Monday, April 06, 2015

What would it mean for DEA and DOJ to "defeat the Washington machine and unleash the American dream”?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Politico article about the notable slogan to be used by a notable new presidential candidate.  The piece is headlined "Rand Paul unveils populist, anti-establishment slogan," and here are excerpts:

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) gave POLITICO a sneak peek at the slogan he will unveil at his presidential campaign announcement on Tuesday: “Defeat the Washington machine. Unleash the American dream.” The slogan, beneath the RANDPAC logo of a torch flame, will set the tone as the senator kicks off a five-day, five-state announcement tour — starting in Kentucky and then going to New Hampshire, South Carolina, Iowa and Nevada (plus a Friday night fundraiser in Newport Beach, Calif.).

The slogan is designed to evoke populist, anti-establishment themes that would work in both the primaries and the general election. A Paul adviser said of the slogan: “You could say that is a hat tip to Hillary — a subtle contrast to Hillary. But why wouldn’t that also apply to Jeb? Or someone who has never had a [recent] job outside elected office — Scott Walker?”

Advisers say Paul’s top issues will include a flat tax, IRS reform, term limits, privacy and justice reform.

As regular readers know, Senator Rand Paul has been a leading and potent voice for federal drug war and federal sentencing reform for a number of years. The US Department of Justice is a big part of the "Washington machine," and many folks interested in marijuana legalization are looking to live the American dream of working in this new industry without fear that the Drug Enforcement Agency will come after them. Though I doubt Senator Paul will be making these federal criminal justice issues his first talking point in his coming stump speeches, I am confident and excited that he is likely to be talking more about these important federal criminal justice issues than any other presidential candidate ever has in recent decades.

April 6, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"Does the Death Penalty Require Death Row? The Harm of Legislative Silence"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article by Marah Stith McLeod now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This Article exposes two flawed assumptions about death row in leading scholarship and judicial opinions.  The first flawed assumption is that death row is an inevitable consequence of a death sentence.  The second flawed assumption is that prison administrators should be entrusted with the decision whether to retain death row.

The Article will show that death row cannot be justified on prison security grounds, but, contrary to the claims of some scholars, it may be justified for other punishment purposes. Using extensive state-by-state research, the Article shows that in most jurisdictions, harsh death row conditions result not from statutory commands, but from discretionary administrative policies.  This Article argues that legislatures, not prison administrators, should decide whether death row is a necessary aspect of capital punishment, for two reasons.  Prison administrators may not be able to assess objectively whether death row serves legitimate purposes, because of their roles in the execution process.  More importantly, legislatures and not prison administrators have the duty to decide whether punishment is just.

If death row is to be tethered by law to a death sentence, then this legal tether should be drawn by statute, after public deliberation and debate, and not by administrative fiat.  If legislatures conclude that the death penalty does not require death row, then they must forbid prison administrators from so augmenting the sentence for a capital crime.

April 6, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 05, 2015

NY Times notes Justice Kennedy's criminal justice perspective

Today's New York Times has this extended editorial effectively contextualizing recent comments by SCOTUS Justice Anthony Kennedy headlined "Justice Kennedy’s Plea to Congress." Here are excerpts:

Members of the Supreme Court rarely speak publicly about their views on the sorts of issues that are likely to come before them. So it was notable when Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer sat before a House appropriations subcommittee recently and talked about the plight of the American criminal justice system.

Justice Kennedy did not mince his words. “In many respects, I think it’s broken,” he said. It was a good reminder of the urgency of the problem, and a stark challenge to a Congress that remains unable to pass any meaningful sentencing reform, despite the introduction of multiple bipartisan bills over the past two years....

“The corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions we have in our entire government,” he said. He chastised the legal profession for being focused only on questions of guilt and innocence, and not what comes after. “We have no interest in corrections,” he said. “Nobody looks at it.”

That is not entirely fair; many lawyers and legal scholars have devoted their careers to studying the phenomenon of mass incarceration in America and to improving intolerable prison conditions. But Justice Kennedy was right that all too often decisions about sentencing and corrections are made without meaningful consideration of their long­-term costs and benefits, or of their effect on the millions of people who spend decades behind bars. “This idea of total incarceration just isn’t working,” he said. “And it’s not humane.”...

Justice Kennedy — whose regular role as the swing vote on a closely divided court gives him tremendous power — has a mixed record on [the Eighth] amendment.  Several times he has voted to uphold breathtakingly long sentences for nonviolent crimes.  For example, in two 2003 cases, he joined the five­-member majority that let stand sentences of 25 years to life and 50 years to life for men convicted in California of thefts totaling a few hundred dollars.

Justice Kennedy’s response to such manifestly unjust results is that fixing prison sentences is the job of lawmakers, not the courts. But that too easily absolves the justices of their constitutional responsibility.  The four justices dissenting in the California cases argued that those grossly disproportionate sentences violated the Eighth Amendment.

In more recent years, Justice Kennedy has increasingly invoked the amendment in sentencing cases, as he did in writing the 2008 decision prohibiting the death penalty as a punishment for child rape, and in 2010 and 2012 when he voted to bar sentences of life without parole for juveniles in most circumstances. He also relied on it in a 2011 decision ordering California to reduce overcrowding in its prisons, a condition that threatened inmates’ physical and mental health.

Justice Breyer, who before joining the court helped design the modern federal sentencing guidelines in the 1980s, told the committee of his own concerns about the justice system, and in particular was sharply critical of mandatory minimum sentences. Such sentences, he told the representatives, are “a terrible idea.”

The justices were right to lay these issues directly at Congress’s door. They can accomplish only so much on their own. Meanwhile, states from Texas to California to New York to Mississippi have been reforming their prisons and their sentencing laws for several years now, with overwhelmingly positive results. Now it is Congress’s turn to reform the unjustly harsh and ineffective sentencing laws it passed in the first place.

Prior related post:

April 5, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, April 04, 2015

In praise of Senator Charles Grassley's advocacy for criminal justice transparency and accountability (and his one blind spot)

GrassleyWith respect to sentencing policy and procedure, I frequently disagree with the current Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley.  But on the topic of federal court transparency, I surmise that Senator Grassley and I have very similar views as evidence by this new National Law Journal op-ed penned by the Senator.  The piece is headlined "Legislation Allowing Cameras in the Courtroom More Important Than Ever, and here are excerpts:

In [the Boston Bombing] high-profile case and countless others, the mechanics of our criminal justice system work day in and day out to provide equal justice under the law.  Before a jury of peers, prosecutors make the government's case on behalf of the people, and the defense works to give the accused a fair trial.  America's system of justice, including our bedrock constitutional principles guaranteeing due process, a fair and speedy trial, and the right to counsel, is a tangible right of citizenship that too often goes unnoticed. That's because a majority of Americans aren't able to look under the hood to see it — at least not in federal courts, which ban cameras from their courtrooms.

The federal trial in Boston carries significant public interest.  And yet, the ban on cameras disallows the public to bear witness to the public proceeding.  Courtroom sketches and tweets from reporters arguably don't do justice for most people, especially those who have a keen interest to see justice served.

In this day and age when the American public is hard-wired to access what they want to see, when they want to see it, it's hard to square the injustice of essentially banning broad civic engagement from our judicial system by banning cameras from the federal courtroom.

Blockbuster trials certainly ­generate a lot of attention.  They renew ­interest in something I've been working to achieve for nearly two decades.  And that is to unlock the federal courtroom door to cameras.  As a co-equal branch of the federal government, the federal judiciary serves a fundamental function in our ­system of self-government.  It alone interprets the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress and managed by the executive branch.  Although removed from electoral politics by constitutional design, the federal judiciary and Article III judges are not part of a royal class or monarchy.  The federal judiciary is the custodian of constitutional rights and providing equal justice under the law. If anything, the federal judiciary ought to be the first to throw open the shutters to bring this extraordinary branch of government to life for ordinary Americans.

As a longtime crusader for more transparency, I've worked to spread sunshine through the halls of the federal government.  Transparency, and the accountability that comes with it, renews credibility in our institutions of government and strengthens our free and open society.  The same goes for civic engagement.  Allowing courtroom proceedings to be broadcast would give more citizens an opportunity to develop a better appreciation for the federal judiciary and how the wheels of justice serve the public good.

With very few exceptions, the public's business ought to be public.  Period.  My leadership on this issue has prompted a few steps in the right direction, such as the adoption of pilot programs to allow cameras into some federal courts.  The most recent program was launched in 2011 and includes 14 federal trial courts.  So far, the sky has not fallen and the program will wrap up this summer.  The courts will report back to Congress next year.

Each of the 50 states allows some level of camera access in their courtrooms.  As far as I know, the recording and broadcasting of state trials haven't turned the carriage of justice into a pumpkin.  To me, it's a miscarriage of justice that the 20th century courtroom camera ban still exists in the 21st century at the federal level....

[M]y bipartisan bill would allow the presiding judge discretion to protect the privacy of witnesses and private conversations among clients, lawyers and the judge.  It prohibits the televising of jurors and includes measures to protect due process rights.  The bipartisan verdict on this issue exceeds reasonable doubt. Allowing cameras into the federal courtroom would foster better civic engagement with our courts of law and, ultimately, strengthen the court of public opinion about the integrity of our judicial system in American society.

The burden of proof is clear.  It's time to lift this arbitrary barrier to transparency.  Let's end the camera ban and raise the bar on good government.

I could not agree more strongly with this forceful assertion by Senator Grassley: "With very few exceptions, the public's business ought to be public. Period."  Now I just wish Senator Grassley would come to understand that his righteous commitment to transparency and accountability in the federal criminal justice system is deeply undermined by his steadfast support for federal mandatory minimum sentencing statutes and the extraordinary hidden power they place in the hands of unelected federal prosecutors.

Existing federal mandatory minimum statutes enable federal prosecutors to make profoundly consequential sentencing decision behind closed doors without any explanation, transparency or accountability. The US Sentencing Commission and others have frequently documented the profound sentencing impact of the hidden charging and bargaining decisions made by federal prosecutors using mandatory minimum sentencing provision.  It is near impossible to even know what decisions are being made by prosecutors in the use of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions, let alone to assess effectively the legitimacy of the factors employed by prosecutors in their charging and bargaining decisions, because prosecutors need never explain or justify these sentencing decisions in any way.

My general disaffinity for federal mandatory minimum sentencing statutes is deeply based in my strong belief that "the public's business ought to be public."  Because it seems Senator Grassley is truly and deeply committed to the values of transparency and accountability in the federal criminal justice system, I hope he will at some point come to understand how his support for federal mandatory minimums problematically disserve these critical values.

April 4, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Friday, April 03, 2015

AG-nominee Loretta Lynch has votes for confirmation, but is still waiting for a confirmation vote

This new Politico article, headlined "Mark Kirk will back Loretta Lynch, assuring confirmation," reveals that enough GOP Senators have now indicated their support for confirmation of Prez Obama's selected replacement for Attorney General Eric Holder.  Here are the details:

Attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch won’t need Vice President Joe Biden’s vote after all. Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, who was complimentary of Lynch after meeting with her last month, said at a Thursday event in Chicago that he would vote to confirm her.

He becomes the fifth Republican to publicly support Lynch, and with all 46 Senate Democrats expected to back her nomination, Lynch now has the votes to be confirmed without Biden coming to the Capitol to break a tie....

Just a few hours earlier, aides to indicted Sen. Robert Menendez said the embattled New Jersey Democrat will also support Lynch’s nomination to be the nation’s top law enforcement official. That means Lynch almost surely has the 51 votes necessary to win confirmation.

Lynch may be able to cobble together a few more votes, with several undecided senators remaining like Rob Portman of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, all like Kirk up for reelection next year. But there’s still no resolution to an abortion dispute over a sex trafficking bill that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says must first be resolved before Lynch’s nomination comes to the floor.

Senators and aides in both parties have been discussing a way forward on the trafficking bill for weeks, though no resolution is expected until the Senate reconvenes after Easter recess on April 13.

I surmise that current Attorney General Eric Holder has kept a fairly low profile since he announced his plans to resign in the hope that his actions would not slow the confirmation of his replacement. But I have long thought that the surest way to get Holder's replacement confirmed would be for Holder himself to be even more active, not more passive, so that the Republicans in control of the Senate would have a reason to get him out of his office.

April 3, 2015 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Amnesty International reports on death penalty administration around the world

Via this webpage, Amnesty International provides a report in multiple languages on what it can confirm about the use of the death penalty throughout the world in 2014.  This AI blog posting, headlined "Death Penalty: 607 executions – the story behind the numbers," provides some highlights from the report and some backstory:

The numbers behind our latest overview of the global use of the death penalty, released today, tell a chilling story: 607 people were executed in 22 countries and at least 2,466 men and women were sentenced to death in 55 countries in 2014 alone. But, alarming as they are, the figures paint a partial picture of the true extent to which people are hanged, shot or given the lethal injection across the world.

The reality is likely to be much gloomier but many governments refuse to come clean about how many people they kill each year. In countries such as Eritrea, Malaysia, North Korea and Syria, very little information about the use of the death penalty is available due to restrictive state practice or political instability.

In others, such as Japan, executions are carried out without notice, and prisoners are left waiting on death row every day wondering if it will be their last. In Belarus, the only country in Europe to still use the death penalty, family members of executed prisoners usually only find out the fate of their loved ones when they visit them at the prison only to be told their relative is no longer there.

China, the country believed to execute more individuals than the rest of the world put together, considers information about the death penalty a “state secret”, just like Vietnam. The Chinese authorities have claimed that the number of executions in the country has decreased since the Supreme People’s Court began reviewing all death penalty cases in 2007. Unfortunately, this claim is impossible to corroborate....

That is the “glass half empty”. But the story does not end there. Despite the alarming number of people sentenced to death and executed, most of the world is moving in the right direction - away from the ultimate punishment.

In 2014, the number of recorded executions dropped by almost 22% in comparison to 2013. Fewer executions were recorded in all regions, except Europe and Central Asia, in 2014 than in 2013.

In 1945, when the United Nations was founded, only eight countries had abolished the death penalty. Today 140 states are abolitionist in law or practice.

April 2, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

"For principle to be served, 22 worthy, long-term narcotics prisoners granted release needs to become 2,200 or more."

The title of this post is a provocative line from this commentary piece by Mark Osler in reaction to President Obama's grants of clemency yesterday (basics here).   Here are more of his sentiments:

In one day, Obama commuted almost as many sentences as Reagan and George W. Bush did in 16 years.

What we are glimpsing like a gorilla in the mist might be something so rare it has not been spotted in four decades: the principled use of the pardon power in a systemic way to address injustice.  It could even be the reclaiming of a core Constitutional imperative that was squandered by President Clinton in his last days in office, and largely ignored by President Reagan and both Bushes.  Or maybe not; it all depends on what comes next....

The president has most of the work ahead of him if he is really to reclaim the pardon power from its long period of disrepute.  Tuesday’s 22 men and women are largely symbolic, representing the thousands like them who remain in prison.

Perhaps most importantly, the president should reform the pardon process so that it doesn’t need special initiatives like the Clemency Project 2014.  Like Presidents Bush and Clinton before him, Obama complained of not getting good cases.  The problem is the system that delivers those cases to his desk, which winds its way through the Department of Justice and the White House, navigating as many as seven levels of review....

[M]any of the most efficient [state] systems use a clemency board to make recommendations directly to the executive.  Establishing such a board cuts the levels of review down to just a few and opens up other opportunities.  For example, such a board could compile and analyze data on those released and their success, providing guidance for future cases.

The fact that 22 clemencies is historic says more about the state of federal clemency than it does about this toe-in-the-water action, given that there are over 200,000 people in federal prisons across the United States.  At best, it is a symbolic gesture, and the coming reality will be good for the prisoners released, good for the communities they return to, and good for a living Constitution in need of balance.

Prior related post:

April 1, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

"A Republican Governor Is Leading the Country's Most Successful Prison Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new piece from The New Republic.  Here are excerpts:

During his second inaugural address this past January, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal shared the story of Sean Walker. After serving 12 years of a life sentence for murder, Walker was paroled in 2005 and began working in the governor’s mansion while in a state transitional center. At the time of Deal’s address, Walker was working for Goodwill as a banquet catering sales coordinator and was nominated for Goodwill International Employee of the Year. As of January, Walker was planning to take college courses with the hope of becoming a counselor.

Deal, who got to know Walker at the governor’s mansion, shared the story to underscore his own “message to those in our prison system and to their families: If you pay your dues to society, if you take advantage of the opportunities to better yourself, if you discipline yourself so that you can regain your freedom and live by the rules of society, you will be given the chance to reclaim your life.” He continued, “I intend for Georgia to continue leading the nation with meaningful justice reform.”

That last sentence could seem at best like optimism, and at worst like hyperbole. However, one could reasonably argue that Georgia is doing more to reform its criminal justice system than any other state in the country — from sentencing to felon employment after release to juvenile detention.

Over the last four years, mandatory sentencing minimums have been modified, and judges’ discretion in sentencing has been expanded. The adult prison population has been given enhanced access to educational resources, including a program that enables two charter schools in the state to go into prisons to teach inmates, and those participating earn a high school diploma instead of a GED. (Studies suggest that some recipients of a GED tend not to fare any better in employment prospects than high school dropouts do.)

In addition, inmates with felonies applying to work for the state no longer have to check a box on their job applications that discloses their criminal histories and would often disqualify them from being considered for a job from the outset. “We banned the box,” said Deal, “It is not going to affect them getting an interview.” The state has also invested $17 million into measures aimed at reducing recidivism and rehabilitating low-risk, nonviolent offenders — including expanding accountability courts like those for drug use and DUIs, and funding community-based programs that have already proven to be more cost-effective than a prison sentence and are designed to reduce crime in the long run....

Some, like Vikrant Reddy, a senior policy analyst at Right on Crime and at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice, label Georgia’s criminal justice reforms conservative because they are saving the state millions, putting them in line with conservative fiscal values. Others, like Alison Holcomb, the national director of ACLU’s Campaign to End Mass Incarceration, call the reforms expansive for their holistic agenda—with improving educational and re-entry opportunities for inmates at the top of the list. The reforms have been called innovative, though some argue that it isn’t the reform initiatives themselves, so much as the way they’re being applied together that is unprecedented.

April 1, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Should the Supreme Court reflect the country's "disenchantment with capital punishment"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new New York Times commentary by Linda Greenhouse headlined "The Supreme Court's Death Trap."  Here are excerpts:

You wouldn’t know it from the death penalty proceeding about to take place in the Boston Marathon case, or from Utah’s reauthorization of the firing squad, or the spate of botched lethal injections, but capital punishment in the United States is becoming vestigial.

The number of death sentences imposed last year, 72, was the lowest in 40 years. The number of executions, 35, was the lowest since 1994, less than half the modern peak of 98, reached in 1999.  Seven states, the fewest in 25 years, carried out executions.

California has the country’s biggest death row, with more than 700 inmates.  Many more of them die of natural causes — two since mid-­March — than by execution.  Last July, a federal district judge, Cormac J. Carney, concluding that California’s death penalty had become “dysfunctional,” “random” and devoid of “penological purpose,” declared it unconstitutional; the state is appealing.

But if there’s one place that seems to stand apart from the tide of disenchantment with capital punishment, it’s the Supreme Court....

Adam Liptak, the Supreme Court correspondent for The Times, has highlighted the disturbing way the court handled a challenge to Missouri’s lethal­-injection protocol back in January: first, over four dissenting votes, permitting the state to execute Charles F. Warner, one of four inmates who had filed appeals, only to agree a week later to hear the appeals of three identically situated inmates.  The court then granted stays of execution to the three and will hear their case, Glossip v. Gross, on April 29....

A Texas death­-row inmate, Lester Leroy Bower Jr., managed to win a stay of execution in February to enable the justices to decide whether to hear his challenge to the state courts’ handling of his mitigating evidence.  Last week, the Supreme Court turned down his appeal, thus dissolving the stay, over the dissenting votes of Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor; Justice Breyer, not given to overstatement, wrote that “the error here is glaring.” Since at least two others must have voted for the stay, where were they? Perhaps after carefully considering the merits of Mr. Bower’s appeal, they found itinsufficient. Fair enough. But shouldn’t they have felt moved to tell us something — anything?

An argument on Monday was simply dispiriting. A Louisiana inmate, Kevan Brumfield, with an I.Q. of 75, was sentenced to death before the Atkins decision barred the execution of mentally disabled people.  At trial, his lawyer had presented some evidence of his disability, but not in the detail a court would expect in the post-­Atkins world.  The question for the justices in Brumfield v. Cain was whether he should have received a new hearing. The obvious answer would seem to be: Of course, why on earth not?  But the justices seemed more concerned about whether Mr. Brumfield and his lawyer were trying to game the system.

In 2008, two years before he retired, Justice John Paul Stevens renounced the death penalty.  His nuanced opinion in Baze v. Rees rewards rereading.  No current justice has taken up the call. I’m not so naïve as to predict that a majority of the Supreme Court will declare the death penalty unconstitutional anytime soon.  But the voice of even one member of the court could set a clarifying marker to which others would have to respond. And it just might over time point the way to freeing the court — and the rest of us — from the machinery of death.

April 1, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

"Plea Bargaining and the Substantive and Procedural Goals of Criminal Justice: From Retribution and Adversarialism to Preventive Justice and Hybrid-Inquisitorialism"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article by always interesting Christopher Slobogin. Here is the abstract:

Plea bargaining and guilty pleas are intrinsically incompatible with the most commonly-accepted premises of American criminal justice — to wit, retributivism and adversarialism. This article argues that the only way to align plea bargaining with the substantive and procedural premises of American criminal justice is to change those premises. It imagines a system where retribution is no longer the lodestar of criminal punishment, and where party-control of the process is no longer the desideratum of adjudication.

If, instead, plea bargaining were seen as a mechanism for implementing a sentencing regime focused primarily on individual crime prevention rather than retribution (as in the salad days of indeterminate sentencing), and if it were filtered through a system that is inquisitorial (i.e., judicially-monitored) rather than run by the adversaries, it would have a much greater chance of evolving into a procedurally coherent mechanism for achieving substantively accurate results.

April 1, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Prez Obama starts to "walk the walk" on clemency by granting 22 new drug offense commutations

Long-time readers know I have long complained about Prez Obama's failure to make regular use of his clemency power, and I have been especially critical over the last year when we have heard the President and his agents "talk the talk" a lot about a new clemency initiative, but not actually "walk the walk" by granting relief in a significant number of cases.  But today, as reported in this USA Today article, may finally mark the start of a truly new clemency era:

President Obama commuted the sentences of 22 convicted federal prisoners Tuesday, shortening their sentences for drug-related crimes. Eight of the prisoners who will have their sentences reduced were serving life sentences. All but one of the 22 will be released on July 28.

The White House said Obama made the move in order to grant to older prisoners the same leniency that would be given to people convicted of the same crimes today. "Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement. "Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years—in some cases more than a decade—longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime."

In issuing the commutations Tuesday, Obama has more than doubled the number he's granted in his presidency. Before Tuesday, he had issued just 21 and denied 782 commutations in his more than six years. It was the most commutations issued by a president in a single day since President Clinton issued 150 pardons and 40 commutations on his last day in office.

And it could represent the crest of a new wave of commutations that could come in Obama's last two years in office. Last year, the Justice Department announced a new clemency initiative to try to encourage more low-level drug offenders to apply to have their sentences reduced. That resulted in a record 6,561 applications in the last fiscal year, at least two of which were granted commutations Tuesday, according to the Justice Department....

Obama wrote each of the 22 Tuesday, saying they had demonstrated the potential to turn their lives around. "Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will encounter many who doubt people with criminal records can change," Obama wrote. "I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong."

Of the 22 commutations granted Tuesday, 17 were for possession or trafficking in cocaine. The others were for methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana. One was also convicted of a gun charge in addition to cocaine possession. Their convictions cover a 14-year span from 1992 to 2006.

A list of the 22 individuals receiving commutations today is available via this official White House press release, and the White House blog has this new entry by Neil Eggleston titled "Upholding the Principle of Fairness in Our Criminal Justice System Through Clemency." Here is an excerpt from that entry:

Building on his commitment to address instances of unfairness in sentencing, President Obama granted 22 commutations today to individuals serving time in federal prison. Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years — in some cases more than a decade — longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime.

In total, the 22 commutations granted today underscore the President’s commitment to using all the tools at his disposal to bring greater fairness and equity to our justice system. Further, they demonstrate how exercising this important authority can remedy imbalances and rectify errors in sentencing. Added to his prior 21 commutations, the President has now granted 43 commutations total. To put President Obama’s actions in context, President George W. Bush commuted 11 sentences in his eight years in office....

While today’s announcement represents important progress, there’s more work ahead. The Administration will continue to work to review thoroughly all petitions for clemency. And, while commutation is an important tool for those seeking justice and fairness in our penal system, it is nearly always an option of last resort, coming after a lengthy court process and many years behind bars. That is why President Obama is committed to working with Democrats and Republicans on sensible reforms to our criminal justice system that aim to give judges more discretion over mandatory minimum sentencing. As the Department of Justice has noted, mandatory minimum sentences have at times resulted in harsher penalties for non-violent drug offenders than many violent offenders and are not necessary for prosecutions at this level.

Already, one significant reform has become law. In 2010, the President signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity in the amounts of powder cocaine and crack cocaine required for the imposition of mandatory minimum penalties. The President is encouraged by the bipartisan support for improving our criminal justice system, including promising legislation that would implement front-end changes in sentencing. In addition, he supports bipartisan efforts to provide back-end support through better education and job training for those currently incarcerated and to reform of our juvenile justice system to build on the significant reductions in the number of youth being held in secure facilities.

March 31, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Another pharmacy group expresses opposition to involvement in executions

As noted in this prior post, last week a trade group for compound pharmacists has discouraged its members from preparing or dispensing drugs for executions.  Now, as reported in this new NBC News article, the "American Pharmacists Association voted Monday to oppose participation in executions, declaring that helping put prisoners to death violates the goals and oath of the profession." Here is more about these developments:

Neither policy is binding, but they could dissuade specialty pharmacists — now the only source for lethal injections in many states — from selling their products to prisons for executions. "It adds to the difficulty," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports capital punishment. "It's unfortunate that groups such as this would allow themselves to be dragged into a political dispute."

But Corinna Lain, a professor at the Richmond School of Law, said it has more to do with the bottom line. With just 35 executions across the country last year, lethal injections are not a big profit center. "The cost of these drugs has skyrocketed from something like $83 a vial to $1,200 to $1,500 a vial. But that's still a drop in the bucket for a pharmacy's total sales. And look at the downside — the negative publicity is tremendous. Executions are bad for business for compounding pharmacies for the same reason they were bad for business for the pharmaceutical companies."...

Scheidgger said he hopes that at least a few compounding pharmacies will buck the trade groups and continue to sell their products to prisons until a new source is found. "I expect states will eventually find a supply and this problem will go away," he said.

March 31, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, March 30, 2015

Two SCOTUS summary reversals: a notable sex-offender monitoring issue and another AEDPA enforcement

In addition to granting cert on a bunch of Kansas capital cases, the US Supreme Court this morning issued two short per curiam summary reversals today in Grady v. North Carolina, No. 14-593 (S. Ct. March 30, 2015) (available here), and Woods v. Donald, No. 14-618 (S. Ct. March 30, 2015) (available here).  The second of these rulings is just another example of the Justices helping a circuit (this time the Sixth) better understand that AEDPA precludes a habeas grant unless and until an "underlying state-court decision [is] 'contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by' [the Supreme Court]."  

But the first of these rulings are notable because it clarifies and confirms that the Fourth Amendment is applicable to sex offender monitoring.  Here are key passages from the ruling in Grady:

Petitioner Torrey Dale Grady was convicted in North Carolina trial courts of a second degree sexual offense in 1997 and of taking indecent liberties with a child in 2006. After serving his sentence for the latter crime, Grady was ordered to appear in New Hanover County Superior Court for a hearing to determine whether he should be subjected to satellite-based monitoring (SBM) as a recidivist sex offender.  See N. C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§14–208.40(a)(1), 14– 208.40B (2013).  Grady did not dispute that his prior convictions rendered him a recidivist under the relevant North Carolina statutes.  He argued, however, that the monitoring program — under which he would be forced to wear tracking devices at all times — would violate his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.  Unpersuaded, the trial court ordered Grady to enroll in the program and be monitored for the rest of his life....

The only explanation provided below for the rejection of Grady’s challenge is [a] passage from [a prior state ruling].  And the only theory we discern in that passage is that the State’s system of nonconsensual satellite-based monitoring does not entail a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.  That theory is inconsistent with this Court’s precedents....

[T]he State argues that we cannot be sure its program for satellite-based monitoring of sex offenders collects any information.  If the very name of the program does not suffice to rebut this contention, the text of the statute surely does....  The State’s program is plainly designed to obtain information.  And since it does so by physically intruding on a subject’s body, it effects a Fourth Amendment search.

That conclusion, however, does not decide the ultimate question of the program’s constitutionality.  The Fourth Amendment prohibits only unreasonable searches.  The reasonableness of a search depends on the totality of the circumstances, including the nature and purpose of the search and the extent to which the search intrudes upon reasonable privacy expectations.  See, e.g., Samson v. California, 547 U. S. 843 (2006) (suspicionless search of parolee was reasonable); Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton, 515 U. S. 646 (1995) (random drug testing of student athletes was reasonable).  The North Carolina courts did not examine whether the State’s monitoring program is reasonable — when properly viewed as a search — and we will not do so in the first instance.

March 30, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

SCOTUS grants cert on collection of capital cases from Kansas

The state of Kansas has not carried out a death sentence since 1965.  But even though the Sunflower state has not truly utilized its system of capital punishment for a full half-century, the Supreme Court apparently believes it is important to review three capital cases from the state as evidenced by its cert grants this morning in Kansas v. Jonathan Carr, Kansas v. Reginald Carr and Kansas v. Sidney Gleason.

This AP article provides this summary of the underlying crimes and defendants whose cases are now before the Justices:

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear Kansas' appeal to reinstate death sentences for two brothers in the fatal shootings of four people and for another man convicted of killing a couple.

The justices said they will review rulings by the Kansas Supreme Court that threw out the sentences of Jonathan and Reginald Carr and Sidney Gleason. The Kansas court hasn't upheld a death sentence since the state enacted a new capital punishment law in 1994. The state's last executions, by hanging, took place in 1965.

The Carr brothers were sentenced to death for the four killings, which occurred in Wichita in December 2000 and followed dozens of other crimes, including robbery and rape. Gleason was sentenced to die over the couple's deaths, in the central Kansas town of Great Bend in February 2004.

March 30, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 29, 2015

"Federal Sentencing 'Reform' Since 1984: The Awful as Enemy of the Good"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article by Michael Tonry now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The federal sentencing system was conceived in one era and delivered in another. When the first bills that culminated in passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 were introduced, they aimed at reducing the worst excesses of indeterminate sentencing and achieving greater fairness, consistency, equality, accountability, and transparency in sentencing federal offenders. The overriding goal was reduction of unwarranted racial and other disparities.

In the different political climate of the mid-1980s the federal sentencing commission instead sought to achieve greater rigidity and severity and to respond to the law-and-order policy preferences of the Reagan administration and the Republican-controlled US Senate. Probation, formerly the sentence of half of convicted federal offenders, was nearly eliminated as a stand-alone punishment. Lengths of prison sentences increased enormously. After the federal guidelines took effect, buttressed by a plethora of mandatory minimum sentence laws, the growth of the federal prison population far outpaced that of the states and the federal system became the extreme example nationally and internationally of the dangers of politicization of crime policy. The political climate may be changing and the federal system may change with it. Only time will tell.

March 29, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Previewing the little SCOTUS capital case examining what procedure Atkins may require

On the last Monday of March 2015, the only case being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court is a quirky capital case from Louisiana, Brumfield v. Cain, which appears only to concern the process by which a state rejects a defendant's claim that he is intellectually disabled and thus prohibited from execution after Atkins.  Here are the questions presented:

(1) Whether a state court that considers the evidence presented at a petitioner’s penalty phase proceeding as determinative of the petitioner’s claim of mental retardation under Atkins v. Virginia has based its decision on an unreasonable determination of facts under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2); and (2) whether a state court that denies funding to an indigent petitioner who has no other means of obtaining evidence of his mental retardation has denied petitioner his “opportunity to be heard,” contrary to Atkins and Ford v. Wainwright and his constitutional right to be provided with the “basic tools” for an adequate defense, contrary to Ake v. Oklahoma.

Lyle Denniston provides this SCOTUSblog preview, which notes that the lone amicus brief filed in this case highlights that Louisiana's "state courts have now established procedures for fully evaluating a mental disability claim, making Brumfield’s case an aberration."  In short, it seems unlikely that the Brumfield case will be of great consequence for anyone other than killer Kevin Brumfield. But one never knows what the Justices will do with a capital case.

March 29, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Local Tennessee prosecutors pushed for female sterilization in plea discussions

A helpful reader alerted me to this stunning AP article about a stunning aspect of what some local prosecutors sometimes incorporated into plea discussion with female defendants in Tennessee.  The piece is headlined "Attorneys: Sterilizations were part of plea deal talks," and here are some of the details:

Nashville prosecutors have made sterilization of women part of plea negotiations at least four times in the past five years, and the district attorney has banned his staff from using the invasive surgery as a bargaining chip after the latest case.

In the most recent case, first reported by The Tennessean, a woman with a 20-year history of mental illness had been charged with neglect after her 5-day-old baby mysteriously died. Her defense attorney says the prosecutor assigned to the case wouldn't go forward with a plea deal to keep the woman out of prison unless she had the surgery.

Defense attorneys say there have been at least three similar cases in the past five years, suggesting the practice may not be as rare as people think and may happen more often outside the public view and without the blessing of a court .

Sterilization coerced by the legal system evokes a dark time in America, when minorities, the poor and those deemed mentally unfit or "deficient" were forced to undergo medical procedures that prevented them from having children.

"The history of sterilization in this country is that it is applied to the most despised people — criminals and the people we're most afraid of, the mentally ill — and the one thing that that these two groups usually share is that they are the most poor. That is what we've done in the past, and that's a good reason not to do it now," said Paul Lombardo, a law professor and historian who teaches at Georgia State University.

Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk agrees. A former defense attorney who took over the office in September, he recently ordered lawyers in his office not to seek sterilization by defendants. He said he hadn't heard of it happening before but didn't ask. Funk said people could be ordered to stay away from children, and the state wouldn't have to resort to such invasive measures. "The bottom line is the government can't be ordering a forced sterilization," Funk said.

However, such deals do happen.

In West Virginia, a 21-year-old unmarried mother of three agreed to have her tubes tied in 2009 as part of her probation after she pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute marijuana. And last year, a Virginia man who fathered children with several women agreed to undergo a vasectomy in exchange for less prison time in a child endangerment case.

Forced sterilization came up in a different way in California last year, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that banned state prisons from forcing female inmates to be sterilized. The law was pushed through after the Center for Investigative Reporting found that nearly 150 female prisoners had been sterilized between 2006 and 2010. An audit found that the state failed to make sure the inmate's consent was lawfully obtained in every case ....

The assistant district attorney who worked the [most recent] case, Brian Holmgren, is a child prosecutor who speaks around the country, was once a senior attorney with the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse and serves on the international advisory board of the National Center for Shaken Baby Syndrome. He has been both praised and fiercely criticized for his aggressive courtroom tactics on behalf of children.... Holmgren did not respond to several messages seeking comment.

Nashville defense attorney Carrie Searcy said Holmgren asked that two of her clients who gave birth to children who tested positive for drugs undergo sterilization. Neither did, Searcy said, because both women had already undergone the procedure.

Assistant public defender Joan Lawson, who also supervises other attorneys, said she also had been involved in cases in which a prosecutor had put sterilization on the table. Lawson said it was typically not an explicit demand, was not an everyday occurrence and was made off the record. Lawson said she refused the idea and resolved her cases without sterilization. "It's always been more of 'If your client is willing to do this, then I might be inclined to talk about probation,'" Lawson said.

March 29, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 28, 2015

"The activist nun reforming profit-prisons"

Download (8)The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new article via CNNMoney.  Here are excerpts:

Some of America's most controversial companies -- for profit prisons -- have unlikely owners: nuns. Mercy Investment Services Inc. is the investment fund for the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, an international religious order.

The fund is managed by Sister Valerie Heinonen, a soft-spoken nun who's been buying shares in for-profit prison companies since early 2000.  She's not doing it in the hopes of making big bucks.  Rather, she tries to use her leverage as an owner to reform the industry.

"What we want is the establishment of a human rights policy at these companies," Heinonen told CNNMoney.  Even more importantly, she wants the policy to be thoughtfully implemented, monitored and transparently disclosed to shareholders....

For decades, investors have put billions of dollars into the two largest such companies, Geo Group (GEO) and Corrections Corporation of America (CXW).  Many investors saw dollar signs as prison populations swelled.  The stock of Geo Group has risen 130% in the past three years.

While profits have been huge, some money managers feel it is unfair for Wall Street to profit from what they see as the inhumane warehousing of human beings.  This issue is back in the forefront given the surge of immigrant detainees following the mass deportation effort of the Obama administration....

GEO Group and CCA say they are committed to protecting the human rights of prisoners and detainees.  "Our company adopted a Global Human Rights policy two years ago, which we believe was a first for any private correctional organization in the United States," Geo Group told CNNMoney in a statement.

CCA said its human rights policy is publicly available on its website and is incorporated into the ethics and professionalism course that every new employee receives.  "It has been shared across our organization in communications from our CEO and others in leadership," a CCA spokesman said.

Mercy has raised questions about food, housing and education for the detained children and adults.  "We've also been concerned about legal access for people," Heinonen said. Implementation and monitoring of human rights policies and transparency in communicating progress to investors is a work in progress.

"How often do the guards get a refresher course and what kind of oversight is there," Heinonen asked.  Mercy and the prison companies say they continue to meet regularly in order to address these issues. Mercy's relationship with prisons started out pretty warm and fuzzy.

"A number of orders have members who are chaplains in prisons and perhaps this conversation came from what these people saw," she said. Mercy initially focused on executive compensation. It introduced an investor resolution onto the ballot of both Geo Group and CCA, tying compensation to social as well as financial criteria.

"By the time we got started with the human rights policy, we had had had some success with other shareholder initiatives," Heinonen said. "For example, with the environmental initiative, everyone was recycling their waste."

March 28, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Notable effort by "World’s Worst Mom" to take on sex offender registries

This new Salon piece provides an interesting Q&A with notable author who has become famous for criticizing overprotective parenting and who is now criticizing what she sees as ineffective sex offender registries.  The piece is headlined "Stop the sex-offender registry panic: 'A lot of those dots on the map would never hurt your kids'," and here is how the Q&A is introduced:

Lenore Skenazy came to fame for letting her 9-year-old son ride the New York subway home by himself.  Or rather, she came to fame by letting him ride the subway home alone and then writing about it for the New York Sun.

The piece led to an outcry — she was dubbed “America’s worst mom” — which, of course, meant that the essay had to become a book: “Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry).”  In the five years since its publication, the book has inspired a movement among parents who want to give their children the freedom to do things like walk home from school alone.  It’s a backlash to our age of “helicopter” and “bubble wrap” parenting. (If you suspect these monikers are exaggerations, consider that a Skenazy devotee recently had five police cars arrive at his house after his 10- and 6-year-old were seen walking alone.)  Now Skenazy has a show on the Discovery Life channel, “World’s Worst Mom,” which sees her swooping into homes and coaching overprotective parents in a style reminiscent of the ABC reality-TV show “Suppernanny.”

Recently, Skenazy has taken on a new, albeit related, cause: reform of the sex offender registry. Clearly, this lady is not afraid of controversy. On Sunday, she held a “Sex Offender Brunch” at her house to introduce “her friends in the press to her friends on the Registry.” One of her guests was Josh Gravens, who at age 12 inappropriately touched his 8-year-old sister and landed on the registry as an adult.... The materials accompanying her press release contend that the sex offender registry, which was created to “let people identify dangerous individuals nearby…has failed to have any real impact on child safety, and may actually do more harm than good.”  

She’s effectively flinging open the closet door and saying, “See? There’s no boogeyman in there” (or, if you will, flipping on the lights to offer assurance that the “monster” in the corner is actually just a lamp that made some mistakes when it was younger and means no harm).  This is entirely consistent with her “Free-Range Kids” activism, but she’s taking it a step further now, moving beyond just squashing parental fears about stranger danger to helping those who have been unfairly labeled as dangerous strangers.

March 28, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Should states try harder to condemn and execute women to overcome death penalty's sexism?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new commentary about the Jodi Arias case headlined "Why the death penalty in America is sexist." Here are excerpts:

It took only one juror to spare Jodi Arias the death penalty for the brutal murder of her ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander in 2008. Considering the United States has executed only 13 women in the last 40 years, a death sentence would have been highly unusual.

Women committed less than 10% of all murders in America between 2000 and 2010, a Wall Street Journal analysis of crime data found. Women defendants, however, only make up 2% of death row, according to a recent report by the NAACP.

Even fewer women actually get executed, Death Penalty Information Center executive director Richard Dieter told Business Insider. "There's just less enforcement of the death penalty at almost every stage for females," he said.

Two major factors contribute to the low number of women who get capital punishment: the nature of the crime and how juries view women in general. The death penalty is often used for killers who also commit other felonies like robbery or rape, law professor Victor Streib has previously told the LA Times. Many of the murders women commit, on the other hand, involve people they're related to.

While women commit about 10% of murders, they were responsible for 35% of murders of intimate partners between 1980 and 2008. Most juries consider these crimes of passion arising from disputes — one-time offenses, Dieter said. Because of the high rate of domestic violence against women, though, juries don't give men the same benefit of the doubt.

On the other hand, most states consider killing a child an aggravating factor, or a reason for prosecutors to seek the death penalty. Hiring someone to do the work could also land a woman on death row. "If a woman hires someone, there's a coldness, a calculation. It's different than something that arises out of an argument," Dieter said. Teresa Lewis, for example, plotted to kill her husband and stepson for the insurance money. "Instead of pulling a trigger on a gun, she pulled a couple of young men in to pull the trigger for her," prosecutor David Grimes told a judge at the time, The Washington Post reported. She was the first woman Virginia sentenced to die in more than 100 years.

But the second factor — the jury's perception of the "fragile" female psyche — can overpower aggravating factors. "It's just easier to convince a jury that women suffer emotional distress or other emotional problems more than men," Streib told the LA Times....

"These 12 people [the jury] are asked to see if this person has any redeeming qualities. And they often see their own mother or wife or grandmother, not someone who will continue to be a threat to society," Dieter said. "Jurors just see women differently than men."

Of course, most women aren't going to argue for gender parity in the death penalty, Dahlia Lithwick has written in Slate. Only 59% of women favor the death penalty compared to 67% of men, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. "For equality's sake, you think that women would want the death penalty pursued more often," Dieter said. "But of course, they don't."

March 28, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack