offenders back on the streets — key components of prison reform — could produce a new and devastating crime wave.  Such dire predictions were common in 2011 when California embarked on a massive experiment in prison downsizing.  But five years later, California’s experience offers powerful evidence that no such crime wave is likely to occur.

In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that California’s wildly overcrowded prisons were tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the state to reduce its prison population by some 33,000 people in two years.  In response, the state enacted the controversial California Public Safety Realignment law, known in legislative shorthand as AB 109.

With a budget of more than $1 billion annually, “realignment” gave each of the state’s 58 counties responsibility for supervising a sizable class of offenders — the “triple nons,” or non-serious, nonviolent, non-sex offenders — formerly housed in state prisons. Each county received unprecedented flexibility and authority to manage this population as it saw fit.

Recently, we brought together a group of distinguished social scientists to do a systematic, comprehensive assessment of California’s prison downsizing experiment.  The results, published this month in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, show that California’s decision to cede authority over low-level offenders to its counties has been, for the most part, remarkably effective public policy and an extraordinarily rich case study in governance....

To answer questions about the relationship between prison reform and crime rates, we not only compared statewide crime rates before and after the downsizing but also examined what happened in counties that favored innovative approaches vs. those that emphasized old-fashioned enforcement.

Clearly, our most important finding is that realignment has had only a very small effect on crime in California. Violent crime rates in the state have barely budged.  We’ve seen no appreciable uptick in assaults, rapes and murders that can be connected to the prisoners who were released under realignment.  This makes a lot of sense when you think about it; by and large, these offenders were eligible for release because of the nonviolent nature of their crimes.

On the other hand, a small uptick in property crime can be attributed to downsizing, with the largest increase occurring for auto theft.  So is this an argument against realignment and against prison reform more broadly?  We think not. The cost to society of a slight increase in property crime must be weighed against the cost of incarceration.

Take the example of auto theft. Our data suggest that one year served in prison instead of at large as a result of realignment prevents 1.2 auto thefts per year and saves $11,783 in crime-related costs plus harm to the victims and their families. On the other hand, keeping someone behind bars for a year costs California $51,889. In purely monetary terms — without considering, say, the substantial economic and social hardship that imprisonment can create for prisoners’ children and other relatives — incarcerating someone for a year in the hope of preventing an auto theft is like spending $450 to repair a $100 vacuum cleaner.

Turning to the question of which counties’ strategies were most successful, we have another important early finding: Counties that invested in offender reentry in the aftermath of realignment had better performance in terms of recidivism than counties that focused resources on enforcement.  As other states and the federal government contemplate their own proposals for prison downsizing, they should take a close look at what these California counties are doing right.

I have long been saying that California is a critical state to watch in the sentencing reform discussion, and I am pleased to see that a "group of distinguished social scientists" have so far concluded that the state's realignment experiences in the wake of the Supreme Court's Plata "has been, for the most part, remarkably effective public policy." But, critically, thanks to voter initiatives, California's recent sentencing reform efforts have not been confined to realignment: in 2012, California voters passed reforms to the state's three strikes laws via Prop 36, and in 2014 California voters passed reforms to what crimes are treated as felonies via Prop 47. And, notably, though some in law enforcement were quick to complain after AB 109 that realignment was responsible for a uptick in property crimes in the state, of late the focus of crime concerns and criticism has been Prop 47.

As I have repeatedly said in this space and others, I think it is especially problematic that California does not have the help of a independent sentencing commission that could and should seek to track and assess all these moving sentencing reform parts in the state.  In the absence of such a body, we all will have to rely on empirical and advocacy work done by outside researchers and policy groups concerning the effects of sentencing reform on the west coast.

March 20, 2016 in National and State Crime Data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Judge Richard Posner takes notable shots at "the legal profession in all three of its major branches"

In the Winter 2016 issue of The Green Bag, US Circuit Judge Richard Posner has this notable new article titled "What Is Obviously Wrong With the Federal Judiciary, Yet Eminently Curable, Part I." Like so much of Judge Posner's work, the piece is a fascinating read, and these introductory passages should whet everyone's appetite for what is here and to follow:

In the present article, however, and its sequel (Part II, to be published in the next issue of this journal), I try to retreat some distance from controversy by confining my discussion to those features of the federal judicial process that are at once demonstrably unsound and readily corrigible without need for federal legislation or radical changes in legal doctrines or practices.  That is not to say that anything I criticize will be changed, however convincing my critique.  For law is wedded to the past as no other profession is.  You don’t hear doctors bragging about thirteenth-century medicine, but you hear lawyers bragging about the thirteenth-century Magna Carta (without even understanding it — they think it guaranteed the ancient liberties of the English, whereas in fact it guaranteed just the rights of barons, and in any event was soon annulled, later restored, and eventually demoted to the purely symbolic).

Another way to characterize the legal profession in all three of its major branches — the academy, the judiciary, and the bar — is that it is complacent, self-satisfied. Chief Justice Roberts in his annual reports likes to describe the American legal system as the envy of the world.  Nonsense.  The system has proved itself ineffectual in dealing with a host of problems, ranging from providing useful (as distinct from abstract theoretical) legal training at bearable cost to curbing crime and meting out rational punishment, providing representation for and protection of the vast number of Americans who are impecunious or commercially unsophisticated (so prey to sharpies), incorporating the insights of the social and natural sciences (with the notable exception of economics, however), curbing incompetent regulatory agencies such as the immigration and social security disability agencies, and limiting the role of partisan politics in the appointment of judges.  The system is also immensely costly (more than $400 billion a year), with its million lawyers, many overpaid, many deficient in training and experience, some of questionable ethics.

I focus on the three principal phases of the federal judicial process: trials, intermediate appeals, and decisions by the Supreme Court.  But much that I’ll be saying is applicable to state judiciaries as well, all of which (so far as I know) have a tripartite structure (trial court, intermediate appellate court, supreme court) similar to that of their federal counterpart.

I may have some comments in a later post about what Judge Posner has to say in this article about the judicary's failings at "curbing crime and meting out rational punishment."

March 19, 2016 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, March 18, 2016

Making the (Trumpian?) case for winning the drug war via full legalization

HarpersWeb-Cover-201604-302x410_black This cover story of the April 2016 issue of Harper's magazine is authored by Dan Baum and is headlined "Legalize It All: How to win the war on drugs."  And, as I mean to suggest via  the headline of this post, this article may be channeling what GOP Prez candidate front-runner Donald Trump really thinks about how to improve modern drug policy in the US.  (Recall that I had this post on my marijuana reform blog, way back when Trump first announced his serious run for the Oval Office last summer, which highlights that Trump not all that long ago had once suggested full legalization would be the only way to "win" the drug war.)  Here are is an except from the first part of the lengthy Harper's piece:

Nixon’s invention of the war on drugs as a political tool was cynical, but every president since — Democrat and Republican alike — has found it equally useful for one reason or another. Meanwhile, the growing cost of the drug war is now impossible to ignore: billions of dollars wasted, bloodshed in Latin America and on the streets of our own cities, and millions of lives destroyed by draconian punishment that doesn’t end at the prison gate; one of every eight black men has been disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.

As long ago as 1949, H. L. Mencken identified in Americans “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” an astute articulation of our weirdly Puritan need to criminalize people’s inclination to adjust how they feel.  The desire for altered states of consciousness creates a market, and in suppressing that market we have created a class of genuine bad guys — pushers, gangbangers, smugglers, killers.  Addiction is a hideous condition, but it’s rare. Most of what we hate and fear about drugs — the violence, the overdoses, the criminality — derives from prohibition, not drugs. And there will be no victory in this war either; even the Drug Enforcement Administration concedes that the drugs it fights are becoming cheaper and more easily available.

Now, for the first time, we have an opportunity to change course. Experiments in alternatives to harsh prohibition are already under way both in this country and abroad. Twenty-three states, as well as the District of Columbia, allow medical marijuana, and four — Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska — along with D.C., have legalized pot altogether.  Several more states, including Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada, will likely vote in November whether to follow suit.

Portugal has decriminalized not only marijuana but cocaine and heroin, as well as all other drugs.  In Vermont, heroin addicts can avoid jail by committing to state-funded treatment. Canada began a pilot program in Vancouver in 2014 to allow doctors to prescribe pharmaceutical-quality heroin to addicts, Switzerland has a similar program, and the Home Affairs Committee of Britain’s House of Commons has recommended that the United Kingdom do likewise.  Last July, Chile began a legislative process to legalize both medicinal and recreational marijuana use and allow households to grow as many as six plants.  After telling the BBC in December that “if you fight a war for forty years and don’t win, you have to sit down and think about other things to do that might be more effective,” Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos legalized medical marijuana by decree. In November, the Mexican Supreme Court elevated the debate to a new plane by ruling that the prohibition of marijuana consumption violated the Mexican Constitution by interfering with “the personal sphere,” the “right to dignity,” and the right to “personal autonomy.”  The Supreme Court of Brazil is considering a similar argument.

Depending on how the issue is framed, legalization of all drugs can appeal to conservatives, who are instinctively suspicious of bloated budgets, excess government authority, and intrusions on individual liberty, as well as to liberals, who are horrified at police overreach, the brutalization of Latin America, and the criminalization of entire generations of black men.  It will take some courage to move the conversation beyond marijuana to ending all drug prohibitions, but it will take less, I suspect, than most politicians believe.  It’s already politically permissible to criticize mandatory minimums, mass marijuana-possession arrests, police militarization, and other excesses of the drug war; even former attorney general Eric Holder and Michael Botticelli, the new drug czar — a recovering alcoholic — do so. Few in public life appear eager to defend the status quo.

A few prior related posts:

March 18, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Thursday, March 17, 2016

"Easing Mandatory Minimums Will Not Be Enough"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable article in Judicature authored by one of my old bosses, Second Circuit Judge Jon O. Newman.  I recommend the full piece, and here is how it starts:

Congress is finally considering easing mandatory minimum penalties.  However, this effort, even if successful, will need to be complemented by actions taken by the United States Sentencing Commission and federal district judges.

If some mandatory minimum requirements are repealed or at least modified, there will be two immediate consequences.  First, prosecutors will be deprived of the awesome power to coerce a guilty plea by threatening to charge an offense that will subject a defendant to a mandatory minimum sentence.  Second, sentencing judges will be spared the often distasteful obligation to impose a required sentence that is more severe than the one they would have selected had they been free to use their sentencing discretion.

But these immediate consequences, desirable as they are, will be only the first of three steps needed to reduce the severity of sentences currently subject to mandatory minimum requirements.  The Sentencing Commission must take the second step of revising the Sentencing Guidelines, and then district judges must take the third step of using their authority to impose non-Guidelines sentences.

March 17, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"The Emerging Eighth Amendment Consensus Against Life Without Parole Sentences for Nonviolent Offenses"

The title of this post is the title of this article authored by Bidish Sarma and Sophie Cull recently posted on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

As the nation moves away from the policies that built a criminal justice system bent on mass incarceration, it is an appropriate time to reassess a sentencing regime that has doomed thousands of individuals convicted of nonviolent offenses to die in prison.  Over the last thirty years, those policies have resulted in more than 3,000 offenders across the country receiving life sentences without the possibility of parole when they were convicted of a nonviolent crime. While it seems clear to many today that this harsh punishment is inappropriate for offenses that involved no physical harm to other people, the individuals serving these sentences continue to face life and death in prison.  The Eighth Amendment offers these offenders an opportunity to demonstrate the unconstitutionality of their punishment to the Supreme Court — the institution in the best position to redress these excessive sentences of a bygone era.

This Article analyzes the claim that there is a national consensus against life without parole sentences for individuals convicted of non-violent offenses.  First, it defines the problem, exploring how and why some offenders received life without parole sentences for nonviolent crime.  This entails a look at the historical development of a series of harsh sentencing policies that made nonviolent offenses punishable by life without the possibility of parole.  The historical developments are then traced through to current times to explain the seismic shift in how leaders in all three branches of government approach punishing low-level and nonviolent crimes.

This Article situates the punishment in the Eighth Amendment context.  How have the Supreme Court's previous Eighth Amendment rulings framed the relevant constitutional questions?  And how can a change in the way the Court considers the link between the nature of the offense and the challenged punishment create new possibilities?  This Article explores how treating individuals sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent offenses as a discrete category based on the nature of the crimes can alter the Eighth Amendment framework that the Court will use to determine the punishment's constitutionality.  The unfavorable "gross disproportionality" cases that have previously been considered by the Court do not need to govern the claim and, therefore, do not foreclose the possibility that the Constitution itself prohibits these sentences.

After exploring how to understand the constitutional claim in a way that brings the Supreme Court's categorical approach to bear (rather than the gross disproportionality approach), this Article assesses the factors the Court considers in its consensus-based categorical test.  It sets out, and then evaluates, the various indicators of consensus upon which the Court relies: the number of jurisdictions that legislatively authorize a punishment; the number of sentences actually imposed; and the degree of geographic isolation.  It also evaluates the various considerations that assist the Court in making an independent judgment of the punishment.  Ultimately, based on binding Eighth Amendment precedent, sufficient evidence is available now to enable the Court to strike down life without parole sentences for nonviolent offenses.  In other words, there is an emerging consensus that the Court should recognize.

March 16, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Split Ohio Supreme Court decides state allowed to try again to execute Rommell Broom after prior botched attempt

This official summary from the Ohio Supreme Court office of public information provides a detailed summary of a notable capital punishment ruling today, and it starts this way:

An execution had not begun when an IV line could not be established to deliver lethal drugs into an inmate’s body even though a needle was inserted multiple times, and neither the U.S. nor Ohio constitution bars the state from carrying out the execution, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

The Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that a second attempt to execute Romell Broom by lethal injection would not violate the cruel and unusual punishment or the double jeopardy clauses of the federal and state constitutions. Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger stated in the majority opinion that by law the death penalty begins with the application of lethal drugs, and since the execution team stopped after it could not keep an IV catheter functioning, Broom’s punishment had not started.

In separate opinions, dissenting justices countered that Broom is entitled to a hearing to prove a second attempt would also fail under the state’s procedures, and that the first attempt constituted cruel punishment.

The full opinion in Ohio v. Broom, 2016-Ohio-1028 (Ohio S. Ct. March 16, 2016), is available at this link.  I may comment more about this novel Eighth Amendment case in coming days.  But even without having a chance to review the opinions, I can predict with relative certainty that there will be an appeal to the US Supreme Court that may well interest some of the Justices.  Given that likelihood, as well as the difficulties Ohio has had with obtaining execution drugs, I think we can and should still expect Romell Broom to remain alive for many, many more future election days in bellwether Ohio.

March 16, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

After a month, Prez Obama makes ("consensus"?) pick of DC Circuit Chief Judge Merrick Garland for SCOTUS opening

Still0316_00037_1458141169766_1031097_ver1.0Color me deeply disappointed by this big SCOTUS news.  A president who campaigned on a promise of hope and change and who indisputably was elected to the Oval Office twice thanks to the strong support of minority and younger Americans has now decided to nominate to the Supreme Court to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, an old white guy who graduated from Harvard Law School and worked for the Justice Department before serving on the DC Circuit, none other than Chief DC Circuit Judge Merrick Garland, another old white guy who graduated from Harvard Law School and worked for the Justice Department before serving on the DC Circuit. 

In this prior post, I (apparently foolishly) suggested that Prez Obama might be leaning to appointing a former federal defense lawyer to the Supreme Court given his comments about looking for a nominee with "a keen understanding that justice is not about abstract legal theory, nor some footnote in a dusty casebook [but who has] life experience earned outside the classroom and the courtroom."   But Chief Judge Garland, like far too many of the current Justices in my view, is a career "inside-the-Beltway" lawyer having served in the Justice Department during the Clinton Administration and having spent the last two decades serving on the most insulated and isolated of all the US Circuit Courts.  Notably, at a time when American voters on both sides of the aisle have shown an interest in changing "politics as usual" in Washington DC, the President has decided to nominate the most "old-school" SCOTUS candidate I could imagine.

Readers will not be surprised to hear that what really has me irked about this SCOTUS choice is that it provides yet more proof that President Barack Obama is never actually willing to "walk the walk" on criminal justice reform when he has a real opportunity to use his power and platform to engineer real change.  Appointing someone with a public defender background would be a powerful statement that lawyers who defend those accused of crimes have a critically important perspective on the operation and application of the rule of law.  Instead, Prez Obama has nominated a former Criminal Division DOJ lawyer who supervised the Oklahoma City bombing case and the case against the Unabomber.  Tellingly, in his announcement this morning, Prez Obama stressed Chief Judge Garland's "sterling record as a prosecutor" and expressed admiration for his prosecutorial efforts to avoid the possibility that the  Oklahoma City bomber "might go free on a technicality."

On the criminal justice front, here is part of what SCOTUSblog had to say about Judge Garland back in 2010 when he was on a prior short-list concerning a replacement for Justice Stevens:

On a number of issues, particularly those related to criminal law, Judge Garland is the least likely to adopt a liberal position....

The most significant area of the law in which Judge Garland's views obviously differ materially from those of Justice Stevens is criminal law. Judge Garland rarely votes in favor of criminal defendants' appeals of their convictions....

Most striking, in ten criminal cases, Judge Garland has disagreed with his more-liberal colleagues; in each, he adopted the position that was more favorable to the government or declined to reach a question on which the majority of the court had adopted a position favorable to a defendant. Because disagreement among panel members on the D.C. Circuit is relatively rare, this substantial body of cases is noteworthy.

In the end, and perhaps ironically, I suspect that Prez Obama has made this selection because he does not believe the Senate will move forward with any nominee, and because Chief Judge Garland at age 63 may be uniquely willing now to be the focal point of the already on-going battle royale over the current empty SCOTUS seat.  Also, Prez Obama is sure to have fun making much of the fact in 2010 Senator Orrin Hatch had urged Prez Obama to nominate Judge Garland as "a consensus nominee" who would "be very well supported by all sides."  (Of course, left out of this analysis is that critical Senators Mitch McConnell and Charles Grassley voted against confirmation of Judge Garland back in the 1990s and that Judge Garland's record on gun control seems very likely to be a focal point of criticism from many GOP officials and advocacy groups.)  

Maybe it was true in 2010 that Chief Judge Garland would be "very well supported by all sides," but I seriosuly doubt this will prove true in 2016.   Moreover, in light of both Chief Judge Garland's judicial record and the unique opportunity and open SCOTUS seat presents to diversify perspectives and backgrounds on this Court, I am now thinking I will be rooting for the Senate to refuse to move forward with his nomination. 

Prior related posts on new SCOTUS nominee possibilities:

March 16, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (31)

"Why many black voters don't blame Hillary for tough-on-crime laws"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable Christian Science Monitor article from earlier this week which strikes me as especially timely given that Hillary Clinton's success in the most recent state primaries would seem to put her on a near-certain path to a Prez candidate nomination. Here are excerpts from the lengthy piece:

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, [gang violence and open-air drug dealing] was the everyday reality in African-American neighborhoods around the country. It was in this context that black political leaders, under pressure from their communities, pleaded for the federal government to address the drug problem. The now infamous response from the federal government was a series of bipartisan “tough on crime” laws that, instead of just cracking down on drugs and violent crime as intended, filled the country’s prisons to a breaking point, disproportionately with young black men.

Now amid bipartisan efforts to undo many of these laws, and the rise of a new generation of civil rights activists, this history has created a strange dissonance. Black Lives Matter activists have criticized Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, for supporting these tough-on-crime policies as first lady in the ’90s. But Mrs. Clinton has ridden overwhelming support from black voters to a commanding lead in the Democratic primaries. Earlier this month, the urban black vote helped her edge out a victory in the Massachusetts primary over challenger Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“If you read some intellectuals on the left, they’d suggest there should be a grudge against the Clintons, but I think the primary results show there isn’t a grudge at all,” says Michael Fortner, a professor of urban studies at the City University of New York and author of the book “Black Silent Majority.”

Part of the reason, he notes, is that black communities are aware that for decades they were some of the loudest advocates for tough drug laws. Tough-on-crime policies, he adds, “weren’t something that just happened to black people, that were imposed on the black community…. Political leaders, mayors, and pastors played an important role in pushing for these policies.”

Another reason, he says, is that most black voters aren’t just concerned about criminal justice policy, past or present. “They’re also, like everybody else, concerned about paying their bills, they’re concerned about good schools, concerned about achieving the American dream,” he says....

“I think the African-American community, like Hillary Clinton, they’ve had to rethink their approach,” says Thomas Whalen, an associate professor of social sciences at Boston University. “And you have to. In a so-called drug war, you can’t be rigid in your position and hope to be ultimately successful — you have to be as flexible as possible based on the conditions on the ground.”...

For many decades, however, drugs were a priority.  As early as June 1970, for example, Ebony magazine published an article titled: “Blacks declare war on dope.”  In 1986, 16 of 19 African-American members of the House co-sponsored President Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act.  And eight years later, 22 members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill that boosted funding to police, expanded the death penalty, and created the “three strikes” sentencing law.

March 16, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Interesting account of effort to take sentencing reform directly to voters in Oklahoma

This article from The Frontier provides an interesting account of sentencing reform efforts in Oklahoma and why supporters of reform are turning to direct democracy to move forward.  The piece is headlined "After several stalled attempts, Oklahoma group taking prison reforms to vote of the people," and here are excerpts:

Kris Steele stepped up to the microphone in a packed room at Tulsa’s Women in Recovery office and declared this time, in 2016, Oklahoma was going to break through the “political gridlock” by taking criminal justice reform to a vote of the people....

For more than five years, Steele, a former speaker of the state House of Representatives, has been talking about the importance of criminal justice reform for Oklahoma’s fiscal bottom line, its citizens and children.  Now, facing a $1.3 billion budget crisis and prisons packed above 120 percent of capacity, it appears Oklahoma is finally ready to listen.

Steele, along with a bipartisan coalition of state power players, is hoping Oklahoma voters will accomplish what elected officials did not in several prior attempts: reducing the state’s staggering prison population.  They hope to redirect some of the savings toward addressing root causes of crime, shifting the state toward a corrections system that focuses on rehabilitation, not solely punishment.

As chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, Steele is leading efforts to collect more than 65,000 petition signatures that would allow two state questions to be added to November’s ballot.  State question 780 would reclassify certain low-level offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies, such as drug possession and smaller property crimes. The idea is that reclassification would reduce Oklahoma’s prison population and trigger cost savings, badly needed in a state facing a budget crisis where leaders are considering trimming school days to make ends meet.

State question 781 would then invest those prison cost savings in programs designed to address the root causes of crime — including addiction, mental health issues and poverty — and programs that provide job training and education to offenders as they leave prison....

Other states, including Texas and North Carolina, have used their own Justice Reinvestment Initiatives to realize significant savings on corrections spending.  North Carolina’s reforms, passed in 2011, have helped the state close nine prisons and officials expect to save $560 million in averted costs and cumulative savings by 2017, according to the Council on State Governments.  Those savings have also made it possible for North Carolina to re-invest nearly $4 million into community-based treatment programs, the council reported.

After Texas officials implemented sentencing reforms in 2007, including probation, drug treatment, pre-trial diversion programs and intermediate sanction facilities, cost savings from the measures allowed Texas to close three existing prisons and scrap plans to build three new ones.

As Oklahoma has watched other states — including Texas — implement those reforms, the political climate surrounding criminal justice reform here has changed, Steele told The Frontier in an interview.  Steele, who left office due to term limits, became the executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry in Oklahoma City.

“When we first started having this conversation in 2009 to 2011, our prisons were at 99 percent capacity.  Now, they’re over 122 percent capacity,” he said.  “The fact that the problem has not gone away — in fact, it’s gotten worse — causes us to be more willing to have this conversation.”...

“I think the public is ready to have that conversation.  I think the public is way ahead of the legislature on this issue. There’s actually a pretty significant disconnect between the voters and elected officials on this issue.”  Hence taking the issue to the voters through the two state questions....

Now several bills in the legislature aim to achieve similar goals of the two state questions backed by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice reform.  But Steele’s group wants to put the decision directly in the hands of voters.  And he’s got the backing of organizations like Right on Crime and the ACLU of Oklahoma.

“It’s a little more work, but in the end we think it’s going to be well worth it,” he said.  “The people of Oklahoma ought to be able to have a direct say so in this issue.”  It is the citizens who pay the $500 million each year to fund Oklahoma’s prison system, after all.

The Rev. Ray Owens, pastor of Tulsa’s Metropolitan Baptist Church, was one who offered an “amen” after Steele and Neal spoke to the crowd at Women in Recovery last week.  “Instead of investing more money in prisons, I believe it’s time for us to invest more in our people,” Owens said.

March 15, 2016 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

US Sentencing Commission hearing on proposed immigration and other guideline amendments

Tomorrow, as detailed at this webpage with the official agenda, the US Sentencing Commission is holding a public hearing to receive testimony from invited witnesses on proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines. This event is being streamed live, and can be watched at this link.  I am hopeful that, as is the usual USSC practice, this webpage with the official agenda will eventually provide links to any and all submitted written testimony of the scheduled witnesses. 

Most of the conceptual and technical debate about guideline amendments this cycle are to be focused on the immigration guidelines, which have been subject to an array of criticisms over the years.  I will be especially interested to see what federal judges, practitioners and advocates have to say concerning the amendments that have been proposed by the USSC in this important arena.  As federal sentencing fans likely know, immigration cases are a huge part of the total federal criminal docket, especially in border states. Thus, any significant changes to the immigration guidelines is sure to have significant ripple effects throughout the entire federal criminal justice system.

March 15, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Another disconcerting report about the failings of the Obama clemency initiative and Clemency Project 2014

USA-JUSTICE-CLEMENCYRegular readers know that, ever since Prez Obama and his Aministration started talking up efforts to get serious about using clemency powers, I have been regularly expressing concerns about how structurally peculiar and procedurally belabored the new (and now not-so-new) clemency push has been.  Here are just a few of my prior related posts on this front:

Still more reason for concern has now emerged via this new Reuters article headlined "Obama's prisoner clemency plan faltering as cases pile up." Here are excerpts:

In April 2014, the administration of President Barack Obama announced the most ambitious clemency program in 40 years, inviting thousands of jailed drug offenders and other convicts to seek early release and urging lawyers across the country to take on their cases.

Nearly two years later the program is struggling under a deluge of unprocessed cases, sparking concern within the administration and among justice reform advocates over the fate of what was meant to be legacy-defining achievement for Obama.

More than 8,000 cases out of more than 44,000 federal inmates who applied have yet to make it to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for review, lawyers involved in the program told Reuters. That is in addition to about 9,000 cases that are still pending at the DOJ, according to the department's own figures.

Only 187 inmates have had their sentences commuted, far below the thousands expected by justice reform advocates and a tiny fraction of the 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States, which has the world's highest incarceration rate....

A senior DOJ official told Reuters it is calling on the lawyers' group -- Clemency Project 2014 -- to simply hand over the outstanding cases without further vetting, saying it is not working fast enough. So far, the group estimates it has handed over around 200 cases.

But criminal justice experts say the administration itself should bear much of the blame. The idea to tap pro-bono attorneys to help vet the cases originated with the DOJ, and critics say it should have prepared its own staff to handle the large volume of applications. “It’s unfair to criticize the volunteer group that you asked to help,” said Rachel Barkow, a criminal law professor at New York University who has studied clemency in U.S. prisons. She estimates that about 1,500 prisoners should be eligible for commutation, saying the 187 granted so far does not "fulfill the promise of the program."...

The delays have left prisoners like Linda Byrnes, 69, in limbo. “I thought clemency was for people like me,” Byrnes told Reuters through an electronic messaging system from a federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia. Byrnes, who has spent 20 years in prison for distributing marijuana and has two years left on her sentence, was recently diagnosed with mouth cancer and has yet to hear whether she has been assigned a lawyer after submitting her application to Clemency Project in August 2014....

Clemency Project 2014 said it does not comment publicly on the individuals it represents. The group vets the applications, writes the petitions and sends them to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, which oversees all pardons and sentence commutations and makes recommendations for the president's approval.

So far, 25,000 of 34,000 applications received by Clemency Project have been rejected for failing to meet the basic criteria - no record of violence, no significant ties to a gang or drug cartel, good behavior in prison and completion of at least 10 years of sentence. About 10,000 inmates did not go through the Clemency Project and either applied directly to DOJ or through a paid attorney. "It really would be a sad state of affairs if individuals who had asked for a lawyer weren't considered in time because their petitions never reached the pardon attorney's office," a DOJ official told Reuters on the condition of anonymity.

A large number of mostly unqualified applications, a shortage of lawyers and the complexity of the cases have slowed progress, said Cynthia Roseberry, project manager for Clemency Project 2014. "There are a lot of gray areas," said Roseberry, who estimates it takes 30 days for one lawyer to review one case on average. "We've got to unpack each of these applicants to see specifically what factors affect them... and so that takes a little more time."

This includes finding pre-sentencing reports for each case, determining if the person would have received a shorter sentence under current law and reviewing prison behavior records. Roseberry said the group was unaware of any request from the Justice Department to hand over the pending applications. Roseberry said the group's initially slow pace has picked up in recent months....

Roseberry said about 3,000 applicants still need to be assigned to a lawyer, and that it was not certain whether the group will be able to submit all of the applications it has received before Obama leaves office. The group has more than 570 law firms and 30 law schools contributing to the effort.

Some rejected prisoners and those who have yet to hear a decision say they believe they would have had a better chance if they had sent their clemency petition directly to the government.

Josie Ledezma was sentenced to life for conspiracy to transport cocaine and applied for clemency through Clemency Project 2014. She said she did not hear from them for six months and later learned that her assigned lawyer had shut down her legal practice. In January, nearly one year after applying, she was told Clemency Project 2014 could not help her and encouraged her to apply directly. “I wrote back and asked what was it that made me not qualify, but never got a response,” Ledezma told Reuters through an electronic messaging service for federal prisoners.

March 15, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, March 14, 2016

Interesting moment concerning Hillary Clinton and the death penalty at CNN town hall

I largely stopped watching much TV coverage of the Prez campaign except on election nights, in part because crime and justice issues continue to get precious little attention in debates or in coverage of what the various candidates might do if elected.  But, as reported here, last night's CNN town hall included a notable exchange concerning the death penalty:

An exonerated former death row inmate challenged Hillary Clinton on Sunday night to defend her continued support for capital punishment in some instances despite cases in which innocent people have been wrongly convicted.

"I came perilously close to my own execution," Ricky Jackson said during the CNN-TV One town hall event Sunday at Ohio State University, where he described the circumstances of his case and exoneration. He asked the Democratic front-runner, "In light of what I just shared with you and in light of the fact that there are documented cases of innocent people who have been executed in our country, I would like to know how you can still take your stance on the death penalty in light of what you know right now?"

In 2014, Jackson was freed after spending nearly four decades in prison for a crime he did not commit.  Convicted at the age of 18 for the 1975 killing of a money-order salesman in Cleveland, the Ohio man was exonerated after the prosecution's key witness, only 12 years old when he gave his damning account to police, recanted in court.

Calling his a profoundly difficult question, Clinton first criticized the states, saying they "have proven themselves incapable of carrying out fair trials that give defendants the rights that defendants should have."

"I've said I would breathe a sigh of relief if either the Supreme Court or the states themselves began to eliminate the death penalty."

But the former secretary of state did not retreat from her broader position.  "Where I end up is this, and maybe it's a distinction that is hard to support, but at this point, given the choices we face from terrorist activities primarily in our country that end up under federal jurisdiction, for very limited purposes, I think it can still be held in reserve for those."

Clinton referenced the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, an act of domestic terrorism that killed 168 people, as one example of the kind of crime she considered punishable by death.  "That is the exception that I still am struggling with, and it would only be in the federal system," she said.

Interestingly, this afternoon CNN just published this commentary authored by Ricky Jackson under the headline "Exonerated death row inmate: Clinton wrong on death penalty." Here is an excerpt from the later part of the commentary:

I know that the death penalty does not deter.  That can no longer be seriously debated. I also know that it is very expensive at a time when states are struggling financially and many are on the brink of bankruptcy.  As an expensive government program with no proven track record of effectiveness, it is, indeed, the proverbial "bridge to nowhere." But I also know that it sends innocent people to death row, and sometimes kills them.

Some of those likely innocents, such as Cameron Todd Willingham and Carlos DeLuna, have been executed at the hands of the government.  Other innocent inmates -- in fact more than 150 of them -- have been lucky enough to have been exonerated and freed before their execution.

Furthermore, I learned from my time on death row that even the guilty are worthy of salvation. As an innocent and scared 18-year-old boy sent to death row, it was only the kindness and humanity of death row's guilty, who took me under their collective wing, that kept my sanity and maintained my faith in humanity.  These inmates made horrible mistakes, and deserved to be punished, but they are not the animals our criminal justice makes them out to be.

A society should not be judged on how it treats its best, but rather on how it treats is lowest.  And even the lowest are capable of incredible acts of humanity and are worthy of decency.  They are worthy of God's grace, just as they bestowed grace upon me.

When I asked Clinton why she still supports the death penalty, she said she supported it only for the worst of the worst: those who committed acts of mass killing or terrorism.  I cannot accept that.  In cases such as those, the societal pressure to convict is at its highest.  And when an intense pressure to convict is present, that is when the risk of convicting an innocent is greatest.  The death penalty is also not a deterrent in terrorism cases.  In fact, death can serve the purpose of many terrorists who wish to become "martyrs" for their cause.

During all the decades I sat in prison as an innocent man, I saw societal views gradually change.  Not too many years ago, a Democratic candidate could not publicly support same-sex marriage and stand a chance of getting elected in a general election.  Now, a Democratic candidate could not be taken seriously if he or she didn't support same-sex marriage.

Likewise, no serious Democratic candidate should be able to support the death penalty. We have evolved. We have seen the evidence that the death penalty doesn't work and that it kills the innocent.  Given this evidence, it is time that no candidate -- Democrat or Republican -- should be taken seriously if he or she supports capital punishment.

The fact that Clinton continues to hang on to this antiquated relic confuses me.  She touts "criminal justice reform" -- and much reform is needed -- but she misses one of the lowest hanging pieces of fruit.  I said last night that I am an "undecided" voter.  I hope that Clinton reconsiders her position on capital punishment before I do what I have been waiting my entire life to do: cast my first presidential vote as a free and vindicated man.

March 14, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Anyone dare to predict how many sentence commutations to expect from Prez Obama in coming weeks?

The biggest on-going guessing game involving Prez Obama these days concerns whom he will name to the open Supreme Court seat. But this Washington Post article, headlined "President Obama expected to grant more clemencies to federal prisoners in coming weeks," provide fodder for the distinct guessing game set forth in the title of this post (which may be fun for sentencing fans and is surely nerve-racking for prisoners). Here are excerpts from the article:

President Obama is expected to grant clemency to another group of drug offenders in the coming weeks, part of his ongoing effort to provide relief to inmates in federal prisons who were sentenced to harsh terms in the nation’s war on drugs.

The White House will also be holding an event on March 31 called “Life after Clemency,” that will include former inmates and their attorneys, along with some prison reform advocates. The White House gathering, which is not open to the press, will focus on one of the president’s centerpiece criminal-justice initiatives and will include a discussion on “ways to improve paths to reentry,” according to the invitation. Spokeswomen from the White House and the Department of Justice declined to comment....

In the spring of 2014, former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — who called mandatory-minimum drug sentences “draconian” — launched an initiative to grant clemency to certain nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison. To qualify, prisoners had to have served at least 10 years of their sentence, and have no significant criminal history and no connection to gangs, cartels or organized crime. They must have demonstrated good conduct in prison. And they also must be inmates who probably would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted of the same offense today.

Since then, Obama has commuted the sentences of 184 federal inmates, including 95 prisoners he granted clemency to in December.  Another 9,115 clemency petitions from prisoners are pending before the Obama administration. It is unclear how many of them are still being reviewed in the U.S. Pardon Attorney’s office or how many are pending in the office of Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates or the White House Counsel’s office because that information is not publicly available.

The Justice Department’s former pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, stepped down in January because she was frustrated by a lack of resources to process clemency petitions and recommend which ones should be sent to the White House. The new pardon attorney, longtime federal prosecutor Bob Zauzmer, said that his goal — whether he gets more needed resources or not — is “to look at every single petition that comes in and make sure an appropriate recommendation is made to the president.”

Responding to my own dare, I will predict that Prez Obama will commute around 90 sentences and do so in the days following his naming of a Supreme Court nominee.  I suspect based on his December grants that Prez Obama is generally disinclined to commute more than 100 sentences at one time.  And I imagine he will get a kick out of doing something like a big clemency grant that might otherwise be controversial but likely will not be (and will probably not get all that much medial attention) in the wake of a SCOTUS nominee.

March 13, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Why We Would Spare Walter White: Breaking Bad and the True Power of Mitigation"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting-looking article authored by Bidish Sarma and recently posted on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

What if Walter White had been captured by the federal authorities?  Considering that he committed the murders of many individuals and orchestrated many more in the course of building and running his global meth trade, the prosecution would be able to seek the ultimate punishment against him.  But, would a jury give him the death penalty? Walt’s gripping journey stirred within viewers a range of complex emotions, but even those revolted by his actions must concede that it is extraordinarily difficult to envision a random collection of twelve people unanimously agreeing that he deserves a state-sanctioned execution.  Indeed, it seems that many of us actually rooted for Walt throughout the series, even when we struggled to understand why.

This Essay explores the answer to the question of why we would spare Walter White from the death penalty.  Its exploration underscores the critical importance of “mitigation” — a capacious term that refers to evidence introduced by capital defense lawyers to persuade jurors to hand down something less harsh than a death sentence.

Breaking Bad, through its masterful construction of its core narrative, situated us to empathize with Walt, to view him as someone we could understand, to feel about him the way we might feel about a friend or colleague or neighbor. Whether we argued vociferously in online forums that his actions were nearly always justified or simply watched with a suppressed but distinct hope that he might emerge as a partially redeemed man, many of us never condemned Walt. We did not want him to die an undignified death at someone else’s hands.  In fact, we were relieved that death came to him on his own terms.  And, if he had been captured, we would not have sent him to the death chamber.  Knowing Walt — understanding his “mitigation” — bent us towards mercy.

To start, this Essay explains how a capital trial unfolds and sets out the factors that jurors must take into account when they decide whether to choose death for a convicted capital defendant.  After establishing the basic framework for the death-determination in Part I, this Essay focuses on Walter White’s hypothetical penalty phase in Part II.  It describes both the “aggravating” evidence the prosecution would use to persuade jurors that death is the appropriate punishment and the “mitigating” evidence the defense would use to persuade jurors that a sentence less than death is appropriate.  Part II concludes with an explanation of why a jury likely would not sentence Walter White to die.

Part III steps back to identify distinct conclusions that we could draw from viewers’ prevailing willingness to ride with Walt until the end.  It concludes that it would be unwise to dismiss Walt as a fictitious outlier. Rather than ask ourselves what makes Walt’s particular case for mercy special, we should ask ourselves how the show managed to make him so real.  Breaking Bad’s storytelling proved so powerful that the show’s writers were themselves amazed that viewers continued to stand by Walt’s side through it all.  If we would spare Walter White, surely we would spare many others facing capital punishment.  But to get there, we need to do more than hear that they have struggles and triumphs of their own; we need to walk with them on their journeys.  We must feel like we did when the last episode of Breaking BadI began — wondering exactly how things will end, but unwilling to bring that end by our hands.

March 13, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Notable example of "prison industrial complex" using "phony-baloney numbers” to grow or protect its budget

Prison-profitsBill Otis here at Crime & Consequences flagged this interesting local article from Indiana headlined "Prison officials say lighter sentences aren't saving money." The article discusses a report issued by the Indiana Department of Correction asserting that "costs have more than tripled since it began diverting low-level offenders out of state prisons and back into their communities" as a result of a sentencing reform law enacted in 2014. Bill seems to think this article reveals that sentencing reforms do not deliver on promised cost savings, but a read of the full article (and not just the parts highlighted by Bill) reveals that some funny math is behind the latest cost claims now coming from the Indiana DOC:

Senate Judiciary Chairman Brent Steele, R-Bedford, calls it “ridiculous” and says the report contains “phony-baloney numbers.”

Lawmakers who pushed to lower penalties for drug-related crimes, such as drug possession and theft, vowed to return anticipated savings from prison costs to communities for treatment programs, community corrections and local lock-ups.  But, according to the department's report, there's no money to send. This despite a reduction in the prison population of more than 5,000 inmates – a 17 percent drop - since the law went into effect in July 2014....

Corrections officials say the new law will cost an additional $400,000 in the first six months of this year - for jail costs alone. That expense is expected to climb before the year’s end. That’s because the state spends about $35 a day to house a convicted, low-level offender in a county jail, according to the Correction Department report. The department claims it can house the same inmate in a prison for just under $10 a day.

Steele and other lawmakers who were deeply involved in crafting the sentencing reform law are irked by those claims. Two years ago, when Correction Department officials asked lawmakers for money, they reported it cost about $60 a day to house a state prisoner.

A year ago, prison officials said they needed an additional $51 million to build a new state prison. Steele and others rejected the proposal, predicting that the state would be able to close a prison – and save millions – as sentencing reform took hold. Steele said the department now is refusing to cooperate with the intent of the sentencing reform law.

Corrections officials don’t see it that way. The department's legislative director, Jon Ferguson, said the $10-a-day rate used in the report is a “marginal per diem” that doesn’t include the fixed, operational costs associated with running big prisons. And the number of those prison facilities the state operates hasn’t gone down since the sentencing reform law was put into place.

Promised savings from sentencing reform was key to getting it passed and to winning support from sheriffs, judges and local officials who feared it presented another unfunded mandate by the state. The Legislature set aside an initial $60 million for communities to offset initial costs. But lawmakers assured critics that the sentencing reform would eventually pay for itself.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, who helped craft the sentencing reform law with Steele, also questioned the validity of the Corrections Department's report. But, he noted, “We’re in a transition year.” “I expect to see much different numbers by next year," he said.

March 12, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 11, 2016

The latest SCOTUSblog analysis of the top contenders for SCOTUS nomination

Tom Goldstein has this lengthy new SCOTUSblog post titled "Handicapping the five potential nominees," which effectively explains his thinking about where we now stand in the SCOTUS sweepstakes a month after Justice Scalia's surprising death. My thinking is somewhat similar, and here is how his post starts and ends:

Multiple media reports say that there are only five potential nominees to fill the Scalia seat: Ketanji Brown Jackson, Merrick Garland, Jane Kelly, Sri Srinivasan, and Paul Watford.  In this post, I assume that is correct.

My best guess is that the choice will come down to whether the president concludes that Judge Brown Jackson’s service on a district court and on the Sentencing Commission give her sufficient objective qualifications for the job. If so, I believe he will pick her. If not, I think he will pick Judge Srinivasan, perhaps nominating Judge Brown Jackson at the same time to fill Judge Srinivasan’s seat on the D.C. Circuit....

In the end, I think the president either will or won’t discount Brown Jackson because she alone is not an appellate judge.  If he does not treat that as an important consideration, I think he will pick her.  For the reasons above, I give her the slight edge.  It’s also important to recognize that there is a bit of a legacy to the Srinivasan nomination to the D.C. Circuit.  His nomination is one of the few that involved objections within a core Democratic constituency. Labor groups in particular slowed his appointment because of his work at a D.C. corporate law firm.  Their concerns were unfounded, but they were also never completely resolved.

As I’ve written before, I’m reliably told by someone deeply involved in prior nominations that the president simply will not appoint a district judge. If that is correct, then I think the nominee will likely be Srinivasan.  If so, the administration could get some of the benefits of the Brown Jackson appointment by simultaneously nominating her to fill Srinivasan’s seat on the D.C. Circuit.  That would position her well for a later Supreme Court appointment.

I had not previously given thought to the fact that by nominating DC Circuit Judge Srinivasan to SCOTUS, Prez Obama could also start talking up nominating Judge Brown Jackson to fill his seat. This would, in a way, give Prez Obama a politically appealing interesting "two-fer," and I am now thinking that this is what we should expect to see emerging from the White House, probably sometime toward the middle of next week.

Prior related posts on new SCOTUS nominee possibilities:

March 11, 2016 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

"Who Watches the Watchmen? Accountability in Federal Corporate Criminal Prosecution Agreements"

The title of this post is the title of this paper recently made available via SSRN and authored by Michael Patrick Wilt. Here is the abstract:

The Department of Justice entered into hundreds of deferred and non-prosecution agreements (DPAs and NPAs) with corporations over the last twenty years, and continues to increase the use of these agreements every year. However, there is no academic scholarship that explores whether the DOJ has grounded these criminal settlements in traditional criminal sentencing procedures. Specifically, do these agreements – which can often include hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties – follow the carefully considered principles of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations?

This article considers this question in light of the public choice theory of criminal procedure and concludes that the DOJ is not utilizing the Sentencing Guidelines in a manner consistent with basic notions of government accountability in the criminal justice system. The article uses data collected from over three hundred deferred and non-prosecution agreements and finds that only a small percentage include an analysis of a monetary penalty based on the Sentencing Guidelines. The government’s use of a non-traditional process to resolve corporate criminal cases should be concerning in the absence of an institutional check such as the Sentencing Guidelines. The article urges the DOJ to adopt standardized procedures for future criminal settlements, including a demonstration of the Sentencing Guidelines analysis typically found in plea agreements.

March 11, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, March 10, 2016

"Make No Mistake: Hillary Clinton is a Drug Warrior"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable commentary authored by Romain Bonilla that I just came across on the Marijuana Politics website.  Here are excerpts:

Hillary Clinton’s record on the War on Drugs sets her apart from other the other candidates — and not in a good way.  From her criminal justice agenda as First Lady to her foreign policies as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has proven herself to be one of the greatest drug warriors of our generation.  At a time when two-thirds of Americans support ending the War on Drugs, it’s crucial for her record on the issue to be brought to light.

Over the course of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Hillary Clinton publicly supported tough-on-crime criminal justice reforms that escalated and emboldened the War on Drugs. As First Lady, Hillary Clinton pushed for the largest crime bill in the history of the United States: the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.  This 1994 crime bill called for 100,000 more police officers, provided billions of dollars of funding to prison construction, and ramped up the use of mandatory minimum sentences. This law became a signature accomplishment of Bill Clinton’s presidency....

Hillary Clinton’s involvement with the War on Drugs didn’t stop there.  As Secretary of State, Clinton waged the War on Drugs abroad. Under Hillary Clinton’s leadership, the State Department fueled the Mexican Drug War by funding efforts to combat drug trafficking.  Through its Mérida Initiative, Clinton’s State Department hired American defense contractors to take part in the conflict and sold billions worth of weapons to Mexico — leading it to become one of the world’s top purchasers of U.S. military arms and equipment.  Over the course of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, the Mexican Drug War spiraled into chaos, killing over 160,000 people and displacing millions of others.

Worse still: As Clinton’s State Department gave billions in drug war aid to Mexico, it turned a blind eye to the widespread human rights abuses perpetrated by the country’s government. Even as the United Nations acknowledged that Mexican authorities were involved in kidnappings and disappearances, Clinton’s State Department continued to support the offensive.

Now aiming for the presidency, in the Democratic race against Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton describes herself as a progressive leader who will end mass incarceration. As she campaigns for the Democratic nomination, Clinton appears to have “evolved” on issues of drug policy, and gives lip-service to some of the things drug policy reformers have been saying for years.  In a January debate, for instance, she stressed the importance of treating addiction as a health issue rather than a crime, hinting at an understanding of the failures of the drug war.

While Hillary Clinton is willing to speak vaguely against the War on Drugs, she refuses to embrace meaningful reforms to current drug policies.  While most Americans agree that marijuana should be legal, Clinton supports rescheduling it to Schedule II, the same category as cocaine and methamphetamine.  This proposal would do little to end the War on Drugs, but would facilitate research on medical marijuana and allow pharmaceutical companies to sell cannabinoid drugs.

Hillary Clinton’s drug policies are completely in line with those of the wealthy special interests that fund her campaign, like the private prison lobby and Big Pharma.  Under Clinton’s marijuana policy, users would still be prosecuted for mere possession (as is the case for cocaine and methamphetamine users), but drug companies would get a free pass to profit off of marijuana’s medicinal value.

This position on marijuana policy is certainly not enough to redeem Clinton’s record of tough-on-crime legislation and drug warmongering abroad. Though she didn’t declare it, Hillary Clinton has been a champion of the War on Drugs.  Her policies have sacrificed millions of lives to the failed ideal of a drug-free America and her contribution to mass incarceration haunts this nation to this day.  Viewed as a whole, Hillary Clinton’s record reveals her to be a staunch drug warrior — and if she won’t push for meaningful reforms now, it’s unlikely she’ll ever get around to it.

March 10, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Are Senators Mike Lee and Ted Cruz now back on the same page with respect to sentencing reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this GOP Prez race news today via Politico: "Cruz to land first Senate endorsement: Mike Lee."  Beyond the obvious political significance of this (e.g., another body blow to Senator Rubio), I cannot resist thinking about this in federal sentencing reform terms because Senator Mike Lee has been one of the most vocal GOP advocates for federal sentencing reform. 

Of course, as noted in this prior post from last year, Senator Ted Cruz was himself a vocal sentencing reform supported when only drug sentencing reform was the focal point on Senate reform effort.  But, as this press article from a few months ago highlights, the two had a vocal and visible parting of ways when sentencing reform started including violent offenders.  I doubt sentencing reform was the first concern when Senator Lee was thinking about who to endorse, but this interesting history still has me pondering the question in the title of this post.

March 10, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

US Sentencing Commission released big new and timely report on "Recidivism Among Federal Offenders"

I just received via e-mail an alert concerning an important new publication by the US Sentencing Commission, and here is the full text of the email with links from the original:

Today, the United States Sentencing Commission issued a report on the recidivism of federal offenders. The study is groundbreaking in both its breadth—studying all 25,431 U.S. citizen federal offenders released in 2005, and in its duration—following the releasees over an eight year period. News release.

The Commission found that nearly half (49.3%) of offenders released from prison or placed on a term of probation in 2005 were rearrested within eight years for either a new crime or for some other violation of the technical conditions of their probation or release. Summary and key findings.  

The Commission also found that:

  • Most offenders who recidivated did so within the first two years of the follow up period;
  • Assault was the most common serious rearrest offense but most rearrest offenses were non-violent in nature;
  • An offender’s criminal history as calculated under the federal sentencing guidelines was closely correlated with recidivism rates (rearrest rates ranged from 34% for offenders in the lowest criminal history category to 80% for offenders in the highest criminal history category);
  • An offender’s age at the time of release was also closely correlated with recidivism (rearrest rates ranged from 67% for offenders younger than 21 to 16% for offenders older than 60).

Download the full report.

I am going to need some time to really dig into this document to assess what it could and should mean for on-going debates over federal sentencing reforms. But even before I do a deep dive, I am eager to robustly compliment the Commission for producing such a data-rich and timely report for the benefit of everyone thinking about the current state and future direction of the federal sentencing system.

March 9, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Can readers help discount my fears that sexism and racism account, at least in some small part, for why conservatives are belittling the intellect of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson?

JudgeKJacksonNewProfileThe question in the title of this post is my genuine and sincere effort to try to feel better about comments over at Crime & Consequences and other commentary from conservative pundits about my favorite SCOTUS short-lister, US District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.  For the record, as I have previously noted, my affinity for Judge Brown Jackson is surely influenced by her prior service as a federal public defender and as a Vice-Chair of the US Sentencing Commission (during which time I had the opportunity to once dine with her at a sentencing conference).  That personal bias notwithstanding, everything I can find "on paper" about Judge Brown Jackson suggests to me she is an intellectual super-star, not an "intellectual lightweight" or a dim light as she has been described by some conservative commentators.

The "on paper" credentials to which I refer are detailed here, and here is my own brief summary:  Judge Brown Jackson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College and cum laude (and was on the law review) at Harvard Law School.  She clerked for two highly regarded federal judges at the district (Judge Saris) and circuit (Judge Selya) courts in Boston and then for Supreme Court Justice Breyer. She thereafter worked in prominent and challenging positions in public practice (as a federal public defender), in private practice (at the firm Morrison & Foerster) and in the most important judicial-branch government agency (as Vice-Chair of USSC).  She has now been a federal district judge for three years after a unanimous confirmation vote at which, quite notably, she was supported by the current GOP Speaker of the House of Representatives who stated expressly that his "praise for Ketanji's intellect, for her character, for her integrity, it is unequivocal."

Now, given that Judge Brown Jackson is only 45 years old and has been a district judge for just three years, I can certainly see an objective basis for asserting that she is too young and/or does not yet have enough judicial experience to be an ideal SCOTUS nominee.  (That said, she is older, has been a federal judge twice as long, and has a more impressive paper record than Clarence Thomas circa 1991 when Prez GHW Bush nominated him to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall.)  But give her seemingly stellar paper record, I have a very hard time finding an objective basis for labelling Judge Brown Jackson as an "intellectual lightweight" or a dim light.  And because she is the only woman of color on the various "SCOTUS short lists" that have made the rounds, I also have a very hard time not jumping to the (misguided?) conclusion that sexism and racism account, at least in some small part, for why conservatives are now belittling the intellect of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Ergo the question in the title of this post: I would really like to hear (anonymously if needed) from folks who know more about Judge Brown Jackson's talents, preferably as a result of working directly with her professionally in the last few decades.  Ed Whelan in this recent National Review post stated that "any reporter would quickly discover [that Judge Brown Jackson] is not regarded by her colleagues or the bar as among the leading lights of the federal district court in D.C."  Though I am not a reporter, I am eager to try to find out ASAP some bases for this statement.  Indeed, as suggested by the title of this post, I am especially eager to have the help of readers to discount my immediate concerns that sexism and racism account, at least in some small part, for why conservatives are seemingly so quick to belittle the intellect of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Prior related posts on new SCOTUS nominee possibilities:

March 9, 2016 in Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (34)

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Quick (inside-the-Beltway) reflections on the latest odds of those inside-the-Beltway getting federal sentencing reform done in 2016

As I briefly mentioned in a prior post, yesterday and today I have been attending and participating in the Alternative Sentencing Key-Stakeholder Summit (ASKS) taking place at the Georgetown University Law Center.  In addition to being greatly impressed by all the speakers and attendees, I have particularly benefitted from hearing this afternoon directly from Senator Charles Grassley and other key players involved in federal sentencing reforms efforts.  After hearing these folks discuss their work and the possibility of enactment of federal sentencing reform this year, I wanted to share some (too quick) reflections in the form of good news and bad news:

Good News regarding prospects for reforms making it through Congress:  Senator Grassley is clearly interested in and now seems quite committed to getting some form of federal sentencing reform through Congress this year.  He stated that work is afoot to modify his Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act to respond to concerns expressed by Senators Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz and others. This Reuters report on Senator Grassley's short speech provides the details, and here are the basics:

U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley said on Tuesday that amendments to a bill to lower sentences for certain non-violent drug offenders are close to being finished. Grassley said the amendments, which go further to ensure violent offenders are not released, will build more support for the bill among Republican leadership in the Senate, which will decide whether to bring the bill up for a vote.

"We are very close to making some changes in this bill so we can get it brought before the United States Senate," Grassley said.... Grassley called Cotton's concerns "legitimate and reasonable" when speaking at Georgetown University Law School on Tuesday.

Though he did not provide specifics on the amendments, Grassley did say his team of legislators may have to drop parts of the bill that would have allowed offenders caught with firearms in their possession to have their sentences lowered. "We may have to jettison some changes in the firearm offenses and we may be able to do a better job to make sure that no one with a serious history of violence can get any relief under the bill," Grassley said....

"I'm confident that with the changes that we're making in the bill that we'll get even more support for our bill," Grassley said.  "And with more support, I'm confident that we will be able to go to the leaders in the Senate and persuade them that this bill is exactly what the American people need to see happen in the United States Senate."

As this last quote hints, Senator Grassley also spoke about all the complaints he receives back in Iowa and elsewhere about leaders in DC spending all their time fighting over politics and not getting anything actually done. Senator Grassley's comments have me now thinking that he and other GOP members of the Senate are likely to stress bipartisan work on sentencing reform when attacked by Democrats and others for "not doing anything" in response to the coming SCOTUS nomination or on other priorities. And work on sentencing reform will not seem all that meaningful if a bill does not come to the floor of the Senate at some point.

Bad News regarding prospects for reforms making it through Congress:  Though not mentioned by Senator Grassley, getting a bill to the Senate floor and passed with a majority vote is only half the battle, of course.  The House of Represenatives also needs to pass a parallel bill, and there are continuing reasons to fear that the House will not move forward on sentencing reform bills unless and until mens rea reform is a part of the equation.  I am not sure concerns about mens rea reforms will alone scuttle reforms in Congress, but it already seems to have slowed the momentum for reform in various ways.  And every day that goes by without the legislative process moving forward tangibly is yet another day lost before the congressional election season gets into full swing when members of Congress start focusing more on November voting dynamics rather than whether they get anything done on a complicated policy issue that involves lots of compromises and intricacies.

Speaking of compromises and intricacies (as well as the coming election season), there may end up being some significant voices on the left that jump off the reform train after Senator Grassley makes his already modest Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act even more modest.  The original SRCA was so modest that some significant advocates for reform, including elected officials and policy groups, have already express serious concern that it does not mearly go far enough.  We likely will hear more of these complaints after we see the modified SRCA, and that in turn may lead advocates on both sides of the aisle to be content to wait and hope that their preferred candidates win in November and then to try again in 2017.  

A few prior related posts:

March 8, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Judge John Gleeson invents and issues a "federal certificate of rehabilitation"

Thanks to this post at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, I see that US District Judge John Gleeson has issued yet another remarkable opinion concerning the collateral consequences of a federal criminal conviction and what he thinks he can do as a federal judge in response.  Here is how the 33-page opinion in  Doe v. US, No. 15-MC-1174 (EDNY March 7, 2016)(available here) gets started:

On June 23, 2015, Jane Doe moved to expunge a now thirteen-year-old fraud conviction due to its adverse impact on her ability to work.  The conviction has proven troublesome for Doe because it appears in the government’s databases and in the New York City Professional Discipline Summaries.  In other words, the conviction is visible to a prospective employer both as the result of a criminal background check and upon examination of her nursing license.  Numerous employers have denied Doe a job because of her conviction.  On more than one occasion, she was hired by a nursing agency only to have her offer revoked after the employer learned of her record. Despite these obstacles, Doe has found work at a few nursing companies, and she currently runs her own business as a house cleaner.  Doe’s two children help to support her, and during periods of unemployment, her parents have also assisted her financially.

The government opposes Doe’s motion, contending that federal district courts do not have subject matter jurisdiction to expunge a conviction on equitable grounds.  The Second Circuit has ruled, however, that “[t]he application of ancillary jurisdiction in [expungement] case[s] is proper.” U.S. v. Schnitzer, 567 F.2d 536, 538 (1977), cert. denied, 435 U.S. 907 (1978).  Accordingly, I have weighed the equities in this case, which are grounded in my understanding of Doe’s criminal conviction and sentence; I was the judge who presided over her jury trial and imposed punishment.

I conclude that while Doe has struggled considerably as a result of her conviction, her situation does not amount to the “extreme circumstances” that merit expungement.  See id. at 539.  That said, I had no intention to sentence her to the unending hardship she has endured in the job market.  I have reviewed her case in painstaking detail, and I can certify that Doe has been rehabilitated.  Her conviction makes her no different than any other nursing applicant.  In the 12 years since she reentered society after serving her prison sentence, she has not been convicted of any other wrongdoing.  She has worked diligently to obtain stable employment, albeit with only intermittent success. Accordingly, I am issuing Doe a federal certificate of rehabilitation.  As explained below, this court-issued relief aligns with efforts the Justice Department, the President, and Congress are already undertaking to help people in Doe’s position shed the burden imposed by a record of conviction and move forward with their lives.

March 8, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Monday, March 07, 2016

"Did Nancy Reagan's War on Drugs Backfire?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new NBC News commentary by Tony Dokoupil. For reasons I will explain after an excerpt, I think this question is an unfair variation on the "When did you stop beating your wife?" question. But first, here are some excerpts:

It's one of the risks of a long and busy life: the threat that society will change its mind about your most important work. That happened to Nancy Reagan, the former first lady who died on Sunday at 94.  President Ronald Reagan's wife and closest adviser defined the drug panic of the 1980s, coining the phrase "Just Say No" and supporting her husband's rampaging war on drugs.  She often singled out marijuana as a special scourge, accusing dealers of taking "the dream from every child's heart."

But such positions have since slipped into disrepute in recent years, rejected even by many fellow Republicans. Nearly half the country has tried marijuana, meanwhile, and legal sales are booming in four states and counting.  Criminal justice reform, including reducing sentences for nonviolent drug convictions, has been a point of discussion on both sides of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Nancy Reagan never publicly recanted or so much as commented on her starring role in the drug war.  But with a look back at the origins of her and her husband's hardline policies, it's possible to trace the arc of one of America's most famous failures.

Ronald Reagan, eyeing a challenge to President Jimmy Carter, seemed to know that an attack on marijuana would tap into a growing displeasure with wayward teens, slack productivity and a society of apathetic Carter voters.  So in a major radio address in 1979 Reagan revealed what "science now knows," including the dubious "scientific facts" that smoking dope leads to cancer, sterility and "irreversible effects on the mental processes."  Never mind that the National Academy of Sciences had endorsed the idea of decriminalizing marijuana, finding "no convincing evidence" of its harmful effects.

The drug became an enemy of promise, the explanation for everything.  Why is your teenager refusing to cut the lawn?  Marijuana.  Why is your industry falling behind Japan's?  Marijuana.  Why do you have to lock your door at night? Hard drugs — which start with marijuana.

Nancy Reagan emerged as the most effective carrier of her husband's message.  She focused on almost nothing else during his presidency, beginning with an informal press conference aboard Air Force One in early 1982.  She told the press that drugs had become an epidemic.  Then she made her first stop in a cross-country swing, an open meeting of Straight Inc., a youth rehabilitation program in Florida....

Later on the same tour, during a visit to an elementary school in Oakland, California, she coined her famous phrase. An elementary school student asked her what he should do if anyone ever offered him pot. "Just say no!" she said.

Experts pounced.  The slogan was one of the most unsophisticated anti-drug messages of all time.  It suggested that drugs are evil, but you can quit them at any time.  Yet the phrase served a purpose.  It created what Nancy proudly called "an atmosphere of intolerance."  Other politicians compared drug dealers to vampires, murderers and traitors. And people began to associate pot with waste and dropouts....

In June 1982, Ronald Reagan appeared in the White House garden to officially declare a war on drugs.  "We're taking down the surrender flag that has flown over so many drug efforts; we're running up a battle flag.  We can fight the drug problem, and we can win. And that is exactly what we intend to do," he said.  Marijuana was the only drug to merit specific mention.

Regular readers surely know that I think demonizing marijuana was a mistake as part of the Reagan era "war on drugs." But I actually think Nancy Reagan's "just say no" voice in all this was not nearly as pernicious as this commentary is trying to suggest. Indeed, though an unsophisticated anti-drug message, the "just say no" mantra, in my view, continues to highlight and emphasize the fundamental individual reality at the base of many drug problems even though illegal drug use and abuse includes a lot more complicated issues.

The real problems resulting from the failed American war on drugs, in my view, did not at all emerge from Nancy Reagan urging individuals to just say no to drugs; the real problems flowed from waging the drug war with massive investments in big-government criminal justice system that too heavily invested in cops and cells rather than classrooms and counseling.

March 7, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Notable split Sixth Circuit ruling on (suspect) limits of retroactive guideline reductions

A split Sixth Circuit panel handed down today an interesting little sentencing opinion in US v. Taylor, No. 15-5930 (6th Cir. March 7, 2016) (available here). Actually, the majority opinion is, according to the dissent, more frustrating than interesting beause that opinion held that a district court, when reducing a sentence based on the retroactive reduced drug guideline, lacked any added discretion "to impose a new below-guidelines sentence based on any factor but a departure for substantial assistance."  

Notably, federal prosecutors in this Taylor case agreed with the defendant (and the dissent) that the district court should have authority to take into account during sentence modification additional mitigating factors.  But the district court concluded that it lacked this authority, and the majority opinion on Taylor affirmed this conclusion. Judge Merritt expressed his frustration with this view in a short dissent that includes these points:

The mathematical percentage estimated for “substantial assistance” almost five years ago at the original sentencing is not a scientific fact, just a guess or speculation, and a new reduction upon resentencing that is “comparably less” (using the Guideline language) does not forbid a new sentence which takes into account such intangible factors as defendant’s additional assistance after the original sentence, her rehabilitation, as well as collateral damage to her family and other similar factors.  It does not forbid a reassessment of what has happened in the last five years.  Both the prosecutor and the defendant agreed that the sentence should not be limited to a nineteen percent reduction but have agreed to a thirty-three percent reduction, and there is no indication that Judge Jordan in the court below would not agree that this would be a more just sentence.  He thought only that the law did not give him the authority to impose the lower sentence....

I do not see why we must continue to take away from the sentencing judge the authority to use his or her best judgment in determining the sentence.  For these reasons and also for the policy reasons stated by Justice Stevens in his dissenting opinion in Dillon v. United States, 130 S. Ct. 2683, 2694-2705 (2010), I would remand to the district court for resentencing with the instruction that the district court is not bound by the nineteen percent reduction used years ago.  Times change.  The law has changed.  Our culture is changing its views about how long we should put people behind bars.  There is no good reason I can see that we should not allow the district judge to use his best judgment here and err on the side of mercy while at the same time reducing the government’s costs of incarceration.

March 7, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Is the Supreme Court fight already starting to "doom" federal statutory sentencing reform?

The question in the title of this post is my first reaction to this commentary piece authored by Inimai Chettiar from the Brennan Center for Justice which carries the headline "Don't Lock Up Prison Reform: Congress' fight over the Supreme Court shouldn't doom desperately needed sentencing reform." Here are excerpts (which includes something of a status report from Congress):

With a heated partisan battle over the future of the Supreme Court entering a stalemate, and some Democrats threatening to shut down the Senate, many are starting to expect nothing will get done in Congress this year.  But it doesn't have to be that way.  There is one topic on which lawmakers can act, even in this bitter climate.  The same Senate Judiciary Committee members sparring over the Supreme Court nomination process will soon announce a long-awaited compromise on a bill to help reduce America's prison population.

Can our nation's leaders put aside their differences to help resolve one of the largest crises facing our country?  We certainly hope so.  The bill would be the largest congressional action on criminal justice reform in a generation, and a rare attempt at cooperation across party lines.  Lawmakers should not allow partisan bickering over the next Supreme Court justice to destroy a chance to fix a system we all agree is not working.  Congress must act fast, in this rare area of bipartisan accord, to pass sentencing reform....

Much has been learned in the last 25 years about who should be locked up and for how long.  The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act recalibrates sentencing laws to implement these lessons....

Last month, Sens. Tom Cotton and Jeff Sessions raised concerns the legislation would jeopardize public safety.  In response, a group of nationally prominent police chiefs and prosecutors — the men and women who protect our safety every day — explained how the bill would actually help reduce crime.

Now, co-sponsors Sens. John Cornyn, Chuck Grassley and Mike Lee are revising the bill to address these anxieties.  At least two major changes are expected.  One would remove a provision from the bill that would have reduced mandatory minimums for repeat felons caught with a firearm.  Another would limit current prisoners' ability to seek reduced sentences under the new law if they committed certain serious crimes.  To many progressive advocates, these changes significantly reduce the breadth of the bill.

But even if there's a compromise bill, the next step is getting it to the floor for a vote.  Last week, Grassley met with President Barack Obama to tell him the Judiciary Committee will not hold a hearing or vote if he puts forth a Supreme Court nominee. It's rumored that some Democrats would allow the sentencing bill to falter if Republicans try to block a nominee.

But it is a false choice to pit sentencing reform against a Supreme Court battle.  Accord on one shouldn't be overridden by combat on the other....  Congress has passed legislation during other confirmation clashes.  While Justice Elena Kagan's nomination was pending in 2010, Congress passed a series of significant bills including sanctions against Iran, the Dodd-Frank Act, and another criminal justice law called the Fair Sentencing Act.  In 2005, a year that saw the confirmation of two new Supreme Court justices (Roberts and Alito), Congress passed a free trade act.

Both parties have a decision to make. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell must decide whether to bring the measure to the Senate floor.  His Democratic counterparts Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi must choose whether to bridge the divide, even if temporarily.  We will soon see how much the parties really care about getting government to work — and how much their cares about over-incarceration are more than just words.

Our politicians will not be able to sell the notion that the people's business should come to a complete halt for the sake of election-year posturing.  The time has finally come for criminal justice reform.  With Congress at a flashpoint over the Supreme Court, bipartisan cooperation to act matters now more than ever.

March 7, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Lots of Montgomery GVRs in latest SCOTUS order list

I am on a plane this morning on my way to the Alternative Sentencing Key-Stakeholder Summit (ASKS) taking place today and tomorrow at Georgetown University Law Center.  But conveniently, the Supreme Court released this order list just before I had to shut down my computer, and I see it has a lot of cases from a lot of states with variations on this note as part of a GVR:

The motion of petitioner for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the petition for a writ of certiorari are granted. The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the Court of Criminal Appeals of Alabama for further consideration in light of Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U. S. ___ (2016).

Justice Thomas, with whom Justice Alito joins, concurring in the decision to grant, vacate, and remand in this case: The Court has held the petition in this and many other cases pending the decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U. S. ___ (2016).  In holding this petition and now vacating and remanding the judgment below, the Court has not assessed whether petitioner’s asserted entitlement to retroactive relief “is properly presented in the case.” Id., at ___ (slip op., at 13).  On remand, courts should understand that the Court’s disposition of this petition does not reflect any view regarding petitioner’s entitlement to relief.  The Court’s disposition does not, for example, address whether an adequate and independent state ground bars relief, whether petitioner forfeited or waived any entitlement to relief (by, for example, entering into a plea agreement waiving any entitlement to relief), or whether petitioner’s sentence actually qualifies as a mandatory life without parole sentence.

I also see a notable split per curiam summary reversal finding a due process Brady problem in a Louisiana capital case. I will discuss that merits ruling and any others of criminal justice interest that may still today come down from SCOTUS in future posts.

March 7, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, March 06, 2016

"Assessing and Ameliorating Arbitrariness in Capital Charging: A Doctrinally and Empirically Anchored Inquiry"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available via SSRN authored by Sherod Thaxton. Here is the abstract:

Justice Stephen Breyer recently made international headlines when he emphasized that reforms to the capital punishment process have apparently failed to ameliorate the rampant arbitrariness, capriciousness, and bias that led the U.S. Supreme Court to temporarily invalidate the death penalty over forty years ago.  According to the Justice, the primary cause of this failure has been the Court’s backpedaling on the very substantive and procedural protections it initially articulated as necessary for the constitutional administration of the death penalty.  The Court’s capital punishment jurisprudence initially underscored the importance of social scientific evidence in assessing the fairness of capital punishment systems, but now the Court routinely minimizes, or outright ignores, social science evidence on the operation of the death penalty.  This has led to the growing disjunction between the Court’s rhetoric and the reality of capital punishment. Justice Breyer underscored the Court’s responsibility in holding death penalty systems accountable and called for full briefing on the basic question of the social realities of the administration of capital punishment.

Meaningful death penalty reform, if possible, requires a more prominent role for social science in death penalty decision-making.  In this Article, I develop a doctrinally anchored statistical model that carefully disentangles and evaluates questions of arbitrariness, bias, and disproportionality in capital charging.  I begin by discussing the Court’s inconsistent efforts to rationalize and regulate capital punishment systems.  I then adopt a framework of statistical inference in an effort to provide greater definitional and analytical clarity. Finally, I describe a set of analytical tools uniquely suited for diagnosing capital charging errors that closely aligns with the Court’s conceptualization of unacceptable arbitrariness. I illustrate the usefulness of the model on data involving actual death penalty-eligible defendants from Georgia.

My analysis reveals that death penalty charging practices are highly inconsistent, irrational, and disproportionate, both within and across jurisdictions in Georgia.  The Article concludes by explaining how the empirical model might be used to improve accuracy and consistency in capital charging systems through empirically informed front-end charging screening.

March 6, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

In praise of (impossible?) request tasking Government Accountability Office with accounting for "the cost of crime in the United States"

Crime-2010I was quite pleased to discover this notable press release from the House Judiciary Committee reporting on a notable letter sent by two Representatives to the Comptroller General.  Here is the substantive heart of both the press release and the letter:

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) have requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) study the cost of crime in the United States to better inform members of the House Judiciary Committee as it continues its bipartisan criminal justice reform initiative.  In 2014, there were nearly 1.2 million violent crimes and 8.3 million property crimes in the United States, generating substantial costs for Americans, communities, and the country. In a letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, Goodlatte and King request that the GAO study this issue and breakdown the cost of crime for federal, state, and local governments.

Below is the text of the letter....  

Dear Comptroller General Dodaro:

In June of last year, the House Judiciary Committee launched a criminal justice reform initiative.  Over the ensuing months, the Committee has addressed a variety of criminal justice issues through legislation. In order to assist our efforts in this endeavor, we are writing to you regarding our concerns about the cost of crime in the United States.  According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there were an estimated 1,165,383 violent crimes and an estimated 8,277,829 property crimes in 2014.  Undoubtedly, these and other crimes generate substantial costs to society at individual, community, and national levels. 

Accordingly, we seek the assistance of the Government Accountability Office in fully investigating the cost of crime in the United States.  Specifically, we are interested in:

  1. The cost of Federal and State crimes to victims of crime:
    1. Total cost
    2. Cost by state
  2. The cost of crime to the United States economy and to state economies
  3. The cost of crime to Federal, State, and local governments
  4. The cost of crime, per year:
    1. Per type of criminal offense
    2. Average cost per criminal  
    3. Average cost per victim
  5. The rate of recidivism of offenders who are released from terms of imprisonment, and the costs described under #1 through #3 for crimes committed by such offenders subsequent to their release  

We look forward to working with you so that GAO can expeditiously complete this important task. 

I am already very excited to see what the GAO comes up with as it takes up this request to "study the cost of crime in the United States." Indeed, upon seeing this press release, I started thinking it was quite notable and somewhat curious that there apparently has not been any prior requests for the GAO to engaging in what I agree is an "important task."

That said, I think this task has to start with important and challenging questions that are integral to defining what kinds of "Crimes" and what kinds of "costs" are to be included in this study and its efforts at accounting. Notably, this letter references the "nearly 1.2 million violent crimes and 8.3 million property crimes in the United States" as reported by the FBI, but this accounting leaves out what would seem to be some of the most wide-spread significant crimes in America according to various measures of nationwide illegal behaviors each year, namely drunk driving (with over 100 million estimated yearly incidents) and marijuana trafficking (over 50 million estimated incidents). Should the GAO leave out drunk driving incidents unless one includes a physical harm to persons or property? Should the GAO leave out marijuana offenses altogether in its accounting even though roughly half of all drug arrests nationwide are for these offenses and those arrests have various obvious economic costs to governments?

Ultimately, though, the challenge of defining what "crimes" to consider pales in comparison to defining what "costs" to consider in this kind of study. The majority of violent crimes recorded by the FBI are aggravated assaults, which are "an unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury." And these kinds of assaults seem to come in all shapes and sizes in 2014 according to FBI data: Of those reported to law enforcement, "26.9 percent were committed with personal weapons, such as hands, fists, or feet. Firearms were used in 22.5 percent of aggravated assaults, and knives or cutting instruments were used in 18.8 percent. Other weapons were used in 31.9 percent of aggravated assaults." Can GAO reasonably guess that the "costs" to a victim of being severely beaten by fists are less (or perhaps more) than the costs of being shot? Do these costs turn significantly on the nature of the victim based on their age, health, gender or professional activities? If such an assault requires a person to say in bed for a week to recover, should we say the "costs" of missed acitivities are the same or are different for, say, a sales clerk or a student or an unemployed person?

Critically, as the image reprinted here highlights, doing these calculations is possible if you make a lot of assumptions.  Indeed, the Rand Corporation has run these numbers in the past, although many questions and concerns could obviously be raised about its accounting decisions.

March 6, 2016 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, March 05, 2016

"From Mass Incarceration to Mass Control, and Back Again: How Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform May Lead to a For-Profit Nightmare"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new and timely article now available via SSRN and authored by Carl Takei.  Here is the abstract:

Since 2010, advocates on the right and left have increasingly allied to denounce mass incarceration and propose serious reductions in the use of prisons.  This alliance serves useful shared purposes, but each side comes to it with distinct and in many ways incompatible long-term interests. I f progressive advocates rely solely on this alliance without aggressively building our own vision of what decarceration should look like, the unintended consequences could be serious.
This Article describes the current mass incarceration paradigm and current left-right reform efforts. It then outlines how, if progressives do not set clear goals for what should replace mass incarceration, these bipartisan efforts risk creating a nightmare scenario of mass control, surveillance, and monitoring of Black and Brown communities.  Finally, the Article explains why this mass control paradigm would lay the groundwork for a heavily-privatized, extraordinarily difficult-to-end resurgence of mass incarceration in subsequent decades.

March 5, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Friday, March 04, 2016

Post-Hurst hydra take big bite into some capital cases in Alabama

Download (1)Regularly readers are perhaps now tired of hearing me use the term "post-Hurst hydra" (and what I still think is a cool image) to describe the litigation in various courts in various states as judges sort ought what Supreme Court ruling in Hurst v. Florida must mean for past, present and future capital cases.  But that hydra keep rearing its head, and yesterday it took a big bite in Alabama as reported in this local article

A Jefferson County judge Thursday morning ruled that Alabama's capital murder sentencing scheme, which allows judges to override jury recommendations of life without parole and instead impose the death penalty, is unconstitutional.  In making her ruling after a hearing, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tracie Todd barred the death penalty in the cases of four men charged in three murders.

"The Alabama capital sentencing scheme fails to provide special procedural safeguards to minimize the obvious influence of partisan politics or the potential for unlawful bias in the judiciary," Todd said in reading her written ruling from the bench.  "As a result, the death penalty in Alabama is being imposed in a "wholly arbitrary and capricious" manner."

The result of Todd's order is that the judge won't allow the death penalty to be imposed in the cases before her.  But attorneys present at the hearing said it would be up to other judges whether to follow her example.  But Todd said her ruling likely will be appealed by prosecutors.  If an appellate court were to uphold her ruling, then it would become a precedent and apply to cases around the state, attorneys said.

"Judge Todd's ruling today is not a general pronouncement for the State of Alabama, but is strictly limited to the four cases upon which she ruled in the Jefferson County Circuit Court," Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said Thursday afternoon.   "Alabama's capital sentencing statutes are constitutional.  Just yesterday the Alabama Supreme Court denied the appeal of a capital murder defendant who had filed a similar pre-trial motion, and the Court refused to declare Alabama's capital statute's unconstitutional. We are currently reviewing the Judge's written order, and expect to file an appeal.  We fully expect today's ruling by Judge Todd to be reversed."

As this press account of the trial court ruling highlights, the decision by Judge Todd covers a lot more ground than just the application of the SCOTUS Hurst opinion in Alabama.  The opinion is available at this link, and all persons concerned about the death penalty ought to read it in full.  Toward the end of the extended opinion, the judge discusses Hurst and seems to rest her decision in large part on its Sixth Amendment holding. But she also discusses a number of other issues surrounding Alabama's capital sentencing scheme, and it is actually hard for me to assess whether the interplay of concerns discussed in this opinion may make it more or less likely to be reversed on appeal.

March 4, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Florida legislature completes Hurst "fix" for its capital punishment procedures

As reported in this AP piece, the "Florida Legislature on Thursday sent to Gov. Rick Scott a bill that would require that at least 10 out of 12 jurors recommend execution in order for it be carried out." Here is more:

Florida previously only required that a majority of jurors recommend a death sentence. Scott has not said if he will sign the measure but he has supported Florida's use of the death penalty since he became governor.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that the current law is unconstitutional because it allows judges to reach a different decision than juries, which have only an advisory role in recommending death.  The state Supreme Court halted two pending executions following the ruling, and court cases across the state had been put on hold.

Legislators were initially divided over whether they should require a unanimous jury recommendation in death penalty cases. Florida is one of only a handful of states that does not require a unanimous decision by the jury . State senators agreed to switch to 10 jurors as part of a compromise with the House, but some legislators have warned that the decision could result in the law being challenged once again.

The bill sent to Scott does not apply to the 389 inmates now sitting on Florida's death row.  The state Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether the U.S. Supreme Court ruling should apply to those already sentenced to death.

It is an absolute certainty, not just a possibility, that Florida's new capital sentencing procedure will be "challenged once again," which is why I put the term "fix" in quotes in the title of this post.  Indeed, given the need now to sort through the impact of Hurst (1) on the "389 inmates now sitting on Florida's death row" and (2) on Florida's (many) pending capital cases based on crimes committed before this new law was passed, and (3) on any future capital cases that apply this new law, I kind of feel bad for all the Floridian capital case prosecutors and defense attorneys who will likely not have much of an opportunity to work on their Florida tans for quite some time.

March 3, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Why I am tempted now to call two federal judges who were formerly federal public defenders "front-runners" for a SCOTUS nomination

In this post two weeks ago, I sort-of started complaining about Prez Obama taking "so long" to name a SCOTUS replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, but then I speculated that the Prez was waiting for some political developments and just the right political moment to name just the right nominee.  In the wake of this week's political events (aka Super Tuesday and its aftermath), and also the big Supreme Court argument about abortion rights (How Appealing coverage here), I think the time is now becoming right for Prez Obama to name one of the two former federal public defenders who are now federal judges that I have previously discussed in this space:  Eighth Circuit Judge Jane Kelly or DC District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Notably, this new New York Times piece reports that Judge Kelly is being vetted by the White House, and this National Law Journal story from last week reported that Judge Brown Jackson was also being vetted.  Of course, last week around this time we heard from the White House that Nevada Gov Brian Sandoval was being vetted, and that ultimately proved to be something of non-starter (or perhaps even a head-fake).  But this time around, I believe talk of vetting these judges is serious, and I especially think Prez Obama may be strongly drawn to both of these potential nominees because (1) they both served as federal public defenders, and Prez Obama has said he wants criminal justice reform as part of his legacy, and (2) they have both recently received unanimous support during prior confirmation hearings and had a notable GOP leader expressing strong support for them.

Though I know I am biased here because of my interest in criminal justice reform and lots of time spent with public defenders, I read Prez Obama's recent SCOTUSblog posting as something of a signal that he may be interested in appointing someone who had represented the poor or otherwise disadvantaged.  Specifically, Prez Obama said that, in addition to seeking to appoint someone "eminently qualified," he wanted (with my emphasis added):

[S]omeone who recognizes the limits of the judiciary’s role; who understands that a judge’s job is to interpret the law, not make the law.  I seek judges who approach decisions without any particular ideology or agenda, but rather a commitment to impartial justice, a respect for precedent, and a determination to faithfully apply the law to the facts at hand....

[And] the third quality I seek in a judge is a keen understanding that justice is not about abstract legal theory, nor some footnote in a dusty casebook. It’s the kind of life experience earned outside the classroom and the courtroom; experience that suggests he or she views the law not only as an intellectual exercise, but also grasps the way it affects the daily reality of people’s lives in a big, complicated democracy, and in rapidly changing times.  That, I believe, is an essential element for arriving at just decisions and fair outcomes.

Of course, one can readily say that a person with impressive credentials who had once served as a state or federal prosecutor or Justice Department official would have a commitment to impartial justice and a keen understanding that justice is not about abstract legal theory.  But, critically for purposes of my theory that Prez Obama will be drawn to appoint a former federal public defender like Eighth Circuit Judge Jane Kelly or DC District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the last four SCOTUS appointments were all impressively credentialed individuals who had served as a state or federal prosecutor or Justice Department official.  Specifically, Chief Justice Roberts had worked for DOJ, Justice Alito had been US Attorney for New Jersey, Justice Sotomayor was a New York state prosecutor, and Justice Kagan was Solicitor General.  Prez Obama may think, and he certainly could make the case, that SCOTUS now has plenty of Justices who know what it is like to be a "real world" lawyer making arguments on behalf of the government, but it would benefit now from having a "real world" lawyer who worked on behalf of the poorest individuals making arguments against the federal government.

I could go on and on about why I think a (post-Baby Boomer) female nominee would be an especially shrewd choice right now when the Democrats appear poised to nominate the first female candidate for Prez (who is a Baby-Boomer) and the GOP has a whole lot of males of all ages yelling at each other about who is best to "beat" that female candidate.  But what I think make these two Judges especially appealing is the unanimous support they received from the Senate when their prior nominations were considered.  That unanimous support would enable Prez Obama to say forcefully that GOP leaders in the Senate ought to at least have the courtesy to meet with the nominee and hold a hearing as part of their "advise and consent" responsibilities.  I am not confident that GOP leaders will extend that courtesy in this political environment, but the unfairness of being unwilling to do so will be extra stark when they are shutting out someone unanimously approved in the past.

One last self-serving nugget of sentencing fun here: I suspect recent federal public defenders, and perhaps only federal public defenders, could honestly say that a few legendary criminal justice opinions authored by Justice Scalia, opinions like Kyllo v. United States, Crawford v. WashingtonBlakely v. Washington, and Johnson v. United States, are among their all-time favorite.

Thought, dear readers, on my latest SCOTUS musings?

Prior related posts on new SCOTUS nominee possibilities:

March 3, 2016 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Indiana county prosecutor seeks re-election by bragging about "proudly over-crowding our prisons"

-radleybalkoflickrAs reported in this Reason blog posting, a local prosecutor in Indiana is pursuing reelection by bragging about being proud to overcrowd the state's prisons. The full headline of the posting, along with the picture, provides the essentials of this notable story: "Indiana Prosecutor Bradley Cooper Is 'Proudly Over-Crowding our Prisons': Cooper's new campaign flyer brags about the people he's put in prison for decades over drug sales and minor theft." Here is more from the blog post about this local prosecutor and his record:

As American conservatives and liberals alike embrace criminal justice reform, those opposed are blatantly bragging about their overcriminalization agendas. One particularly gross example: a new campaign mailer from Johnson County, Indiana, Prosecutor Bradley D. Cooper, which announces that he has been busy "proudly over-crowding our prisons."

The flyer also features mugshots from convicted criminals, along with what they were found guilty of and what prison sentence they were given. It includes a man who was sentenced to 40 years in prison for selling meth, a man convicted of manslaughter who died while in prison, and a man who received a 40-year sentence for burglary.

In the latter case, William A. Russell was arrested after breaking into someone's home and stealing $52. For that offense, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. A trial court also determined that he was a "habitual offender," which qualified him for a sentencing enhancement of 20 years.

Another of the offenders featured is Amanda Smith, a schizophrenic woman who drowned her son in 2012 while he was on a court-ordered overnight visit from foster care; she claimed it was God's will and turned herself in immediately afterward. Smith's lawyers argued for her to be sent to a state mental hospital, but a judge sentenced her to 55 years in state prison instead.

Last year, Cooper made a fuss that a man accused of forcible rape was only eligible to receive 63 years behind bars, pursuant to a 2014 change to Indiana's criminal code. Previously, the man could have received a maximum sentence of 168 years in prison. Cooper called the sentencing-reform measure the "hug a thug" law and accused the state of coddling violent criminals.

For more about this local prosecutor professional history and accomplishments, his office's website includes this bio and this resume for Bradley D. Cooper. Interestingly, I believe that Prosecutor Bradley attended the same law school as frequent blog commentor federalist, and thus I would be especially eager to hear from federalist (or others) whether they think this kind of campaign slogan is unsavory or perhaps even unethical.

March 3, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

"This Morning’s Breakfast, Last Night’s Game: Detecting Extraneous Influences on Judging"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical article on SSRN authred by Daniel Chen, which actually has some encouraging federal sentencing findings. Here is the abstract (with the sentencing story highlighted):

We detect intra-judge variation in judicial decisions driven by factors completely unrelated to the merits of the case, or to any case characteristics for that matter.  Concretely, we show that asylum grant rates in US immigration courts differ by the success of the court city’s NFL team on the night before, and by the city’s weather on the day of, the decision.  Our data including half a million decisions spanning two decades allows us to exclude confounding factors, such as scheduling and seasonal effects.  Most importantly, our design holds the identity of the judge constant.

On average, US immigration judges grant an additional 1.5% of asylum petitions on the day after their city’s NFL team won, relative to days after the team lost.  Bad weather on the day of the decision has approximately the opposite effect. By way of comparison, the average grant rate is 39%.  We do not find comparable effects in sentencing decisions of US district courts, and speculate that this may be due to higher quality of the federal judges, more time for deliberation, or the constraining effect of the federal sentencing guidelines.

March 3, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Are death penalty advocates troubled by plea deal, presumably urged by families of two slain Viriginia college students, that allows a double murderer to escape any real punishment?

The question in the title of this post is my reaction to this news story about an expected plea deal which seem to allow a high-profile double-murderer in Virginia to, in essence, avoid suffering any real punishment for murdering two college students.  The article is headlined "Report: Matthew to be spared death penalty in Va. student murders," and here are the details (with my emphasis added):

Two remarkably similar murder cases that amplified concerns about campus safety are expected to end when a Virginia man enters a plea deal that will spare him a possible death sentence. Jesse LeRoy Matthew Jr., 34, is expected to enter pleas resolving the Hannah Graham and Morgan Harrington cases Wednesday, according to Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert N. Tracci. The prosecutor did not disclose the terms of the plea agreement ahead of the hearing.

Sources told CBS affiliate WTVR Matthew is expected to plead guilty to first-degree murder and intent to defile in both cases.  WTVR reporter Laura French reports via Twitter that Matthew is expected to serve four life sentences with no eligibility for parole. The deal will spare him the death penalty, sources told the station.

The former hospital orderly and cab driver is charged with capital murder in the September 2014 death of 18-year-old University of Virginia student Graham. He also faces a first-degree murder charge in the 2009 death of Harrington, a 20-year-old Virginia Tech student.  He already is serving three life prison terms for a sexual assault in northern Virginia.

According to authorities, Graham and Harrington were young women in vulnerable straits when they vanished in Charlottesville five years apart...

Graham's disappearance, which came at a time of rising national concern about sexual assaults and other crimes on college campuses, prompted a massive search.  Her body was found five weeks later on abandoned property in Albemarle County, about 12 miles from the Charlottesville campus and 6 miles from a hayfield where Harrington's remains had been found in January 2010.

After police named Matthew a person of interest in Graham's disappearance, he fled and was later apprehended on a beach in southeast Texas.  He was charged with abduction with intent to defile, a felony that empowered police to swab his cheek for a DNA sample.  That sample connected Matthew to the 2005 sexual assault in Fairfax, a Virginia suburb of Washington, according to authorities.  The DNA evidence in the Fairfax sexual assault, in turn, linked Matthew to the Harrington case, authorities have said.

The charge against Matthew in the Graham case was later upgraded to capital murder, giving prosecutors the option to seek the death penalty.

Both the Harrington and the Graham families are supportive of the deal, WTVR reports.  Both families requested to give victim impact statements at the Wednesday afternoon hearing.

When I first saw the headline of this local story, I was puzzled by the willingness of Virginia prosecutors to let a defendant who is already serving multiple life sentences for other crimes now avoid any capital prosecution for two horrific murders. But, after reading that "the Harrington and the Graham families are supportive of the deal," I presume that these families strongly urged the prosecutors to take this kind of deal in order to conclude legal proceedings quickly and to allow them to get a measure of closure.

Assuming I am right that this plea deal is at the behest of the families of the victims, I am genuinely interested to hear from death penalty advocates about whether they think this outcome is ultimately a serious injustice. I surmise that some (many? most?) death penalty advocates think it is an injustice anytime a first-degree murderer escapes a capital prosecution and possible execution. In this case, given that the double-murderer is already serving life sentences for other crimes, this plea deal to additional life sentences means, functionally, Matthew is going to receive no real punishment at all for murdering Graham and Harrington.

Because I am a something of a death penalty agnostic, and especially because I am a strong supporter of taking very seriously the sentencing interests of crime victims in all cases, I really am not sure how I feel about this outcome.  But I am sure I would like to hear the opinions of others, especially those who genuinely believe, as did Immanuel Kant, that the "satisfaction of justice" demands the execution of certain killers.

March 2, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (29)

Mark Holden, GC at Koch Industries, makes "The Factual Case for Criminal Justice Reform"

As regular readers know, various groups and persons associated with the wealthy and politically active Koch brothers have been very supportive of state and federal sentencing reform efforts. Continuing in that tradition, Mark Holden, who is senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries, Inc., has authored this new Medium commentary titled "The Factual Case for Criminal Justice Reform."  I recommend the piece is full (with all its links), and here are excerpts:

These days, it’s hard to find legislation in Washington, D.C. that has bipartisan support. It’s even harder to find legislation that will help people improve their lives instead of making their lives worse.

Yet that’s exactly what both houses of Congress are currently doing through criminal justice reform legislation.  The Senate is considering the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.  It contains a series of long overdue reforms that have been tried at the state level and have been proven to reduce crime, lower spending on incarceration, reduce incarceration rates, and give people a better chance at leading a productive and fulfilling life once they’re released from prison.

There’s little doubt that the current system is dysfunctional.  American criminal justice is too often inconsistent with the promises of the Bill of Rights.  We have a two-tiered system, with the wealthy and the well-connected experiencing a much better system than the poor, oftentimes regardless of guilt or innocence.  A growing number of Americans recognize this  —  nearly 80 percent of the country supports reform.  So do many prosecutors and judges.  For example, liberal federal Judge Rakoff of the Southern District of New York and conservative Judge Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals have raised awareness that innocent people are pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit because they cannot effectively defend themselves against the power of the government.  That is why calls for reform are growing so loud from both ends of the political spectrum that Congress can no longer ignore these problems, which have festered for more than three decades.

The numbers speak for themselves. Over the past decades more and more Americans are put behind bars, sometimes for crimes they didn’t commit or with punishments that are not consistent with the crime. The result has been a skyrocketing prison population that ruins lives and wastes money. At the federal level alone, the number of prisoners has increased by 795 percent in the past 35 years. Federal and state spending on prisons also increased over this timeframe to $8 billion annually, which is 3 to 4 times more per capita than we spend on education. America is now the world’s largest jailer, with only 5 percent of the world’s population but a whopping 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. And there are as many Americans with a college degree as there are Americans with a criminal record.

As more people get caught in this system, it breaks apart families, destabilizes communities, increases poverty, and makes it harder — if not impossible — for people to rejoin society after they’ve served their sentence. Why? Because criminal convictions are accompanied by countless collateral consequences that burden people for the rest of their lives.

Unfortunately, not everyone recognizes the need for reform. As demand for reform grows louder, the defenders of the status quo are mobilizing. Their argument is simple: Reforming the criminal justice system will endanger society and put people’s lives at risk. But these claims have no basis in reality. In fact, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will have the opposite effect.

Many of its most important provisions are modeled after successful reforms from states such as Georgia, Utah, Kentucky, and Texas. In the past decade, more than half of states have passed a variety of changes to their criminal justice systems. Some lowered mandatory minimums  —  non-negotiable sentences that can run into the decades  —  for low-level offenders.  Others gave judges greater discretion in sentencing. And still more tried a variety of other worthwhile reforms, including prison reform and expungement of past criminal records so worthy individuals seeking redemption could put their past mistakes behind them and have a fresh start when leaving prison.

The results speak for themselves.  While the federal imprisonment rate increased by 15 percent over the last decade, the state rate fell by 4 percent.  This didn’t lead to an increase in crime, either.  No less than 32 states saw drops in both the percentage of people imprisoned and the overall crime rate.  Put another way: Criminal justice reform made society safer.

We need federal reforms along the same lines. That’s what the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would do, which is why it has broad support from law enforcement.  It contains a variety of reforms that would enhance public safety and make the criminal justice system more fair and humane....

Will lawmakers seize this opportunity to make people’s lives better, or will they fall prey to fear-mongering?  For the sake of the least fortunate in society, I certainly hope they make the right choice.

Some prior related posts on Koch family efforts in support of criminal justice reform:

March 2, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Has DOJ decided not to appeal Judge Weinstein's recent notable decision in US v. RV to give no prison time to child porn downloaded?

The question in the title of this post is a follow-up to my speculations here about the post-Booker challenges that face federal prosecutors when a district judge gives a very leinent sentence that they dislike.  Specifically, after blogging about US District Judge Jack Weinstein's decision in US v. RV to give a waaaaaaaay-below-guideline sentence in a child porn downloading case, I suggested the Justice Department would struggle with the decision whether to appeal this lenient sentencing ruling to the Second Circuit because of the Second Cicuit's significant 2010 Dorvee ruling which stressed the "irrationality" of the child porn guidelines.

When I posted about US v. RV, my pal Bill Otis seemed to think my appellate speculations here were waaaaaaaay off the mark.  Over in this lengthy post at Crime & Consequences, Bill Otis asserted that my speculation revealed that I know "almost nothing about the workings of US Attorneys' Offices."   Bill went further even in this post, stating repeatedly that he would eagerly "bet $500 here and now that Weirstein [sic] is again going to get reversed in the Second Circuit, again without garnering a single vote."

I did not take up Bill's bet for a number of reasons: (1) I wanted to read Judge Weinstein's 90+ page sentencing opinion in full before speculating on the fate of the decision in RV, (2) based on what Judge Weinstein wrote, I might be inclined to participate in an amicus effort in the Second Circuit if/when DOJ appealed, and (3) I find it a bit unsavory (and perhaps unethical) to make big cash bets on the fate of a real legal case, especially in an area of law I hope to infuence.  But now, as the title of this post hints, I think it may turn out that a lot of us should have taken Bill's bet because it seems, based on my limited research skills, that DOJ has decided not to appeal Judge Weinstein's sentencing decision in RV.

Because I am bad at researching appellate dockets, and also because the process for when and how the Justice Department makes appellate decisions is quite opaque in various ways, I do not yet want to crow about being right here that DOJ did not want to appeal this decision and risk its affirmance by the Second Circuit.  But I am hoping, perhaps with the help of readers, I can soon confirm that the Second Circuit will not be reversing RV because federal prosecutors have decided not to appeal the decision. (Needless to say, I am somewhat excited about the possibility of demonstrating that I now actually do know a lot more than Bill Otis "about the workings of US Attorneys' Offices" even though I have never worked in such an office and Bill spent most of his professional life in these offices.)  If it does turn out true that DOJ has decided not to appeal in US v. RV, I think this discretionary prosecutorial decision is itself a very interesting and important bit of evidence concerning how post-Booker reasonableness review works (and doesn't work) to iron out sentencing disparties in CP downloading cases and many others.

Prior related posts about recent notable CP cases from the EDNY:

March 1, 2016 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Via 6-2 vote, SCOTUS upholds broader interpretation of child-porn mandatory minimum provision

The first official SCOTUS opinion handed down without Justice Scalia as a member of the Supreme Court in three decades just happened to be an intriguing little sentencing opinion: Lockhart v. US, No. 14-8358 (S. Ct. March 1, 2016) (available here). Justice Sotomayor wrote the opinion for the Court on behalf of six Justices, and it begins this way:

Defendants convicted of possessing child pornography in violation of 18 U. S. C. §2252(a)(4) are subject to a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence and an increased maximum sentence if they have “a prior conviction . . . under the laws of any State relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.” §2252(b)(2).

The question before us is whether the phrase “involving a minor or ward” modifies all items in the list of predicate crimes (“aggravated sexual abuse,” “sexual abuse,” and “abusive sexual conduct”) or only the one item that immediately precedes it (“abusive sexual conduct”).  Below, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit joined several other Courts of Appeals in holding that it modifies only “abusive sexual conduct.”  The Eighth Circuit has reached the contrary result.  We granted certiorari to resolve that split.  575 U. S. ___ (2015).  We affirm the Second Circuit’s holding that the phrase “involving a minor or ward” in §2252(b)(2) modifies only “abusive sexual conduct.”

Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Breyer, writes an extended dissent that kicks off with pop-culture references sure to be highlighted by many in social media:

Imagine a friend told you that she hoped to meet “an actor, director, or producer involved with the new Star Wars movie.” You would know immediately that she wanted to meet an actor from the Star Wars cast — not an actor in, for example, the latest Zoolander.  Suppose a real estate agent promised to find a client “a house, condo, or apartment in New York.”  Wouldn’t the potential buyer be annoyed if the agent sent him information about condos in Maryland or California?  And consider a law imposing a penalty for the “violation of any statute, rule, or regulation relating to insider trading.”  Surely a person would have cause to protest if punished under that provision for violating a traffic statute.  The reason in all three cases is the same: Everyone understands that the modifying phrase — “involved with the new Star Wars movie,” “in New York,” “relating to insider trading” — applies to each term in the preceding list, not just the last.

That ordinary understanding of how English works, in speech and writing alike, should decide this case.  Avondale Lockhart is subject to a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for possessing child pornography if, but only if, he has a prior state-law conviction for “aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.” 18 U. S. C. §2252(b)(2).  The Court today, relying on what is called the “rule of the last antecedent,” reads the phrase “involving a minor or ward” as modifying only the final term in that three-item list.  But properly read, the modifier applies to each of the terms — just as in the examples above.  That normal construction finds support in uncommonly clear-cut legislative history, which states in so many words that the three predicate crimes all involve abuse of children.  And if any doubt remained, the rule of lenity would command the same result: Lockhart’s prior conviction for sexual abuse of an adult does not trigger §2252(b)(2)’s mandatory minimum penalty.  I respectfully dissent.

I am going to resist the urge to speculate concerning which opinion Justice Scalia might have been likely to join were he still alive today, especially given that the late, great Justice was a fan of ordinary understanding and the rule of lenity, but not a fan of legislative history, in the interpretation of federal criminal statute.  I am also going to resist blogging a lot more about this case unless something jumps out as distinctly blogworthy when I have a chance to review the opinions more closely in the days ahead.

March 1, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Former AG Mukasey delivers "clear" message to GOP on SRCA: "Law enforcement asks you to pass this bill."

The Hill has now published this notable new op-ed authored by Michael Mukasey and Ronal Serpas under the headline "Federal sentencing reform will aid law enforcement." Here are excerpts:

The Senate is back in session amid recent warnings from Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) that federal sentencing reform would jeopardize public safety. They say the country cannot risk reform.

As a former attorney general under President George W. Bush who has overseen thousands of prosecutions, and a police chief with three decades of experience, we have dedicated our lives to the safety of this country.

We can firmly say that sentencing reform done right will not harm public safety. In fact, it will enhance it. We were some of the original supporters of the 1990s “tough on crime” laws. After decades of enforcing them, we and our colleagues — police chiefs and U.S. attorneys — now recognize many provisions, like overly harsh sentencing, went too far.

Much has been learned in the last 25 years about who should be locked up and for how long. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act recalibrates sentencing policy to meet the needs of the 21st century. Lowering mandatory minimum sentences for low-level crimes will reduce unnecessary incarceration. This will allow us to better direct law enforcement resources to arresting, prosecuting, and punishing the most serious and violent criminals.

That’s why we and 130 of our law enforcement colleagues wrote to congressional leadership urging them to pass the act. Those standing with us include two former U.S. attorneys general, two directors of the FBI, 21 sitting police chiefs and 68 former U.S. attorneys.

Our message to Republican leadership is clear: Law enforcement asks you to pass this bill. Targeted and appropriate sentencing is a superior approach to controlling crime....

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act offers a better path forward. It would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for repeat nonviolent drug offenders. And it would allow judges more discretion to depart from mandatory minimums for low-level offenders if — after hearing specific circumstances of the crime — they feel it is appropriate.

Contrary to what opponents have claimed, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will not swing open the prison doors and release thousands of hardcore violent criminals onto the streets. Every single prisoner eligible for early release will be carefully scrutinized by judges. And only if the judges feel it’s appropriate will they release them. This judicial check ensures the worst criminals will remain where they belong — in prison — while those who pose little threat can get off the taxpayers’ tab and begin productively contributing to society.

The bill would also expand the use of mandatory minimums for offenders with previous convictions for violent crimes, and it creates new mandatory minimums for terrorism-related crimes, giving federal law enforcement additional mechanisms to keep those most dangerous behind bars.

Now is the time for Congress to act. Reducing the population of our overcrowded prisons is one of the few goals on which those on the left and right agree. We want to make it clear where law enforcement stands: Not only is passing federal legislation to reform mandatory minimum sentences necessary to reduce incarceration, it will also help us keep crime at its historic low.

Some recent prior related posts on SRCA:

March 1, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, February 29, 2016

SCOTUS appears troubled by state judge's failure to recuse in capital case after past history as prosecutor in case

This AP report, headlined "Justices hear judicial-bias claim in death-row case," reports on today's SCOTUS oral argument in the Williams case involving Eighth Amendment and Due Process claims arising from a jurist's failure to recuse himself in a Pennsylvania capital case.  Here are the basics:

The Supreme Court on Monday appeared likely to rule that a Philadelphia district attorney-turned-state high court judge should not have taken part in the case of a prison inmate whose death-penalty prosecution he had personally approved nearly 30 years earlier.

The justices indicated that inmate Terrance "Terry" Williams should get a new hearing in Pennsylvania's Supreme Court because then-Chief Justice Ronald Castille voted to reinstate Williams' death sentence in 2014. A lower court judge had thrown out the sentence because prosecutors working for Castille had hidden evidence that might have helped the defense in Williams' 1986 murder trial.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was among several justices who focused on Castille's actions in 1986, when he was the Philadelphia district attorney. "The judge here actually signed his name to the review of the facts and the decision to seek the death penalty," Sotomayor said.

When Philadelphia Deputy District Attorney Ronald Eisenberg told the justices that the passage of time had lessened concerns about bias, Justice Anthony Kennedy was almost incredulous. "So the fact that he spent 30 years in solitary confinement actually helps the state?" Kennedy said.

The conditions of Williams' confinement could be an issue in the outcome of his case.  Pennsylvania has not executed anyone since 1999, and Gov. Tom Wolf has declared a moratorium on executions.  But even if the chance of Williams' being put to death is small, he continues to be held in isolation along with other death row inmates in Pennsylvania.  The court also confronted whether Castille's participation in the case made a difference on a court that ruled unanimously against Williams.

The full SCOUS oral transcript in Williams v. Pennsylvania is now  available at this link.  As always, I would be grateful for help from readers to identify any especially noteworthy (i.e., blog-worthy) interchanges from the argument.

February 29, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Can you think of another constitutional right that can be suspended based upon a misdemeanor violation of a State law?"

The question in the title of this post is the question I have been asking again and again since the US Supreme Court decided in Heller and McDonald that the Second Amendment secured an individual right to keep and bare arms that was to be enforced in a manner comparable to other rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. It also happened to be the question that Justice Clarence Thomas asked the federal government during oral argument today in Voisine v. United States

As highlighted by a whole bunch of press coverage spotlighted here at How Appealing, it is notable simply that Justice Thomas spoke up at oral argument after having been silent in that setting for a decade.  But I trust regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I am excited that Justice Thomas decided he had to speak up to ask what I think is the very hard question about the meaning and reach of the Second Amendment that lacks a very good answer if Heller and McDonald are serious about the need to treat the Second Amendment seriously like all other rights enumerated in the US Constitution's Bill of Rights.

Not only did Justice Thomas ask this important question toward the tail end of oral argument in Voisine, he followed up with a First Amendment analogy that I find pretty compelling:

JUSTICE THOMAS:  [L]et's say that a publisher is reckless about the use of children, and what could be considered indecent [placement in an ad] and that that triggers a violation of, say, a hypothetical law against the use of children in these ads, and let's say it's a misdemeanor violation.  Could you suspend that publisher's right to ever publish again?

MS. EISENSTEIN: Your Honor, I don't think you could suspend the right to ever publish again, but I think that you could limit, for example, the manner and means by which publisher...

JUSTICE THOMAS: So how is that different from suspending your Second Amendment right?

Critically, even though I do not believe the government here had any satisfactory answers for Justice Thomas's tough Second Amendment questions, the Justice was not even making his arguments as forcefully as he could have in the context of the federal criminal prosecution at issue in Voisine.  Critically, Voisine is not a case in which someone previously convicted of a state "reckless" misdemeanor is now seeking a legal declaration that he has Second Amendment rights.  Rather, Stephen Voisine is a schnook who was subject to a federal felony prosecution (and as much as 10 years in federal prison) simply for possessing a rifle (while apparently hunting a bald eagle!?!?) because a number of years earlier he pleaded guilty to a Maine domestic violence misdemeanor. 

For the record, I am not a big fan of Maine schnooks who in the past were involved in a domestic incident and years later go out hunting bald eagles.  But I am even less of a fan of the creation of new jurisprudential doctrines that would allow the federal government to bring a felony prosecution of an individual engaged in what might be otherwise constitutionally protected activity simply based on a long-ago misdemeanor violation of a State law.  That is the reality of what is going on in Voisine, and even folks not supportive of Second Amendment rights should be concerned that a case like Voisine could end up casting poor light on other constitutional protections if his conviction gets upheld in this case.

Some prior related posts:

February 29, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Highlighting the enduring lack of transparency about pleas and the work of prosecutors ... and the problems this may create

The folks at The Crime Report continue to do a lot of notable reporting about a lot of the notable issues discussed at the recent Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  This recent piece, headlined "A 'Draconian' System Where the Innocent Plead Guilty," reports on a keynote speech by Judge Jed Rakoff and discussion of the need to bring more light to the dark spaces of plea bargaining and prosecutorial practices. I recommend the piece in full, and here are some excerpts:

The U.S. criminal justice system is broken and needs to be fixed is a message you rarely hear from a well-respected senior federal judge. But that’s exactly what Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York detailed during a keynote address at the 11th Annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America at John Jay College of Criminal Justice on Friday

“We created this monster and it’s taken on a life of its own,” said Rakoff, speaking critically of judges who everyday impose “terrible sentences” and send people to prison for extremely long periods of time without questioning the system....

Rakoff detailed how he’s seen the system change in the past few decades, from a time where a much higher percentage of court cases went to trial (15 percent of court cases at the federal level 20 percent at the state level) to now where, after tough-on-crime laws swept the nation, only 3 percent of federal cases, and 5 to 6 percent of state cases, go to trial.  The rest are settled with plea bargains.  He called the plea bargaining process a “system of totally secret justice” where prosecutors, hold all the cards and are able to get a vast majority of defendants to plead guilty to charges when faced with extremely long sentences — imposed through sentencing guidelines or mandatory minimums.

Julie Seaman, a professor at the Emory University School of Law and Board President of the Georgia Innocence Project, said it’s now a system where “it’s completely rational for an innocent person to plead guilty,” because there is so much risk involved in going to trial.

The panel — also featuring Keir Bradford-Gray of the Philadelphia Defender Association, Matthew Johnson of John Jay College, exoneree Rodney Roberts and moderated by John Hollway, executive director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School — detailed problems of this “assembly-line” style form of justice where police are under pressure to solve cases quickly, prosecutors are under pressure to clear cases and public defenders are overworked and under resourced.

And it’s all done behind closed doors, they say, away from public scrutiny.  “This is a system, because it’s so totally un-transparent, is it inevitably going to lead to some serious mistakes,” Rakoff said.

There has arguably never been more data and more transparency in the U.S. criminal justice system than there is now.  Researchers, journalists, politicians and the public have more access to data on prison and jail populations, as well as crime statistics including the number of reported crimes and arrests.  That data has played a large part in changing peoples’ minds about mass incarceration — and arguably without that data, you wouldn’t see elected officials of both parties rolling back sentencing laws. But data doesn’t exist for plea deals, which is where the decisions that dramatically impact millions of lives are made.  There is a plethora of information available to the public on how offenders enter the system and where they end up, but missing is information on what happens in the middle.

Rakoff says this is a problem that has fueled mass incarceration – and also because when innocent people decide to plead guilty in order to avoid long sentences, we never know the truth. He said there is too much disparity in pleas that are offered and we don’t know enough about what goes on behind closed doors. “No one ever knows what the truth is, no one ever knows what the facts are,” Rakoff said.

February 29, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Iran reportedly wages the "war on drugs" by executing the "entire adult male population" of a village!?!?!

There is much talk in the United States about causalities of all sorts from the tough ways in which US governments use criminal justice powers of all sorts to wage a "war on drugs."  But this FoxNews article reports on Iran waging the war with a whole new type of extreme powers.  The piece is headlined "Iran reportedly executes every adult man in one village for drug crimes," and here are the stunning details:

The entire adult male population of a village in southern Iran was executed for drug offenses last week as part of a country-wide crackdown on trafficking, state media report. Iran’s vice-president for women and family affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, revealed the news in an interview with the Mehr News agency last week, but did not say when or where the executions took place, or how many people were killed.

“We have a village in Sistan and Baluchestan province where every single man has been executed,” she said, according to The Guardian.  “Their children are potential drug traffickers as they would want to seek revenge and provide money for their families.  There is no support for these people.”

Molaverdi said President Hassan Rouhani’s government has brought back previously-axed family support programs.  “We believe that if we do not support these people, they will be prone to crime, that’s why the society is responsible for the families of those executed,” she said.

Human rights groups denounced the executions.  “The apparent hanging of every man in one Iranian village demonstrates the astonishing scale of Iran’s execution spree,” Maya Foa, from the anti-death penalty group Reprieve, told The Guardian.  “These executions — often based on juvenile arrests, torture, and unfair or nonexistent trials — show total contempt for the rule of law, and it is shameful that the UN and its funders are supporting the police forces responsible.”...

The Islamic Republic hanged 753 people in 2014, more than half of whom were convicted of drug-related offenses, the group said. In 2015, nearly 700 people were executed in Iran in the first half of the year alone, it added. The mass executions have led activists to call on the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime to stop funding the Iranian government’s anti-narcotics campaign until Tehran ends the use of capital punishment for such offenses, The Guardian reports.

Candidly, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the notion that the Iranian government, in order to try to stop drug trafficking in the name of helping "women and family affairs," would execute the entire adult male population of a village in southern Iran (and then, apparently, will provide government support for the families of those executed). But, absent further reports that this story is inaccurate, I have to conclude that Iran believes no punishment is off-the-table and unjustified when trying to combat the scourge that is drug use and abuse.

February 29, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

SCOTUS taking on array of criminal justice cases this week in which Justice Scalia's absence will again be consequential

The Supreme Court this week hears oral argument in a trio of criminal justice cases this week.  Because all three cases strike me as involving relatively quirky/narrow issues, I am not expecting to get any blockbuster rulings from any of them (especially with a now short-staffed Court).  Via SCOTUSblog, here are links to the cases being heard today and tomorrow with the question presented:

Voisine v. United States (1) Whether a misdemeanor crime with the mens rea of recklessness qualifies as a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" as defined by 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(33)(A) and 922(g)(9); and (2) whether 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(33)(A) and 922(g)(9) are unconstitutional under the Second, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments and the Ex Post Facto Clause of the United States Constitution.

Williams v. Pennsylvania: (1) Whether the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments are violated where a state supreme court justice declines to recuse himself in a capital case in which he had personally approved the decision to pursue capital punishment against the defendant in his prior capacity as an elected prosecutor and continued to head the prosecutors’ office that defended the death verdict on appeal, and where he had publicly expressed strong support for capital punishment during his judicial election campaign by referencing the number of defendants he had “sent” to death row, including the defendant in the case now before the court; and (2) whether the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments are violated by the participation of a potentially biased jurist on a multimember tribunal deciding a capital case, regardless of whether his vote is ultimately decisive.

Nichols v. United States: (1) Whether 42 U.S.C. § 16913(a) requires a sex offender who resides in a foreign country to update his registration in the jurisdiction where he formerly resided, a question that divides the courts of appeals.

Because Williams involves an Eighth Amendment case and involves the death penalty, I suspect it will get the most press attention and probably even most of my attention after today's oral argument. But, in part because Williams involves an Eighth Amendment case and involves the death penalty, I am already pretty confident which Justices are likely to be more or less sympathetic to the capital defendant's claims on appeal.

In contrast, both Voisine and Nichols involve questions of statutory interpretation of federal crime statutes in politically fraught settings: Voisine involves the mix of domestic violence and guns, Nichols involves the tracking of sex offenders abroad. Both the specific legal issue before the Court and the context in which it arises makes me uncertain how various justices are likely to approach the cases at oral argument and in an eventual ruling. In both cases, though, the defense side likely is quite sorry to see Justice Scalia's chair empty because he was among the most consistent and forceful voices for the rule of lenity and other principles to limit the reach of government powers in the interpretation of federal criminal justice statutes.

February 29, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)