Saturday, November 22, 2014
Notable comments from AAG about Justice Reinvestment
Earlier this week, Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason delivered these interesting remarks for DOJ's Office of Justice Programs at a big Justice Reinvestment Summit. The full speech is worth review, and here are a few excerpts I found noteworthy:
I think it can legitimately be said that justice reinvestment has transformed the way we approach public safety in this country. It is no exaggeration to say that it has helped to redefine the missions of our criminal and juvenile justice agencies. Thanks in great part to the focus that your work has given to justice policies, corrections leaders, law enforcement officials and prosecutors have begun to measure their performance, not just by the narrow metrics of arrests, convictions and confinement, but by actual improvements to public safety.
And this shift in attitude and approach is paying off. Many states that have engaged in Justice Reinvestment have seen drops in crime rates and imprisonment — and substantial taxpayer savings.
Having just emerged from the recent mid-term elections, it’s worth remarking on another important aspect of justice reinvestment: it’s an approach to justice policy that resonates on both sides of the aisle. We’ve seen lawmakers who disagree on just about every other policy matter rally around data-driven analysis focused on investing increasingly scarce public resources in programs and policies that work.
State and local governments, representing all political persuasions, have taken on major reforms designed to reduce prison-building costs and redirect precious public funds to programs aimed at reducing crime. It can honestly be said that, in a climate of intense partisanship, we are witnessing the growth of a broad, bipartisan consensus in city halls, state capitals and Congress around crime and justice policy, thanks in great measure to justice reinvestment....
This progress is reflected in a general downward trend in both crime and incarceration rates throughout the country. Before the FBI released its most recent data last week, crime had declined nationally by more than 11 percent since President Obama took office. The new FBI data show additional drops in 2013. On top of that, the rate of incarceration has gone down by more than eight percent since 2009. It’s the first time these two measures have fallen together in more than 40 years. This is truly historic! We’re experiencing a moment of public safety unprecedented in most of our lifetimes.
But this is no time to relax. Those of you who’ve been in this business for a while know that the winds of justice and sentencing policies have always blown hot and cold. If we don’t take advantage of the momentum we’ve built through Justice Reinvestment and embed this data-driven mindset into mainstream practice, we risk a return to the counterproductive practices of the past.
In fact, truth be told, we are still two nations when it comes to prison trends. The extraordinary success in reducing incarceration that we’ve been able to realize in many states has been offset by continued increases in others. Now, to be sure, these figures don’t reflect that some of the states with increases are now working through justice reinvestment to change course. And I’m confident that now we have the wind at our back. But we will have to remain vigilant.
Friday, November 21, 2014
"'Power and Greed and the Corruptible Seed': Mental Disability, Prosecutorial Misconduct, and the Death Penalty"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Michael Perlin available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The Supreme Court’s death penalty jurisprudence is based in large part on the assumption that jurors can be counted on to apply the law in this area conscientiously and fairly. All our criminal procedure jurisprudence is based in large part on the assumption that prosecutors and judges will act fairly. I believe that these assumptions are based on nothing more than wishful thinking, and that the record of death penalty litigation in the thirty-eight years since the “modern” penalty was approved in Gregg v. Georgia gives the lie to them.
This article focuses solely on the role of prosecutors in this process, and the extent to which prosecutorial misconduct has contaminated the entire death penalty process, especially in cases involving defendants with mental disabilities. This is an issue known well to all those who represent such defendants in death penalty cases but, again, there is startlingly little literature on the topic. It is misconduct that is largely hidden and ignored. The article begins with some brief background on issues that relate to the treatment of persons with mental disabilities in the criminal justice system in general. It then discusses prosecutorial misconduct and the outcomes of that misconduct, with special attention to a cohort of appellate decisions in unheralded and rarely (if ever) discussed published cases that, in almost every instance, sanction such misconduct. Next, it demonstrates how some prosecutors purposely flaunt the canons of ethics in the prosecution of defendants with mental disabilities in death penalty cases, and then will discuss some solutions raised by scholars to (at least, partially) cure this problems, and concludes with some modest suggestions of my own.
Ohio and Utah moving forward with distinct fixes for lethal injection drug problems
As reported in this two article, legislatures in Ohio and Utah are taking quite different approaches to the problems poised by the unavailability of some drugs historically used for lethal injection executions. The headlined of these stories highlight the basics:
From the Wall Street Journal here, "Ohio House Passes Bill Shielding Execution Drugmakers: Measure Would Add Layers of Secrecy to Death-Penalty Procedures."
From the Salt Lake Tribune here, "Firing squad executions back on the table in Utah Legislature"
Unpacking why DOJ is so concerned about federal prison populations and its costs
As highlighted in this effective piece by Andrew Cohen published by The Marshall Project, earlier this month Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s Inspector General (and a former member of the US Sentencing Commission), authored this memorandum describing DOJ's concerns with federal prison overcrowding and costs. These excerpts from Cohen's piece highlight some of the Horowitz memo's most notable messages:
The Bureau of Prison’s budget now ($6.9 billion) is nearly twice what it was ($3.8 billion) in 2000, Horowitz tells us, an increase at “almost twice the rate of growth of the rest of the Department.” Worse, he writes, even though federal prison officials have been warned that their part of the budget is draining funding away from other Justice Department programs (like those that support victims groups) they asked for more money this past budget cycle....
Horowitz didn’t mince words, either, about what is costing so much. The federal prison population is aging at a fast pace. “From FY 2009 to FY 2013, the population of sentenced inmates age 50 and over in BOP-managed facilities increased 25 percent, while the population of sentenced inmates under the age of 30 decreased by 16 percent,” he notes. As a result, “the cost for providing healthcare services to inmates increased 55 percent from FY 2006 to FY 2013.”...
If you think the facts and figures above are disconcerting, the numbers Horowitz offers about conditions within our federal prisons are even more dire. Prison overcrowding, he asserts, is “the most significant threat to the safety and security of Bureau of Prisons staff and inmates”.... When it comes to easing overcrowding it’s clear that Horowitz believes we are headed in the wrong direction, which is another reason why he keeps calling current conditions at the Bureau of Prisons “a crisis.”
To bring the ratio of inmate to space available to appropriate levels, to eliminate the overcrowding “without expending additional funds to build more federal prison space or to contract for additional non-federal bed space,” Horowitz says that the Justice Department “would have to achieve a net reduction of about 23,400 federal prisoners from the June 2014 prison population...” That’s more than ten percent of the current population. Can you imagine? I can’t.
Thursday, November 20, 2014
Hoping to help Kickstart a notable new death penalty documentary
I am eager to promote widely an important film project from some folks in London focused on modern US death penalty stories. (I am partial to the project in part because one of my former students, Allen Bohnert, OSU Moritz College of Law grad ('06), is one key subject being documented in his role as current lead counsel in the long-running Section 1983 litigation over Ohio's lethal injection protocols.)
This notable project is still in production, and the filmmakers are currently fundraising for financial support to help allow them to finish filming. The Kickstarter campaign is available here; lots of interesting items are available (such as signed copies of Bryan Stevenson's book, Just Mercy, one-off pieces of art and the film itself) for any donation over $25. I have been told that they will not be able to effectively finish this film without additional help for further funding.
The film itself is titled The Penalty, and it is to be a 90-minute feature documentary examining the current state of America's capital punishment system. While some other documentaries have focused on death row stories through the lens of condemned prisoners, this film is focused more on people involved not on the row: lawyers, family members, politicians, campaigners, law enforcement, and others. A snippet from some filming so far is available at www.thepenaltyfilm.com.
I understand that the filmmakers have been particularly focused on following (1) my former student, Assistant Federal Public Defender for the Southern District of Ohio Allen Bohnert, through Ohio's problematic execution of Dennis McGuire and its fallout, and (2) Louisiana death row exoneree Damon Thibodeaux as he tries to put his life back together after his wrongful conviction and later exoneration. I believe the filmakers are also incorporating lots of other characters from the capital punishment universe, including many experts in the field such as Debby Denno, Jeanne Woodford, David Dow, Kathryn Kase, Peter Neufeld, Richard Dieter and Clive Stafford-Smith.
Finally, I have been told that anyone has any ideas on stories that the filmmakers should look at, or have ideas for people they should be sure to talk to (e.g., grant-giving foundations, media outlets, campaign groups), they filmakers are eager to spread their network far and wide, and you can pass on ideas by emailing email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cross-posted at PrawfsBlawg.
"The Racist Origins of Felon Disenfranchisement"
The title of this post is the headline of this recent New York Times commentary by Brent Staples. Here are excerpts:
The state laws that barred nearly six million people with felony convictions from voting in the midterm elections this month date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Southern lawmakers were working feverishly to neutralize the black electorate. Poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and cross burnings were effective weapons in this campaign. But statutes that allowed correctional systems to arbitrarily and permanently strip large numbers of people of the right to vote were a particularly potent tool in the campaign to undercut African-American political power.
This racially freighted system has normalized disenfranchisement in the United States — at a time when our peers in the democratic world rightly see it as an aberration. It has also stripped one in every 13 black persons of the right to vote — a rate four times that of nonblacks nationally. At the same time, it has allowed disenfranchisement to move beyond that black population — which makes up 38 percent of those denied the vote — into the body politic as a whole. One lesson here is that punishments designed for one pariah group can be easily expanded to include others as well....
Maine residents vigorously debated the issue last year, when the Legislature took up — and declined to pass — a bill that would have stripped the vote from some inmates, whose crimes included murder and other major felonies. Families of murder victims argued that the killers had denied their loved ones the right to vote and therefore should suffer the same fate.
Those who opposed the bill made several arguments: That the franchise is enshrined in the state Constitution and too important to withdraw on a whim; that voting rights keep inmates connected to civic life and make it easier for them to rejoin society; that the notion of restricting rights for people in prison was inconsistent with the values of the state.
A former United States marshal and police chief argued that revoking inmate voting rights would strip imprisoned people of dignity and make rehabilitation that much more difficult. The editorial page of The Bangor Daily News argued against revocation on the grounds that, “Removing the right of some inmates to exercise their legal responsibility as voters in a civilized society would undermine that civilized society.”
The fact that most states view people who have served time in prison as beyond the protection of the bedrock, democratic principle of the right to vote shows how terribly short this country has fallen from achieving its ideals.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Massachusetts special commission urges repeal of all drug mandatory minimums
As reported in this local article, "a special commission studying the state's criminal justice system recommended eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenses in Massachusetts." Here is more about the commission's work and recommendations to date:
The commission also voted to recommend parole eligibility for all state prison sentences after an inmate has served at least two-thirds of the lower end of their sentence, except in cases of murder or manslaughter, and to maintain the current parole eligibility standards in houses of correction of half-time served on sentences of 60 days or more.
The commission, formed over two years ago, is trying to produce an in-progress report before the end of the year to inform Governor-elect Charlie Baker's administration. Baker, during his campaign for governor, voiced support for striking mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses as part of a broader approach to combat substance abuse.
The Special Commission to Study the Commonwealth's Criminal Justice System on Tuesday began debating legislative recommendations members plan to make to strengthen post-release supervision, improve prisoner reentry outcomes and reduce recidivism, and address overcrowding in the state's jails and prisons.
"Drug offenses are a huge reason we have so much overcrowding in the prison system," said Patty Garin, a criminal defense attorney and co-director of the Northeastern University Law School Prisoners Assistance Program. Garin and other commission members argued judges should be able to practice evidence-based sentencing, and suggested mandatory minimums disproportionately impact poorer communities and communities of color.
The 9-2 vote, with Attorney General Martha Coakley's representative abstaining, came over the objections of Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, who sits on the commission. O'Keefe did not attend Tuesday's meeting, but submitted a letter expressing his opposition and later told the News Service that mandatory minimums are a tool prosecutors "use and use very effectively to stem the flow of drugs into communities."
"We utterly reject this notion that the criminal justice system is warehousing these non-violent drug offenders. That simply is not the case. People have to work extremely hard to get themselves into jail here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," O'Keefe said.
The commission was formed by Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature in 2012, and Undersecretary of Criminal Justice Sandra McCroom said she hopes to publish a report by the end of the year, though she acknowledged that all of the commission's work likely won't be completed by then. Patrick has also reconstituted the Sentencing Commission, which has met twice over the past two months and whose work could coincide with the criminal justice commission's recommendations....
Public Safety Secretary Andrea Cabral, who does not have a vote on the commission, said she would have carved out an exception from the mandatory minimum recommendation for trafficking crimes. While supporting enhanced drug treatment options, she said not all people convicted of drug offenses are struggling with addiction, and some are driven by money. "I think there should be a line drawn on trafficking," Cabral said.
Others on the commission, including Garin and Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, argued that judges should be given discretion even in trafficking cases, expressing confidence that harsh sentences will be issues for those who deserve them. Worcester County Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis, a Republican, and a staff member representing Judiciary Committee Vice Chairman Rep. Chris Markey (D-Dartmouth) voted against the recommendation to do away with mandatory minimum sentences. "To me it's overreaching and too broad," said Evangelidis, a former state representative....
O'Keefe, the recent past president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, expressed concern that if the Legislature were to eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences, the courts would see defendants shopping for more lenient judges to avoid prison time. "Mandatory minimum sentences came into being in the first place to ensure relative uniformity in the sentencing of individuals distributing drugs," O'Keefe said....
Attorney General-elect Maura Healey has also backed ending mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses, and during her campaign called for expanding the use of drug courts.
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
"Does Prison Privatization Distort Justice? Evidence on Time Served and Recidivism"
The title of this post is the title of this very interesting article with empirical research on private prisons and time served. The piece, authored by Anita Mukherjee and now available via SSRN, has this abstract:
I contribute new evidence on the impact of private prisons on prisoner time served and recidivism by exploiting the staggered entry and exit of private prisons in Mississippi between 1996 and 2004. Little is known about this topic, even though burgeoning prison populations and an effort to cut costs have caused a substantial level of private contracting since the 1980s. The empirical challenge is that prison assignment may be based on traits unobservable to the researcher, such as body tattoos indicating a proclivity for violent behavior.
My first result is that private prisons increase a prisoner's fraction of sentence served by an average of 4 to 7 percent, which equals 60 to 90 days; this distortion directly erodes the cost savings offered by privatization. My second result is that prisoners in private facilities are 15 percent more likely to receive an infraction (conduct violation) over the course of their sentences, revealing a key mechanism by which private prisons delay release. Conditional on receiving an infraction, prisoners in private prison receive twice as many. My final result is that there is no reduction in recidivism for prisoners in private prison despite the additional time they serve, suggesting that either the marginal returns to incarceration are low, or private prisons increase recidivism risk.
These results are consistent with a model in which the private prison operator chooses whether to distort release policies, i.e., extend prisoner time served beyond the public norm, based on the typical government contract that pays a diem for each occupied bed and is imperfectly enforced.
"Criminal Sentencing Reform: A Conversation among Conservatives"
Thanks to this post by Bill Otis at Crime & Consequences, I see that the Federalist Society recent National Convention included a panel discussion on sentencing reform, which can now be watched in full via YouTube at this link. Here is how the discussion is described along with its participants:
Although prison populations at the federal level have very recently declined for the first time in decades, prisoner population at the state level rose. The cost of crime, some that can be measured and some that are impossible to measure, is undoubtedly high, but so too is the cost of incarceration. Are we striking the right balance in length of sentences? And what is the proper balance between latitude and sentencing guidelines for judges? Do the answers to these questions differ for the state versus the federal criminal justice system?
The Federalist Society's Criminal Law & Procedure Practice Group presented this panel on "Criminal Sentencing Reform: A Conversation among Conservatives" on Friday, November 14, during the 2014 National Lawyers Convention.
- Mr. Marc A. Levin, Director, Center for Effective Justice, Texas Public Policy Foundation
- Mr. John G. Malcolm, Director and Ed Gilbertson and Sherry Lindberg Gilbertson Senior Legal Fellow, Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, The Heritage Foundation
- Hon. Michael B. Mukasey, Partner, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP and former U.S. Attorney General
- Prof. William G. Otis, Adjunct Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center
- Moderator: Hon. William H. Pryor, Jr., U.S. Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit
For a host of reasons, I am very pleased and impressed that the Federalist Society brought together a bunch of leading conservatives with various viewpoints to discuss these issues at their National Lawyers Convention. (It would have been nice to have had more than a single panelist who was not a former senior official with the Bush Administration's Justice Department, but I suspect it might be hard to find many conservatives who know a lot about sentencing who were not part of the Bush Administration's Justice Department.)
Marshall Project investigation, "Death by Deadline," looks at capital appeals impact of AEDPA
As noted here yesterday, The Marshall Project, an important new reporting outlet focused on criminal justice issues, is now running full steam and has now lots of notable new content on its slick website. And the big first feature from The Marshall Project is a lengthy two-part investigative report titled "Death by Deadline" focused on the legal and practical impact of the capital appeal restriction in the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty ACt (AEDPA). Below are links and key passages from each part of the report.
An investigation by The Marshall Project shows that since President Bill Clinton signed the one-year statute of limitations into law — enacting a tough-on-crime provision that emerged in the Republicans' Contract with America — the deadline has been missed at least 80 times in capital cases. Sixteen of those inmates have since been executed — the most recent on Thursday, when Chadwick Banks was put to death in Florida.
[A]n investigation by The Marshall Project has found that in at least 80 capital cases in which lawyers have missed the deadline — sometimes through remarkable incompetence or neglect — it is almost always the prisoner alone who suffers the consequences.
Among the dozens of attorneys who have borne some responsibility for those mistakes, only one has been sanctioned for missing the deadline by a professional disciplinary body, the investigation found. And that attorney was given a simple censure, one of the profession's lowest forms of punishment. The lack of oversight or accountability has left many of the lawyers who missed the habeas deadlines free to seek appointment by the federal courts to new death-penalty appeals.
Investigation reveals "mandatory" Minnesota gun sentence not imposed in majority of cases
This interesting local investigative press report from Minnesota provides further evidence that mandatory minimum sentencing schemes are rarely applied consistently or evenly. The article is headlined "Mandatory sentences not always the case for Minnesota gun crimes," and here are excerpts:
Hennepin County judges have come under fire recently for their sentencing habits. Several top Minneapolis leaders are claiming some judges are soft on gun crimes, allowing dangerous criminals back on the streets when they could be in prison. To separate fact from fiction, KARE 11 Investigators analyzed every sentence for every felony gun crime during the past three years. We found that judges do not hand down mandatory minimum sentences in the majority of gun crime cases.
Under Minnesota law there is a mandatory minimum amount of time criminals who use a gun should be sentenced to serve in prison. But our KARE 11 investigation found the amount of time they are sentenced to prison, if they get prison time at all, varies greatly from court to court and judge to judge....
Our analysis of sentencing data provided by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission reveals in gun cases across all of Minnesota, judges give less than the mandatory minimum sentence 53% of the time. In Hennepin County, that jumps to 56%. Judge Richard Scherer, Judge Susan Robiner, Judge Mark Wernick, Judge Joseph Klein and Judge Daniel Moreno downward depart from mandatory sentencing in felony gun cases in more than two thirds of the cases they oversee. "And that's too much" said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.
Freeman's office routinely butts heads with district judges when it comes to sentencing in gun cases, especially when the conviction is for a felon being in possession of a handgun. On average in Minnesota, prosecutor's object to a judge's reduced sentence in gun cases only 12% of the time. But in Hennepin County, it happens in nearly 30% of gun cases. "I think the numbers speak for themselves. There's a different climate on this bench than there is elsewhere in this state," said Freeman.
But 4th District Chief Judge Peter Cahill disagrees. He says judges cannot be a rubber stamp for police and prosecutors, and the most important thing for them is to be fair and impartial. "We can't worry about stats," said Cahill. When KARE 11 Investigative reporter A.J. Lagoe asked Chief Judge Cahill if mandatory did not mean mandatory in Minnesota, Cahill responded, "not really." He says calling the state's mandatory minimum sentences mandatory is a "bit of a misnomer."
Cahill said the issue is very complex, and added "If you read the statute specifically, the legislature gave the court the ability to depart from the gun sentencing scheme." There is a section in Minnesota's minimum sentencing law that allows judges to disregard mandatory sentencing in gun cases if there are "substantial and compelling" reasons to do so. “If you read the statute specifically, the legislature gave the court the ability to depart from the gun sentencing scheme.”
Are there truly "substantial and compelling reasons" to hand down a lesser sentence in the majority of gun cases? It depends on who you ask. In the wake of a series of deadly summer shootings, Minneapolis's Police Chief Janee Harteau said, "we are arresting people who should have been kept in jail." Harteau and City Council President Barb Johnson began publically calling out Hennepin County judges for being soft on gun crimes and allowing dangerous criminals back on the street unnecessarily. "I am calling to them publicly this time to take gun crime seriously," said Johnson. "The penalties are there, impose them! When someone is arrested with a gun they need to do time!"
Minnesota sentencing statutes have a section referred to by the legal community as "mandatory mandatory sentences." If you're convicted a second time for a gun offense, judges are given no wiggle room. The law requires them to hand down at least the mandatory minimum. "Those are what we call hard 'mandatories' where there's no leeway for the court and we do impose those," said Chief Judge Cahill.
But KARE 11's investigation found that's not always the case. Take for example the rap sheet of Khayree Copeland. Copeland was busted in 2008 as a juvenile for possession of a short barreled shotgun. In 2011, now an adult, he was caught again with a gun. As a felon in possession, the mandatory minimum sentence he was facing was five years in prison. However Judge Robiner sentenced him to probation. Later that same year, Copeland was arrested again while carrying a handgun. His second offense as an adult, this time the law requires he get the "mandatory- mandatory" five years. But court records show Judge Richard Scherer gave him only four years in prison. "Members of my office protested both times and rightly so," said Freeman....
NOTE: While Hennepin judges see far and away more gun crime cases than any other jurisdiction, Carlton County judges are the most likely to cut a defendant a break. Judges there gave less than the mandatory minimum 100% of the time in the past three years.
Monday, November 17, 2014
"Death Penalty Drugs and the International Moral Marketplace"
The title of this post is the title of this timely new paper by James Gibson and Corinna Lain now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Across the country, executions have become increasingly problematic as states have found it more and more difficult to procure the drugs they need for lethal injection. At first blush, the drug shortage appears to be the result of pharmaceutical industry norms; companies that make drugs for healing have little interest in being merchants of death. But closer inspection reveals that European governments are the true instigators of the shortage. For decades, those governments have tried — and failed — to promote abolition of the death penalty through traditional instruments of international law. Turns out that the best way to export their abolitionist norms was to stop exporting their drugs.
At least three lessons follow. First, while the Supreme Court heatedly debates the use of international norms in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, that debate has largely become an academic sideshow; in the death penalty context, the market has replaced the positive law as the primary means by which international norms constrain domestic death penalty practice. Second, international norms may have entered the United States through the moral marketplace, but from there they have seeped into the zeitgeist, impacting the domestic death penalty discourse in significant and lasting ways. Finally, international norms have had such a pervasive effect on the death penalty in practice that they are now poised to influence even seemingly domestic Eighth Amendment doctrine. In the death penalty context, international norms are having an impact — through the market, through culture, and ultimately through doctrine — whether we formally recognize their influence or not.
The Marshall Project gets AG Holder to talk about his criminal justice reform work
I am pleased to see that The Marshall Project is now running full steam and has now lots of notable new content on its slick website. Though I am concerned that this notable criminal justice media project, like some others, may end up focusing too much attention on the death penalty, it seems clear that The Marshall Project is going to have lots of material that sentencing fans will want to follow regularly.
Most notably today, The Marhsall Project has posted this exclusive interview with outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder. The piece is headlined "Eric Holder on His Legacy, His Regrets, and His Feelings About the Death Penalty," though I consider the discussion about drug sentencing reform to be most interesting. The piece is a must-read, and here is how it gets started:
The Marshall Project: You’ve been pretty outspoken on criminal justice issues across the board – more outspoken than your boss, actually. What would you single out as your proudest accomplishment in the area of the criminal justice system, and what would you single out as your biggest disappointment?
Holder: In January 2013 I told the people in the Justice Department after the re-election that I wanted to focus on reforming the federal criminal justice system. I made an announcement in August of that year in San Francisco, when we rolled out the Smart on Crime initiative. It was a way of breaking some really entrenched thinking and asking prosecutors, investigators, the bureaucracy – to think about how we do our jobs in a different way – to ask the question of whether excessively long prison sentences for nonviolent offenders really served any good purpose, how we used enhancement papers, moving discretion to prosecutors and asking them to make individualized determinations about what they should do in cases, as opposed to have some big policy sent to them from Washington.
And I think that by and large – not without opposition, to be totally honest – the federal system has embraced that vision. And I think that we have started to see the kind of changes that I hoped we would see.
[MP]: And the biggest disappointment?
Holder: I’m proud of the fact that – in 2010, I guess – we reduced that ratio, the crack-powder, from 100-to-1 to about 17- or 18-to-1. I’m still disappointed that, given the lack of a pharmacological distinction between crack and cocaine, the ratio is not 1-to-1. You know, it was the product of a lot of hard work that the president was intimately involved in. But I think he would agree with me that that number should be at 1-to-1.
[MP]: Before the second term is over, could there be a push for a 1-to-1 ratio?
Holder: That is something that I know the president believes in, that I believe in. One of the things that I’d like to see happen before the end of this administration is that there would be a drug court in every district in this country. As I speak to my successor, the 83rd Attorney General, and as I speak to the president, I’m going to push them to make that a goal for this administration, to have a drug court in every district by the end of Barack Obama’s second term.
Sunday, November 16, 2014
"The Quiet Army: Felon Firearms Rights Restoration in the Fourth Circuit"
The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Robert Luther III now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This article discusses the restoration of firearm rights for felons and specifically addresses the methods by which individuals convicted of felonies under state law may be relieved of collateral federal firearms disabilities in the Fourth Circuit, with a particular emphasis on the practice in Virginia. It concludes by calling on the Fourth Circuit to make clear in an appropriate case that “a defendant’s ‘civil rights’ have been restored under state law for purposes of 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) if the state has also restored the defendant’s right to possess firearms.”
Due to the Supreme Court of Virginia's interpretation of the Virginia Constitution in Gallagher v. Commonwealth, which concluded that the governor lacked the authority to restore firearm rights and that only the state trial court could do so, the Fourth Circuit’s failure to construe 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) as suggested will have the unintended and disparate effect of failing to relieve all state-convicted felons in Virginia from their collateral federal firearm disabilities. To read 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) not to remove a federal firearms disability when the felon has received the unrestricted restoration of his firearm rights by a Virginia trial court would yield a perverse result because the purpose of this statute was to redirect the restoration process to the states.
Friday, November 14, 2014
Notable new AG Holder comments on reducing crime rates and incarceration levels
Last night Attorney General Eric Holder gave this speech at the Southern Center for Human Rights and had a lot to say about crime and punishment. Here are some passages that caught my eye (with one particular phrase emphasized):
Over the years, we’ve seen that over-incarceration doesn’t just crush individual opportunity. At a more fundamental level, it challenges our nation’s commitment to our highest ideals. And it threatens to undermine our pursuit of equal justice for all.
Fortunately, we come together this evening at a pivotal moment — when sweeping criminal justice reforms, and an emerging national consensus, are bringing about nothing less than a paradigm shift in the way our country addresses issues of crime and incarceration, particularly with respect to low-level, nonviolent drug offenses.
For the first time in many decades, it’s clear that we’re on the right track, and poised to realize dramatic reductions in criminal activity and incarceration. In fact, the rate of violent crime that was reported to the FBI in 2012 was about half the rate reported in 1993. This rate has declined by more than 11 percent just since President Obama took office. And the overall incarceration rate has gone down by more than 8 percent over the same brief period.
This marks the very first time that these two critical markers have declined together in more than 40 years. And the Justice Department’s current projections suggest that the federal prison population will continue to go down in the years ahead. As a result of the commonsense, evidence-based changes that my colleagues and I have implemented – under the landmark “Smart on Crime” initiative I launched last year — I’m hopeful that we’re witnessing the beginning of a trend that will only accelerate as new policies and initiatives fully take hold.
Our Smart on Crime approach is predicated on the notion that the criminal justice system must be continually improved — and strengthened — by the most effective and efficient strategies available. That’s why we’re increasing our focus on proven diversion and reentry programs – like drug courts, veterans’ courts, and job training initiatives – that can help keep people out of prison in appropriate cases, and enable those who have served their time to rejoin their communities as productive citizens. It’s why we are closely examining the shameful racial and ethnic disparities that too often plague the criminal justice process — and working to mitigate any unwarranted inequities. And it’s why I have mandated a significant change to the Justice Department’s charging policies — so that sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes will be determined based on the facts, the law, and the conduct at issue in each individual case and not on a one size fits all mandate from Washington....
Equal justice is not a Democratic value or a Republican value. It’s an American value — and a solemn pursuit – that speaks to the ideals that have always defined this great country. It goes to the very heart of who we are, and who we aspire to be, as a people. And it will always drive leaders of principle from across the political spectrum — including those in this room and others throughout the nation — to keep moving us forward along the path to transformative justice.
The phrases I highlighted should be of interest to all SCOTUS followers because the term "emerging national consensus" has great meaning and significance in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. I think it is quite right to say that there is now a constitutionally significant "emerging national consensus" concerning the use of mandatory long terms of imprisonment "particularly with respect to low-level, nonviolent drug offenses." And it is quite exciting to hear this legally-important phrase coming from the US Attorney General, especially because I think statements like this might lay the foundation for overturning, sooner rather than later, troublesome Eighth Amendment precedents like Harmelin v. Michigan (and maybe even also Ewing v. California).
NY Times debates "Parole When Innocence Is Claimed"
With the increasing notoriety of cases in which prisoners have proved their innocence, some parole boards have permitted the release of inmates without the traditional requirement that they admit their guilt, if there is strong evidence of wrongful convictions.
Should prisoners for whom there is substantial evidence of innocence be required to admit guilt to be granted parole?
Here are the contributions, with links via the commentary titles:
I Feared I’d Die in Prison for Maintaining My Innocence by Fernando Bermudez
The System Needs a Small Safety Valve for the Innocent by Paul Cassell
Don’t Incentivize Claims of Wrongful Conviction by Joshua Marquis
Confessions Are Not Reliable by Daniel Medwed
Requiring an Admission of Guilt Is Reasonable by William G. Otis
One of Many Factors to Consider by Leslie Crocker Snyder
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Federal judge wonders if marijuana sentencing should be impacted by state reforms
As reported in this Oregonian article, a "federal judge in Portland last week delayed the sentencing of a convicted bulk marijuana runner from Texas, saying he needed to get a better read on the U.S. Department of Justice's position on the drug before imposing a sentence." Here are more details:
U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman, presiding on Thursday in the case of U.S. v. Bounlith "Bong" Bouasykeo, asked lawyers if the vote in Oregon and a similar vote in Washington, D.C., signal "a shift in the attitude of people generally towards marijuana."
"I guess I'm curious whether I ought to slow this down a little bit," he asked lawyers, according to a transcript of the hearing obtained by The Oregonian. Under federal law, marijuana in any form or amount remains illegal.
Mosman wondered aloud if there was any move afoot to take a different position on marijuana enforcement in Oregon. This was not to suggest – he hastened to add – that he agreed on marijuana legalization. The judge wondered whether his position on sentencing ought to move a notch in the defendant's favor because of the nation's evolving view of pot.
"I'm not suggesting that what's on the table is that the whole case ought to go away or anything like that," the judge said. "But would something like that at the margins have some sort of impact on my sentencing considerations? I think I ought to take into account any evolving or shifting views of the executive branch in determining the seriousness of the crime?
"Should I delay this, in your view, or go ahead today (with sentencing)?" After hearing arguments from the lawyers, Mosman decided to delay Bouasykeo's punishment.
November 12, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
"A Comprehensive Administrative Solution to the Armed Career Criminal Act Debacle"
The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new piece authored by Avi Kupfer and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
For thirty years, the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) has imposed a fifteen-year mandatory minimum sentence on those people convicted as felons in possession of a firearm or ammunition who have three prior convictions for a violent felony or serious drug offense. Debate about the law has existed mainly within a larger discussion on the normative value of mandatory minimums. Assuming that the ACCA endures, however, administering it will continue to be a challenge. The approach that courts use to determine whether past convictions qualify as ACCA predicate offenses creates ex ante uncertainty and the potential for intercourt disparities. Furthermore, the Supreme Court's guidance on sentencing ACCA defendants has been unclear. The resulting ambiguity creates inequity between defendants and fails to give them fair warning of the statute's scope. This ambiguity also depletes the resources of courts, defendants, and prosecutors and prevents the statute from realizing its full potential of deterring violent crime.
This Note argues that rather than allowing this debacle to continue, Congress should delegate to a federal agency the task of compiling a binding list of state statutes that qualify as predicate offenses. Under this approach, the states would assist the federal agency by providing initial guidance on their ambiguous statutes. The U.S. Sentencing Commission has the manpower, subject familiarity, and institutional incentives to build and maintain the appendix, and state sentencing commissions would make ideal partners. In states that do not have sentencing commissions, comparable agencies and even properly incentivized attorneys general may be able to aid the federal Sentencing Commission. Congress should leverage this undertaking to resolve related definitional questions about the meaning of a violent crime in other areas of federal law.
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Legislation to get Ohio back on track with lethal injections being fast-tracked
As reported in this local article, headlined "Death-penalty reform bill would protect execution drug makers, physicians who testify," it appears that the state legislative process is moving forward to enact new regulations to help Ohio get back into the business of executions. Here are the details (with my emphasis added at the end):
Makers of Ohio's lethal-injection drugs would be kept anonymous, and physicians who testify about the state's execution method couldn't have their medical license revoked, under House legislation introduced Monday. Attorney General Mike DeWine has said that lawmakers need to pass the reforms if Ohio is to resume executions next year, once a court-ordered moratorium ends.
Ohio, along with many other states, has been struggling to settle on an execution method, as many large pharmaceutical companies have refused to continue selling drugs used for lethal injection. The state's current two-drug cocktail is being challenged in court and has been used in controversial executions in Ohio and Arizona.
House Bill 663 would keep secret the identities of compounding pharmacies, small-scale drug manufacturers that create individual doses of lethal-injection drugs on demand. The proposed change is a sign that state officials could turn to compounding pharmacies for lethal-injection drugs that courts have upheld but that larger companies have stopped selling, such as pentobarbital. Rep. Jim Buchy, a Greenville Republican co-sponsoring the bill, said the measure would protect compounding pharmacies from lawsuits.
Another proposed change in the bill would prevent the Ohio State Medical Association from revoking or suspending the license of any physician who provides expert testimony on the state's death penalty. Such immunity is needed, supporters say, because the state is worried that doctors will refuse to testify in defense of Ohio's lethal-injection protocol for fear that they'll run afoul of medical ethics....
House Speaker Bill Batchelder, a Medina Republican, and Senate President Keith Faber, a Celina Republican, each said last week they plan to pass the legislation. "That is something that we cannot leave in abeyance, otherwise we're going to have people who pass away prior to execution," Batchelder said.
I have a inkling that Speaker Batchelder's comments emphasized above may have been taken a little out of context, as the quote makes it seem he considers it is essential to fix quickly Ohio's machinery of death so that prisoners do not die on their own before being able to be killed by the state.
Notable past remarks by AG-nominee Lynch on criminal justice reform to the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
I just came across these remarks delivered by Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch in August 2014 to the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Switzerland as part of the US delegation. These remarks were intended to share with the Convention "some of the highlights of the Department of Justice’s efforts to eliminate racial discrimination and uphold human rights in the area of criminal justice."
The remarks are largely just a summary of many of the criminal justice reforms championed by Attorney General Eric Holder, but it will be interesting to see if the remarks garner special scrutiny as part of the Senate's confirmation process. Here are excerpts:
[T]he department has made great progress in reforming America’s criminal justice system. Our focus is not just on the prosecution of crime, but on eradicating its root causes as well as providing support for those re-entering society after having paid their debt to it.
There is, of course, much work still to be done. Currently our country imprisons approximately 2.2 million people, disproportionately people of color. This situation is a drain on both precious resources and human capital. The Attorney General is committed to reform of this aspect of our criminal justice system.
Last August the Attorney General announced the “Smart on Crime” initiative. Under this initiative, we’re ensuring that stringent mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal drug crimes will now be reserved for the most serious criminals. This is not an abandonment of prison as a means to reduce crime, but rather a recognition that, quite often, less prison can also work to reduce crime. We’re advancing alternative programs in place of incarceration in appropriate cases. And we’re committed to providing formerly incarcerated people with fair opportunities to rejoin their communities and become productive, law-abiding citizens.
As part of this effort, the Attorney General has directed every component of the Justice Department to review proposed rules, regulations or guidance with an eye to whether they may impose collateral consequences that may prevent reintegration into society. He has called upon state leaders to do the same, with a particular focus on enacting reforms to restore voting rights to those who have served their debt to society, thus ending the chain of permanent disenfranchisement that visits many of them.
To further ensure that the elimination of discrimination is an ongoing priority, the Attorney General has created a Racial Disparities Working Group, led by the U.S. Attorney community, to identify policies that result in unwarranted disparities within criminal justice and to eliminate those disparities as quickly as possible.
From the reduction of the use of solitary confinement, to the expansion of the federal clemency program, to our support for the retroactive reduction of penalties for non-violent drug offenders to the reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, we have worked to improve our criminal justice system in furtherance of our human rights treaty obligations. We look forward to the future and the opportunity to do even more.
Obviously, if Loretta Lynch become the next US Attorney General, she will be in a great position to seize "the opportunity to do even more" with respect to criminal justice reform. I wonder what she might have in mind.
A few recent related posts:
- Prez Obama selects Loretta Lynch to replace Eric Holder as US Attorney General
- Minnesota judges say we must admit "we have a problem with race" in the criminal justice system