Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Arkansas Supreme Court stays execution to allow lethal injection litigation

As reported in this AP article, a partial ruling in favor of the state today by the top court in Arkansas was insufficient to allow the state to move forward with a number of scheduled executions. Here are the details:

The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a lower-court judge overstepped his jurisdiction by halting the executions of eight death row inmates. But the high court immediately granted its own stay to give the inmates time to challenge a new state law that bars Arkansas from disclosing its execution-drug supplier.

The justices sided with the state in agreeing to toss this month's order by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen. Still, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she was disappointed that the executions, the first of which was scheduled for this week, remained on hold. "While the Supreme Court's decision is not about the merits of the case, it is unfortunate that this further delays justice for the victims. I will continue to defend Arkansas's lethal injection statute and fight for the victims and their grieving families," Rutledge wrote in a statement Tuesday.

The high court also refused to order Griffen to schedule an earlier hearing in the case. He set the next hearing for March, just months before one of the state's execution drugs is set to expire. The attorney general's office had asked for a faster timetable, arguing that defense attorneys were trying to delay the case until the drug was no longer usable.

The prisoners are challenging the constitutionality of the state's new secrecy law, saying they need information about where and how the state's execution drugs were made to determine whether they will lead to cruel and unusual punishment. They also argue that the law violates a settlement in an earlier lawsuit that guaranteed inmates would be given the information, but the state has said the agreement was not a binding contract.

The inmates also are challenging Arkansas' three-drug execution protocol, focusing on the use of the drug midazolam. The sedative was implicated after inmates gasped and groaned during longer-than-expected executions in Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona. "We realize there is a lot of litigation yet lying in front of us. But we feel the decision of the Supreme Court was the appropriate decision in this case," said Jeff Rosenzweig, an attorney for the inmates. "The state made a binding commitment to provide us with this information and we are entitled to this information."

October 20, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Tools for Change"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Jason Nance available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The school-to-prison pipeline is one of our nation’s most formidable challenges. It refers to the trend of directly referring students to law enforcement for committing certain offenses at school or creating conditions under which students are more likely to become involved in the criminal justice system such as excluding them from school.

This article analyzes the school-to-prison pipeline’s devastating consequences on students, its causes, and its disproportionate impact on students of color.  But most importantly, this article comprehensively identifies and describes specific, evidence-based tools to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline that lawmakers, school administrators, and teachers in all areas can immediately support and implement.  Further, it suggests initial strategies aimed at addressing racial implicit bias, which is a primary cause of the racial disparities relating to the school-to-prison pipeline.  The implementation of these tools will create more equitable and safe learning environments that will help more students become productive citizens and avoid becoming involved in the justice system.

October 20, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Ohio Gov Kasich extends de facto execution moratorium into 2017

Ohio-executionEarlier this year during SCOTUS oral argument in the Glossip lethal injection case, Justice Alito complained about what he saw as a "guerrilla war against the death penalty which consists of efforts to make it impossible for the states to obtain drugs that could be used to carry out capital punishment." For anyone inclined to accept that characterization, today brings news that the warriors have scored another significant victory.  This new AP piece, headlined "Ohio delays executions until 2017 over lack of lethal drugs," provides the basic details:

Ohio is putting off executions until at least 2017 as the state struggles to obtain supplies of lethal injection drugs, delaying capital punishment for a full two years, the prisons department announced Monday. Execution dates for 11 inmates scheduled to die next year and one scheduled for early 2017 were all pushed into ensuing years through warrants of reprieve issued by Gov. John Kasich.

The result is 25 inmates with execution dates beginning in January 2017 that are now scheduled through August 2019. Ohio last put someone to death in January 2014.

Ohio has run out of supplies of its previous drugs and has unsuccessfully sought new amounts, including so-far failed attempts to import chemicals from overseas. The new dates are needed to give the prisons agency extra time, the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said in a statement.

The agency “continues to seek all legal means to obtain the drugs necessary to carry out court ordered executions, but over the past few years it has become exceedingly difficult to secure those drugs because of severe supply and distribution restrictions,” the statement said....

The next execution was scheduled for Jan. 21 when Ronald Phillips was to die for raping and killing his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter in Akron in 1993. Phillips’ execution was rescheduled for Jan. 12, 2017.

The handwriting has been on the wall for months that Ohio would have to make such a move, said Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, expressing his frustration at a new set of delays. These delays come in cases where inmates have long exhausted their appeals and there’s no question of their guilt, he said. “It seems that in those states that authorize assisted suicide, there has been no impediment to securing drugs, and as time marches onward, victims wonder why they must continue to wait for justice,” O’Brien said in an email.

Ohio abandoned the two-drug method after McGuire’s execution and announced it would use either of two older drugs that it had previously obtained for capital punishment, but did not currently have supplies of. One of those drugs, sodium thiopental, is no longer manufactured by FDA-approved companies and the other, pentobarbital, has been put off limits for executions by drug makers.

Ohio obtained a federal import license to seek supplies overseas, but has been told by the FDA that such a move is illegal. Ohio raised the issue again with the FDA earlier this month, asserting the state believes it can obtain a lethal-injection drug from overseas without violating any laws. The FDA has yet to respond. 

A few prior related posts:

October 20, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Clemency and Pardons, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, October 19, 2015

"Why Arrest?"

The title of this article is the title of this interesting new article by Rachel Harmon I just noticed on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

It is no exaggeration to say that arrests are the paradigmatic police activity. While many debate the necessity of particular arrests, neither participants in the criminal justice system nor contemporary critics have seriously considered whether law enforcement – as a general matter - requires arrests.

This essay challenges the long-held assumption that, even if not every arrest is legitimate, arrests as a general matter are worthwhile because they are critical to law enforcement goals. As recent news events have suggested, arrests are more harmful than they first seem, not only to the individuals arrested but also to their families and to society as a whole.

More importantly, our traditional justifications for arrests - starting the criminal process and maintaining public order – at best support a much more limited practice of arrest than we currently permit. Overwhelmingly, arrests can be replaced with alternatives, even for serious crimes, and neither public safety nor public order will likely much suffer. As a result, whether or not arrests are fairly imposed on individuals, contemporary arrest practice is illegitimate because the coercion it involves is largely unnecessary.

October 19, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Submitted testimony from witnesses at SRCA 2015 hearing (and member statements) now available

As I continue to enjoy watching the still on-going big Senate hearing on the remarkable Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRCA 2015, S. 2123), I now have noticed that all the written testimony is available on-line.  Here are links to member statements all the submitted testimony, and I would be grateful to get help in figuring out if there is anything especially notable and interesting in all these materials.  My sense is that all the usual suspects are repeating their usual claims and viewpoints, but perhaps there may be some special needles in this testimonial haystack:

October 19, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

New York Times editorial rightly frames debate over federal judges' expungement power

Regular readers may recall this recent post highlighting the interesting (and hip?) legal issue arising in federal court lately concerning the inherent power of federal judges to expunge a federal conviction.  This effective New York Times editorial, headlined "How to Get Around a Criminal Record," spotlights some of the unfortunate reasons this legal issue is now coming up for debate.  Here are excerpts: 

In May, a federal judge in Brooklyn took the extraordinary step of expunging the conviction of a woman he had sentenced to five years of probation more than a decade earlier for her involvement in an insurance fraud scheme that netted her $2,500.... The move was significant because there is no federal law that allows for expungement — the permanent sealing of a criminal record to the general public....

Some 70 million to 100 million people in the United States — more than a quarter of all adults — have a criminal record, and as a result they are subject to tens of thousands of federal and state laws and rules that restrict or prohibit their access to the most basic rights and privileges — from voting, employment and housing to business licensing and parental rights.  Some of these collateral consequences make sense — like preventing people convicted of molesting children from working in schools.  But many have no relation at all to the original offense.

The woman whose record Judge Gleeson expunged was hired repeatedly for social-work or health-care jobs, and then fired after employers ran a background check.  As the judge wrote, it is “random and senseless” that her “ancient and minor offense should disqualify her from work as a home health aide.”

The federal government lags far behind in reducing the burdens of a conviction. About half the states allow some convictions to be expunged; almost all allow expungement for arrest records and other non-conviction records.  Some expungements are automatic, while others require a petition to the court.  Of course, expungement is not a cure-all. The vast majority of employers now run background checks, many using error-strewn databases that often fail to delete sealed records.

A better, increasingly popular approach is a “certificate of rehabilitation,” which state judges issue as a way of removing certain restrictions and encouraging employers and others to take a chance on someone despite his or her record.

Another solution is the executive pardon, which restores rights lost after a conviction. Pardons were once a common method of relief from injustice, and some state governors still use it vigorously.  Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware has issued almost 1,600 pardons in six years.  But President Obama, like his recent predecessors, has almost entirely abandoned the practice.

Mr. Obama’s former attorney general, Eric Holder, understood the importance of giving people with criminal records a better chance at finding jobs and regaining their foothold in society. And yet the Justice Department is reflexively fighting Judge Gleeson’s expungement order, calling it “judicial editing of history.”

If the White House or Congress made a real effort to alleviate the crippling consequences of criminal records — by increasing pardons, or passing laws to give courts more options to lessen or remove those burdens — there would be no need for judges to play the role of editors.

Some prior related posts:

October 19, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Michigan arrest data highlight diverse impact of local decriminalization and continued impact of state-level marijuana prohibition

This new local article, headlined "Michigan pot arrests are trending up, and 8 other points about marijuana," provides data that reinforce my concern that modest marijuana reforms do not really change the basic realities of how marijuana prohibition impacts individuals in various communities.  Here are some of the notable data details:

At a time when surveys indicate a majority of Michigan residents support legalizing pot, arrests for marijuana possession or use are increasing — even as arrests for other crimes are going down, according to data collected by the Michigan State Police.  Between 2008 and 2014, arrests for marijuana possession or use went up 17 percent statewide, that data shows, while arrests for all crimes dropped by 15 percent.

One possible reason: Federal health surveys indicate marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug, and the number of regular users has been increasing.  In 2013, about 7.5 percent of Americans age 12 or older had used marijuana in the past month, according the 2015 federal Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Below are other highlights from the Michigan arrest data, which was collected by the State Police from local and county enforcement agencies.

1. The vast majority of marijuana arrests are for possession or use.

In 2014, there were 20,483 arrests for marijuana use or possession, which was 86 percent of all marijuana arrests.  About 10 percent of the other arrests are for selling the drug, and the remainder are for "producing" the drug, smuggling or "other."  Arrests related to marijuana are about two-thirds of all drug arrests in Michigan and in 2014 were 9 percent of all criminal arrests.

2. A disproportionate number of those arrested for marijuana-related crimes are between the ages of 18 and 24.

About 43 percent of those arrested in 2014 for marijuana were age 18 to 24. The breakdown for other age groups: 26 percent were age 25 to 34; 11 percent were age 35 to 44; 9 percent were under 18; 7 percent were age 45 to 54, and 3 percent were sage 55 or older.  The federal drug survey indicates that marijuana use is highest among young adults.  In fact, 24 percent of male and 17 percent of female female full-time college students age 18 to 22 use marijuana, the survey shows.

3. The vast majority of those arrested in marijuana cases are men. 

Men comprised 83 percent of marijuana arrests in 2014, which is disproportionate compared to their rate of usage.  About 9.7 percent of American males age 12 and older are users of marijuana compared to 5.6 percent of women, according to a 2013 federal survey on drug use.  That means men are 1.7 times more likely to use marijuana, but are five times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges.

4. African-Americans are a disproportionate number of marijuana arrests.

An African-American in Michigan was three times more likely to be arrested in 2014 for violating marijuana laws compared to a white person, although surveys and research indicate little difference between usage rates between the two groups.  In all, African-Americans comprise about 14 percent of Michigan's population, but 35 percent of marijuana arrests....

6. Since 2011, 21 Michigan cities have voted on legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana....

7. Decriminalization initiatives have had mixed impact on arrests in those communities.

Six communities — Detroit, Grant Rapids, Lansing, Kalamazoo, Flint and Ypsilanti — passed decriminalization initiatives before 2014.  Based on arrests in those cities for marijuana use or possession in 2011 compared to 2014, the initiatives had mixed impact.

The most dramatic changed occurred in Grand Rapids, where arrests for marijuana use or possession dropped from 952 in 2011 to 93 in 2014.  The numbers also dropped significantly between 2011 and 2014 in the city of Kalamazoo, from 327 to 166.  In Detroit, arrests dropped from 1,297 to 974 during the three-year period.

Arrests for marijuana use or possession actually went up in Lansing and Ypsilanti.  Lansing had 73 arrests for marijuana use or possession in 2011, compared to 79 in 2014. In Ypsilanti, arrests went from 74 to 88 during that time frame.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform, where these additional recent posts may be of interest to sentencing fans:

October 19, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

An ever-growing list of notable witnesses for Senate hearing on Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015

As noted in this prior post, this week is a big one for consideration of the Senate's remarkable Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRCA 2015, S. 2123).  The fun starts this this afternoon with this big hearing on the bill before the full Senate Judiciary Committee.  I am quite excited for this hearing, in part  because everytime I check the official Senate hearing page, I see another interesting witness added to the witness list.  As of Monday morning, here is the current roster of witnesses slated to testify:

I am very interested to hear what all nine of these notable witnesses have to say about SRCA 2015. Based on prior lectures and writings, I think I can safetly predict that three or four of these witnesses will be quite supportive of most or all of the bill, and that two or three of these witnesses will be quite critical of most or all of the bill. But I am unsure whether traditional supporters of federal sentencing reform will be advocating for SRCA 2015 to be even more expansive in its reforms and whether traditional critics of federal sentencing reform will assail all or only specific parts of SRCA 2015 in its current (complicated) form.

I am cautiously hopeful that there will be some submitted written testimony that I can share in a future post. Even before hearing any of the coming advocacy for and against the bill, the very fact that the witness list for this hearing is so long reinforces my sense (and fear) that passage of a big reform bill through both house of Congress remains an uphill and uncertain battle for reform advocates.

Recent prior related posts on SRCA 2015:

October 19, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Referendum on legislative death penalty appeal now officially on Nebraska ballot for 2016

Images (2)As reported in this local article, headlined "Death penalty supporters put repeal on hold till 2016 vote," Nebraska is going to be the locus and focus for a lot of death penalty debate over the next year. Here is why:

A pro-death penalty group has submitted enough valid signatures to postpone the repeal of capital punishment and place a referendum on the issue on the November 2016 ballot, it was confirmed Friday.

Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale said Friday that he has sent letters certifying the success of the petition drive mounted by Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, a group backed by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

The group launched a signature drive in June shortly after the Nebraska Legislature overrode a veto by Ricketts to abolish the death penalty in the state.

Gale said the petition drive had not only submitted enough signatures to force a vote on the issue during the 2016 general election, but also to postpone the repeal until that vote is taken. “More than 143,000 signatures were verified to our office from counties where signatures were collected, which was more than enough to meet each of those thresholds,” Gale said in a press release.

Chris Peterson, a spokesman for the pro-capital-punishment group, said in a press release that the campaign to retain the death penalty has begun. “Our message is simple: the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for the most heinous of murders, it protects public safety officers from criminals who otherwise have nothing to lose by murdering a corrections officer, and is a worthwhile deterrent if it saves even a single life,” Peterson said.

Dan Parsons, a spokesman for the anti-death-penalty coalition Nebraskans for Public Safety also issued a statement. “Nebraska voters will have the same opportunity the Legislature did to have a thoughtful discussion on whether to bring back a failed system that hasn’t been used in nearly two decades, is not a deterrent, and is a waste of taxpayer dollars,” Parsons said.

As a result of Friday’s announcement, the death penalty remains on the books, according to Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, who also issued a press release. But the state still lacks the necessary drugs to carry out a lethal injection execution. Even if the state could obtain the drugs, legal scholars have expressed doubt that the Nebraska Supreme Court would approve a death warrant pending the Nov. 8, 2016, vote....

Ricketts issued a statement Friday after the verification: “Nebraskans continue to tell me that the death penalty is an important public safety tool. Today’s announcement takes us one step closer to giving the voters a say in retaining the death penalty.”

One thing that could prevent a vote on the issue would be a court order, and death penalty opponents have filed two lawsuits in an attempt to do that. One of the lawsuits claims that Ricketts should have been listed as an official sponsor of the petition drive because he was a major financier of the effort, contributing $200,000.... The second lawsuit maintains that the ballot language approved by the Nebraska Attorney General’s office was misleading and slanted.

October 18, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Prez Obama talking again about talking some more about criminal justice reform

As reported in this USA Today piece, headlined "Obama launches criminal justice tour: 'Something I’ll keep fighting for'," President Obama devoted his weekly radio address Saturday morning to talking about his plans to travel the nation and talk more about criminal justice reform. Here are the basics:

President Obama said Saturday that he'll launch a nationwide criminal justice tour next week, an effort that he says will "highlight some of the Americans who are doing their part to fix our criminal justice system."

"Much of our criminal justice system remains unfair," Obama said in his weekly radio address Saturday morning. "In recent years, more of our eyes have been opened to this truth. We can’t close them anymore. And good people, of all political persuasions, are eager to do something about it."

The first stop in the tour will be in Charleston, W.Va. next Wednesday, where he'll host a town-hall-style meeting on the prescription drug abuse and heroin epidemic.The White House says Obama will talk about local, state and federal efforts as well as private sector initiatives addressing the crisis. Obama said he'll also meet in coming weeks with police chiefs and former prisoners. Details on those tour stops are expected to be released next week.

In his radio address, Obama threw his support behind bipartisan proposals in Congress to shorten mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses and reward convicts who participate in prison programs with shorter sentences.

I am always pleased when the leader of our nation brings attention to the criminal justice reform issues that are the focus of my professional work. But I remain frustrated that Prez Obama seems to continue to be content to talk about the need for more action rather than actually take more action.

In addition to lots more clemency grants (especially because he remains way behind all modern presidents on pardons), Prez Obama could create more task forces to examine existing evidence on the most successful local and state-level reforms. In particular, with all the continuing local and state-level marijuana reform activity, I think it is long overdue for Prez Obama to show some leadership in this criminal justice reform space through some significant executive action.

October 18, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, October 16, 2015

Oklahoma AG officially agrees not to seek state executions anytime soon

As reported in this new local piece, headlined "All executions may be put on hold until 2016, court documents show," a new court filing suggests Oklahoma now has another de facto temporary moratorium on executions in place. Here is why:

Attorneys for death row inmates and the Oklahoma attorney general's office jointly filed a motion in federal court early Friday morning requesting that executions and a legal challenge to the state's death penalty be put on hold. If granted, the request would mean no executions would take place in Oklahoma until 2016, at the earliest.

All of Oklahoma's scheduled executions were put on hold last month after the execution of inmate Richard Glossip was halted when corrections officials noticed they'd received the wrong drug for the procedure. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said the indefinite stay made it unnecessary to litigate challenges to the state's execution protocol brought by Glossip's attorneys.

“As I have previously stated, my office is conducting a full and thorough investigation into all aspects of the Department of Corrections' handling of executions," Pruitt said. "The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals granted the state's request for an indefinite stay of all scheduled executions. My office does not plan to ask the court to set an execution date until the conclusion of its investigation."

In the filing, both parties agree the state should not seek any new execution dates until all on-going federal and state investigations into Oklahoma's death penalty have been completed, any investigations and changes to protocol are made available to the extent they are public, and the Oklahoma Department of Corrections is able to comply with its execution protocol.

A multicounty grand jury will hear testimony on Tuesday from Corrections Department Director Robert Patton and other officials as part of a state investigation, and the attorney general's office is conducting an internal inquiry into recent lethal drug mix-ups.

Some recent prior posts:

October 16, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Should judges who sit on the Sentencing Commission rule on the legality of sentencing guidelines?"

The question in the title of this post is the title of this great new posting authored by Andy Hessick at Notice & Comment – A Blog from the Yale Journal on Regulation.  I urge readers to check out the whole commentary, and here is a taste:

Judge Pryor is hardly the first judge to hear a case involving the Sentencing Guidelines while serving as a member of the Commission. But the practice raises some questions. Our system is suspicious of judges hearing cases in which they have an interest. As James Madison said in Federalist 44, “[n]o man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause; because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity.” Judge Pryor does not have a personal interest at stake in the case, but he does have an interest in his capacity as a member of the Commission.  Holding that the vagueness doctrine does not apply to sentencing guidelines protects his work on the Commission from future challenges of that sort.

His participation in the decision also raises separation of powers concerns.  The sentencing guidelines are legislative in nature.  A judge who both sits on the Commission and rules on the Commission’s guidelines acts as both judge and legislator.  Of course, judges sit on committees that create all sorts of rules―evidence, civil procedure, etc.  But those committees prescribe rules for the administration of the courts. Sentencing guidelines are different.  They prescribe terms of imprisonment.  Anxiety about deprivations of liberty at the hands of the government is a major reason the Constitution separates powers.

October 16, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Notable new polling on distinct sentencing/punishment issues

Via two of my favorite crime and punishment bloggers, I see that there are two new polls about public views of two different sets of sentencing and punishment issues:

For a host of reasons, I am not sure these polls are especially consequential when it comes to changing the minds or votes of established politicians.  After all, as I discussed in this recent post about medical marijuana reforms consistently polling at 90% support, we long ago would have seen an end to blanket federal marijuana prohibition if elected officials were very responsive to public polling on all these issues.  Still, these polls still provide a useful snapshot of some public perceptions of sentencing reform debates, and they also might lead even established politicians to be more (or less) confident about how aggressive they should be in their efforts in this arena.

October 16, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 15, 2015

New amicus brief to Eleventh Circuit seeking reconsideration of Johnson vagueness challenge to career-offender guideline

In this post just a few days after the US Supreme Court ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws" in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) (available here), I flagged the question of how Johnson would impact application of the career offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines.  Notably, the Justice Department has consistently conceded Johnson-based constitutional problems with the existing career offender guideline because the key phrase found vague in Johnson is part of the guideline definition of a career offender.  And a few appellate rulings have assumed without deciding that Johnson creates problems for existing career offender guideline sentencing.

But, as noted in this post a few weeks ago, an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Matchett, No. 14-10396 (11th Cir. Sept. 21, 2015) (available here), squarely addressed this issue and ruled that Johnson and its vagueness problem just do not apply to advisory sentencing guidelines.  I considered this ruling suspect, and thanks to Carissa Hessick and David Markus, I have now been able to play a role in explaining to the full Eleventh Circuit just why.  Specifically, Carissa primarily drafted and I primarily tweaked an amicus brief that David helped finalize and file today urging en banc review in Matchett.  The full brief can be downloaded via SSRN, and here is how it gets started:

The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines dramatically increase a defendant’s sentencing range if she has at least two prior convictions for a “crime of violence,” which U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2) defines to include crimes that “involve[] conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”  As the panel in this case acknowledged, that definition is identical to the definition in 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B), which the Supreme Court in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), found to be unconstitutionally vague in violation of the Due Process Clause.

Nevertheless, the panel in this case held that § 4B1.2(a)(2) is not unconstitutionally vague, reasoning that the vagueness doctrine does not apply to the now-advisory Sentencing Guidelines.  That conclusion is inconsistent with Supreme Court decisions on the vagueness doctrine and the Sentencing Guidelines.  The panel’s decision also upsets the careful balance that the Supreme Court has struck between uniformity and discretion in federal sentencing after United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005).  Finally, the panel decision fails to appreciate that it faced a unique situation in which a Guideline contains language identical to a federal statute declared void for vagueness by the Supreme Court.  Both the narrow basis for that decision, as well as ordinary Commission practice of reviewing and revising the Sentencing Guidelines, ensure that few Guidelines will become susceptible to serious vagueness challenges.  This Court accordingly should grant en banc review.

October 15, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Senate Judiciary Committee moving forward next week on Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015

Earlier today I received an e-mail alert from Families Against Mandatory Minimums reporting this notable federal sentencing reform news from Capitol Hill:

There will be two important events happening in Washington, DC next week -- the U.S. Senate's Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123) is starting to move!

The first step to turn the Senate's sentencing reform bill into a law is to have the bill reviewed and approved by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, a group of 20 Senators that meets regularly.

But first, on October 19, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on sentencing reform. Experts will discuss the need to reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws, and Senators can ask and get answers to their questions.... Then, on October 22, the Senate Judiciary Committee will review the bill, vote on whether to make any changes to it, and vote on whether to send the final bill to the full U.S. Senate.

The full details of the events are below. If you can't come to Washington for the hearing and markup in person, you can watch them online.


When: Monday, October 19, 2015, 3:00-4:30 p.m. ET


When: Thursday, October 22, 2015, 10:00 a.m. ET

Recent prior related posts on SRCA 2015:

October 14, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Prospect of civil commitment leads UK judges to refuse to extradict child sex offender back to US

A helpful reader alerted me to this notable story about a notable legal ruling from across the pond last week.  The piece is headlined "Judges refuse to extradite 'paedophile' unless his human rights are guaranteed," and here are excerpts:

UK judges are refusing to extradite an alleged American paedophile who has been on the run from the FBI since 2007 until they have received an assurance that his human rights will not be breached.

The two judges sitting at the High Court in London made it clear that if no assurance is given they will refuse to hand over Roger Giese, 40, to stand trial in California, where is charged with sexually abusing a boy under the age of 14 from 1998 until 2002. The former choir master has been living in a village in Hampshire under a different name and working for a PR company.

An extradition request from the United States was certified by the Home Office in May 2014, and Giese was arrested on June 4 last year. But Magistrates' Court District Judge Margot Coleman refused the request last April.

She ruled there was "a real risk" that Giese would be subjected to an order for civil commitment - a form of indeterminate confinement in a secure facility - if convicted of a series of sexual offences against the boy. Judge Coleman said such an order would be a "flagrant denial" of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The US government appealed against Judge Coleman's decision, but today it was upheld by the High Court, which gave the US authorities a deadline to assure the court that, if Giese was found guilty, "there will be no attempt to make him the subject of a civil commitment order".

Lord Justice Aikens and Mr Justice Holroyde stated in a joint written judgment that Judge Coleman was right to conclude that extradition would be "inconsistent" with Giese's ECHR rights. The judges said that if no assurance was given "in due time", the US government appeal for the right to extradite "must be dismissed".

Giese is wanted in Orange County, California, for allegedly committing "lewd acts" with a child. He is alleged to have befriended the boy in 1998, when he was working as a voice coach for the All-American Boys Chorus. He fled the US eight years ago just as he was about to stand trial.

According to a Mirror newspaper investigation, he set up home with a new partner in the Hampshire countryside. There was no suggestion she knew about his past. Together, the pair built a PR company with clients including travel giants Thomas Cook....

California is one of 20 states in the USA which have a system of civil commitment, the High Court heard. A commitment order can be imposed against "a person of unsound mind" deemed to be dangerous who has been convicted in the criminal courts and served a sentence for certain types of sexual offence.

The High Court judges said the fact that the US government was not prepared to state that no petition for civil commitment would be filed in the case of Giese did give rise to an inference that there was a real risk of that happening.... But the judges added that Giese's extradition was not being sought to make him subject of a civil commitment order but so that he could stand trial "in respect of 19 serious charges of sexual offences" against a young boy. They ruled the US government should be given a further opportunity to offer "a satisfactory assurance" that if found guilty "there will be no attempt to make him the subject of a civil commitment order".

The full 27-page ruling referenced in this article can be accessed at this link.

October 14, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Charles Koch Institute produces great set of short videos urging crimnal justice reforms

I am really intrigued, and really impressed, by this new set of one-minute videos created by the the Charles Koch Institute under the banner "Criminal Justice and Policing Reform Explainer."   Here are the topics and links to the videos, and I have embedded the one on mandatory minimums below: 

October 14, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Lots of talk about all the talk about jurisdiction during SCOTUS oral argument in Montgomery

Given that the Supreme Court added on its own question about its jurisdiction to review a state habeas application of Teague when granting cert in Montgomery v. Louisiana, I was not all that surprised that a number of Justice were quite eager to debate the issue with the advocates during oral argument on Tuesday.  And, there are now helpful reviews of the Montgomery oral argument and the jurisdiction issue from Lyle Denniston here at SCOTUSblog and from Kent Scheidegger here at Crime & Consequences and from Chris Geidner here at BuzzFeed.

In addition, my terrific research assintant this afternoon sent me his summary take concerning the argument for sharing here:

In today’s oral argument for Montgomery v. Louisiana, a majority of the time was spent discussing whether or not the Court had jurisdiction to address the merits.  While the merits were discussed, neither the Justices nor the advocates addressed them at length or with much vigor.

Justices Scalia and Alito led the charge against the Court’s jurisdiction.  They were deeply concerned by the Louisiana Supreme Court’s deliberate voluntariness in adopting Teague’s retroactivity standards.  In their view, if the Court ruled that it had jurisdiction and then decided the merits in a way the Louisiana Supreme Court found unfavorable, the Louisiana Supreme Court could simply elect to abandon Teague effectively overruling the Court’s decision in this case.  I think it is safe to say, based on the oral arguments, that Justices Scalia and Alito are voting that the Court lacks jurisdiction to address the merits here. Given that, I would say Justice Thomas will also vote that the Court lacks jurisdiction.

Nonetheless, Justices Kagan, Breyer, and Sotomayor made it quite clear that they will be voting in favor of the Court’s jurisdiction.  Justices Kennedy and Ginsburg made similar manifestations.

On the merits, Justices Kagan, Breyer, and Sotomayor suggested that they would find Miller’s rule retroactive.  Justices Kennedy and Ginsburg were markedly silent on this point.  Justices Scalia and Alito were the only vocal opponents of petitioner’s arguments on the merits, but assuming both they and Justice Thomas vote against the Court’s having jurisdiction, such manifestations are moot.

The most perplexing figure in today’s arguments was the Chief Justice.  He spoke infrequently and did not tip his hand in any overt way.  However, he did make one pretty incredible point regarding the merits.  He suggested that simply “provid[ing] parole” to individuals given mandatory LWOP sentences for homicides they committed as juveniles would be a remedy to this problem.  To be fair, he made this suggestion, but did not necessarily endorse it as the right move or the proper disposition of the case.  Still, it is a bold proposition coming from the Chief Justice.

October 13, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21)

Lots of tea leaves (readings may vary) from SCOTUS arguments in Montgomery and Hurst

I have now had just enough time to skim the SCOTUS oral argument transcripts in Montgomery v. Louisiana (which is here) and in Hurst v. Florida (which is here).  Both transcripts showcase, albeit in somewhat different ways, all the complicated and intersecting jurisprudential issues in play in both cases. 

At this stage, and based perhaps more on my pre-argument beliefs than on what I surmised from my first review of the transcripts, I would predict narrow wins for the defendants in both cases.  And by narrow, I mean holdings that are fairly fact-based, case-specific and that also produce somewhat split rulings.  But maybe others read the tea leaves in these transcripts differently, and will share their insights in the comments.    

October 13, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

Hoping for (and even expecting) some criminal justice reform discussion during Democrats' first Prez debate

Regular readers know I am ever eager to have the national political conversation focus on criminal justice issues, and thus today I am giddy with pre-Democrat-debate anticipation.  As detailed in lots of prior posts linked below, there are plenty of criminal justice topics that would merit attention given that all the Democratic candidates have made notable criminal justice reform statements and have a diverse set of (lengthy) government service records in this arena.  Topics that are less likely to engage the GOP field but should lead to some interesting discourse among the Democratic Prez candidates include the death penalty (which candidate Michael O'Malley catgorically opposes) and private prisons (which candidate Bernie Sanders categorically opposes) and full Colorado-style marijuana legalization (which perhaps everyone opposes except the majority of voters in many key states).

Of particular note, especially with a majority of the Democratic candidates having served in the Senate, tonight's debate is the first since a bipartisan group of Senators announced the remarkable Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (basics of SRCA here).  It would be real interesting, though perhaps much too wonkish, to ask the candidates whether they share some liberal concerns that SRCA does not go nearly far enough to combat the problems of mandatory minimum sentencing and mass incarceration.  I would especially like to hear from former Senator Jim Webb, who was complaining about mass incarceration for years before doing so became hip, on this topic.

Because I will off-line much of the rest of today, this will be my last pre-debate post on criminal justice politics.  I will close by linking to some prior relevant Campaign 2016 posts and also by encouraging readers to fill the comments with questions they would like to see asked of the candidates.

October 13, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Could local DA elections be a critical means to fighting mass incarceration?

ImagesLots of sophisticated analyses of the roots and causes of modern mass incarceration, especially the empirical work done by John Pfaff, rightly suggest that the activities of local prosecutors are a critical part of the overall story.  Consequently, I find both notable and astute this new Economist commentary which suggests local elections for district attorneys can and should be a focal point for advocates looking to combat mass incarceration.  The piece is headlined "Two cheers: The best way to reduce the prison population," and here are excerpts:

In 2013 Charles Hynes, Brooklyn’s district attorney, was voted out of office after 24 years on the job. The ousting of an elected local prosecutor is rare in America. Incumbents who run for re-election win 95% of the time. Until Mr Hynes got the boot, no incumbent DA had lost a vote in Brooklyn since 1911. Mr Hynes’s fate needs to be more common, however, if America is to cease to be the world’s leading jailer. At present, it accounts for 5% of the world’s population and nearly 25% of its prisoners. Elected public prosecutors, such as Brooklyn’s Mr Hynes, are largely to blame.

The incarceration rate is like the water level in a bathtub. If the tap runs faster than the water drains, the level rises. The mandatory minimum sentences and truth-in-sentencing laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s blocked the outflow from America’s prison system. Proposals for sentencing reform, such as the bipartisan bill introduced by Chuck Grassley, a Republican senator from Iowa who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, would clear it a bit, by returning some discretion to judges and parole boards. But it would be even better to turn down the gushing tap.

Although the crime rate began to decline in the 1990s, the rate of admissions to prisons continued to climb for two decades, until it peaked in 2006. The criminal-justice system managed to put more and more people behind bars for 15 years, even though fewer and fewer people were committing crimes. The admissions rate has now reverted to the level in the late-1990s, but remains three times greater than it was 30 years ago when the crime rate was higher than it is today....

DAs can decide whether charges will be filed against arrested persons and, if so, what they will be charged with. Less than 5% of criminal cases go to trial: most end in plea bargains. And it is DAs who decide which plea deals to offer and accept, in effect determining whether offenders will be sent to prison and, if so, for how long. By and large, they are not a merciful lot.

They are also usually elected at county level, whereas prisons are run at state level. Short sentences — less than a year in most jurisdictions — are often served in county jails, putting county taxpayers on the hook. Punitive DAs can take the fiscal burden off the people who elect them by foisting the cost of imprisonment onto states.

If legislators cannot rein in DAs, that job must fall to voters. Because unseating an incumbent is so unusual, and because there are more than 3,000 county and state district attorneys, this may seem an unpromising path to a lower incarceration rate. But more than half of state prisoners, who make up the vast majority of the incarcerated, are housed in just ten states. Within those states, most prisoners come from a few large metropolitan jurisdictions. Moreover, these areas tend to contain lots of rehabilitation-minded liberals as well as minority voters, who are more likely to have family members in prison. Prosecutors in California and New York have already changed tack, and incarceration rates in those states have fallen.

Kenneth Thompson, Brooklyn’s first black DA, managed to knock Mr Hynes off his perch by highlighting a couple of dodgy murder convictions and speaking out against aggressive police tactics. And though sentencing reform is obviously needed too, the election of just a handful of “smart-on-crime” DAs in and around big cities like Houston, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles could cut America’s incarceration rate even more dramatically.

I am not convinced that local DA elections are the "best way" to attack mass incarceration, but I do think that the work of all prosecutors (local, state and federal) should be subject to a lot more scrutiny and accountability and should be a concern for all those interested in modern criminal justice reforms.

October 13, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Lots of media previews of today's two big SCOTUS sentencing cases

The Supreme Court returns from a long weekend with two cases that should remake, or at least will refine, retroactivity jurisprudence and capital sentencing procedures. I have previewed Montgomery v. Louisiana and Hurst v. Florida in a bunch of prior posts, and here I will provide links to a handful of mainstream media coverage of the cases:



October 13, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 12, 2015

"The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act"

Mass_Inc_CoverThe title of this post is the title of this intriguing new idea/report coming today from the Brennan Center for Justice.  Here is the report's introduction:

Leaders across the political spectrum agree: The United States must end mass incarceration.  But how?  What bold solutions will achieve this change?

Our prison crisis has many causes. One major contributor: a web of perverse financial incentives across the country that spurred more arrests, prosecutions, and prison sentences. A prime example is the 1994 Crime Bill, which authorized $12.5 billion ($19 billion in today’s dollars) to states to increase incarceration.  And 20 states did just that, yielding a dramatic rise in prison populations.

To reverse course, the federal government can apply a similar approach. It can be termed a “Reverse Crime Bill,” or the “Reverse Mass Incarceration Act.” It would provide funds to states to reduce imprisonment and crime together.

The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, yet has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.  If the prison population were a state, it would be the 36th largest — bigger than Delaware, Vermont, and Wyoming combined.  Worse, our penal policies do not work.  Mass incarceration is not only unnecessary to keep down crime but is also ineffective at it.  Increasing incarceration offers rapidly diminishing returns.The criminal justice system costs taxpayers $260 billion a year.  Best estimates suggest that incarceration contributes to as much as 20 percent of the American poverty rate.

During the crime wave of the 1970s and 1980s, lawmakers enacted stringent laws to instill law and order in devastated communities. But many of these laws went too far.  The federal government played an outsize role by financially subsidizing states to incarcerate more people.  Today, the federal government sends $3.8 billion to states and localities each year for criminal justice.These dollars are largely focused on increasing the size of our justice system.

But times have changed.  We now know that mass incarceration is not necessary to keep us safe.  We now know that we can reduce both crime and incarceration. States like Texas, New York, Mississippi, and California have changed their laws to do just that.  For the first time in 40 years, both crime and incarceration have fallen together, since 2008.

How can this momentum be harnessed into action? Just as Washington encouraged states to incarcerate, it can now encourage them to reduce incarceration while keeping down crime. It can encourage state reform efforts to roll back prison populations.  As the country debates who will be the next president, any serious candidate must have a strong plan to reform the justice system.

The next president should urge Congress to pass the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act. It would encourage a 20 percent reduction in imprisonment nationwide. Such an Act would have four components:

  • A new federal grant program of $20 billion over 10 years in incentive funds to states.
  • A requirement that states that reduce their prison population by 7 percent over a three-year period without an increase in crime will receive funds.
  • A clear methodology based on population size and other factors to determine how much money states receive.
  • A requirement that states invest these funds in evidence-based programs proven to reduce crime and incarceration.

Such an Act would have more reach than any of the other federal proposals. It could be implemented through budgeting procedures. It could be implemented as a stand-alone Act. Or, it could be introduced as an amendment to a pending bill.

October 12, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Does the Sixth or Eighth Amendment matter more for jury's role in capital punishment?

The question in the title of this post is the primary uncertainty likely to impact Supreme Court debate over Florida's capital punishment system during tomorrow's scheduled oral argument in Hurst v. Florida.  Helpfully, Lyle Denniston has this lengthy preview post at SCOTUSblog titled "Defining the jury's role on death penalty," and here are excerpts:

For years, the Supreme Court has been engaged in an energetic effort to enhance the role of the jury in criminal courts. No part of that has been more actively pursued than deepening the jury’s involvement in sentencing — a part of the process long dominated by trial judges. A new case from Florida, set for argument at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, provides a new test.

Florida is the last state to hold out against a common requirement that jurors must be unanimous in both specifying why a convicted individual is eligible for a death sentence and recommending a sentence. Juries in Florida death penalty cases have only an advisory role to begin with, and even that influence on the judge is potentially lessened by the lack of unanimity and by the judge’s authority to make the key decisions anyway.

The Court is examining the case of a brutal slaying at a Popeye’s fast-food restaurant in Pensacola, Fla. (Hurst v. Florida), to determine how far a state may go to assign the important decisions on death sentencing to the judge. The Justices attempted to curb that role, and give more of it to the jury, in a 2002 decision but the Florida Supreme Court has essentially exempted the state’s capital punishment process from that ruling.

In Ring v. Arizona thirteen years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that a judge may not make the factual findings about “aggravating factors” — the seriousness of the crime that can make an individual eligible to be sentenced to death — because that role under the Sixth Amendment belongs to the jury. The Court has said repeatedly that, if a potential sentence is to be made more severe, the enhancement must be based upon the jury’s findings.

The Court, however, has never ruled that juries must be used in the sentencing phases of a case in which a death sentence is a possibility, and it has never ruled that a jury recommendation of a death sentence must be by a unanimous vote. It has allowed guilty verdicts by less than unanimous votes in cases involving lesser crimes. The case set for a hearing next Tuesday could provide new interpretations on both of those issues....

Florida law splits up the roles on death sentencing between the jury and the judge. The jury’s advisory role is to ultimately recommend a sentence to the judge. To do that, the jury weighs aggravating and mitigating factors and decides whether to recommend a death sentence. It can make that final recommendation on a split vote — it must be at least seven to five, as it was in Hurst’s case. But there is no need for even a majority of jurors to agree on even one of the aggravating factors the jurors as a group had apparently indicated did exist.

The sentencing duty then shifts to the judge, who does the same weighing process of the two kinds of factors; in doing so, the judge is not bound by what the jury concluded. The judge then decides for or against a death sentence, again with no duty to follow the jury’s recommendation.

The Florida Supreme Court, upholding that process as used in Hurst’s case, found no constitutional problem with the role of either the jury or the judge. The state court divided four to three, with the dissenting justices arguing that the Florida approach violates both the Sixth and Eighth Amendments and deviates from the Supreme Court’s ruling in Ring v. Arizona.

Hurst’s lawyers took the case on to the Supreme Court, raising two multi-faceted questions, with most of them focusing on the split role of judge and jury. The Court granted review in March, rephrasing the issue to be whether the Florida scheme violates either the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment “in light of this Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona.” The order did not specify whether it would consider Hurst’s argument that he also had a claim of mishandling in his trial of a mental disability claim, but the Court did not appear to have accepted that for review and it has dropped out of the case.

Hurst’s brief on the merits largely separates the arguments between the Sixth Amendment, claiming that provision is violated by the jury’s limited role in finding whether Hurst was eligible for a death sentence, and the Eighth Amendment, claiming that provision is violated by allowing the judge to impose the sentence after a split verdict by the jury. However, he also levels a separate Sixth Amendment challenge to the judge’s role in imposing a death penalty....

Florida’s brief on the merits noted that the Supreme Court has examined its capital punishment scheme at least four times before and has not found it to be flawed under the Constitution. The state also insisted that Hurst’s lawyers had exaggerated what is required under Ring v. Arizona. That decision, it contended, only mandates a role for the jury in the death-eligibility analysis, and does not insist that it have a role in the actual selection of the sentence to be imposed.

As fans of Ring v. Arizona should recall, a few of the Justices still on the Court now considered these issues to be primarily of Sixth Amendment concern (Justices Scalia, Thomas and Ginsburg), whereas some other of the Justices still on the Court viewed these issues primarily from an Eighth Amendment perspective (Justices Kennedy and Breyer). And, notably, the four newer Justices have had a lot of distinct (and differing) things to say about both the Sixth and Eighth Amendments in recent years. How all this will add up to a majority ruling in Hurst remains to be seen, but I will suggest that anyone sentenced to death in Florida after a non-unanimous jury recommendation already ought to be getting ready to file a new habeas petition as soon as we get a ruling in Hurst.

October 12, 2015 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Is anyone surprised to learn of government dysfunction as Oklahoma operates machinery of death?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this latest local story from a state that has spotlighted how jurisdictions are continue to struggle with lethal injection protocols.  The piece is headlined "Emails from Gov. Fallin's office show state agencies' struggle to respond to scrutiny over execution," and it begins this way: 

An examination of more than 40,000 pages of records released Thursday by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin’s office in response to an open-records request provides a picture of multiple state agencies scrambling under pressure to send coordinated, consistent responses to reporters and each other after an April 2014 execution went awry.

The Tulsa World requested the documents 17 months ago after Clayton Lockett’s April 29, 2014, execution — the first in Oklahoma to be carried out using the sedative midazolam — ended 43 minutes after it began in what records later called a “bloody mess” carried out by inexperienced medical staff who were using the wrong size needles to start IVs in Lockett’s veins.

Lockett was set to die for the murder of 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman of Perry ahead of Charles Warner, who received a death sentence for the rape and murder of 11-month-old Adrianna Waller.  The state issued a temporary stay for Warner after realizing Lockett’s lethal injection had gone wrong.

An autopsy report released to the World on Thursday, the contents of which were first reported by The Oklahoman, shows that Warner was executed Jan. 15 using potassium acetate rather than potassium chloride, the latter of which is required according to Oklahoma’s lethal-injection protocol.  In correspondence to attorneys representing Lockett and Warner, John Hadden, an assistant attorney general, told them potassium chloride would be used as part of a three-drug cocktail in the lethal injection.

Many of the records provided Thursday had little to do with the World’s or other media outlets’ requests, but the emails exchanged between Fallin’s office, Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s staff and Department of Corrections personnel show numerous people were involved in drafting replies to media inquiries.  Officials from each agency appeared not to know on multiple occasions whether they, or a spokesperson from the Department of Public Safety, should comment publicly on questions about the fallout from Lockett’s execution and subsequent DPS investigation.

October 12, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"The Future of Parole Release: A Ten-Point Reform Plan"

The title of this post is the title of this timely and intriguing new paper authored by Edward Rhine, Joan Petersilia and Kevin Reitz now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This article lays out a 10-point program for the improvement of discretionary parole release systems in America.  Taken together, our recommendations coalesce into an ambitious model that has never before existed in the US.  Even if adopted separately, our recommendations would work substantial incremental improvements in the current practices of all paroling systems.

The article is written by three authors who have taken sharply different views on the fundamental question of whether contemporary determinate or indeterminate sentencing systems have been the more successful systems across American states.  Likewise, the authors have given different advice to jurisdictions on whether parole release should be retained, abolished, or reinstituted (Rhine 2012; Petersilia 2003; Reitz 2004).  Nonetheless, the authors agree that discretionary parole-release is an important feature of U.S. sentencing and corrections that will not disappear in the foreseeable future — and all three share a common interest in improving those systems as much as possible.  Indeed, regardless of one’s views on the “determinacy/indeterminacy” debate, it would be irresponsible not to give assistance to the majority of states that continue to vest meaningful authority over prison sentence length in paroling agencies.

October 11, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Federal judicial power to expunge old convictions getting lots of (hip?) attention in EDNY

It is perhaps fitting that in the Eastern District of New York, home to hipster haven Brooklyn, has become the central location for an important new discussion and debate over important (and hip?) questions concerning the legal authority of federal judges to expunge old convictions.  The always great Collateral Consequences Resource Center has highlights of some of the goings on via these two new posts:

The first of these above-referenced posts discusses this fascinating amicus brief filed this past week in one of two federal expungement cases before US Distrct Judge John Gleeson, a brief which the judge requested and which merits it own separate future post.

The second of the posts from CCRC spotlights that, perhaps unsurprisingly, now that Judge Gleeson has suggested federal judges might have some authority to expunge old convictions, other judges are being asked to consider doing the same.

In my view, these matters are (and should continue to be) hot and hip not only for persons interested in criminal justice reform issues, but also for those interested more general in federal court powers and what a judiciary can and should do given gaps in statutory answers to importance criminal justice questions.

October 11, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Via the National Review, an unintended parody of various arguments against modest federal sentencing reform

Tumblr_mr31fpWYLB1qzpxx1o1_500I generally respect and benefit form the work Bill Otis does over at Crime & Consequences criticizing sentencing reform movements because, despite sometimes overheated rhetoric, he generally uses sound data and reasonable aguments to make out the best case in defense of the modern federal sentencing status quo.  Though I think Bill is often wrong on the merits, especially with respect to federal statutory sentencing reform issues, he is justifiably seen as an important voice in the public-policy debate because he regularly makes responsible and sober claims in support of his various positions.

I bring all this up as a prelude to spotlighting this notable new National Review commentary by Andrew McCarthy, headlined "Keep Minimum Sentencing, to Discourage Criminals." This lengthy piece, in my view, reads almost like a parody (unintentionally, I assume) of many arguments against federal sentencing reform that Bill and some other prosecutors make much more soundly in other settings. Here are some few passages from the piece that strike me as especially cringe-worthy:

Young Americans for whom the Reagan administration is ancient history, New Yorkers who grew up in the post-Giuliani City — they have no memory of what it was like from the Sixties into the early Eighties. For them, the revolution in crime-fighting that so dramatically improved the quality of American life is not revolutionary. It is simply ... life. There is nothing hard-won about it. It is not informed by the dark days when rampant crime was fueled by a criminal-rights campaign premised on many of the same loopy ideas that undergird Washington’s latest fetish, “sentencing reform.”

The worst of those ideas is to roll back “mandatory minimum” sentences. These are terms of imprisonment, often harsh ones, that must be imposed for serious crimes. Mandatory minimums tie the hands of judges, mandating that they take hard criminals off the streets rather than slap them on the wrists. Before the Reagan era, federal penal laws prescribed potentially severe sentences for serious offenses ...[but a] judge was also free to impose the minimum sentence of no time whatsoever. What punishment to impose within that expansive statutory range from zero to 50 years was wholly the judge’s call. In effect, this nearly boundless discretion transferred control over punishment for crime from the public to the courts.

Federal judges tend to be very good at the difficult job they are trained to do: apply law, which is frequently arcane and sometimes inconsistent, to factual situations, which have their own complexities. This skill, however, does not necessarily translate into expertise in making punitive judgments that are governed less by legal rules than gut feeling — gut feeling being what controls broad discretion....

Even if many judges were not instinctively sympathetic to arguments in favor of harsh sentencing, sympathy comes with the institutional territory. The judge’s duty is not to promote public safety; it is to ensure that parties before the court receive justice. It is a bedrock conceit of those who toil in the justice system that the public perception of justice is just as vital as the objective reality of justice. Thus, the judge has great incentive to bend over backward to give convicted defendants every bounce of the due-process ball.

It is a lot easier to call for a harsh sentence from the peanut gallery than to be the judge who has to impose a sentence after a desperate plea for leniency has been made and while the defendant’s mother, wife, and kids weep in the first row. So whether the pressures were ideological, institutional, or rooted in human nature, judges were often weak sentencers. That weakness translated into the inadvertent promotion of crime by failing to disincentivize it and failing to sideline career criminals. Mandatory minimums were thus enacted by overwhelming congressional margins in order to divest judges of the discretion to impose little or no jail time for serious crimes and habitual criminals.

It is the latest Beltway fashion to demand that mandatory minimums be rolled back, if not repealed, on the theory that incarceration causes rather than drastically reduces crime. Or, since that claim doesn’t pass the laugh test, on the theory that incarceration is racist — the great American conversation ender. Beyond the in terrorem effect of the racism smear, the latter rationale relies on the overrepresentation of minorities, particularly blacks and illegal aliens, in the prison population — and banks on your being too cowed to bring up the overrepresentation of minority communities in the crime-victim population.

Alas, a “reform” that reduces mandatory minimums will benefit only one class of people — serious felons who commit many more crimes than they are prosecuted for. And racism? Please. We have, to take one pertinent example, a harsh mandatory minimum sentence for predators who are convicted of a felony after having previously being convicted of three other serious crimes. Congress wasn’t targeting race; it was targeting sociopaths.

Understand, I am not contending that the criminal-justice system is without flaws badly in need of correction. But the main problem is not severe sentencing. It is over-criminalization.

Too much formerly innocent private conduct has become prohibited, making criminals out of essentially law-abiding people. Law is supposed to be a reflection of society’s values, not a tool by which society is coerced to transform its values. Moreover, when the statutes, rules, and regulations proliferate to the point that it becomes unreasonable to expect average people to know what is forbidden, we no longer have a nation of laws; we have a nation of men arbitrarily deciding which of the presumptively guilty get punished and which go unscathed.

If a problem is not accurately diagnosed, it will not be cured. There is a prescription for what ails us, but it is most certainly not a repeal of the severe sentences enacted to address serious crime. Nothing that rewards real criminals at the expense of the people they victimize should trade under the name of “reform.”

I share the closing sentiment that a problem need to be accurately diagnosed to be solved. But there are so many problems in the arguments before that sentiment, I almost feel unable to unpack them all in the space. What I find especially peculiar are the suggestions here that sound sentencing is necessarily only about "gut feeling," that it is problematic judges consider "every bounce of the due-process ball," and that sentencing would be better if more attentive to every "call for a harsh sentence from the peanut gallery." Also remarkable is the suggestion that any and everyone subject to an existing federal mandatory minimum is a "sociopath" that must be subject to severe punishment because surely they have committed "many more crimes than they are prosecuted for."

All these curious contentions aside, I find it especially remarkable how McCarthy concludes after saying nothing is wrong with the harsh mandatory drug and gun sentences created in recent decades by Congress and applied (inconsistently) by federal prosecutors. He says the "main" problem is other federal criminal laws created in recent decades by Congress and applied (inconsistently) by federal prosecutors which creates, so he claims, a "nation of men arbitrarily deciding which of the presumptively guilty get punished and which go unscathed." In other words, it seems, when it comes to imposing punishment for crimes, we should continue to distrust modern judges and trust old mandatory sentencing laws created by Congress in the 1980s, but when it comes to defining what is a crime, we should not trust Congress because somehow they enact criminal laws (but not "severe sentences") that are not really "a reflection of society’s values."

I trust I am not the only one who see how backward a lot of what is being said here. But apparently the folks at the National Review see reasonable logic or some kind of wisdom here that perhaps requires spending more time in the Beltway to understand. Or maybe I just need to go re-watch Breaking Bad, which NR has extolled, so I can better understand the "sociopaths" federal judges cannot be trusted to sentence properly because they have the wrong "gut feeling" while concerned with "every bounce of the due-process ball."

October 10, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, October 09, 2015

In defense of Ohio officials trying to figure out how to get execution drugs legally

This new AP story, headlined "Ohio Challenges FDA's Stand on Execution Drug," provides more details and context for the notable letter sent today by Ohio officials to the FDA (first reported here). Here are excerpts (with my bold emphasis):

With two dozen scheduled executions in limbo, Ohio sent a forceful letter to Washington on Friday asserting that the state believes it can obtain a lethal-injection drug from overseas without violating any laws.

The letter to the Food and Drug Administration stopped short of suggesting Ohio is moving forward to obtain the powerful anesthetic sodium thiopental. However, the state asked to begin discussing with federal officials about acquiring the substance legally.

The FDA had warned Ohio in June that importing the restricted drug could be illegal as a result of recent federal court decisions, setting up the latest roadblock to carrying out the death penalty.

Ohio hasn't executed anyone since January 2014, when condemned killer Dennis McGuire gasped and snorted repeatedly during a 26-minute procedure with a two-drug method that had yet to be tried. Ohio abandoned that method in favor of other drugs it now can't find.

Pharmaceutical companies have discontinued the medications traditionally used by states in executions or put them off limits for use in lethal injections. Stephen Gray, chief counsel for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction, said the state has no intention of violating the law to obtain such drugs — but "the responsibility to carry out lawful and humane executions when called upon by the courts to do so is enormous, and it is a responsibility that ODRC does not take lightly."

Death penalty opponents have seized on trouble with lethal injections, as in McGuire's case, and difficulty in obtaining drugs as further justification for ending it.  Supporters of capital punishment encourage states to continue to pursue legal avenues for getting the drugs — or find alternatives — so that condemned killers can be brought to justice.

Ohio's latest correspondence comes as the state is set to resume executions in a little over three months. The state is scheduled to execute Ronald Phillips on Jan. 21 for raping and killing his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter in 1993. Another 23 executions have been scheduled into 2019.

In part because I know and respect, both professional and personally, a number of Ohio executive officials, I have highlighted parts of the story above that I suspect may have led many of them to feel duty-bound to explain to FDA why Ohio thinks it legally could (and perhaps sensibly should) seek to import lethal injection drugs.  Ohio has a long (and sometimes ugly) history with its lethal injection protocols, but Ohio officials have always seemed (at least to me) to be willing and eager to make reasonable efforts to adjust its execution protocols in order to try to carry out lawful death sentences in the most humane way possible.  I perceive that an effort to find a legal way to import sodium thiopental is another example of Ohio officials making this effort.

Of course, opponents of the death penalty are often quick to say that no execution is humane and that Ohio's troubles with executions protocols and drug acquisition provide further reasons for the state to get entirely out of the capital business.  Ironically, I suspect many Ohio executive officials personally share this perspective, especially because their jobs would surely get easier if they did not have to worry about the next scheduled execution (or the 23 others right behind it).  But all executive officials, short of perhaps Ohio Gov John Kasich, are duty-bound to apply the existing law enacted by Ohio's elected representatives, not the law as would serve their own personal interests.  (Indeed, in neighboring Kentucky, Kim Davis recently highlighted the ugliness that can ensure when executive officials seek to elevate personal law over the actual law.)  

Consequently, unless and until the Ohio General Assembly repeals the death penalty or Gov Kasch uses his clemency authority to create an execution moratorium, it strikes me as defensible (and arguably obligatory) for Ohio executive officials to look to secure drugs needed for execution by any and all lawful means.  And it will now be especially interesting to see if FDA official will be willing and able to work with Ohio officials to help the state lawfully secure execution drugs (assuming, as I think all should, that this is what Ohio would like to be able to do).

Prior related post:

October 9, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Ohio tells FDA it can be legal to import sodium thiopental to carry out death sentences

In this post a few months ago, I reported on a letter sent by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the head of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation Correction (ODRC) expressing concern that Ohio might be trying to import illegally the drug it needed to carry out scheduled executions.  Now I can report on an interesting official response sent today from ODRC back to FDA.  In a four-page letter, ODRC provides an extended explanation for how, in Ohio's view, it could be legal for it to import certain drugs needed to carry out executions.

The full letter from ODRC to FDA, which is available for downloading below, merits a careful read by anyone closely following the challenges many states are having securing needed drugs for executions.  As a kind of summary, here is how the ODRC letter starts and concludes:

Your June 26, 2015 letter to Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC), Gary Mohr, referenced some unspecified information you had received about Ohio's "inten[t] to obtain bulk and finished dosage forms of sodium thiopental." Based on this information, you referenced two federal court decisions, Beaty v. FDA, 853 F. Supp. 2d 30 (D.D.C. 2012) and Cook v. FDA, 733 F.3d 1(D.C. Cir. 2013), and sought to "remind [Ohio] of the applicable legal framework" for importation of sodium thiopental. Contrary to the implication in your letter that the importation of sodium thiopental is currently prohibited, there is a legal framework for a state, if it so chooses, to import sodium thiopental in accordance with both the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and the June 2012 Court Order issued by Judge Leon in Beaty. Further, please be advised that if at some point in the future the State of Ohio should choose to pursue the importation of sodium thiopental or any other drug that may be used to carry out a sentence of lethal injection, Ohio has no intention of breaking any federal laws or violating any court orders in an attempt to procure the legal drugs necessary to carry out constitutionally approved and court-ordered death sentences....

Given the specific facts and parameters of those [above-referenced] decisions, it is clear that importation of sodium thiopental is not completely prohibited by Judge Leon's 2012 Orders.  That is, importation of sodium thiopental is not prohibited provided that [five key conditions are met]....

Thus, we believe that if a state were to attempt to import sodium thiopental under these five conditions, then the specific terms of the Beaty injunction would not apply.  In other words, the FDA would not be permanently enjoined from permitting that shipment into the United States, and that it would be lawful and permissible for a state to proceed with such lawful importation.

The responsibility to carry out lawful and humane executions when called upon by the courts to do so is enormous, and it is a responsibility that ODRC does not take lightly.  To that end, ODRC has no intention of attempting to procure drugs for lethal injection in a manner that would violate a proper interpretation of the FDCA.  And, as the federal agency tasked with enforcing the FDCA and subject to the Court Order in Beaty, we would be happy to begin a dialog with the FDA as to how best achieve this goal.

Download DRC to FDA 9 Oct 2015

Prior related post:

October 9, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"The Supreme Court’s Johnson v. United States Ruling: A Vagueness Doctrine Revolution?"

The title of this post is the title of this helpful "Legal Backgrounder" coming from the Washington Legal Foundation and authored by David Debold and Rachel Mondl. Here are a couple of paragraphs from the start and end of the reader-friendly piece:

Apart from the direct effect of Johnson on ACCA sentences, the decision marks an important step in the Court’s vagueness jurisprudence.  Also not to be overlooked is Justice Thomas’s concurrence, which likened the vagueness doctrine to the much-maligned concept of substantive due process, thus raising questions about the legitimacy of a vagueness doctrine in the first place.  In the end, though, the debate over the legitimacy of substantive-due-process rights should have no bearing on the Court’s void-for-vagueness precedents, because vague laws offend traditional notions of procedural due process — that is, the process by which the government may deprive a person of life, liberty, or property....

More than an opinion on mandatory-minimum sentences, Johnson provides a welcome clarification of the law on unconstitutional vagueness.  Yet it remains to be seen how far-reaching the decision will be.  The majority opinion widens the opportunities for challenges to laws where previous challenges would not have been possible under a vague-in-all-applications regime.  Time will tell whether more of those challenges will succeed, or, instead, whether Johnson is relegated to “unique” status, its result ordained by the profound and repeated inability of the Supreme Court and courts of appeals to craft a principled, workable standard for applying a peculiar type ofstatute.  One thing is certain: Johnson will not be the last word on the vagueness doctrine.

October 9, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Highlighting who is now highlighting the inefficacy of sex offender registries

This new local Ohio article, headlined "Sex offender registries draw criticism from some unlikely sources," spotlights that some perhaps unexpected voices are advocating against sex offender registries. Here are excertps (with links from the source):

You might think that all advocates for rape victims would support the practice of forcing sex offenders to publicly register their addresses after their release from prison. But you would be mistaken.

Growing numbers of victim advocates and criminal justice researchers are among those who have concluded that sex offender registries are too costly and provide little or no protection to the public.  "The registry gives the appearance that our community is safer, but we really question whether it lives up to that expectation," said Sondra Miller, president of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center....

It's not surprising that defense attorneys oppose the registries, but therapists and victim's advocates also are among those calling for change.

"The biggest frustration we have with the registry is it feeds into the myths that the general public has about sexual assault," Miller said.  "It feeds this stranger-danger mentality when we know it's such a small fraction of the sexual assaults that occur in our community."  Miller said the registries give people a "false sense of security" that sex offenders can be easily identified and avoided, when that's not the case. 

Tyffani Dent, a clinical director at the Abraxas Counseling Center and a psychologist who works with both victims and offenders, said registries spread law enforcement too thin. Deputies have to check in not only on repeat, violent offenders but also teenagers who sent illicit text messages to their girlfriends, and who pose little threat to their neighbors.   "I want for victims to get justice," she said. "Unfortunately, registration the way it is now doesn't do what it's designed to do."

Several large-scale studies have shown that registries don't do much to prevent criminals from committing new crimes.

  • A 2008 U.S. Department of Justice study concluded that "Megan's Law showed no demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offenses."
  • A 2011 study from the University of Chicago found that "registered sex offenders have higher rates of recidivism" than those who did not have to register.
  • Another study published in 2011 found that a registration requirement has a deterrent effect on sexual offenders, but the notification aspect of the registries leads to higher rates of offense because of the social and financial costs to the offender. 
  • A 2004 Canadian study found that "after 15 years, 73 percent of sexual offenders had not been charged with, or convicted of, another sexual offense."

Dent doesn't think the registry system should be abandoned entirely.  Instead, she favors registering only the most dangerous offenders.  That would free up resources for preventative measures and treatment, such as mental health therapy, which Dent said has been proven to reduce recidivism.   In particular, Dent said cognitive behavioral therapies, which address the way people think and behave, have been proven to reduce recidivism among sex offenders.... 

Miller ... noted that victim's services and treatment programs are both underfunded, and could use some of the more than half a million dollars Cuyahoga County spends maintaining its registry.  "It really is a question of where do we put our resources where we're going to have the maximum impact and I'm not sure the sex offender registry is where we're getting the most impact," Miller said.

This companion story to the one quoted above carries the headline "Sex offender says registry amounts to punishment for life." Here is how it starts:

Nearly three decades ago, Emil Basista was convicted of raping a 33-year-old woman. While serving time in prison, he was retroactively labeled as a sexual predator, a designation that requires him to report where he lives every 90 days to the sheriff's department. Basista, 66, is one of several thousand Ohioans who have tried to challenge the state's sexual offender registration requirements, contending that the publicly accessible registries amount to life-long punishment.

October 9, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Basic elements of House's Sentencing Reform Act of 2015

As noted in this prior post, a bipartisan group of Respresentatives today introduced a version of sentencing reform in the form of this 18-page bill called the Sentencing Reform Act. This press release from the House Judiciary Committee provides this introduction:

The Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 reduces certain mandatory minimums for drug offenses, reduces the three-strike mandatory life sentence to 25 years, broadens the existing safety valve for low-level drug offenders, and provides judges with greater discretion in determining appropriate sentences while ensuring that serious violent felons do not get out early. The bill also contains sentencing enhancements for Fentanyl trafficking, a highly addictive and deadly drug that is becoming a growing epidemic in the United States.

The Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 is the first bill that is a result of the House Judiciary Committee’s criminal justice reform initiative. The Committee continues to work on additional bills that address other aspects of our criminal justice system, including over-criminalization, prison and reentry reform – including youth and juvenile justice issues – improved criminal procedures and policing strategies, and civil asset forfeiture reform. The Committee will roll out more bills addressing these topics over the coming weeks.

The press release also includes quotes from various House members and has links to a "one-pager on the Sentencing Reform Act [that] can be found here and section-by-section [that] can be found here."

October 8, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

What major federal criminal justice reform now gets 90% support in key swing states?

In this post and others at Crime & Consequences, Bill Otis rightly notes that relatively little objective polling has focused on the array of federal sentencing and correction reforms that are being actively proposed and promoted now by many leaders in the US Senate and House.  Like Bill, I would like to see the media and other independent groups conduct polling on some key aspects of federal drug sentencing and broader rehabilitation-oriented prison reform proposals now being considered on Capitol Hill.

Critically, though, thanks largely to voter-initiated, state-level reforms over the last few years, we are starting to see a lot more media and other independent groups conduct polling on one particular aspect of the federal criminal justice system: blanket marijuana prohibition and criminalization.  The latest polling numbers in this space come from the independent Quinnipiac University Poll, and it finds remarkably high public support for ending marijuana prohibition in swing states in order to allow adults "to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if their doctor prescribes it."  This Quinnipiac press release about its poll places emphasis on closely-divided (and gender/age-distinctive) views on recreational marijuana reform, but I find the medical marijuana poll numbers most remarkable and important. Here are excerpts from the press release (with my emphasis added):

"If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then the Red Planet might be the more spacey place. That's because men are more likely than women to support legalization of marijuana for recreational use," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. "Not surprisingly support for the change is linked to age, with younger voters more likely to see personal use of pot as a good thing."

"But despite the support for legalization, a majority of voters in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania say they would not use the drug if it were legal," Brown added. "Only about one in 10 voters opposes legalizing marijuana for medical purposes." ...

Florida voters support legalizing personal marijuana use 51 - 45 percent.... Voters support legalizing medical marijuana 87 - 12 percent....

Ohio voters support legalizing personal marijuana use 53 - 44 percent.... Voters support legalized medical marijuana use 90 - 9 percent.

Pennsylvania voters are divided on legalizing personal marijuana use, with 47 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed.... Voters support legalizing medical marijuana 90 - 9 percent.

Among other stories, these latest poll numbers reinforce my concern that federal laws and our federal political leaders (including, it seems, most of the candidates running to be our next President) are badly out of touch with public views on marijuana reform. Even in these purple swing states, roughly 90% (!) of those polled say, in essence, that they do not support blanket marijuana prohibition and criminalization, and yet blanket marijuana prohibition persists in federal law and precious few elected federal office holders (or those seeking to be elected office holders) are willing even to talk about seeking to change these laws in the short term.

That all said, I am getting a growing sense that, over time, more and more promiment establishment politicians are coming to understand just how talking seriously (and modestly) about marijuana reform can be a winning political issue (especially among younger voters).  Still, as evidenced by some recent posts at my Marijuana blog, the politics, policies and practicalities of marijuana reform are so dynamic, I find myself unwilling ever to make bold predictions about what might happen next in this reform space.

Some recent posts from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform:

October 8, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

House Judiciary leaders set to introduce (distinct?) big bipartisan sentencing reform bill

As detailed in this press release from the House Judiciary Committee, this morning Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.) are going to release the detail of the House Judiciary Committee’s bipartisan criminal justice reform initiative.  Here is the statement from the pair:

For the past several months, the House Judiciary Committee has been working on a bipartisan basis on several bills to ensure our federal criminal laws and regulations appropriately punish wrongdoers, are effectively and appropriately enforced, operate with fairness and compassion, protect individual freedom, safeguard civil liberties, work as efficiently as possible, do not impede state efforts, and do not waste taxpayer dollars.

As a result of this work, we are pleased to announce that we, along with Crime Subcommittee Ranking Member Sheila Jackson Lee and a bipartisan group of leaders on this issue, will introduce companion legislation to the sentencing reform portion of the Senate bill unveiled last week by Senators Grassley, Durbin, Cornyn, Leahy, Booker and others.

We are also continuing our work on additional bills that address other aspects of our criminal justice system, including over-criminalization, prison and reentry reform, including youth and juvenile justice issues, improved criminal procedures and policing strategies, and civil asset forfeiture reform and we expect to roll out more bills addressing these topics over the coming weeks.

I am very excited to learn that the House is going to have its own version of the Senate's SRCA 2015 making the rounds. This news makes me a bit more optimistic that Congress could get a sentencing reform bill passed at to the desk of the President before the end of 2015.

Recent prior related posts on SRCA 2015:

October 8, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Astute review of (too-often neglected and really critical) back-end criminal justice developments

The October issue of Governing magazine has this lengthy new article that effectively spotlights aspects of criminal justice punishment systems that have too often been ignored or overlooked. The article merits a read in full, and its extended headline highlights why everyone should be interested in the stories within: "The Changing Relationship Between Ex-Criminals and Their Parole Officers: Rather than acting as former offenders' enemies, parole and probation officers are now working to be their mentors. Can it reduce recidivism?". Here are excerpts:

Oftentimes, parole and probation officers are the only positive role models offenders have. About a decade ago, criminologists began asking if parole and probation visits were a missed opportunity for law enforcement.  What if officers developed a more supportive relationship with offenders?  What if they demonstrated to clients that they weren’t just checking boxes and delivering sanctions?  The working theory was that given some personal attention, offenders might be more receptive to advice about resolving conflicts and avoiding crime.
Amid a flurry of academic journal articles and pilot projects, researchers from the University of Cincinnati developed EPICS, short for Effective Practices in Community Supervision, a new model for structured face-to-face meetings between officers and their clients.  While universities in Australia and Canada produced similar approaches based on the same underlying theory, EPICS has become the go-to model for parole and probation in much of the United States.  Since 2006, more than 80 state and county criminal justice departments have adopted EPICS....
By focusing on behavioral change, rather than just threats of being thrown back in jail, EPICS and similar efforts may help break the cycle of incarceration. “I don’t think the majority of people on supervision like being criminals,” says Scott Taylor, who runs the department of parole and probation in Multnomah County. “They just can’t figure how to get out of it.”

Law enforcement agencies in this country have been engaged in community supervision for more than 150 years, basing their practice on the idea that some convicted criminals can reintegrate into society, so long as they meet with assigned officers on a regular basis.  Community supervision takes two primary forms: probation and parole.  Generally speaking, probation is an alternative to incarceration, and parole is early release from prison.  People on probation tend to be convicted of less serious offenses than people on parole....

EPICS is part of a larger change that is developing within the nation’s parole and probation systems.  Parole boards are under scrutiny for keeping people in prison without explaining why they don’t qualify for supervised release in the community.  Many states have changed sentencing requirements so that nonviolent offenders are increasingly the responsibility of local jails and community supervision agencies, not state prisons.  Parole and probation officers are using risk assessment tools to concentrate services on the people who are most likely to reoffend.

Since 2000, anywhere from 4.5 million to 5 million adults have been under community supervision in a given year, but as prisons come under increasing pressure to lower their inmate populations, the number of offenders on parole and probation is certain to grow. In the past, parole and probation agencies have generally ignored research that suggests ways to reduce recidivism; the field has been stuck in a mode of monitoring and enforced compliance.  As more offenders are released to community supervision, however, agencies are showing an interest in ideas designed to cut down on criminal behavior.  EPICS is one of those ideas.

October 7, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Previewing Kansas capital case day for SCOTUS argument

The Supreme Court will be spending the morning today talking a lot about how Kansas administers its death penalty.  (The official nickname for Kansas is the Sunflower State, but perhaps the Justices will be thinking of the state's unofficial nickname of Bleeding Kansas.) Helpfully, SCOTUSblog and Crime & Consequences provides previews. Here are links and leads from their efforts:

Argument preview: Justices to tackle Eighth Amendment — again:

The Justices closed out last Term with a high-profile death penalty case, holding that Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedures do not violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  The decision in that case may be best known for Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in which he suggested that the death penalty itself is unconstitutional.  The Eighth Amendment is back before the Court again tomorrow, albeit with lower stakes, this time in a set of challenges to the procedures used to sentence three Kansas inmates to death.  The oral arguments and the Court’s eventual decision may tell us more about whether some of the Justices’ discomfort with the death penalty will translate into additional protections for defendants in capital cases or whether the Justices will instead remain — as they were in the Oklahoma case —  sharply divided. 

SCOTUS Considers the Wichita Massacre:

Even among people who deal with violent crime all the time, there are some crimes of such revolting depravity, such pure evil, that they knock us back in our chairs just reading about them.  The United States Supreme Court considers such a case tomorrow.  It is the notorious case of brothers Jonathan and Reginald Carr, whose crime spree culminated in a case called the Wichita Massacre.

UPDATEThis short post-argument Reuters piece reports that the "U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared poised to rule against two brothers challenging their death sentences for a 2000 crime spree in Kansas that included the execution-style murders of four people on a snowy soccer field."

Folks can surmise the basis for this media view by checking out the transcripts in Kansas v. Gleason, Kansas v. Carr, and Kansas v. Carr now available here and here.

October 7, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Montgomery wards: certain victims' family members voicing support for juve murderers getting a chance at resentencing

As noted in this prior post, I am doing a series of posts in preparation for the US Supreme Court hearing oral argument in Montgomery v. Louisiana, and I have a terrific research assistant drafting summaries of various amicus briefs submitted in Montgomery (all of which can be found via this SCOTUSblog page).  Here is how he summarized some portions of this Brief of Amici Curiae of Certain Family Members of Victims Killed by Youths in Support of Petitioner:

A collection of people who have lost loved ones, including friends and family, to violent murders submitted an amicus brief in support of the petitioner in Montgomery v. Louisiana. Their argument is both emotional and sensible; it does not appeal to the formalisms of legal argument or precedent.

At its heart, this brief addresses the emotional and personal impact of locking away a person away forever for a crime they committed as a child. This brief pleads the Court to acknowledge the merits of leniency, compassion, and the rehabilitative potential of children. All of the stories contained in this brief are moving and important. Here are a few summarized excerpts.

Jeanne Bishop

“Jeanne Bishop lost her younger sister, Nancy Bishop Langert, brother-in-law Richard Langert, and their unborn child on April 7, 1990.” Brief for Amici Curiae of Certain Family Members of Victims Killed by Youths in Support of Petitioner, Montgomery v. Louisiana, (No. 14-280), at 4. Sixteen year-old David Biro shot and killed the couple in their home after breaking into their home while they were out and lying in wait for their return. After a two-week trial, David was convicted of the murders and sentenced to mandatory life without parole—the only possible punishment for a double-murder committed by a child in Illinois. Neither Jeanne nor anyone else in her family was not allowed to make a victim impact statement during sentencing.

Due to her religious beliefs, Jeanne forgave David, but she was happy that he “would be locked up forever.” Id. at 5. However, over time, Jeanne’s belief that David was a remorseless killer came under question and she decided to write to him. In response, David sent Jeanne a 15-page letter confessing to the crime for the first time and expressing “deep regret.” Id. Jeanne began to visit David in prison after this initial correspondence and has developed a “strong, honest, and respectful” relationship with him. Id. at 6.

“Jeanne knows that many want to write off people like David because, in their mind, people like him can never change. But, she wonders ‘whether what we are truly afraid of is not that they will never get better, but that they might.’” Id.

Linda White

On November 18, 1986, Linda White’s 26 year-old daughter Cathy was murdered by two teenage boys. Id. at 10. The boys asked Cathy for a ride out of town to avoid abusive parents. After Cathy had agreed and driven the boys a distance, the boys brandished guns and ordered Cathy to pull over. After stopping the car, the boys raped Cathy and shot her four times.

After being arrested, one of the boys — Gary — pled guilty to the murder. Gary, who was 15 years old at the time of the murder, was sentenced to 54 years in prison.

Many years after he was incarcerated, Gary agreed to let Linda, his victim’s mother, visit him. “When Linda and Gary finally met, Linda found that he was no longer the child who had callously raped and killed her daughter. Gary was a different person – a remorseful grown man who was desperately seeking both forgiveness and a chance to start making up for all of the hurt that he had inflicted.” Id. at 12.

As of 2015, “Gary has been out of prison for nearly six years. In that time, he has immersed himself in a new community, found and held a job, and begun working with drug and alcohol addicts at his church in a role in which his minister says he has made an incredible difference. Gary has kept himself out of trouble. He and Linda remain in contact, and he never stops apologizing for the pain that he caused. To Linda, Gary is a perfect example for why life sentences are so unjust, especially for children.” Id.

Prior posts in series:

October 6, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Federalism, Federal Courts, and Victims’ Rights"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Michael Solimine and Kathryn Elvey available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

A striking development in American criminal justice in the past forty years is the widespread adoption and acceptance of the rights of victims, at both the federal and state levels.  A notable exception to this innovation has been the repeated, unsuccessful attempts, continuing to the present day, to pass a Victims’ Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The considerable scholarly literature on the VRA has not rigorously examined the putative need for the VRA from a federalism perspective, a task this article undertakes.

The article examines the history of the victims’ rights movement, and of the repeated attempts to pass the VRA.  We argue that both supporters and critics of the VRA have not convincingly addressed federalism issues raised by the potential adoption of the VRA.  In contrast, we argue that functional principles of federalism suggest that the VRA and nationalization of victims’ rights is unnecessary.  On the other hand, we argue that there is one way that the federal government can recognize state development of victims’ rights. In habeas corpus actions in federal court, challenging state court convictions, we argue that victims of state crimes should be permitted and encouraged to participate in those proceedings, in ways not generally permitted to date.

October 6, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, October 05, 2015

Leading distinct GOP Senators make the case for federal sentencing reform via SRCA 2015

I am quite pleased to see that, in the wake of introducting in the US Senate the remarkable Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (basics of SRCA here), two prominent GOP Senators (one old guard, one new guard) have taken to the op-ed pages to explain what they are doing.   Politics_Grassley_620Here are links to these op-eds:

From (old guard) Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley in the Des Moines Register here, "I'm working for criminal justice reform."  Excerpts:

For the last several months, I’ve listened, worked, negotiated and built consensus with my colleagues on an important public policy that governs crime and punishment and has a sweeping effect on the citizenry.  The nation’s criminal justice system serves the accused and the aggrieved in our society. And the taxpaying public foots the bill for our courts, law enforcement and prisons that protect public safety and serve justice....

Notwithstanding the merits of mandatory minimums that are designed to promote the public good and public safety, federal sentencing has come under increased scrutiny for locking up low-level offenders and incarceration rates that are running up an unsustainable tab to American taxpayers, roughly $80 billion annually. There’s no doubt that drug and human trafficking and gang-related crimes continue to persist and poison the well of civic life, endangering public safety daily.  And yet, there’s room for sensible reforms that improve the criminal justice system so that it’s fair and just to victims, the accused and taxpayers.  The right policy mix of reforms can give low-level offenders who have paid their debts to society a second chance to rejoin their families and find employment in their communities.

This week I introduced the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. It reflects carefully crafted sentencing reforms to achieve fairness, justice and fidelity to the rule of law.

Our proposed reforms give the courts more flexibility in federal sentencing laws for non-violent, low-level drug offenders, including the elimination of the three strikes mandatory life provision.  We also expand the existing safety valve and add a second safety valve that provide relief from the 10-year mandatory minimum for certain low-level offenders.  It would retroactively apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 that reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine criminal drug offenses.

We also target and expand some of the existing mandatory minimums so that law enforcement can continue to pursue violent repeat offenders and gun criminals.  And we create new mandatory minimums for crimes involving interstate domestic violence and the export of weapons and other defense articles to prohibited countries and terrorists.

The scales of justice require equal rights under the law for the accused and for victims of crime.  Fairness in a criminal justice system also must consider the opportunity for reintegration.  Our bill would require the Department of Justice to classify all federal inmates and assign qualifying prisoners to a recidivism reduction program.  This may include job training, drug recovery, faith-based and work and education programs that provide eligible inmates an opportunity to earn early release.

There’s a fine line between leniency and levelheadedness.  That’s why I’m working for balanced reforms that do not compromise public safety and national security.

From (new guard) Senator Mike Lee in the Washington Examiner here, "The conservative case for criminal justice reform."  Excerpts:

The problem today is not simply that penalties are too harsh or sentences too long — though in many cases they are.  The problem is that, over the past several decades, we have industrialized and bureaucratized our criminal, judicial and penal systems.

Which is to say, we've turned them into unaccountable, short-sighted, input-oriented, self-interested institutions — immune to common sense — that treat offenders as statistical cases rather than human beings.

For conservatives, criminal justice reform is not a venue for the airing of ideological grievances or the testing of fashionable theories.  It's about helping our communities stay as safe and secure as possible, while infringing as little as possible on the God-given, equal rights of all Americans and their pursuit of happiness.

It's about designing our laws, our court procedures and our prison systems on the basis of a clear-eyed and time-tested understanding of human nature — of man's predilection toward sin and his capacity for redemption — as well as an uncompromising respect for the fundamental dignity of the human person.  Criminal justice reform, properly understood, is an invitation for principled conservatism at its best.  Our bill expands judicial discretion, so judges can treat offenders like human beings, not statistics, and punish them according to their particular circumstances, instead of indiscriminate bureaucratic guidelines.

It broadens the federal "safety valve" — a provision that allows federal judges to sentence a limited number of offenders below the mandatory minimum sentence.

The bill also improves the quality of our federal prison system, so that we have fewer first-time offenders turning into career criminals. It will expand inmates' access to vocational training, therapeutic counseling and reentry services that help offenders who have fulfilled their sentences return to their families, their communities, and lawful, steady jobs.

Reforming our federal criminal justice system doesn't require us to avert our eyes from a person's crimes, or make excuses that blame someone, or something, else for the choices he made.  No, it requires looking squarely at the facts of the case, no matter how ugly or wicked; holding offenders directly and personally accountable for their crimes; and devising a punishment that fits both the crime and the criminal.

We do this all the time in our daily lives when we recognize the humanity of hating the sin, not the sinner.  It's called forgiveness.  Forgiving is not the same thing as excusing. Nor is it incompatible with punishment.

Forgiveness requires assigning blame and, when necessary, imposing punishments — which is to say forgiveness requires treating offenders as morally responsible individuals — as human beings who, like the rest of us, have the propensity for vice and for virtue, and who must be held accountable for their choice of one or the other.

We know that no man is without sin.  Now, we must remember — in our hearts and in our laws — that no man is without hope.  This is why I'm involved — and invite you to join me — in the conservative movement for criminal justice reform.

The two lines I will remember from the pieces are sure to be "There’s a fine line between leniency and levelheadedness," and "we must remember — in our hearts and in our laws — that no man is without hope."

Recent prior related posts on SRCA 2015:

October 5, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Previewing the early criminal law cases on the SCOTUS docket

In this post at the Federalist Society blog, Kent Scheidegger provide an effective preview of the handful of Supreme Court cases dealing with criminal law issues that are to be heard by the Supreme Court in the first few weeks of its new Term. As regular readers know and as Kent notes, a number of the early cases involve the death penalty, and this recent Wall Street Journal article highlights the capital case concentration in an article headlined "Supreme Court Docket Loaded With Death-Penalty Cases."

But before the capital case kvetching gets started in earnest, the first criminal justice case to be heard by the Justices comes on Tuesday with Ocasio v. United States.  At SCOTUSblog here, Rory Little has this lengthy preview of Ocasio, which gets started this way:

The Court’s first criminal case of the Term presents a real brain teaser: may a defendant be convicted of conspiracy to commit an offense, when he has the intent necessary to commit the offense but his co-conspirator does not?  The case arises in the specific context of the unusual federal Hobbs Act extortion statute, and getting to the specific question initially requires some complex explanation.  But unless I misunderstand it, the general question is as old as the common law.

October 5, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Via summary reversal, SCOTUS rejects state court determination of ineffective defense

At the end of this long SCOTUS order list (which kind of marks the official start of a new Supreme Court term, OT15) is a short per curiam opinion in Maryland v. Kulbicki, No. 14-848 (S. Ct. Oct. 5, 2015). The opinion provides a notable win for prosecuors, starting and ending this way:

A criminal defendant “shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” U. S. Const., Amdt. 6.  We have held that this right requires effective counsel in both state and federal prosecutions, even if the defendant is unable to afford counsel. Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U. S. 335, 344 (1963).  Counsel is unconstitutionally ineffective if his performance is both deficient, meaning his errors are “so serious” that he no longer functions as “counsel,” and prejudicial, meaning his errors deprive the defendant of a fair trial.  Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984).  Applying this standard in name only, the Court of Appeals of Maryland held that James Kulbicki’s defense attorneys were unconstitutionally ineffective. We summarily reverse....

Given the uncontroversial nature of [Comparative Bullet Lead Analysis] CBLA at the time of Kulbicki’s trial, the effect of the judgment below is to demand that lawyers go “looking for a needle in a haystack,” even when they have “reason to doubt there is any needle there.”  Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374, 389 (2005).  The Court of Appeals demanded something close to “perfect advocacy” — far more than the “reasonable, or CBLA competence” the right to counsel guarantees.  Yarborough v. Gentry, 540 U.S. 1, 8 (2003) (per curiam).  

Kulbicki’s trial counsel did not provide deficient performance when they failed to uncover the 1991 report and to use the report’s so-called methodological flaw against Peele on cross-examination.  (We need not, and so do not, decide whether the supposed error prejudiced Kulbicki.)  The petition for writ of certiorari is granted, and the judgment of the Court of Appeals for Maryland is reversed.

October 5, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Missouri Gov commutes death sentence at last minute because...............??

The quirky question in the title of this post is my reaction to this notable capital clemency news out of the Show Me state that leaves me wishing the chief executive of the state had showed all of us more about his reasons for communiting a death sentence only days before a scheduled execution.  Here are the (somewhat mysterious) details via this local article headlined "Nixon commutes death sentence for convicted murderer Kimber Edwards":

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon commuted on Friday the death sentence for Kimber Edwards, who was convicted in the 2000 murder-for-hire of his ex-wife, to a life sentence without parole. Edwards had been scheduled to be executed by injection at 6 p.m. Tuesday. His attorneys had recently asked the Missouri Supreme Court to throw out his conviction and death sentence because of doubts raised about his guilt.

Nixon did not explain his surprise decision, other than to say it came after a “thorough review of the facts” and was “not taken lightly.” He said the evidence supported the jury’s decision to convict Edwards of first-degree murder.

“After a thorough review of the facts surrounding the murder of Kimberly Cantrell, I am convinced the evidence supports the jury’s decision to convict Kimber Edwards of first-degree murder. At the same time, however, I am using my authority under the Missouri Constitution to commute Edwards’ sentence to life without the possibility of parole. This is a step not taken lightly, and only after significant consideration of the totality of the circumstances. With this decision, Kimber Edwards will remain in prison for the remainder of his life for this murder.”

Reached later Friday, a spokesman for Nixon said he would not elaborate.

Kimberly Cantrell, 35, was shot twice in the head in her apartment in the 1100 block of Midland Avenue in University City on Aug. 22, 2000. Authorities said Edwards had hired Orthell Wilson to kill Cantrell, Edwards’ ex-wife, to prevent her from testifying in a child-support hearing.

One of Cantrell’s siblings, Chuck Cantrell of San Jose, Calif., said that his family was informed of the decision less than five minutes before it was made public. Cantrell spoke to a legal adviser for the governor but wanted to speak to Nixon himself. “I would think that the governor would certainly understand that his action of this magnitude certainly has impact on the survivors of the victim,” he said. “I just can’t imagine that his office could be so callous. I would hate to think this would be some sort of political maneuver. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

He said family members had had no plans to witness the execution, but that didn’t mean they didn’t care about the case. He said he and his family had no doubt about Edwards’ guilt and that they knew how Edwards could manipulate a situation to his advantage. Edwards’ attorneys had recently tried to cast doubt on his guilt. They focused on two statements that were central to his case. One was a statement by Wilson, who said Edwards had hired him to kill Cantrell in 2000. The other was a confession from Edwards.

Wilson, who is serving a life sentence without parole, has recanted his statement, telling a Post-Dispatch reporter in April that he had acted alone and had lied about being hired by Edwards. He then signed an affidavit saying so. Edwards claimed at his trial — and ever since — that he was innocent. In new appeals, his attorneys pointed to the possibility that police had coerced his confession. They claimed Edwards has a form of autism that could have made him vulnerable to aggressive interrogation techniques, leading him to make a false confession.

Edwards’ attorney, Kent Gipson of Kansas City, petitioned the state Supreme Court to throw out the conviction for murder and armed criminal action, and the death sentence, and appoint a special master to review Edwards’ innocence claim. The court denied in July a similar request to study Edwards’ claim of innocence. The court has not yet ruled on Gipson’s petition. But he said he made the same case to lawyers from Nixon’s office this week.

“We’re all very happy because (days leading up to an execution are) always a very stressful and difficult time for everyone, the clients, the lawyers and the family,” Gipson said. “It’s a load off everyone’s shoulders, particularly the client, because he’s going to live.”... Gipson said the commutation of the death sentence would give him and Edwards more time to potentially seek a new trial.

In recent days, Gipson had been pressing a claim with Nixon’s office that during the penalty phase after Edwards’ conviction, the prosecutor in the case had inquired whether Edwards would be willing to waive appeals in the case in exchange for life in prison. But his supervisors refused.

According to notes in the attorney’s file from 13 years ago, Judge Mark D. Seigel expressed in chambers that he was unhappy about the lack of a deal to spare Edwards. Reached Friday, Seigel said that he did not remember the conversation and that it “does not sound like something I would have said in chambers or anywhere else.”

I presume that lingering concerns about guilt prompted the Governor's actions here, but it would be helpful if the commutation statement spoke to that possibility or whatever else might have motivated the Governor to act in this way.   I think it is entirely appropriate and readily justifiable for a clemency board or a governor to commute a death sentence based on concerns about residual guilt.  But I do not consider it appropriate or justifiable for a decision made on this basis (or others) to be hidden behind the kind of cursory statement offered by Gov Nixon in this case.

October 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, October 04, 2015

"Toward Saner, More Effective Prison Sentences"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times editorial discussing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRCA 2015) introduced by US Senate leadership late last week. Here are excerpts:

The sentencing reform bill introduced in the Senate on Thursday falls far short of what is needed, but it is a crucial first step on the long path toward unwinding the federal government’s decades­long reliance on prisons as the answer to every ill....

Among the most significant are those that would reduce mandatoryminimum sentences for many drug crimes.  These sentences are jaw-droppingly long — from five years for a first offense up to life without parole for a third.  The new bill would cut the life sentence to a 25­year minimum, and would cut the 20­year sentence for a second offense to 15 years.

These may seem like minor tweaks to pointlessly long sentences, and for the most part they are.  But when half of all federal inmates are in for drug crimes, even small changes can make a real difference.

In addition, the bill would give federal judges more power to impose sentences below the mandatory minimum in certain cases, rather than being forced to apply a strict formula. This would shift some power away from prosecutors, who coax plea deals in more than 97 percent of cases, often by threatening defendants with outrageously long punishments.

Other provisions would give more inmates the chance to earn early release by participating in educational and other rehabilitative programming; seal or expunge juvenile records, so people are not burdened for life because of crimes they committed when they were young; and make it easier for older inmates to seek early release — a smart idea because they are by far the costliest to keep imprisoned and the least likely to commit new crimes.

Finally, and critically, many parts of the bill are retroactive, which means thousands of current federal inmates could benefit immediately.  In particular, 6,500 prisoners are still serving time under an old law that punished crackcocaine offenses far more severely than powder­cocaine offenses.  When the law was altered to reduce the disparity in 2010, the change applied only to new cases, leaving thousands of inmates serving unjustly long sentences for no good reason....

So much of American sentencing policy has been driven by irrational, fact­free scare­mongering.  This new bill would, at the very least, provide volumes of data that could show — as other legislative efforts have already shown — that it’s possible to reduce both prison populations and crime at the same time.

Recent prior related posts:

October 4, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Three of Kettle Falls Five get sentenced to real federal time for marijuana grow in Washington state

As reported in this AP article, headlined "Marijuana growers sentenced to federal prison," a high-profile federal marijuana prosecution, in a state in which marijuana slaes are now legal, culminated in sentencing late last week. Here are the details:

The three remaining defendants in the case of the so-called Kettle Falls Five were sentenced to federal prison on Friday for growing marijuana in a state where both the medical and recreational use of marijuana are legal under Washington laws.

The defendants are known as the Kettle Falls Five because of their original number. They were convicted earlier this year of growing marijuana on their rural property near Kettle Falls, in violation of federal law.

Rolland Gregg was sentenced Friday to 33 months in prison, followed by three years of probation. His wife Michelle Gregg, 36, was sentenced to one year in prison and three years of probation. Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, 56, who is Rolland Gregg's mother, was also sentenced to one year in prison and three years of probation.

All three remain free pending the outcome of appeals.... The case had been closely watched nationally by marijuana activists, who criticized the federal government for prosecuting marijuana growers in a state where cannabis is legal.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Earl Hicks rejected the notion that the defendants were growing the pot for their own medical use. "This is a for-profit marijuana grow," Hicks said. "It has nothing to do with medical marijuana."

Prosecutors contended the defendants grew more than 100 pounds of marijuana in 2011 and 2012, far in excess of their personal needs. Defense attorneys argued for sentences of probation only. "This was not a for-profit marijuana grow," said attorney Phil Tefleyan, who represented Rolland Gregg.

Larry Harvey was excused from the case when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year and has since died. Family friend Jason Zucker accepted a plea deal from federal prosecutors and testified for the government at trial in exchange for a 16-month penalty.

The remaining three were convicted in March by a federal jury of growing between 50 and 100 marijuana plants on their rural property, which was searched by investigators in 2012. Since then, Washington has also legalized the recreational use of marijuana. But growing and possessing marijuana remains a crime under federal laws.

The defendants did not dispute that they grew marijuana, but contended they grew less than the government alleged. The jury exonerated them of more serious charges of distributing marijuana, conspiracy to distribute and firearms charges that carried long prison sentences.

October 4, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Highlighting how state education spending decreases as state corrections spending increases

Following on the heels of the Education Secretary urging states to spend less of prisons and more on schools (noted here), this Christian Science Monitor article notes reports on the relationship between different kinds of human capital investments states have made in recent years.  The article is headlined "The hidden costs of funding prisons instead of schools: As state incarceration rates continue to rise across the country, so are cuts in higher education funding."  Here are excerpts (with links from the original):

Lawmakers in 11 states are spending more on prisons and jails than their public colleges, according to a report compiled by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  According to the report, state budgets for public universities have been cut about 20 percent since 2008 when recession hit, while funding for prisons has spiked 141 percent.  

That's solving the wrong side of the problem, argued Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during a speech this week. "The linkage between education, or a lack thereof, and incarceration is powerful," he said.  "More than two-thirds of state prison inmates are high school dropouts," said Secretary Duncan, "and an African-American male between the ages of 20 and 24 without a high school diploma or GED has a higher chance of being imprisoned than of being employed."

A 2014 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) shows a direct correlation between increased prison spending and cuts in education. Not surprisingly, states with the highest incarceration rates pull the most money from their schools.  And that drives up tuition at public universities, reports CNN. State funding "accounts for about half of a typical school's budget," CNN reports. "The other half comes from the federal government and tuition and fees."

According to the new AAAS report, the states that spend more on prisons than universities are Michigan, Oregon, Arizona, Vermont, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Delaware, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. 

Prior recent related post:

October 4, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, October 03, 2015

"Why Don’t Courts Dismiss Indictments? A Simple Suggestion for Making Federal Criminal Law a Little Less Lawless"

The title of this post is the title of this notable Green Bag article authored by James Burnham. Here are excerpts from the article's introduction:

Many lawyers are familiar with the problem of overbroad, vague federal criminal laws that ensnare unwary defendants and perplex the lawyers who defend them. It is a recurring theme in academic literature and it featured prominently in Justice Kagan’s recent dissent in Yates v. United States, where she described “the real issue” in the case as being “overcriminalization and excessive punishment in the U.S. Code.”...  [Many commentators] often jump directly to the Constitution as the solution to this problem, specifically the Due Process Clause and an emphasis on fair notice as a way to narrow vaguely worded statutes.

That is a good idea, but it overlooks a tool for combating overcriminalization that is, perhaps, simpler and more readily available than the heavy artillery of constitutional law–making it easier for criminal defendants to secure a legal ruling before trial on whether their alleged conduct actually constitutes a federal crime. Implementing this basic reform would require nothing more than applying the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which already contain provisions for dismissing indictments that are materially identical to the familiar 12(b)(6) standard and the rules for dismissing civil complaints. Yet the same federal judges who routinely dismiss complaints for failure to state a claim virtually never dismiss indictments for failure to state an offense. The judiciary’s collective failure to apply the dismissal standard in criminal proceedings that is a staple of civil practice plays a central role in the ever-expanding, vague nature of federal criminal law because it largely eliminates the possibility of purely legal judicial opinions construing criminal statutes in the context of a discrete set of assumed facts, and because it leaves appellate courts to articulate the boundaries of criminal law in post-trial appeals where rejecting the government’s legal theory means overturning a jury verdict and erasing weeks or months of judicial effort.

Courts should eliminate this anomalous difference between criminal and civil procedure. There is no good reason why federal prosecutors cannot abide by the same pleading standards as civil plaintiffs. That is what the rules already provide. And holding prosecutors to that reasonable standard would go a long way toward making federal criminal law a little less lawless.

October 3, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, October 02, 2015

"What happens when Americans in prison come home?"

The question in the title of this post is a set-up for this terrific podcast now available via Radio Open Source (a weekly arts, politics and ideas public radio out of WBUR Boston). Highlights from the podcast are available at this link, and her is how the website with the podcast describes its context and contents:

We’re going inside the almost invisible world of American prisons, following President Obama and Pope Francis. This month we met and spoke to four survivors of mass incarceration — Azan Reid, Unique Ismail, Douglas Benton, and Marselle Felton — in a church basement in Codman Square, Dorchester.  We asked them: what did prison do, or undo, in you?  What do you see now that you didn’t see then?  And what don’t we know about you?

It’s a story of ambient violence and neglect in Boston’s Mattapan and Dorchester neighborhoods in the 1980s and ’90s.  Twenty years on these men are stuck in the fight of their lives — to beat the odds and stay out of the pipeline back to prison.  Amid it all there’s anger, regret, and wisdom; they’re panicked and hopeful, too.  As a bipartisan group of senators wonder how America might stop being the world’s runaway jailer, we’re looking at hints of an aftermath: what will happen when and if the 2 million Americans presently incarcerated come home?

Pastor Bruce Wall of Global Ministries Christian Church oversaw the discussion and joined us in studio with his impressions.

October 2, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Top Oklahoma court puts all executions on hold upon state request after drug snafu

As reported in this AP piece, "Oklahoma's highest criminal court unanimously agreed Friday to halt all of the state's scheduled executions after the state's prison system received the wrong drug for a lethal injection this week." Here is more:

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals granted the state's request and issued indefinite stays of execution for Richard Glossip, Benjamin Cole and John Grant. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt requested the stays to give his office time to investigate why the Oklahoma Department of Corrections received the wrong drug just hours before Glossip was scheduled to be executed Wednesday.

Just hours before Glossip was set to die, prison officials opened a box of lethal drugs and realized they received potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride, the third drug utilized in Oklahoma's lethal injection formula. The court ordered the state for status reports every 30 days, "including any proposed adjustments to the execution protocol."

Oklahoma's execution protocols were overhauled after last year's botched execution of Clayton Lockett, who writhed on a gurney and struggled against his restraints before being declared dead more than 40 minutes after the procedure began.

On Thursday, Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton insisted that those new protocols were properly followed. But the attorney general expressed concerns about the department's ability to properly carry out an execution. "Until my office knows more about these circumstances and gains confidence that DOC can carry out executions in accordance with the execution protocol, I am asking the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to issue an indefinite stay of all scheduled executions," Pruitt said in a statement after requesting the stays.

October 2, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"How to Fight Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons? Sue the Courts."

EJUL-slide-3The title of this post is the headline of this Marshall Project report on recent litigation brought by Alex Karakatsanis and his Equal Justice Under Law non-profit. Here is the start of the report (with links from original):

A young civil-rights attorney in Washington, D.C., is suing courts across the country for jailing defendants unable to afford their bail, court fines, and probation fees.  As a result, cities in Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi, and Louisiana have recently done away with bail for misdemeanors and traffic violations.

The lawyer, 31-year-old Alec Karakatsanis, has now filed a federal lawsuit against Rutherford County, Tenn. and the private company it contracts with to collect court debts. According to the lawsuit, that company, Providence Community Corrections, ran “an extortion scheme” that “conspired to extract as much money as possible” from people who were threatened with jail time if they couldn’t pay court fees and fines.

PCC is “user funded,” which means the company does not charge the county for its services but depends solely on fees paid for by people on probation.  Some of those fees include “supervision fees,” costs for drug tests and classes, and even a $25 fee for those applying for fee reductions. Before Rutherford County outsourced its probation services to PCC in 1996, the county was only collecting a fraction of fees, PCC State Director Sean Hollis told the Daily News Journal in 2014.

PCC collected over $17 million from probationers in Rutherford County between 2009 and 2014, according to the Daily News Journal. Rutherford County Judge Ben Hall McFarlin told the paper at that time: “The county didn't pay for anyone to get that money," adding that he had never sentenced anyone to jail if their only violation was a failure to pay. "I don't see where the taxpayers would disagree with that.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of seven plaintiffs and alleges that indigent defendants in Rutherford County have lost their jobs, houses, cars, and even sold their own blood plasma to make payments and avoid jail time.

“Everything about this scheme is in flagrant violation of U.S. constitutional law, federal law, and even specific Tennessee law,” Karakatsanis told The Marshall Project. In Tennessee, it’s illegal to imprison a person over court debt.  

The suit was brought under a federal anti-corruption law accusing PCC and Rutherford County of operating a “racketeering enterprise” that misuses “the probation supervision process for profit.” A spokesman for PCC, Jeff Hahn, wrote in a statement that PCC's "mission is to encourage people to complete their probation successfully per the terms set by the courts." He added that "in each of the states we serve, we steadfastly comply with the laws governing the probation system."

It’s just the latest salvo from Karakatsanis, who helped start Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit civil-rights organization. Karakatsanis and co-founder Phil Telfeyan, 32, started their organization in 2014 with a grant from their alma mater, Harvard Law School, in order to challenge inequalities in the criminal justice system. The organization often works in partnership with local attorneys and nonprofits.

In November 2014, the city of Montgomery, Ala., agreed to terminate its contract with a private probation company as part of a settlement with Equal Justice Under Law.  The lawsuit alleged that indigent people in Montgomery were being jailed over their inability to pay their court debts.  Similar lawsuits were filed in 2015 against municipal courts in Ferguson, Mo., Jennings, Mo. and New Orleans, La., although those cities do not rely on private probation companies to collect debts.

Equal Justice Under Law has also sued six jurisdictions over their bail systems, and all six no longer require defendants to pay bail as a condition of their release. The organization filed a seventh lawsuit, in Calhoun, Ga., in early September.

October 2, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)