Saturday, December 23, 2017

Making a space, yet again, for the airing of sentencing grievances this Festivus

Senator Rand Paul, as is his modern tradition, is using Twitter today to air Festivus grievances for all sorts.  My personal favorite is this one, which laments that an "octogenarian Mormon has better pot jokes than" he does.  But one of my grievances is that Senator Paul has not been quite so vocal an advocate for sentencing reforms in recent years, although he set the bar so high back in 2013 (even on Festivus) that I probably should not have expected him to keep at it so aggressively.  (Also, I wonder if having been the victim of a mysterious violent crime at the hand of his neighbor has impacted his thinking on some criminal justice issues.)

As I did here in this space a few years ago, I readily could rattle off a wide range of sentencing grievances against a wide range of persons.  But both Festivus and life are too short (and my family and friends too lovely and my stack of exams to grade too large) to justify spending too much time on grievances today.  But I always welcome, and benefit from, hearing others air their sentencing grievances; I welcome folks to do just that in the comments here.

December 23, 2017 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, December 22, 2017

Reviewing the "hope and skepticism" engendered by Prez Trump's Rubashkin commutation

As reported in this prior post, Prez Trump made some minor modern clemency history by commuting the 27-year prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin. This NBC News piece, headlined "Trump’s first commutation met with hope and skepticism," provides some context and commentary on this decision:

After President Donald Trump commuted the 27-year sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, a former kosher meatpacking plant CEO convicted of financial fraud, prison reform advocates on Thursday immediately perked up.

Trump, they said, did something not even President Barack Obama — a strong proponent for reform — had done: commuted a sentence during his first year in office. It wasn't until 2011 when Obama — three years into his first term — commuted the sentence of a federal prisoner, although he had pardoned nine people a year before.

"I'm extremely excited about this and am very optimistic that Trump is going to surprise people," said Amy Povah, the founder of CAN-DO, a nonprofit that advocates clemency for federal prisoners convicted of drug crimes.  "I communicate with a lot of prisoners, and I guarantee you they woke up to renewed hope."

Still, the number of commutations that could roll out under the Trump administration remains unknown.  With so much at stake, some fighting for criminal justice reform are asking whether the Rubashkin case is a precursor of things to come — or just a rare one-off.  Neither the White House nor the Justice Department immediately responded to requests for comment Thursday....

Rubashkin had the support of both Democrats and Republicans in Washington for his commutation.  Notably, a push for the Obama administration to take action fell on deaf ears. That was even as Obama moved swiftly later in his final term to begin commuting sentences.  Obama granted clemency to 1,715 federal prisoners — more than any other U.S. president in history. The vast majority had been sentenced under mandatory minimum laws that were enacted in the 1980s and ’90s to address the scourge of drugs....

Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said he's concerned that the bar might be set too high for inmates seeking commutations — given that Rubashkin's case was high-profile enough to attract the interest of lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.  He also questioned if certain types of prisoners — those not associated with white-collar crimes like Rubashkin — would benefit from clemency.  "Most are just families who don't wield any political influence," Ring said.....

In recent days, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has suggested Congress could tackle criminal justice reform in the next year.  That's important to Holly Harris, the executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a lobbying group with advocates from the left and right.

She said a bipartisan bill in the House, the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, which would allow certain prisoners to serve the end of their sentences in halfway homes or home confinement, could be a catalyst in overhauling the system.  "Voters are very well educated and realize that one-size sentencing doesn't work," Harris said.  "The president of the United States has sent a really positive signal" with the release of Rubashkin.

While Trump ran as the "law and order" candidate, his lack of specifics on the criminal justice issue, apart from how it relates to immigration and national security, could end up going beyond what Obama started and result in sweeping change, Povah added.  "We know that he's an outsider, and I don't think he always necessarily cares what's conventional," she said.  "So I kind of hope that that can benefit people."

Recent related post:

December 22, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Noting executions uncompleted in 2017

This recent Houston Chronicle story, headlined "71 percent of scheduled executions not carried out in 2017," provides another perspective on US execution data for the year winding down. Here are some details:

Nearly three out of four death dates scheduled nationwide in 2017 were cancelled, after courts and governors intervened in 58 executions across the country.  That's one of the striking takeaways from a pair of end-of-year reports that offer sweeping overviews of capital punishment in 2017.

The broader trends offer no surprises: executions are down, but Texas is still the nation's killingest state. Nearly a third of the year's 23 executions took place in Texas....

"The process is better than it was a decade ago," said Robert Dunham of DPIC. "And there were some potentially wrongful executions that resulted in stays this year that would have resulted in executions a decade ago, but there are still significant and troubling failures."

Ohio and Texas both contributed significantly to the number of cancelled executions, Dunham said.  The Lone Star state saw nine prisoners' execution dates called off this year, many due to claims of false or misleading testimony or forensic evidence. San Antonio death row inmate Juan Castillo had three dates called off, including one delayed due to Hurricane Harvey and another cancelled in light of claims that his conviction was based on false testimony.

Prior recent related post:

December 22, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

"President Trump Commutes Sentence of Sholom Rubashkin"!?!?!

The title of this post is the headline of this press release from the White House this evening.  Here are the details:

Today, President Donald J. Trump commuted the prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, an action encouraged by bipartisan leaders from across the political spectrum, from Nancy Pelosi to Orrin Hatch.

Mr. Rubashkin is a 57-year-old father of 10 children.  He previously ran the Iowa headquarters of a family business that was the country’s largest kosher meat-processing company.  In 2009, he was convicted of bank fraud and sentenced thereafter to 27 years in prison.  Mr. Rubashkin has now served more than 8 years of that sentence, which many have called excessive in light of its disparity with sentences imposed for similar crimes.

This action is not a Presidential pardon.  It does not vacate Mr. Rubashkin’s conviction, and it leaves in place a term of supervised release and a substantial restitution obligation, which were also part of Mr. Rubashkin’s sentence.

The President’s review of Mr. Rubashkin’s case and commutation decision were based on expressions of support from Members of Congress and a broad cross-section of the legal community. A bipartisan group of more than 100 former high-ranking and distinguished Department of Justice (DOJ) officials, prosecutors, judges, and legal scholars have expressed concerns about the evidentiary proceedings in Mr. Rubashkin’s case and the severity of his sentence.  Additionally, more than 30 current Members of Congress have written letters expressing support for review of Mr. Rubashkin’s case.

Because I have some personal history working on this case, I am not inclined to comment at great length beyond wanting to here praise President Trump for bringing some (non-political?) attention to his historic clemency powers through this grant. I also will link to some prior posts about this long-controversial case.

Some of many prior posts on the Rubashkin case:

December 20, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

Lamenting that the "law descends into a ghoulish inferno" as it contemplates the execution of a condemned Alabama murderer

LawProf Bernard Harcourt has this lengthy new op-ed in the New York Times under the headline "The Ghoulish Pursuit of Executing a Terminally Ill Inmate."  Both the substance and style of the commentary is compelling, and here are excerpts:

When judges schedule a lethal injection for a terminally ill prisoner whose struggle against lymphatic cancer and extensive medical history has left him without any easily accessible veins, our law descends into a ghoulish inferno.  It is a dreadful place where our most august jurists ruminate over catheter gauges and needle sizes, and ponder whether to slice deep into the groin or puncture internal jugular veins. History will not judge us favorably.

Last week, only a few hours after the stunning electoral victory of a Democratic candidate in the Alabama senatorial race, the justices of the Alabama Supreme Court signed a death warrant in the case of a 60-year-old man who has been languishing on death row for 30 years and fighting cranial cancer since 2014.

I had barely managed to absorb the news from Alabama’s election when I got the call at noon the next day. I recognized the Alabama area code but thought it was a reporter seeking a comment on the election.  Instead, a clerk from the Alabama Supreme Court dryly notified me that the justices had just set an execution date for my longtime client, Doyle Lee Hamm.

Mr. Hamm has been on Alabama’s death row since 1987, after being convicted of murdering a motel clerk, Patrick Cunningham, during a robbery.  For over three years now, he has been battling a fierce lymphatic and cranial cancer.  In February 2014, Mr. Hamm was found to have a large malignant tumor behind his left eye, filling the socket where the nerves from his brain went into his eye.  The doctors found B-cell lymphoma, a type of blood cancer of the lymph nodes, with a large mass protruding through the holes of his skull. They also discovered “numerous abnormal lymph nodes” in the abdomen, lungs and chest....

His medical treatment and history has left him without any usable peripheral veins.  Back in late September, an anesthesiologist from Columbia University Medical Center, Dr. Mark Heath, conducted an extensive physical examination to determine whether there were any veins suitable to deliver a lethal injection.  Dr. Heath found no usable veins. He also found that Mr. Doyle’s lymphatic cancer was likely to interfere with any attempt to utilize his central veins.  In Dr. Heath’s expert opinion, “the state is not equipped to achieve venous access in Mr. Hamm’s case.”

Yet, without even addressing the risks associated with attempting venous access for a man who will be 61 years old with no usable veins in his arms or legs, the justices of the Alabama Supreme Court set an execution date.  Some other judges — perhaps on the federal bench — now will have to deal with the bloody mess.  And a bloody mess it would be.

Those other judges will have to pore over medical reports and sonograms — as a federal judge did in the case of David Nelson, another Alabama death row inmate, in 2006, before he died of cancer — to decide whether they can insert an 18-gauge catheter into Mr. Hamm’s femoral vein in his groin, or scalpel him open to find a subclavian vein, or poke around his neck to find his internal jugular vein; whether the thickness of the catheter would preclude pricking a vein in his hand where a butterfly needle can no longer enter; and how to navigate around malignant lymph nodes while trying to achieve percutaneous access to his central veins....

This is justice today. Court opinions filled with ghastly details about how we prick and poke, and slice and cut, and poison other human beings. Opinions that, someday soon, we will look back on with embarrassment and horror.  Our justice is so engrossed with how we kill that it does not even stop to question the humanity of executing a frail, terminally ill prisoner.

In Doyle Hamm’s case, the lack of peripheral veins and lymphatic inflammations create the unconstitutional risk of a cruel and unnecessarily painful execution.  But the constitutional violation is only half of it.  It is justice itself that is in peril.

You may recall the machine that Franz Kafka brilliantly described in the haunting pages of “The Penal Colony.” That machine tattooed the penal sentence on the condemned man’s body, over hours and hours, before sucking the life out of him.  Our machinery of death today makes Kafka’s imaginative machine seem almost quaint.  Ours not only tattoos the condemned man’s body with needles and scalpels but also irremediably taints our justice for years to come.

Stories like these continue to reinforce my belief that states seriously interested in continuing with the death penalty ought to be seriously involved in exploring execution alternatives to lethal injection.

Meanwhile for more background on this particular lawyer's work to prevent his client from being executed, one should check out this New Yorker post  headlined, "The Decades-Long Defense of an Alabama Death-Row Prisoner Enters a Final Phase."

December 20, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

"Three ways conservatives can lead criminal justice reform"

The title of this post is the title of this new commentary authored by Bob McClure, who is president and CEO of The James Madison Institute. Here are excerpts:

As head of a conservative think tank dedicated to principles of limited government and constitutional liberties, I find two things increasingly obvious: Our criminal justice system is in dire need of comprehensive reform, and that effort is being led not by bureaucrats in Washington but by policymakers and leaders in the states.  I look around the country and see great strides by states like Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana.  I see policymakers in my home state of Florida starting to join the movement, and I want to get excited at the possibilities for real culture-changing efforts.

The reforms these states have passed will ultimately accomplish two things: They will improve public safety and will save millions of taxpayer dollars.  Nevertheless, the road forward is anything but a clear or easy journey.

In our organization’s research of policy initiatives, a particular statistic disappoints me more than all others: our nation’s incarceration rate.  According to data from the International Center for Prison Studies, the United States currently incarcerates approximately 737 people per 100,000 citizens, counting both adults and juveniles.  This puts us right at the top of the list -- more than Iran, more than Russia, more than Rwanda.  We owe it to ourselves to ask why this is the case and how we can correct course....

Drug and non-violent offenses have created a revolving door in our jails and prisons, both at the state and federal levels.  It’s estimated that as many as one-fourth to one-third of our inmates are in prison for drug-related offenses.  Many are there because of oppressive sentencing rules that have eliminated the proper role of judges and created an incarceration-industrial complex trapping far too many families in a cycle of prison, poverty and despair.  Consequently, we have seen our prisons jam-packed with hundreds of thousands of offenders who have the potential to be rehabilitated but who end up sliding further down the path of crime and punishment....

There are three specific actions that can and should be championed at the state level to continue the progress conservatives have made in addressing criminal justice policy reform:

1.  Restore the role of judges in the system. For far too long, judicial discretion in sentencing has been eroded, the unfortunate result of well-intentioned conservatives over many years.

2.  Begin to address the distinction between those trafficking in narcotics as a criminal enterprise and those individuals selling smaller amounts of drugs to feed their addiction.  We want to lock up the bad guys feeding poison to our children, but we should be able to distinguish between those hardened criminals and addicts needing treatment.

3.  Reaffirm the need for substance abuse and mental health approaches in the justice system. The cost for drug crimes is a sliding scale over time.  As individuals reoffend and continue the cycle, the long-term costs of incarceration, safety net use, and lower employability far outweigh the short-term investment in treatment and rehabilitation.

This trio of actions is just a small piece of a very broad conservative policy reform agenda that states must champion.  As we seek to promote conservative principles and at the same time address the challenges impacting our society from scourges like addiction, it is my hope that states can be the shining example of how to lead the way forward.

December 20, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Brennan Center provides its latest encouraging accounting of crime in 2017

Ames Grawert and James Cullen at The Brennan Center has authored this new report titled "Crime in 2017: Updated Analysis." Here is how it gets started:

In September, the Brennan Center analyzed available crime data from the nation’s 30 largest cities, estimating that these cities would see a slight decline in all measures of crime in 2017.  The report, Crime in 2017: A Preliminary Analysis, concluded by noting that “these findings directly undercut any claim that the nation is experiencing a crime wave.”

That statement holds true in this analysis, which updates the September report with more recent data and finds that murder rates in major American cities are estimated to decline slightly through the end of 2017.  Murder rates in some cities remain above 2015 levels, however, demonstrating a need for evidence-based solutions to violent crime in these areas.

Updated Tables 1 and 2 show conclusions similar to the initial report, with slightly different percentages:

• The overall crime rate in the 30 largest cities in 2017 is estimated to decline slightly from the previous year, falling by 2.7 percent. If this trend holds, crime rates will remain near historic lows.

• The violent crime rate will also decrease slightly, by 1.1 percent, essentially remaining stable. Violent crime remains near the bottom of the nation’s 30-year downward trend.

• The 2017 murder rate in the 30 largest cities is estimated to decline by 5.6 percent. Large decreases this year in Chicago and Detroit, as well as small decreases in other cities, contributed to this decline.  The murder rate in Chicago — which increased significantly in 2015 and 2016 — is projected to decline by 11.9 percent in 2017.  It remains 62.4 percent above 2014 levels.  The murder rate in Detroit is estimated to fall by 9.8 percent. New York City’s murder rate will also decline again, to 3.3 killings per 100,000 people.

• Some cities are projected to see their murder rates rise, including Charlotte (54.6 percent) and Baltimore (11.3 percent). These increases suggest a need to better understand how and why murder is increasing in some cities.

Like all data, especially crime data, these numbers can and likely will get spun in any number of ways.  The start of this report reveals that some will point to these data to accuse AG Jeff Sessions and others of being fear-mongers when talking about a scary new crime trend.  But AG Sessions can (and I suspect will) say that any significant 2017 crime declines should be credited to criminal justice policy shifts he and others in the Trump Administration have made this year.  AG Sessions and others also can (and I suspect will) assert that 2017 crime rates are still significantly higher than the historic lows reached a few years ago and that we should aspire to have them be lower still.

These dynamics help account for why tough-on-crime thinking and messaging persist: when crime starts going up, claiming we need to get tougher resonates; when crime starts going down, claims about the benefits of toughness resonate.  Though many in both political parties and many members of the public are coming to embrace "smart on crime" ideas, nobody should lose sight of the (inevitable?) appeal of tough-on-crime mantras.

December 20, 2017 in National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

"The Unconstitutionality of Criminal Jury Selection"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Brittany Deitch and available via SSRN. Though focused on jury rights rather than sentencing, the ideas here might be especially significant and impactful in jury sentencing arenas (both capital and non-capital). Here is the abstract:

The criminal defendant’s right to a jury trial is enshrined within the U.S. Constitution as a protection for the defendant against arbitrary and harsh convictions and punishments.  The jury trial has been praised throughout U.S. history for allowing the community to democratically participate in the criminal justice system and for insulating criminal defendants from government oppression.  This Article asks whether the jury selection process is consistent with the defendant-protection justification for the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury. Currently, the prosecution and defense share equal control over jury selection.  Looking to the literal text of the Sixth Amendment, the landmark case on the right to a jury trial, and the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure for guidance, this Article explains that jury selection procedures undermine the defendant-protection rationale for the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.  Because the Sixth Amendment grants this right personally to the defendant and the Supreme Court has construed this right as intending to protect the defendant from governmental overreach, the prosecution should not be entitled to select the very jury that is supposed to serve as a check against its power.  After concluding that symmetrical power in jury selection undermines the constitutional purpose of the jury trial, this Article proposes two possible remedies.

December 19, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, December 18, 2017

Remarkable Utah Supreme Court opinions debating due process rights (and originalism) in parole decision-making

Via a colleague's tweet, I just learned about a remarkable sent of opinions handed down late last week by the Utah Supreme Court in Neese v. Utah Board of Pardons & Parole, 2017 UT 89 (Utah Dec. 14, 2017) (available here).  The start of the majority opinion in Neese provides just a hint on the remarkable 40+ page discussion that follows:

Michael Neese, a Utah prison inmate, has never been convicted of a sex offense, subjected to prison discipline for sexual misconduct, or otherwise adjudicated a sexual offender. Yet the Board of Pardons and Parole (Parole Board) has denied him an original release date for parole largely based on its determination that he’s a sex offender and his refusal to participate in sex offender treatment. Applying the principles we articulated in Labrum v. Utah State Board of Pardons, 870 P.2d 902 (Utah 1993), we hold today that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to the Parole Board on the question of whether it violated Mr. Neese’s due process rights under article I, section 7 of the Utah Constitution.  Before the Parole Board may take the refusal of inmates in Mr. Neese’s shoes to participate in sex offender treatment into consideration in deciding whether to grant them parole, it owes them (1) timely, particularized written notice that allegations they committed unconvicted sexual offenses will be decided; (2) the opportunity to call witnesses; and (3) a written decision adequately explaining its basis for determining that they’re sex offenders and asking them to participate in sex offender treatment.

Much of the discussion of the majority opinion is in response to the claims of the lone dissent authored by Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee, which gets started this way:

I share some of the majority’s concerns about the fairness of the procedures afforded to Neese by the Parole Board.  The Board’s refusal to allow Neese to call and question his accuser made it difficult for him to persuasively refute the sex-offense charge against him.  And without a persuasive means of rebuttal, Neese is likely to face substantially more prison time than most other inmates serving time for his crime of conviction (obstruction of justice).  He would also serve that time without a trial-like adjudication of the sex-offense charge in question.

For these and other reasons I might endorse the procedures set forth in the majority opinion if I were in a position to make policy in this field — to promulgate administrative rules governing the Parole Board.  I hedge—saying only that I might—because I am certain that my understanding of the Board’s decisionmaking process is incomplete.  And I frame this conclusion in the subjunctive — speaking of what I might do if I were in a position to promulgate rules for the Board — to underscore the limited scope of our authority in a case like this one.  In deciding this case we are deciding only on the demands of the Utah constitution. We are not deciding what set of procedural rules strike us as ideal under these circumstances.

The line between those two concepts is too often blurred in modern judicial thinking.  And the blurriness is perhaps at its height when we speak of the requirements of “due process.”  Here, perhaps more than in other constitutional fields, it is tempting to think of the constitutional requirement of due process as a general charter for assuring a vague ideal of fairness — an ideal that will ebb and flow or evolve over time.  But that is not what is enshrined in the due process clause.  “[T]he Due Process Clause is not a free-wheeling constitutional license for courts to assure fairness on a case-by-case basis.”  In re Discipline of Steffensen, 2016 UT 18, ¶ 7, 373 P.3d 186.  “[I]t is a constitutional standard” with a specific, if somewhat flexible, meaning. Id.

I hope to find some time to read and comment on these remarkable opinions in the days ahead, and in the meantime I welcome reader perspectives on the philosophies and particulars reflected in this case.

December 18, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

"The Myth of the Playground Pusher: In Tennessee and around the country, 'drug-free school zones' are little more than excuses for harsher drug sentencing."

The title of this post is the headline of this extended article authored by C.J. Ciaramella and Lauren Krisai published in the January 2018 issue of Reason magazine. The full article merits a full read, and here is just a snippet of the important work in this piece:

Drug-free school zone laws are rarely if ever used to prosecute sales of drugs to minors. Such cases are largely a figment of our popular imagination — a lingering hangover from the drug war hysteria of the 1980s.  Yet state legislatures have made the designated zones both larger and more numerous, to the point where they can blanket whole towns. In the process, they have turned minor drug offenses into lengthy prison sentences almost anywhere they occur.

In some cases, police have set up controlled drug buys inside school zones to secure harsher sentences.  That gives prosecutors immense leverage to squeeze plea deals out of defendants with the threat of long mandatory minimum sentences.

In recent years, this approach has begun to trouble some state lawmakers, and even some prosecutors are growing uncomfortable with the enormous power — and in some cases, the obligation — they have been handed to lock away minor drug offenders.  Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk ran for office in 2014 on a platform that included not prosecuting school zone violations except in cases that actually involve children.  He says almost every single drug case referred to his office falls within a drug-free zone.

He's right.  Data obtained from the Tennessee government show there are 8,544 separate drug-free school zones covering roughly 5.5 percent of the state's total land area.  Within cities, however, the figures are much higher.  More than 27 percent in Nashville and more than 38 percent in Memphis are covered by such zones.  They apply day and night, whether or not children are present, and it's often impossible to know you're in one.

For a drug offender charged with possession of under half a gram of cocaine with intent to distribute, a few hundred feet can mean the difference between probation vs. eight years of hard time behind bars.  "In places like Nashville, almost the entire city is a drug-free zone," Funk says.  "Every church has day care, and they are a part of drug-free zones.  Also, public parks and seven or eight other places are included in this classification.  And almost everybody who has driven a car has driven through a school zone.  What we had essentially done, unwittingly, was increased drug penalties to equal murder penalties without having any real basis for protecting kids while they're in school."...

States created drug-free school zones thinking that the threat of draconian prison sentences would keep dealers away from schools.  But the very size of these zones undercuts that premise.  If a whole city is a drug-free zone, then the designation has no targeted deterrent effect. In practice, it exists to put more people in prison for longer periods of time, not to keep children safe.

"Drug-free school zone laws show how good intentions can go horribly wrong," says Kevin Ring, president of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.  "Adult offenders who aren't selling drugs to or even near kids are getting hammered with long sentences.  Most don't even know they are in a school zone. These laws aren't tough on crime.  They're just dumb."

By covering wide swaths of densely populated areas in drug-free zones, states end up hitting low-level and first-time drug offenders with sentences usually reserved for violent crimes.  Tennessee's drug-free school zone laws bump up drug felonies by a level and eliminate the possibility of an early release.  For example, a first-time drug offender found guilty of a Class C felony for possession with intent to distribute of less than half a gram of cocaine — which carries a maximum six-year sentence — instead receives a Class B felony with a mandatory minimum sentence of eight years.

These penalties are zealously applied. Knoxville criminal defense attorney Forrest Wallace says that one of his clients received an enhanced drug sentence for merely walking through a school zone that bisected the parking lot of his apartment complex on his way to meet the informant who had set him up.  The client received a normal sentence for the sale of the cocaine, but an enhanced charge of possession with intent to distribute for passing through the school zone.  "If they can prove it's in a zone, you know they're going to charge it," Wallace says.  "That's just the way it is."

Undercover cops and confidential informants sometimes go to extra lengths to get these enhanced sentences.  David Raybin, a Nashville criminal defense attorney, says that police informants often purposely set up deals in school zones, a practice that has led to accusations of entrapment from defendants and rebukes from judges dismayed by the practice.  "The police will frequently have people sell drugs in a school zone so they can enhance them," Raybin says.  "The only cases that I'm aware of involving dealing drugs on or in a school are always kids selling to other kids.  Usually in those cases, you don't want them getting a two-year mandatory minimum. It's just totally in appropriate."

December 18, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Another look at trend to prosecute some opioid overdose deaths as homicides

This morning's Wall Street Journal has this new article on the (not-all-that) new trend of considering homicide charges in response to drug-overdose deaths.  The full lengthy headline of the lengthy article is "Prosecutors Treat Opioid Overdoses as Homicides, Snagging Friends, Relatives As U.S. drug deaths hit record levels, prosecutors and police are trying a tactic that echoes tough-on-crime theories of the 1990s." Here are excerpts (with a few lines emphasized for follow-up commentary):

After Daniel Eckhardt’s corpse was found on the side of a road in Hamilton County, Ohio, last year, police determined he died of a heroin overdose. Not long ago, law enforcement’s involvement would have ended there. But amid a national opioid-addiction crisis fueling an unprecedented wave of overdose deaths, the investigation was just beginning.

Detectives interrogated witnesses and obtained search warrants in an effort to hold someone accountable for Mr. Eckhardt’s death.  The prosecutor for Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati and its suburbs, charged three of Mr. Eckhardt’s companions, including his ex-wife and her boyfriend, with crimes including involuntary manslaughter, an offense carrying a maximum prison sentence of 11 years.

Mr. Eckhardt voluntarily took the heroin that killed him, but prosecutors alleged the trio were culpable because they bought and used heroin with him that they knew could result in death.  The indictments were part of a nationwide push to investigate overdose deaths as homicides and seek tough prison sentences against drug dealers and others deemed responsible.  It’s an aggressive tactic law-enforcement officials say they’re using in a desperate attempt to stanch the rising tide of overdose deaths.

Fueled by a flood of heroin laced with fentanyl and other powerful synthetic opioids, the overdose death rate in Hamilton County more than tripled between 2006 and 2016 to 50 per 100,000 people, or four times as many as those killed in traffic accidents.  Nationally, some 64,000 Americans died from overdoses last year, up 86% from 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A newly created heroin task force in Hamilton County has investigated hundreds of deaths in the past two years, resulting in a dozen involuntary manslaughter indictments in state court and 13 federal indictments for distribution of controlled substances resulting in death. “The deaths—that’s why. All the people dying,” Cmdr. Thomas Fallon, who leads the Hamilton County task force, says of the prosecution push. “Even in the cocaine and crack days, people didn’t die like this.”

At least 86 people nationwide received federal prison sentences last year for distributing drugs resulting in death or serious injury, up 16% from 2012, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a federal agency that determines sentencing guidelines for judges.  An analysis of news reports found 1,200 mentions nationally about drug-death prosecutions in 2016, three times the number in 2011, according to a recent report by the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit group that supports decriminalizing drug use.

The prosecutions often employ tough-on-crime legislation born of the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.  These state and federal laws hold drug distributors liable for overdose deaths.  Selling even small amounts can result in decades or even life in prison.

In some states, such laws were rarely enforced until recently.  Benjamin J. Agati, a veteran prosecutor in the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office, has helped train police departments throughout the state in how to build cases under the state’s drug-induced homicide law, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. The law was enacted in the late 1980s but was rarely applied before the surge in opioid deaths, Mr. Agati says....

The prosecutions sometimes nab members of drug-distribution gangs like that of Navarius Westberry.  Last year, Mr. Westberry pleaded guilty in federal court in Kentucky to operating a drug-trafficking ring that distributed up to a kilogram of heroin and 50 grams of fentanyl over an 18-month period that killed at least one person.  He was sentenced to life in prison.  But in courtrooms around the country, prosecutors are also sweeping up low-level dealers who are addicts trying to support their habit, as well as friends and family members of overdose victims who bought or shared drugs with the deceased. Some critics of the prosecution tactic say these users need treatment, not harsh prison sentences.

Critics see the prosecutions as more of the same drug-war tactics that have filled America’s prisons with nonviolent criminals but done little to stop illicit drug use. There’s scant evidence that fear of prison deters addicts from using, and for every dealer put behind bars, another is ready to take his place, says Lindsay LaSalle, an attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance.

Law-enforcement officials say they’ve seen some signs the prosecutions may be deterring dealers, including jailhouse phone calls they say they’ve overheard in which inmates warn associates that police are pressing homicide charges against drug traffickers.  They say drug-death prosecutions are just one piece of a broader strategy to combat the crisis, including urging addicts into rehab and taking down large-scale traffickers....

A two-hour drive south from Hamilton County, Kerry B. Harvey, the mustachioed U.S. attorney for eastern Kentucky from 2010 to early 2017, made prosecuting drug-deaths a priority around 2015.  He used a 1986 federal law that had rarely been applied in the district, which established a mandatory 20-years-to-life sentence for distributing drugs that resulted in death or serious injury.  The penalty grew to life in prison for defendants with prior felony drug convictions.

He saw the approach as a way to bring solace to families devastated by the increasing number of heroin-related deaths in the area.  Plus, the law’s stiff penalties helped persuade dealers to cooperate against bigger suppliers, he said. “When someone is looking at 20 years to life, they’re gonna tell you whatever they know to save themselves,” he said.

Mr. Harvey assigned three prosecutors to work on the cases and began working with local police to investigate overdose deaths as homicides.  Since 2015 one of the prosecutors, Todd Bradbury, has convicted 16 people for selling drugs that resulted in death, two of whom received life sentences.  One of those convicted was Fred Rebmann, who in 2016 sold $60 of fentanyl to Kathleen Cassity.  Ms. Cassity was six months pregnant and died within hours of buying the drugs. Doctors performed an emergency C-section, but failed to save the life of her unborn child.

At the time, Mr. Rebmann was 31 and spent his days scheming to obtain enough heroin to avoid withdrawal. “I would work odd jobs…steal…hold up signs for money,” he said in an email from prison. He also dealt drugs. “There were days I’d sell heroin to get my own, and there were days I sold scrap metal,” he said in a telephone interview.  Addiction doesn’t “disqualify” small-time dealers like Mr. Rebmann from prosecution, says Mr. Bradbury, the prosecutor.  “He knew he was selling something extremely dangerous to a pregnant woman,” he says.  Mr. Rebmann says he didn’t know Ms. Cassity was pregnant.

Mr. Bradbury offered him a deal.  If Mr. Rebmann pleaded guilty, prosecutors would recommend a 20-year sentence that, with credit for good behavior, could be reduced by three years.  If he went to trial and lost, Mr. Rebmann faced mandatory life in prison because of a 2012 heroin-possession conviction.

Mr. Rebmann took the deal and pleaded guilty in August 2016, but U.S. District Judge Joseph M. Hood, a Vietnam War veteran appointed to the bench in 1990, rejected Mr. Bradbury’s sentencing recommendation.  Ms. Cassity died “because you wanted to stick a needle in your arm,” Judge Hood told Mr. Rebmann, according to a transcript of the hearing.  He sentenced Mr. Rebmann to 30 years in prison. “I want it to be known here in Lexington… if you get convicted of dealing in heroin and a death results, 20 years isn’t enough,” Judge Hood said. “Time for coddling is over.”

The lines I have put in bold in the excerpts above are intended to highlight that, as I have sought to make in some prior blogging on this topic, that whether a drug defendant is prosecuted in federal or state court may ultimately matter a whole lot more than whether a defendant actually faces a formal homicide charge (or even whether the defendant can be linked to an overdose death).  As noted at the outset of this article, the maximum state prison sentence an Ohio defendant can face for involuntary manslaughter is 11 years, but that same defendant can be looking at a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence of 20 years or even LWOP just based on the quantity of drugs even without a direct connection to an overdose death.  Moreover, a defendant facing homicide charges in state court can perhaps hope that a prosecutor will not be able to prove to a jury a sufficient causal link with a drug death beyond a reasonable doubt; a defendant facing a mere allegation of causing a death in federal court has no right to a jury finding or to demand proof beyond a preponderance of the evidence unless that particular finding directly impacts the statutory sentencing range.

These realities serve to inform and underline the importance and significance of an (Obama-appointed) US Attorney like Kerry Harvey deciding to make these cases a federal priority.  This federal prosecutor's stated belief that federal intervention with extreme federal mandatory minimums brings solace to families and enables going after bigger suppliers ultimately likely results in far more prison for far more defendants than any decision by any state prosecutor to start leveraging state homicide laws.

Some prior related posts:

December 18, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Looking at latest notable Texas death penalty realities

Number_of_executions_between_2000-2017_the_united_states_texas_harris_county_chartbuilder_8a62cc520e6ffbae4480cedf31ee36ed.nbcnews-ux-600-480This new NBC News article, headlined "Why Texas’ ‘death penalty capital of the world’ stopped executing people," reviews how Texas has become fairly representative of the entire United States with a more limited use of capital punishment. Here are excerpts:

Since the Supreme Court legalized capital punishment in 1976, Harris County, Texas, has executed 126 people.  That's more executions than every individual state in the union, barring Texas itself.  Harris County's executions account for 23 percent of the 545 people Texas has executed. On the national level, the state alone is responsible for more than a third of the 1,465 people put to death in the United States since 1976.

In 2017, however, the county known as the "death penalty capital of the world" and the "buckle of the American death belt" executed and sentenced to death an astonishing number of people: zero. This is the first time since 1985 that Harris County did not execute any of its death row inmates, and the third year in a row it did not sentence anyone to capital punishment either.

The remarkable statistic reflects a shift the nation is seeing as a whole. The number of executions has been trending downward across the United States, but it's particularly noticeable in Texas and Harris County.

“The practices that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is following are also significant because they reflect the growing movement in the United States toward reform prosecutors who have pledged to use the death penalty more sparingly if at all,” said Robert Dunham, the director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

The city of Houston lies within the confines of Harris County, making it one of the most populous counties in the country — and recently it became one of the most diverse, with a 2012 Rice University report concluded that Houston has become the most diverse city in the country. Under these new conditions, Kim Ogg ran in 2016 to become the county’s district attorney as a reformist candidate who pledged to use the death penalty in a more judicious manner than her predecessors, though the longtime prosecutor didn’t say she would abandon it altogether.  Rather, Ogg said she would save it for the “worst of the worst” — such as serial killer Anthony Shore, who was rescheduled for execution next month.

But this year, Ogg appears to have held true to her promise of only pursuing the death penalty in what she deems the most extreme cases.  It represents a break from a long pattern of Harris County prosecutors who pushed for the death penalty in nearly all capital cases. “The overall idea of what makes us safer is changing,” Ogg said. “We’re reframing the issues.  It’s no longer the number of convictions or scalps on the wall. It’s making sure the punishment meets the crime....”

But Ogg said she cannot alone take credit for the recent drop in executions.  The trend precedes her slightly and can also be connected to better educated and more diverse jury pools, as well as Texas’ new sentencing option of life without parole.  The state also has a more skilled group of indigent defense lawyers who build up mitigating circumstances — such as an abusive childhood or mental illness — for an alleged murderer’s crime.

Even a state like Texas might stop sentencing alleged killers to death in the near future. And that trend could well extend nationwide. “We’ve seen a deepening decline in the death penalty since the year 2000, and some states fell faster than others,” said University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett, who wrote “End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice.” He added that the declines are steepest in counties that had sentenced the most people to death.

December 17, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

A light dusting of holiday season highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

It has been almost two months since I have done a round-up of posts of note from all the blogging I now do over at  Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform.  Here are just some (of many) legal and policy highlights from just the last few weeks at MLP&R that sentencing fans might find worth checking out:

December 17, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 16, 2017

"Why hiring people with criminal records benefits all of us"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent FoxNews commentary authored by Mike Jandernoa.  Here are excerpts:

In the past, many employers would often not consider hiring people who had even minor criminal records.  But as the former CEO of a 10,000-employee organization, I have one message for America: we can no longer exclude this vital component of our workforce.

An estimated one in three American adults has a criminal record of some kind.  And about 600,000 people leave our nation’s prisons every year, looking to rejoin the workforce. While individuals in this group of workers won’t be right for every job, the right job is out there for everyone.

The benefits of boosting employment for those with criminal records are significant.  First, opening up opportunities to this population will make our country safer. Right now, almost 60 percent of individuals remain unemployed a year after being released from incarceration.  It’s in our collective self-interest for them to get jobs, because steady employment is one of the best ways to ensure that individuals lead productive, crime-free lives.  In one study of 6,000 returning citizens, employment cut the rate of those who committed a new crime in half.

Second, employers all across the country are suffering from a dearth of skilled labor.  Every year, one major national bank surveys small businesses across this country.  This year the survey found incredible optimism: 80 percent of employers said their business is stronger than ever; 40 percent said they plan to make a capital expenditure to grow their companies; and a quarter of those surveyed said they plan to hire more workers.  In West Michigan, most of the business leaders I know plan to expand their workforces. The downside?  The businesses can’t find enough workers....

Our region is almost at full employment, so we must look for alternatives. We have a very strong manufacturing base, and these businesses are looking for people who will show up on time and test negative for drugs — that’s it.  This opens the door for people who were formerly incarcerated and who are serious about turning their lives around.  It is not unheard of for employers to send vans to pick up workers who are in residential community corrections programs because the employers are so desperate for workers.

Some of our country’s largest employers are making second-chance hiring their official policy.  Target and Home Depot have “banned the box” in their employment practices.  “Ban the box” delays inquiry into an applicant’s criminal history until late in the hiring process, ensuring that those with criminal records aren’t tossed aside before having an opportunity to detail their skills, training and qualifications. This policy also allows these individuals to explain the circumstances of their offense, and show potential employers how they have turned their lives around....

Reforms to seal or erase records of criminal convictions are also a priority for job creators.  These policies seal minor criminal records after a certain crime-free period. Research shows that low-level offenders who have remained crime-free for three to five years are no more likely to commit a crime than anyone else.  And in many states, when minor criminal records are sealed, law enforcement and judicial officers still have access to these records, ensuring that public safety continues to be a priority.

Almost all states have some mechanism through which certain criminal records can be erased or sealed, but erasing records at the federal level is virtually impossible. Fortunately, the issue is gaining traction in Congress. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is spearheading the REDEEM Act, with bipartisan support.  And Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., introduced the Renew Act with Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.

Occupational licensing reform is another issue important to the business community. Today one in four occupations requires a government license — but a criminal history often bars an individual from the licensing process.  Ironically, such restrictions make us less safe.  One study showed that states with more burdensome licensing laws saw an average 9 percent increase in recidivism, while those with the lowest burdens had a recidivism reduction of 2.5 percent.

States as diverse as Illinois, Arizona, and Louisiana have already begun peeling back the layers of government-issued permission slips to work.  At the federal level, the New HOPE Act, introduced by Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., and similar legislation sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, would allow states to use federal funding to identify and reduce unnecessary licensing barriers within their regulations and statutes.

Elected officials should look to job creators for sound public policy.  I urge my fellow employers to beat the drum even louder and make their voices heard at the local, state and federal level. We can improve public safety, strengthen the economy and broaden our pool of skilled labor through commonsense criminal justice reforms and offering second chances for those who have earned them.  I don’t know a good businessperson who would turn down that deal.

December 16, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, December 15, 2017

Remarkable story of jury sentencing, jury actions and a victim's response from Virginia

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this remarkable story from Virginia as reported in the Washington Post under the headline "First the jury convicted this 19-year-old maid for stealing. Then they took up a collection to pay her fine." Here are highlights:

After she was arrested, Mendez Ortega spent eight days in jail until she was released on $1,000 bond . The jury was not told that.  The jury also was not told that Mendez Ortega apparently is not in the country legally, as Copeland said she was told by prosecutors, because it was not relevant to whether she stole the rings.  “I think it’s relevant to the case,” Copeland said.  She said the penalties of a felony conviction, such as not being able to vote or buy a gun, would not be actions available to an immigrant in the country illegally anyway....

The trial seemed utterly ordinary.  A 19-year-old maid swiped a woman’s three rings worth at least $5,000 from a house she was cleaning in Fairfax City, Va., but later returned them after the police questioned her.  She was charged with felony grand larceny.

What the jury did was extraordinary.  They felt bad for the young woman, pregnant with her second child, and agreed that she had made a dumb, youthful mistake. Reluctantly, they convicted her of the felony.  But the fine they imposed was her daily pay as a maid, $60. And then they took up a collection and gave her the money to pay the fine.

“The general sentiment was she was a victim, too,” said the jury foreman, Jeffery Memmott. “Two of the women [jurors] were crying because of how bad they felt.  One lady pulled out a $20 bill, and just about everybody chipped in.”  Memmott then contacted the public defender in the case, and went to the home of Sandra Mendez Ortega. He gave her the jury’s collection, which totaled $80....

The two-day trial was held in July, but the sentencing was last Friday before Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Robert J. Smith.  Mendez Ortega’s lawyer, assistant public defender Michael C. Cash, asked the judge to defer the case and not enter a conviction or sentence in light of the defendant’s actions and the jury’s response.  Smith declined, entered the conviction and imposed the $60 fine.  Numerous veteran criminal lawyers, on both the prosecution and defense sides, said they had never heard of a case where a jury paid a defendant’s fine.

A happy holiday story, right?  Well what if you’re the woman whose rings were stolen?  Although she was not pleased when the jury returned from their deliberations with only a $60 fine for the felony conviction, crime victim Lisa Copeland was appalled when she learned that the jury had also paid the fine.  “I just pray that they’re never in my shoes,” Copeland said. She said Mendez Ortega never accepted responsibility for the theft.  “If she had accepted accountability, I would be okay with all of this.  The fact that she won’t accept accountability makes it wrong.”

Copeland said Mendez Ortega told a series of lies from the start, and then unfurled a tragic life story that convinced the jury to impose a punishment of a $60 fine.  “I was outraged,” Copeland said.  “I was just flabbergasted. I didn’t think $60 equated to the crime at all.” She did not know the jury had taken up a collection for Mendez Ortega until she was contacted by a reporter.

The case began with Copeland’s discovery in September 2016 that her engagement and wedding rings were missing from the container where they were usually kept.  The engagement ring had been her grandmother’s, made in 1943, and the two rings were appraised at $5,000 in 1996, Copeland said.  Copeland didn’t realize a third, inexpensive ring had been taken until it was turned in.... 

At trial, the facts were not really in dispute. The jury did not hear from Mendez Ortega during the case in chief, but they were already sympathetic to her. “We didn’t feel she should have been tried and convicted,” said Memmott, the foreman. “We tried every way we could to find some way of not convicting her.  But the legal standard was very clear.”  Two other jurors agreed that the felony conviction was appropriate, given the facts and the law.  Lisa Copeland was amazed. “The fact that she confessed,” she said, “and they didn’t want to convict her?  I don’t get this. That’s basically saying it’s okay to steal.”

Then during the sentencing phase, Mendez Ortega took the stand.  She faced a possible sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500.  She told the jury she had dropped out of school after sixth grade, that she first became pregnant at 15, that she was pregnant again at 19 and had no job, according to court records. “The whole time she was telling the sob story,” Lisa Copeland said, I looked at my husband and said, ‘I’ve heard enough of this.'”  She noted that after Mendez Ortega took the rings, “she lied to the cops, she lied to her employers.  She didn’t turn in the rings, she made somebody else do it.  She confessed, but claimed that the rings were in the bathroom.  And then she tried to blame her boss.”

When the jury went back to deliberate on a sentence, the jurors said they quickly agreed that no jail time was appropriate, and that only a small fine should be imposed. “We all came to the conclusion,” Memmott said, “we should fine her the amount she made for a day’s work.”...  “The degree of empathy that was shown by these citizens,” said a third juror who asked to remain nameless, “and the serious way everybody took their responsibility, was really remarkable.”

Remarkable is the word I would attach to every part of this story, while also noting that this would only be possible in a jurisdiction like Virginia that includes a system of jury sentencing. Interestingly, this story does not speak to whether or how the victim here spoke during the trial/sentencing proceedings.  I am pretty sure victims in Virginia have a right to speak at sentencing, and I wonder if this now-aggrieved victim is upset in part because she did not exercise that right.

December 15, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Does the election of Doug Jones in Alabama increase the prospects of federal statutory sentencing reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Marshall Project piece headlined "What the Doug Jones Election Means for Criminal Justice Reform." The subheadline of the piece, "The Alabama Democrat represents the flip-side of his predecessor," perhaps best frames the article that follows, and here are excerpts:

Last year, prospects were looking good for a bipartisan effort in Congress to overhaul federal sentencing. But after long and careful negotiations, one senator almost single-handedly torpedoed the measure: the junior Republican from Alabama, Jeff Sessions.

Sessions, of course, went on to become Attorney General, dimming hopes even further.  But Tuesday’s election of his unlikely replacement, Democrat Doug Jones, hands the seat to a former federal prosecutor who has advocated for less harsh sentencing and more alternatives to prison.  “Doug Jones was a groundbreaking voice for prosecutorial reform to end mass incarceration,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.  “He was one of the first prosecutors to speak out about how prosecutors can and should help reduce unnecessary incarceration.”

Jones, the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, was best known as a prosecutor for securing the convictions of two former Ku Klux Klan members in the infamous 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four young black girls.  The men were convicted in 2001 and 2002.

Over the last few years, Jones, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday after his victory, has begun to openly push for changes that would give prosecutors more leeway.  He included criminal justice among his top campaign priorities, taking aim at mandatory minimum sentencing, disparities that send a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos to prison, and “three strikes” laws.  “These are bipartisan issues Democrats and Republicans agree on,” Jones told a group of Alabama State University students last month. “Try to reduce the crime, keep our communities safer and at the same time cut down the costs of the criminal justice system.”...

It’s too soon to tell what Jones’ election means for federal sentencing reform. Progress stalled under President Donald Trump, and Sessions has stayed true to his law-and-order roots, calling on U.S. Attorneys to seek the highest possible charges and rolling back a guideline that had allowed prosecutors to ignore some drug charges.  Legislators and advocates instead have focused on trying to create more re-entry programs, prison educational opportunities and job skills training.

But Jones’ election elevates one of the effort’s most vocal supporters.  Two years ago, Jones and another former federal prosecutor, James E. Johnson, and other law enforcement officials formed Law Enforcement Leaders To Reduce Crime & Incarceration, a bipartisan, reform-minded advocacy group.  Jones was among members who signed a letter supporting the effort that ultimately died in Congress....  “While I sought harsh punishments for violent offenders as U.S. attorney, not all cases require severe sentences,” Jones wrote on his website. “Judges and prosecutors should be given flexibility and be empowered to decide the fate of those before them in the justice system.”

For the time being, the prospects of any congressional federal sentencing reform rests primarily in the hands of Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and Prez Donald Trump.  Senator McConnell can refuse (and so far has refused) to bring the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act up for a floor vote even though some GOP Senators have said, as noted here, the SCRA could get 70 votes in the Senate right now.   But the SCRA surely would not get 70 votes in Prez Trump were to come out vocally against it, and Senator McConnell surely will not bring it up for a floor vote if he knows doing so would be against the wishes of Prez Trump.  Those realities likely mean that the new Senate 51-49 math and the new voice of Senator-elect Jones will not in any major way directly impact the prospects for congressional federal sentencing reforms in the months ahead.

That all said, I do think the Jones victory in Alabama still has some political ripples in the arena of crime and punishment.  As he did in the gubernatorial race in Virginia, Prez Trump used his Twitter thumbs to make a "weak on crime" attack on the Democratic candidate in Alabama.  That candidate still prevailed, and did particularly well in the suburbs where it is often thought the "soft on crime" epithet is most effective (although surely other factors mattered to suburban Alabama voters earlier this week).   Including the New Jersey race for governor also decided last month, we can and should now say that in the last three significant state-wide elections, the candidate obviously more supportive of criminal justice reform prevailed.

I make these points not to assert that many political candidates are going to now view criminal justice reform advocacy as a winning political strategy, although I expect (and hope) some will.  Rather, I am making the more subtle (but important) point that no current politician or would-be candidate should any more be unduly afraid that supporting criminal justice reform could doom them in the next political cycle.  For much of the last half-century, the conventional wisdom was that any politician who could be effectively painted as soft on crime was sure to lose in the next election  (and I suspect this conventional wisdom in part accounts for why so little significant criminal justice reform was actually achieved during the Obama era).  With every significant victory by any person who calls for criminal justice reform on the campaign trail, that old conventional wisdom becomes much less conventional and much less wise.

December 14, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Second Chance Reforms in 2017: Roundup of new expungement and restoration laws"

2017-Report-Cover-Image-791x1024The title of this post is the title of this notable new publication from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center documenting how states are, in various ways, expanding opportunities to avoid or mitigate the adverse effects of a criminal record. Here is the report's executive summary following the start of its "overview" section:

The national trend toward expanding opportunities for restoration of rights and status after conviction, first documented in Four Years of Second Chance Reforms, 2013 – 2016, has accelerated in 2017. In the past year, 23 states broadened existing second chance laws or enacted entirely new ones, enhancing the prospects for successful reentry and reintegration for many thousands of Americans.  Some of these laws significantly expanded the availability of relief, while others involved relatively minor changes to existing law.

The most frequent type of reform involved limiting public access to criminal records: new sealing or expungement laws were enacted in several states that previously had none, eligibility requirements were relaxed for many existing record-sealing authorities, and new limits were imposed on access to non-conviction and juvenile records -- all making it easier for more individuals to get relief at an earlier date.  However, there is remarkably little consistency among state record-closing schemes, and most states extend relief only to less serious offenses after lengthy eligibility waiting periods.  Moreover, eligibility criteria are frequently so complex as to defeat the sharpest legal minds. Other recurring reforms limit employer inquiries into criminal history at the application stage.  A few states enacted administratively enforceable standards for consideration of criminal history in employment and licensing. To date there has been very little empirical research into the relative effectiveness of different forms of relief, so it is perhaps not surprising that experimentation seems to be the order of the day.

This report documents changes in state restoration laws in 2017, many of which are quite significant.  It is based on research from the Restoration of Rights Project (RRP), an online resource maintained by the CCRC that catalogs and analyzes the restoration laws of all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and the federal system.  Following an overview of 2017 reforms, specific changes to the law in each state are briefly described along with relevant citations. More detailed information about each state’s laws is available in the RRP state profiles.

• In 2017, 23 states enacted laws aimed at reducing barriers faced by people with criminal records in the workplace and elsewhere.  Some of these laws significantly expanded the availability of relief, while others involved relatively minor changes to existing laws.

• Most of the new laws involved either restrictions on public access to records or limits on employer inquiries into criminal history.  A few states enacted administratively enforceable standards for consideration of criminal history in employment and licensing.

• Important new record-sealing schemes were enacted in Illinois, Montana and New York, and nine other states either relaxed eligibility requirements or otherwise supplemented their existing sealing or expungement authorities to make relief more broadly available at an earlier date.  Of these nine, the most ambitious reforms were enacted by Nevada, which was one of several states that created a presumption in favor of relief for eligible persons.

• Seven states enacted substantial revisions to their juvenile expungement and sealing laws in 2017, some of which require courts to order relief automatically after a brief waiting period.

• Ten states enacted state-wide “ban-the-box” laws limiting inquiries into criminal record by public employers at preliminary stages of the hiring process.  California, Connecticut and Vermont extended these limits to private employers as well.

• In California and Nevada, restrictions on application-stage inquiries are part of a broader nondiscrimination scheme that prohibits consideration of certain kinds of criminal records, and establishes standards for individualized determinations in all other cases.  Both states provide additional procedural protections.

• While reforms are moving at a fast pace, there is no consensus about the most effective way to avoid or mitigate the adverse effects of a criminal record, and very little relevant empirical research.

December 14, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Data on sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

"Sex Registries as Modern-Day Witch Pyres: Why Criminal Justice Reform Advocates Need to Address the Treatment of People on the Sex Offender Registry"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new In Justice commentary authored by Guy Hamilton-Smith. I quoted the title in full because it is all worthy of reflection, as is the entire commentary that follows. Here is an excerpt:

The sex offender is the modern-day witch: the registry, the contemporary pyre. A scarlet letter for our technocratic era, forcing people to register as sex offenders “is what puritan judges would’ve done to Hester Prynne had laptops been available.” While undoubtedly there are those on the registry who have been convicted of blood curdling crimes, the designation is also extended to those who have been convicted of far more banal ones.

Reformers urgently need to draw public attention to the cruel and unnecessarily harsh treatment afforded to sex offenders within the justice system. Sex offender registries are rapidly proliferating and becoming an increasingly popular back-end tool for feeding people into the carceral state.

In understanding the reasons why sex offenders ought to be a higher priority for mainstream justice reform advocates, a grasp of the evolution and operation of the sex offender registry is critical....

The number of people listed on a sex offender registry in the United States has grown from slightly more than 500,000 in 2005 to 874,725 today. Research has found that sex offender registries have a disproportionate impact on minorities.

While registries and their attendant requirements are sold as enhancing public safety, research consistently indicates that they are exceedingly bad at this goal. One explanation is because, contrary to Smith’s baseless assertion and what most believe, people on the registry have one of the lowest rates of re-offending out of any class of criminal....

As a piece of criminal justice machinery brought to bear on people, the registry can best be thought of as a two-headed beast: a 1–2 punch of distinct effects.

The first head is the direct impact on the lives of those on the registry itself. With no Due Process or Ex Post Facto brakes to slow down the juggernaut, it has become weaponized.  A far cry from its origins as a simple list of purported perverts, it has morphed into a web of prison-without-bars that would make Franz Kafka blush. The oppressiveness, breadth, and lack of due process inherent in these modern day sex offender registries led a federal court in Colorado to label it a cruel and unusual punishment; a legal conclusion virtually unheard of outside of the cloistered world of death penalty litigation.

The second head is the tangle of legal requirements for those on the list: a knot of vague, illogical, ever-expanding, and sometimes contradictory laws that even lawyers, judges, and law enforcement have difficulty interpreting.  Examples can include strict time limits on reporting even minor changes in information (such as online accounts) or residence, residency restrictions, or even the clothing one wears. States promise swift felony prosecutions if individuals do not observe hyper-technical compliance with these requirements.

Unsurprisingly, it is exceedingly easy to run afoul of the requirements, keeping those that do trapped in a cycle of legislatively-crafted “crime” that can be tantamount to a de facto life sentence. “Failure to register” is fast becoming the crime of choice for returning those on the registry to prison.  In 2008 in Minnesota, failure to register charges became the most common reason sex offenders were returned to prison.  Between 2000 to 2016, Texas saw a more than 700% increase in FTR arrests, from 252 in 2005 to 1,497 in 2017. To borrow a phrase from computer programming, this is not some kind of criminal justice bug. It is a feature.

December 12, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Curious reminder of limits of empirical evidence showing federal sentencing disparity before modern guideline reforms

ProPublica has this lengthy new article that seems way too eager to suggest that some empirical shenanigans fester below the Supreme Court's 1989 Mistretta opinion upholding the structure of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. The full headline and subheadline showcases the ominous theme of this reporting, "Suspect Evidence Informed a Momentous Supreme Court Decision on Criminal Sentencing: The U.S. Sentencing Commission helped send more people to prison for longer terms. It’s a shame it was created to address a nonexistent crisis. Here’s how the Supreme Court got misled."  I fear that ProPublica's valuable push to fact-check SCOTUS opinions has, in this case, led to some problematic assertions about the history of sentencing reform and Mistretta.  Though this blog space is not an ideal setting for nitpicking this long ProPublica piece, the article's start (with one sentence emphasized) provides a flavor for its points and problems:

More than 30 years ago, Congress identified what it said was a grave threat to the American promise of equal justice for all: Federal judges were giving wildly different punishments to defendants who had committed the same crimes.  The worries were many.  Some lawmakers feared lenient judges were giving criminals too little time in prison. Others suspected African-American defendants were being unfairly sentenced to steeper prison terms than white defendants.

In 1984, Congress created the U.S. Sentencing Commission with remarkable bipartisan support.  The commission would set firm punishment rules, called “guidelines,” for every offense.  The measure, signed by President Ronald Reagan, largely stripped federal judges of their sentencing powers; they were now to use a chart to decide penalties for each conviction, with few exceptions.

Five years later, a legal challenge to the sentencing commission wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court.  In a case titled Mistretta v. U.S., the court was asked to consider whether Congress had overreached by taking on what seemed to be a role for the judiciary.  In an 8-1 decision, the justices determined that the sentencing commission was constitutional.  And they took care to say that the commission was also needed — to end the widespread and “shameful” sentencing disparities produced by the biases of individual judges.

Mistretta was a momentous decision, but it’s now clear the high court relied on evidence that was flimsy and even flat-out wrong.  The justices, in issuing the 1989 decision, had cited a single congressional report in concluding that there were disturbing and unacceptable sentencing disparities that needed to be addressed.  That single report, in turn, was based primarily on two studies conducted in the early 1970s, both deeply flawed.

Critically, the Mistretta case legally and practically did not turn at all on whether researchers had adequately proven pre-guideline sentencing disparity or whether Congress relied on "flimsy" evidence when enacting the Sentencing Reform Act.  Constitutional issues, not empirical ones, were the focal point of Mistretta.

To its credit, this ProPublica article does a nice job spotlighting problems with the disparity evidence cited by Congress in the legislative history of the Sentencing Reform Act.  But Kate Stith and Jose Cabranes made this point effectively two decades ago in Fear of Judging, and sentencing reforms in the 1970s and 1980s, at both the federal and state level, were driven by (and could be justified by) a lot more than just concerns about sentencing disparities.  Moreover, and perhaps most important, the few cites by Congress to studies about sentencing disparities were really only the tip of the evidentiary iceberg: as Norval Morris stressed in this great 1977 piece, he started effectively documenting "gross and unjust variations in sentences imposed on convicted criminals" in the 1950s.  As he put it, by the mid 1970s, the decade before Congress enacted the Sentencing Reform Act, "the data on unjust sentencing disparity [had] indeed become quite overwhelming and will ... convince anyone who will take the time to study them."   

In short, I think it deeply misguided to label the concerns about sentencing disparities before modern reforms a "nonexistent crisis," and it is even more problematic to suggest that these concerns were the only reason Congress passed the SRA or the only reason Mistretta came out as it did.  I am always grateful for journalism seeking to thoughtfully unpack federal sentencing reforms and Supreme Court sentencing rulings, and there can and should be continued debate about whether and how modern sentencing reforms may have increased rather than reduced certain types of sentencing disparities.  But the notion that there were not any truly justified concerns about sentencing disparity before modern reforms cannot withstand serious scrutiny, nor can the suggestion that SCOTUS was "misled" by bad data in its Mistretta ruling.

December 12, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, December 11, 2017

"Assessing Risk Assessment in Action"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new paper available via SSRN authored by Megan Stevenson.  Though the paper addresses pretrial risk-assessment, I think folks interested in risk-assessment tools at sentencing should be interested in the findings.  Here is the abstract:

Recent years have seen a rush towards evidence-based tools in criminal justice.  As part of this movement, many jurisdictions have adopted actuarial risk assessment to supplement or replace the ad-hoc decisions of judges.  Proponents of risk assessment tools claim that they can dramatically reduce incarceration without harming public safety. Critics claim that risk assessment will exacerbate racial disparities. Despite extensive and heated rhetoric, there is virtually no evidence on how use of this “evidence-based” tool affects key outcomes such as incarceration rates, crime, or racial disparities.  The research discussing what “should” happen as a result of risk assessment is hypothetical and largely ignores the complexities of implementation.

This Article is one of the first studies to document the impacts of risk assessment in practice.  It evaluates pretrial risk assessment in Kentucky, a state that was an early adopter of risk assessment and is often cited as an example of best-practices in the pretrial area.  Using rich data on more than one million criminal cases, the paper shows that a 2011 law making risk assessment a mandatory part of the bail decision led to a significant change in bail setting practice, but only a small increase in pretrial release. These changes eroded over time as judges returned to their previous habits.  Furthermore, the increase in releases was not cost-free: failures-to-appear and pretrial crime increased as well.  Risk assessment had no effect on racial disparities in pretrial detention once differing regional trends were accounted for.

Kentucky’s experience does not mean we should abandon risk assessment, but it should temper the hyperbolic hopes (and fears) about its effects.  Risk assessment in practice is different from risk assessment in the abstract, and its impacts depend on context and details of implementation.  If indeed risk assessment is capable of producing large benefits, it will take research and experimentation to learn how to achieve them.  Such a process would be evidence-based criminal justice at its best: not a flocking towards methods that bear the glossy veneer of science, but a careful and iterative evaluation of what works and what does not.

December 11, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Will any state really start conducting executions with opioids?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy Washington Post article, headlined "States to try new ways of executing prisoners. Their latest idea? Opioids." Here is how it gets started:

The synthetic painkiller fentanyl has been the driving force behind the nation’s opioid epidemic, killing tens of thousands of Americans last year in overdoses. Now two states want to use the drug’s powerful properties for a new purpose: to execute prisoners on death row.

As Nevada and Nebraska push for the country’s first fentanyl-assisted executions, doctors and death penalty opponents are fighting those plans. They have warned that such an untested use of fentanyl could lead to painful, botched executions, comparing the use of it and other new drugs proposed for lethal injection to human experimentation.

States are increasingly pressed for ways to carry out the death penalty because of problems obtaining the drugs they long have used, primarily because pharmaceutical companies are refusing to supply their drugs for executions. The situation has led states such as Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma to turn to novel drug combinations for executions. Mississippi legalized nitrogen gas this spring as a backup method — something no state or country has tried. Officials have yet to say whether it would be delivered in a gas chamber or through a gas mask. Other states have passed laws authorizing a return to older methods, such as the firing squad and the electric chair.

“We’re in a new era,” said Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University. “States have now gone through all the drugs closest to the original ones for lethal injection. And the more they experiment, the more they’re forced to use new drugs that we know less about in terms of how they might work in an execution.”

Supporters of capital punishment blame critics for the crisis, which comes amid a sharp decline in the number of executions and decreasing public support for the death penalty. States have put 23 inmates to death in 2017 — the second-fewest executions in more than a quarter-century. Nineteen states no longer have capital punishment, with a third of those banning it in the past decade.

“If death penalty opponents were really concerned about inmates’ pain, they would help reopen the supply,” said Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which advocates for the rights of crime victims. Opponents “caused the problem we’re in now by forcing pharmaceuticals to cut off the supply to these drugs. That’s why states are turning to less-than-optimal choices.”

Prison officials in Nevada and Nebraska have declined to answer questions about why they chose to use fentanyl in their next executions, which could take place in early 2018. Many states cloak their procedures in secrecy to try to minimize legal challenges. But fentanyl offers several advantages. The obvious one is potency. The synthetic drug is 50 times more powerful than heroin and up to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

“There’s cruel irony that at the same time these state governments are trying to figure out how to stop so many from dying from opioids, that they now want to turn and use them to deliberately kill someone,” said Austin Sarat, a law professor at Amherst College who has studied the death penalty for more than four decades.

Another plus with fentanyl: It is easy to obtain. Although the drug has rocketed into the news because of the opioid crisis, doctors frequently use it to anesthetize patients for major surgery or to treat severe pain in patients with advanced cancer. Nevada officials say they had no problem buying fentanyl. “We simply ordered it through our pharmaceutical distributor, just like every other medication we purchase, and it was delivered,” Brooke Keast, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Corrections, said in an email. “Nothing out of the ordinary at all.”

Notably, Nevada has not had an execution since 2006 and Nebraska has not had an execution from 1997, and that reality leads me to question whether these states are likely to be conducting opioid-based executions anytime soon. But, as the Post article details, Nevada was fully geared up for a fentanyl-included execution last month before a court intervened, and they may have plans for another execution early in 2018.

December 11, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

"Graduating Economic Sanctions According to Ability to Pay"

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

There is growing recognition that economic sanctions — fines, surcharges, fees, and restitution — are routinely imposed at rates many people have no meaningful ability to pay, which can exacerbate financial instability and lead to the perception that economic sanctions are unfairly punitive to people of limited means.  Concerns triggered primarily by highly punitive tactics, including incarceration and long-term probation of low-income debtors for the failure to pay, have led to increasing calls for reform.  While much attention is now being paid to the back-end of the system, and particularly limitations on punitive responses for the failure to pay due to poverty, this Article considers the problem from the front-end.  In particular, this Article focuses on a potential reform with increasing bipartisan support: the graduation of economic sanctions according to a person’s financial circumstances.

To that end, this Article explores several key considerations essential to designing a system of graduation, relying heavily on a largely-forgotten experiment in seven geographically, demographically, and politically diverse jurisdictions in the United States with the “day-fine.”  A day-fine is calculated using a penalty unit assigned based on the seriousness of the offense of conviction.  The penalty unit is then multiplied by the defendant’s adjusted daily income to determine the day-fine amount.  The result is an economic sanction adjusted to offense seriousness and simultaneously graduated to the defendant’s financial condition.  This Article mines the historical record of the American day-fines experiments — complemented by recent interviews with people involved in the design and implementation of the projects and experiences with means-adjustment in the consumer bankruptcy, tax, and public benefits contexts — for lessons on the design of graduating economic sanctions.  What emerges from this review is promising evidence that a properly designed and implemented system for graduation is consistent with efficient court administration, revenue generation, and equality in sentencing. 

December 11, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Is due process satisfied by a "minimal indicia of reliability" standard for key sentencing evidence and determinations?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by an opinion issued earlier this year by the Supreme Court of Delaware in Smack v. Delaware, No. 601 (Del. Oct. 11, 2017) (available here). The first paragraph of the Smack opinion provides the basic facts and procedural issue:

Adrin Smack pleaded guilty to four counts of drug dealing, one count of possession of a firearm by a person prohibited, and one count of conspiracy second degree.  At sentencing, the State claimed that Smack acted as a “kingpin” in a drug operation and should be sentenced to the fifteen years recommended by the State instead of the eight years recommended by the defendant.  Smack requested an evidentiary hearing as part of sentencing, and argued that the State must prove his status as a drug “kingpin” by a preponderance of the evidence.  The Superior Court denied Smack’s request for an evidentiary hearing and ruled it could consider evidence offered by the State at sentencing if it met a “minimal indicia of reliability” standard. The court sentenced Smack to an aggregate of fourteen years at Level V followed by probation. Smack appeals and argues the Superior Court violated his due process rights by denying him an evidentiary hearing and applying the wrong burden of proof at sentencing.  According to Smack, the State was required to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Smack was a drug kingpin.  Because this Court has previously upheld the use of a minimal indicia of reliability standard to consider evidence offered at a sentencing hearing, and due process does not require an evidentiary hearing, we affirm the Superior Court’s decision.

Here is the heart of the Delaware Supreme Court's analysis of the issue and rejection of the defense's contentions (with footnotes removed):

First, this Court settled the evidentiary standard in Mayes v. State, holding that “in reviewing a sentence within statutory limits, this Court will not find error of law or abuse of discretion unless it is clear from the record below that a sentence has been imposed on the basis of demonstrably false information or information lacking a minimal indicium of reliability.”  Smack argues Mayes does not apply because the standard was not contested.  But the fact the standard was not at issue is irrelevant — the Court explicitly stated the sentencing judge “comported with due process by relying on information meeting the ‘minimal indicium of reliability beyond mere allegation’ standard.”  Subsequent cases rely on Mayes in applying this standard.

Smack relies on a series of federal cases where the court applied a preponderance of the evidence standard to establish facts warranting a sentence enhancement under the federal sentencing guidelines.  According to Smack, the same burden of proof should apply to the State when it argued for a harsher sentence based on Smack’s status as a drug kingpin.  The federal cases, however, are inapposite.  Under the federal sentencing guidelines, the judge must find facts at sentencing using evidentiary burdens because those factual determinations can cause an increase in the sentencing ranges under the guidelines.  Here, Smack’s guilty plea resulted in a sentencing range of two to seventy-six years. To fix the sentence within that statutory range, the judge was entitled to consider all facts that had a minimal indicia of reliability — including the intercepted text messages and phone conversations that led to the seventy-seven charges of drug dealing brought against Smack.  The court could and did find from these facts that Smack was more than a street-level drug dealer.

As hard-core sentencing fans know, the Supreme Court three decades ago in McMillan v. Pennsylvania, rejected a challenge to a Pennsylvania statute's use of a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard in the application of a mandatory minimum sentencing statute.  Chief Justice Rehnquist in that opinion explained why the Court had "little difficulty concluding that ... the preponderance standard satisfies due process."  Of course, aspects of McMillan were overturned in Alleyne v. US with respect to any fact-finding that formally alters any legal limit of a judge's sentencing discretion, but that decision itself stressed it was not contradicting "the broad discretion of judges to select a sentence within the range authorized by law."  

Through communications with the attorney representing in the defendant in this case, I have learned that a cert petition is in the works.  Given the remarkable reality that we have gone nearly 230 years into our constitutional history without having come close to settling just what due process means at sentencing, I think it would be great (and long overdue) for SCOTUS to take up a case like this.

December 10, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Fascinating look at sentencing mitigation videos (and advocacy film festival)

The New York Times has this great new "op-doc" by Lance Oppenheim on the topic of sentencing mitigation videos under the headline "No Jail Time: The Movie." All sentencing fans will want to take the full 10 minutes to check out the video that is the heart of this op-doc (e,g., two-thirds in is an interesting reference to "the real America"). Here is part of the text that the filmmaker has with the video:

When my parents went to law school in the 1980s, they took courses on contracts, torts, criminal law, constitutional law — the list goes on. While there were lessons on persuasion, to be sure, they never took a class on how to tell a story. And they certainly never learned how to make a film.

Today, however, a growing number of lawyers are creating empathetic biographical mini-documentaries, or “sentencing videos,” to reduce their clients’ prison sentences. Inspired by the storytelling techniques of traditional documentary film, some lawyers team up with independent filmmakers while others become filmmakers themselves. These films are made for an audience of one: the presiding judge.

While videos have historically been permitted in the courtroom, this phenomenon took off in 2005, when the Supreme Court, in United States v. Booker, allowed trial courts to consider an offender’s “personal history and characteristics.” Before Booker, judges were bound by sentencing guidelines and were generally restricted in looking past a defendant’s crime and criminal record.

In sentencing videos, lawyers try to portray their clients in a positive light, notwithstanding the nature of the crime of which they were found guilty. These short videos, which can cost $5,000 to $25,000 to make, can be extremely effective, sometimes substantially decreasing sentences, including those involving the death penalty.

I immersed myself in this phenomenon at the The Sentencing and Post-Conviction Film Festival, held in New Orleans in June at an annual training conference for federal public defenders. The event is organized by Doug Passon, an attorney, filmmaker, attorney-filmmaker, and sentencing video expert.

Mr. Passon, who took film classes after law school and now runs a joint law firm and video production company in Scottsdale, Ariz., treats sentencing videos in an artful manner nearly indistinguishable from narrative-driven, fictional films. He has narrowed his focus to how sentencing videos can sway a judge’s decision. Having seen results from his own clients’ films, he’s determined to teach other lawyers how to create powerful stories.

In a drab hotel conference room filled with beleaguered lawyers, Mr. Passon offers a model: “Make judges suffer.” Not only should judges “agonize over the proper sentence in each case,” Mr. Passon said, they must also “truly feel the client’s pain as they do so.”

In photography and film, there’s an elusive color tone halfway between black and white called middle gray. Just like the phenomenon of middle gray, sentencing videos exist in an in-between space where legal conceptions of fact and fiction, right and wrong, become amorphous. Even though the videos are grounded in truth, their ability to play with judges’ emotions challenge the courtroom’s conception of “truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” What I discovered from looking at the growing practice of sentencing videos was far more complicated than I ever imagined.

In the aftermath of making this film, and as a filmmaker myself, I have continued to ask myself whether all documentaries are like sentencing videos. Facts presented in a subjective manner, with footage altered or deleted to serve the filmmaker’s message and elicit a particular emotion from an audience. In the case of sentencing mitigation films, we know the judge will be the final arbiter. For all other documentaries, though, the court of public opinion will need to decide what is, in fact, “true.”

A few prior related posts about sentencing videos:

December 10, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, December 09, 2017

"Make or Buy? The Provision of Indigent Defense Services in the U.S"

I blogged here in August 2016 about an interesting draft paper authored by Yotam Shem-Tov then titled "Public Defenders vs. Private Court Appointed Attorneys: An Investigation of Indigent Defense Systems."  The draft sought to empirically examine different outcomes for defendants assigned different types of counsel.  The authored of that draft emailed me today to report that the paper is now "much more complete" compared to the prior noted draft.  The revised paper, available here via SSRN, is now going by the title that is the title of this post, and here is the new abstract:

U.S. courts provide constitutionally mandated legal services to indigent defendants via private court-appointed attorneys and public defenders' organizations.  I investigate the relative efficacy of these two modes of indigent defense by comparing outcomes of co-defendants assigned either a public defender or a private court-appointed attorney within the same case. Using data from San Francisco and federal district courts, I argue and show empirically that in multiple defendant cases public defender assignment is as good as random. Estimates show that public defenders reduce the probability of any prison sentence by 22%, as well as the length of prison by 10%.

Interestingly, as noted in a prior post, the early draft's abstract indicated a finding that "defendants assigned a public defender in co-defendant cases had slightly worse outcomes."  But then, as blogged here in January 2017, the author can to the inverse conclusion after checking his data and receiving feedback about his draft analysis.  And now it seems that, after finalizing the numbers, the author has seemingly concluded once-and-for-all that his data show that public defendants generally producing better outcomes than private court-appointed attorneys.

Prior related posts:

December 9, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Notable new push to push for expanded use of compassionate release programs

As reported in this press release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, "a coalition of criminal justice reform, health policy, human rights, and faith-based organizations launched a new public education and advocacy campaign to urge the creation, expansion, and robust use of federal and state programs that grant early release to prisoners with compelling circumstances, such as a terminal or age-related illness."  Here is more from the release (with links from the source):

The Campaign for Compassionate Release” comprises a diverse group of organizations, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), American Conservative Union Foundation, Human Rights Watch, National Council of Churches, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, and National Disability Rights Network.  “It is cruel and senseless to prisoners and families alike to abandon an individual to suffer or die alone in prison, separated from loved ones. These prisoners are the least dangerous and most expensive to lock up, yet compassionate release often exists in name only. It often fails the people it is intended to help. And we’re fed up,” said Mary Price, general counsel of FAMM.

To kick off the Campaign, 36 organizations and individuals endorsed a statement of principles. The principles focus on the humanitarian, public safety, and economic benefits of granting early release to elderly prisoners, those with disabilities, or prisoners facing extreme family changes. While the Campaign will target both federal and state policies, the first stages of the launch focus on reforms to the federal compassionate release program.

The federal compassionate release program, created by Congress, has existed for decades but is rarely used.  The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) must decide if prisoners meet program criteria and then seek their release in the courts, but in reality, the BOP only brings a trickle of release motions to the courts annually. Delays also plague the program; prisoners commonly die awaiting a decision.  Congressional appropriators, government watchdogs, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and outside advocates all have questioned the BOP’s failure to use the program as Congress intended, especially since sick, dying, and elderly prisoners are the least likely to re-offend and the most expensive to house.

Today, many Campaign members and others sent a letter to BOP Director Mark Inch, urging him to expand the program’s use. The letter echoes a similar letter signed by a bipartisan group of senators in August.

December 9, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Portugal’s radical drugs policy is working. Why hasn’t the world copied it?"

1960The title of this post is the title of this lengthy recent Guardian article taking an in-depth look at how Portugal achieved and operationalizes its distinctive approach to drug use and abuse.  The extended article takes a deep dive into a lot of particular, but here are excerpts from the more general discussion:

In 2001, ... Portugal became the first country to decriminalise the possession and consumption of all illicit substances.  Rather than being arrested, those caught with a personal supply might be given a warning, a small fine, or told to appear before a local commission — a doctor, a lawyer and a social worker — about treatment, harm reduction, and the support services that were available to them.

The opioid crisis soon stabilised, and the ensuing years saw dramatic drops in problematic drug use, HIV and hepatitis infection rates, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and incarceration rates.  HIV infection plummeted from an all-time high in 2000 of 104.2 new cases per million to 4.2 cases per million in 2015.  The data behind these changes has been studied and cited as evidence by harm-reduction movements around the globe.  It’s misleading, however, to credit these positive results entirely to a change in law.

Portugal’s remarkable recovery, and the fact that it has held steady through several changes in government — including conservative leaders who would have preferred to return to the US-style war on drugs — could not have happened without an enormous cultural shift, and a change in how the country viewed drugs, addiction — and itself.  In many ways, the law was merely a reflection of transformations that were already happening in clinics, in pharmacies and around kitchen tables across the country.  The official policy of decriminalisation made it far easier for a broad range of services (health, psychiatry, employment, housing etc) that had been struggling to pool their resources and expertise, to work together more effectively to serve their communities....

In spite of Portugal’s tangible results, other countries have been reluctant to follow.  The Portuguese began seriously considering decriminalisation in 1998, immediately following the first UN General Assembly Special Session on the Global Drug Problem (UNgass).  High-level UNgass meetings are convened every 10 years to set drug policy for all member states, addressing trends in addiction, infection, money laundering, trafficking and cartel violence.  At the first session — for which the slogan was “A drug-free world: we can do it” — Latin American member states pressed for a radical rethinking of the war on drugs, but every effort to examine alternative models (such as decriminalisation) was blocked. By the time of the next session, in 2008, worldwide drug use and violence related to the drug trade had vastly increased.  An extraordinary session was held last year, but it was largely a disappointment — the outcome document didn’t mention “harm reduction” once.

Despite that letdown, 2016 produced a number of promising other developments: Chile and Australia opened their first medical cannabis clubs; following the lead of several others, four more US states introduced medical cannabis, and four more legalised recreational cannabis; Denmark opened the world’s largest drug consumption facility, and France opened its first; South Africa proposed legalising medical cannabis; Canada outlined a plan to legalise recreational cannabis nationally and to open more supervised injection sites; and Ghana announced it would decriminalise all personal drug use.

The biggest change in global attitudes and policy has been the momentum behind cannabis legalisation.  Local activists have pressed Goulão to take a stance on regulating cannabis and legalising its sale in Portugal; for years, he has responded that the time wasn’t right.  Legalising a single substance would call into question the foundation of Portugal’s drug and harm-reduction philosophy.  If the drugs aren’t the problem, if the problem is the relationship with drugs, if there’s no such thing as a hard or a soft drug, and if all illicit substances are to be treated equally, he argued, then shouldn’t all drugs be legalised and regulated?

Massive international cultural shifts in thinking about drugs and addiction are needed to make way for decriminalisation and legalisation globally.  In the US, the White House has remained reluctant to address what drug policy reform advocates have termed an “addiction to punishment”.  But if conservative, isolationist, Catholic Portugal could transform into a country where same-sex marriage and abortion are legal, and where drug use is decriminalised, a broader shift in attitudes seems possible elsewhere.  But, as the harm-reduction adage goes: one has to want the change in order to make it.

December 9, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, December 08, 2017

SCOTUS grants cert on two(!) federal sentence reduction issues

The Supreme Court this afternoon issued his new order list which adds seven new cases to its merits docket. Two of the new cases involve (narrow) related federal sentencing issues concerning the application of 18 USC § 3582(c)(2).  Here are the case pages and issues via SCOTUSblog:

Hughes v. United States

Issue: Whether, under Freeman v. United States, a petitioner is eligible for a sentence reduction pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(2) based on a retroactive amendment to the Sentencing Guidelines, when the petitioner was sentenced after entering into a binding Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement that required a specific sentence not expressly tied to the guidelines.

Koons v. United States

Issues: Whether a defendant who is subject to a statutory mandatory minimum sentence, but who substantially assisted the government and received a sentence below the mandatory minimum pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e), is eligible for a further sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), when the Sentencing Commission retroactively lowers the advisory sentencing guidelines range that would have applied in the absence of the statutory mandatory minimum.

As long-time readers should know, I am not a big fan of undue finality concerns in the sentencing context (see paper here), so my first instinct is to root for SCOTUS to take an expansive view of the reach and application of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). But I will need to dig into the particulars of these cases before being ready to make any predictions about where the Justices may want to go with them.  But, as long-time readers should also know, a cert grant on TWO sentencing cases makes me a happy camper no matter what may follow.

December 8, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Child molester/gymnastics coach Larry Nassar gets maxed-out, 60-year federal prison sentence for child porn offenses

The typical defendants sentenced in federal court for child porn offense have not been convicted of contact offenses and have strong arguments for being sentenced below the severe federal sentencing guideline ranges.  But former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar is not your typical federal child porn offender and, as reported here, he did not convince a judge he should get a below guideline sentence. Indeed, he got the maxed out in every possible way at his sentencing in federal court yesterday:

Larry Nassar, the 54-year-old former MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor whose work took him to multiple Olympic Games, received an effective life sentence when a federal judge on Thursday sentenced him to 60 years in federal prison on child pornography charges.

"He has demonstrated that he should never again have access to children," U.S. District Judge Janet Neff said as she imposed a sentence that went beyond guidelines calling for 22 to 27 years in prison. He was sentenced to 20 years on each of three counts to which he's admitted. The sentences are to be served consecutively.

Neff also ordered that his federal time would be served consecutively to state sentences for sexual assault to which he's also admitted. He will be sentenced next month on those charges.The courtroom was filled to capacity. Among those in attendance were several victims of Nassar's admitted sexual assault, their relatives and their attorneys. Several victims said after the sentencing they were still trying to process their feelings, but it was a step toward justice.

“I was blown away with what the judge did today, and I thought it was very fitting," Larissa Boyce, who first raised concerns about Nassar to an MSU coach in 1997, said at a news conference after the hearing. "I can’t thank her enough for the things that she said."

In court filings last week, Nassar's attorneys asked Neff to show leniency, saying the doctor had worked toward redemption by helping fellow inmates and taking Bible classes since his arrest nearly a year ago. Nassar, speaking in a barely audible voice from the courtroom podium on Thursday, told Neff he’d long battled an addiction he likened to alcoholism or drug addiction. His shame kept him from asking for help, he said. He said he hoped his crimes would educate people about the problem to prevent others from being hurt in the future....

But Neff said Nassar’s crimes hurt so many people on so many levels. That includes the unnamed children in the pictures who feel assaulted every day knowing someone somewhere could be viewing their bodies, she said. It includes the women Nassar assaulted who now struggle to trust doctors and struggle with their own sense of self-worth.

The judge said she'd sentenced defendants in child pornography cases for a decade but Nassar was "unique" in the sheer volume of pornography he'd collected and the brazen way he assaulted women during medical appointments with parents in the room. "You have to wonder whether he felt he was omnipotent, whether he felt he was getting away with something so cleverly," Neff said as several victims and family members in the room started to cry. "I am a mom of two daughters. I cannot imagine that kind of situation."

Federal prosecutors had argued for the maximum 60 years, saying Nassar "poses an immense risk to the community" and quoting one victim who said he "will not hesitate to reoffend" if he's ever freed. Neff agreed.

Nassar pleaded guilty in July to three federal charges after investigators said he possessed at least 37,000 graphic videos and images of child pornography, including images of prepubescent children engaged in sex acts. He also pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for trying to destroy the evidence. The U.S. Attorney's Office said Nassar paid to have his work laptop wiped clean and threw away hard drives containing the pornography. Investigators were only able to obtain those hard drives at Nassar's Holt property because the garbage truck happened to be running late that day, according to court records.

Some of the videos appeared to show Nassar assaulting young girls in a pool, investigators said. As part of a deal with federal prosecutors to obtain his guilty plea, prosecutors agreed they would not charge him with alleged sexual exploitation of children in relation to four reported victims. Thursday's sentencing ends one of three criminal cases against Nassar. He's also pleaded guilty to sexual assault charges in both Ingham and Eaton counties and could get to up to life in prison in those cases when he's sentenced next month.

Prior related post:

December 8, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Judge "convicts" Michael Slager of murdering Walter Scott and gives him 20 years in federal prison

As noted in this prior post, in federal court there was this week a homicide mini-trial as part of the sentencing of former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights offense as a result of his lethal shooting of Walter Scott.  This lengthy local article, headlined "Former officer Michael Slager sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting of Walter Scott, reports on the results of the judicial inquisition and ultimate sentencing decision.  Here are a few particulars:

Two and a half years after millions saw a cellphone video of Michael Slager gunning down Walter Scott, the 20-year prison sentence he was handed Thursday will be etched into history as one of the most significant for an American police officer involved in a fatal shooting.

Findings by a federal judge aligned with accusations that observers nationwide had aired against the former North Charleston officer since the footage emerged in April 2015: He committed murder when he shot at Scott eight times as the black motorist ran away. He also later misled investigators and lied during court testimony, the judge determined.

The judge rejected the 36-year-old's claim that Scott's own actions at least initially warranted the gunfire. The decision ended a courtroom battle that has played out since scrutiny befell North Charleston amid a national conversation about police killings. But Slager's penalty on a federal charge of violating Scott’s civil rights may extend that legal fight through appeals. It was more than twice what Slager’s defense team had hoped for, and it came as a surprise to many on both sides of the dispute....

U.S. District Judge David Norton had acknowledged two families who cried in his downtown Charleston courtroom and described how their lives had been torn apart by the shooting. Neither, he said, would be satisfied with Slager’s punishment.  "Judging by (Slager’s) history and characteristics, he has lived a spotless life," he said. "Regardless, this is a tragedy that shouldn’t have happened."...

Slager pleaded guilty in May to the federal civil rights violation for using excessive force. But it was the judge’s responsibility to decide the underlying offense: second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter.

Norton largely dismissed Slager’s manslaughter argument that the officer had been provoked by Scott’s resistance, calling the motorist’s actions “wrongful” but not deserving of Slager’s reaction. Instead, the officer acted with malice by repeatedly shooting the unarmed and fleeing Scott, the judge said.

In reaching the murder finding, Norton rejected a pre-sentencing report’s recommendation that Slager should serve between 10 and 13 years behind bars.  The judge reduced the penalty from the maximum lifetime term for reasons that had little to do with the shooting: for the way federal and state prosecutors collaborated on his prosecution and the risk of abuse Slager will face in prison because he’s a former police officer.

The sentencing relied on several legal determinations based on Norton’s view of the facts, and in delivering the penalty, he mentioned that he had consulted his wife, a forensic pathologist, in reviewing Scott’s autopsy. Defense attorneys took exception to those comments and the result, but the judge said their complaints would have to be addressed by an appeals court.

Slager will likely get credit for the more than yearlong stint he has already spent in jail. In the federal justice system, there is no parole.

Prior related posts:

December 7, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Notable state and federal developments in the Garcia Zarate/Kate Steinle case

Last week, I blogged here about the California state court verdict in a high-profile homicide case, asking in the title of my post "Can, should and will AG Sessions seek a federal prosecution of Garcia Zarate after 'disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case'?."  As noted below, we already have an answer to this question, though there is also state prosecution news we should cover first.

Specifically, as reported here, the "attorneys who won acquittal for a homeless undocumented immigrant on murder, manslaughter and assault charges in the shooting of Kate Steinle on a San Francisco Bay pier will seek to have the sole conviction in the case dismissed as well." Here is more:

A jury last week found Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, 45, guilty of a lesser count of being a felon in possession of a gun in connection with Steinle’s death on Pier 14 in July 2015, after the defense argued at trial that the shooting was an accident that happened after the defendant found a stolen gun wrapped in a T-shirt or cloth under a bench.

Now the defense says the conviction is inconsistent with the jury’s larger acquittal. If the panel believed Steinle may have been killed by an accidental discharge, lawyers assert, Garcia Zarate should not be held responsible for possessing the weapon — even though he threw it in the bay as Steinle lay dying.  Matt Gonzalez of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, the lead attorney in the case, said he will appeal the charge at some point after Garcia Zarate’s Dec. 14 sentencing in Superior Court. Gonzalez said his appeal will contend jurors should have been told that “momentary” possession of a gun is not necessarily a crime. “If you possess it just to dispose of it or abandon it, it wouldn’t be a crime,” he said.

Because I am not well versed in California's law of possession, I cannot provide an informed assessment of whether this defense claim provides a compelling basis to reverse the one state conviction the state jury brought back against Garcia Zarate. But I can provide a link to and excerpt from this press release from the US Department of Justice highlighting why federal possession law is now of great import to Garcia Zarate:

A federal grand jury indicted Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate today for being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, and for being an illegally present alien in possession of a firearm and ammunition, announced United States Attorney General Jefferson B. Sessions; United States Attorney Brian J. Stretch from the Northern District of California; and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) Special Agent in Charge Jill Snyder.

According to the indictment, on July 1, 2015, Garcia-Zarate, a citizen of Mexico who reportedly is 47 years old, possessed a semi-automatic pistol and multiple rounds of ammunition in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) (felon in possession of a firearm) and 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(5) (unlawfully present alien in possession of a firearm).

An indictment merely alleges that a crime has been committed and Garcia-Zarate, like all defendants, is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Garcia-Zarate currently is in state custody on other charges.  If convicted of either violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), Garcia-Zarate faces a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years in prison.  However, any sentence will be imposed by the court only after consideration of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and the federal statute governing the imposition of a sentence, 18 U.S.C. § 3553.

Prior related post:

December 6, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Envisioning an Alternative Future for the Corrections Sector Within the U.S. Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this notable Rand research report that I just came across authored by Joe Russo, George Drake, John Shaffer and Brian Jackson. Here is a summary with some points from the report in via this Rand webpage:

Challenged by high costs and concerns that the U.S. corrections sector is not achieving its goals, there has been a growing focus on approaches to reform and improve the sector's performance.  Policies initiated during the tough-on-crime era led to aggressive prosecution, lengthier sentences, and an exploding correctional population.  In recent years, the corrections sector has been gradually shifting toward efforts to provide treatment, alternatives to incarceration, and enhanced programs to facilitate offender reentry.  Although judicial and policy decisions and public attitudes toward crime and sentencing determine the corrections population and the resources available for staffing and reform, the sector has a unique perspective and therefore can provide critical insight regarding what is working, what is not, and how things should be.

To contribute to the policy debate on the future of the corrections sector, researchers interviewed a group of prominent correctional practitioners, consultants, and academics. This report outlines their perspectives on the current state of corrections and their vision for the future.  These experts were specifically asked how they would redesign the corrections sector to better serve the country's needs.  The findings offer both an assessment of what is and is not working now and potential solutions to better achieve justice policy goals going forward.

Key Findings

The Corrections Sector Has Little Control Over the Many Factors That Affect Its Operations

  • Judicial and policy decisions and public attitudes toward crime and sentencing determine the corrections population and the resources available for staffing and reform.
  • The sector does have some control over how offenders are treated once they enter the system.

A Panel of Experts Agreed That the Sector's Primary Role Should Be to Facilitate Positive Offender Behavioral Change, but This Is a Complex Task

  • Three broad types of changes would be necessary for the sector to support this mission and help ensure offenders' successful reintegration into society: new programs and improved education and training for corrections staff, the elimination of revenue-generating correctional operations, and cultural change to prioritize rehabilitation over punishment.
  • There are many opportunities for the sector to leverage the latest developments in science, technology, and evidence-based practices to create alternatives to incarceration, guide the investment of scarce resources, and engage communities in initiatives to reduce recidivism and support offender reentry.

Recommendations

  • Panelists put forward several solutions to support the corrections sector's mission of facilitating positive offender behavior change, including diverting low-risk offenders and those with mental health or substance use problems to specialty facilities while reserving prisons for violent and dangerous offenders; shortening sentences and ensuring that offenders have a clear, attainable path to release; and creating smaller and safer facilities that are closer to cities with programs to support reentry.
  • In the near term, panelists recommended expanding and adequately funding probation, parole, and community-based resources to support offenders' reentry into their communities.

December 6, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Lots of juicy SCOTUS relists for sentencing fans

Over at SCOTUSblog, John Elwood does regular yeoman's work via his "Relist Watch" postings that highlight cases that the Supreme Court considered but did not resolve during its recent certiorari review conferences.  Often (though not always), the relisting of a case is a precursor to a grant of certiorari or at least some notable ruling or commentary by some Justices.  And this week's installment of "Relist Watch" has all these exciting tales for sentencing fans:

The best-known of this week’s relists is Hidalgo v. Arizona, 17-251, which presents two questions involving capital punishment.  The first involves so-called “aggravator creep.” To “minimize the risk of wholly arbitrary and capricious” executions, the Supreme Court in Gregg v. Georgia wrote that the discretion of sentencing juries “must be suitably directed and limited” through legislatively prescribed aggravating circumstances -- such as committing murders for hire or committing multiple murders. Since the Gregg era, the Arizona legislature has more than doubled its aggravating factors to 14 -- and still doesn’t include driving slowly in the left lane. Hidalgo argues that as a result of Arizona’s long list of aggravating factors, 99 percent of those convicted of first-degree murder are eligible for execution, which does not do enough to perform the narrowing function that Gregg contemplated.  The case also presents a far broader all-the-marbles issue: “whether the death penalty in and of itself violates the Eighth Amendment, in light of contemporary standards of decency.” In other words, the case seeks to answer Justice Stephen Breyer’s call to bring an end to capital punishment....

There’s plenty for nerds to love about the remaining eight cases....  Lindsey v. Virginia, 17-132, involves the burden of production for a crime and whether it violates the due process clause to instruct a jury that a criminal defendant’s actions are “evidence of [the requisite] intent … unless there is believable evidence to the contrary.”...

That brings us to the last four cases, which present a single question (along with some extra issues you’ll have to read the actual petitions to catch up on) – Kasowski v. United States, 16-9649, Richter v. United States, 16-9695, C.D., E.F., and G.H. v. United States, 16-9672, and Koons v. United States, 17-5716. These cases all involve 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), which permits a district court to reduce a previously imposed sentence “in the case of a defendant who has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission.”  All four cases involve defendants whose sentences were based on a statutory mandatory-minimum sentence, or who were sentenced below the statutory mandatory minimum because they provided the government substantial assistance, as permitted by 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e).  The government now maintains that such defendants’ sentences were based on statutes rather than the sentencing guidelines and that those defendants therefore are ineligible for sentence reductions because they were not “sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission.”  Several courts of appeals have adopted that view.  These four petitions seek to challenge that conclusion.

Though the Hidalgo cert petition has already gotten lots of attention for lots of reasons, I consider the § 3582(c)(2) federal sentencing issue to be the one of this bunch most like to result in a actual grant of certiorari.   I certainly expect Justice Breyer and maybe other Justices will have something to say about the Hidalgo case if (when?) cert is denied, and gosh knows a grant in that case would add a lot of extra capital intrigue to this SCOTUS Term (which many think will be Justice Kennedy's last).

December 5, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Remorse Bias"

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

Whether a defendant expresses remorse at criminal sentencing often has a direct bearing on the severity of the sentence.  But how good are judges at accurately assessing genuine, meaningful remorse?  Research demonstrates that judges hold contradictory and unfounded views about how sincere remorse should be expressed and, as a result, are likely to misjudge remorse.  Legal and social science scholars have grappled with the challenge of accurately assessing remorse, but no one has analyzed whether implicit racial bias skews remorse assessments at criminal sentencing in predictable and systematically discriminatory ways.

In an effort to unmask this mode of discrimination, this Article synthesizes two areas of scholarship not previously compared — (1) scholarship on the role of remorse in criminal sentencing and (2) social science research on implicit racial bias — to argue that unconscious cognitive assumptions about race and criminality causes judges to discredit African American displays of remorse and, as a consequence, sentence them to harsher punishments.  At a time when racial disparity and implicit bias dominates national discussions of criminal sentencing reform, improving our understanding of where our criminal justice system is particularly susceptible to racial bias can help reformers mend these weaknesses in our system to ensure it works equally for everyone.

December 5, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23)

New lawsuit claims Nebraska's death penalty repeal, before voter capital punishment preservation by initiative, precludes execution of already condemned

As reported in this local article, headlined "ACLU of Nebraska sues to block executions, says Ricketts overstepped in referendum process," a notable advocacy group has filed a notable new lawsuit on behalf of a notable prisoner group. Here are the details:

The 11 men on Nebraska death row do not have valid death sentences, a leading anti-capital punishment group argued in a lawsuit filed [Monday]. The ACLU of Nebraska charged that the death penalty repeal, enacted by the State Legislature over a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts, was in effect long enough to convert the death sentences for the 11 men to life in prison.

Last year’s vote by Nebraskans to restore capital punishment did so only for future heinous murders, according to the 29-page lawsuit filed shortly after midnight. The suit also alleges that Ricketts violated the separation of powers clause of the State Constitution when he “proposed, initiated, funded, organized, operated and controlled” the signature-gathering campaign that allowed voters to overturn the Legislature’s repeal of the death penalty.

The ACLU claims that the governor “exhausted” his executive powers when he vetoed the repeal law passed by lawmakers and that his subsequent steps to back a referendum that restored the death penalty were unlawful “legislative” activities that are reserved, via the separation of powers clause, for the State Legislature.

The referendum process, the civil rights group argued, is for citizens, but Ricketts had encouraged formation of the signature drive, played a leading role in financing it and had lent key employees to the effort, which was officially led by people with strong ties to the governor. “This is way beyond what the governor can do in his personal capacity,” Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, said Sunday. “This is about blurring the lines and overstepping the bounds.”

A spokesman for Ricketts said Monday that the “frivolous” ACLU lawsuit was another attempt by the “liberal advocacy group” to overturn the “clear voice” of the people. Taylor Gage, the spokesperson, rejected any wrongdoing by the governor. “The Governor’s Office holds itself to a high standard and follows state law regarding the use of taxpayer resources,” Gage said in a prepared statement. “The administration remains committed to protecting public safety and creating a safe environment for our corrections officers.”

The Ricketts administration recently gave notice that it may soon seek an execution date for one of those 11 death row inmates, Jose Sandoval, who was sentenced to die for his leading role in the slaying of five people inside a Norfolk bank in 2002. A month ago, state prison officials notified Sandoval that four lethal injection drugs had been purchased for use in an execution. The notice is required before an execution date can be requested....

Monday’s lawsuit names the 11 men on Nebraska’s death row as plaintiffs, and follows other legal action launched by the civil rights group against the state in recent months. In August, the ACLU asked a federal judge to intervene to reduce the chronic overcrowding in state prisons and address the shortage of medical and mental health care for inmates. In addition, the ACLU went to court on Friday to force the state to reveal the supplier of four lethal-injection drugs, citing state public records laws and the state’s botched past attempts to obtain such drugs.

Conrad said the legal actions reflect the ACLU’s commitment to defend the U.S. and Nebraska Constitutions, and is in step with the organization’s long-running opposition to the death penalty. Conrad, a former state senator and a Democrat, was among the leaders of Nebraskans for Public Safety, the group that campaigned unsuccessfully to persuade voters to retain the repeal of the death penalty. She said that today’s lawsuit is about policy, not politics.

The complaint in this action is available for download at this link.

December 5, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, December 04, 2017

Latest trial of Michael Slager for killing Walter Scott taking place during his federal sentencing for civil rights offense

As noted in this post from May, after a state mistrial in December 2016, former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights offense as a result of his lethal shooting of Walter Scott.  That resolution all but ensured that continued debate concerning Slager's action would take place during his federal sentencing.  And this local article reporting on the first day of that sentencing highlights that this continued debate is in the form of a kind of mini-trial at sentencing.  Here are some details:

What Walter Scott did during his fatal confrontation with North Charleston officer Michael Slager and what the policeman said afterward quickly became the focus of the first day of Slager’s sentencing hearing.

Slager, 36, already has acknowledged violating Scott’s civil rights by repeatedly shooting the fleeing black man as a bystander filmed the encounter. He pleaded guilty to that in May, but key facts remain in dispute — a point on full display Monday at the federal courthouse in downtown Charleston.

Before hashing out a penalty, a judge must decide this week what underlying offense Slager committed in depriving Scott of his constitutional right to be free of excessive force: murder or voluntary manslaughter. After listening to three government witnesses, the judge gave no initial indication on how he might rule. The proceeding is expected to resume Tuesday morning, possibly with another prosecution witness before the defense takes over.

Prosecutors said Scott was simply trying to escape a traffic stop, and they called eyewitness Feidin Santana to back up their contention that Slager murdered Scott and lied to cover his tracks. They rejected Slager’s explanation for the shooting: that he fired only after Scott took his Taser. “I saw a man just determined to get away and leave,” Santana said of Scott. “Like I say in the video, it was an abuse — something unnecessary.”

It was the second time Santana publicly testified against Slager, whose murder trial in state court ended a year ago with a hung jury. Portions of his latest account in U.S. District Court were geared toward helping Judge David Norton decide whether Scott’s conduct contributed to Slager’s decision to shoot. Prosecutors said no; it was wrong from the moment the officer first pulled the trigger.

But defense lawyers said Scott could have at any point stopped and surrendered, and lead attorney Andy Savage pressed Santana about whether Scott had ever raised his arms and given up. “If that happened,” Santana responded, “we wouldn’t be here.”

Santana’s video footage of the April 4, 2015, killing brought national scrutiny to North Charleston amid a broader examination of police-involved deaths across the country. It also landed Slager in jail on a state murder charge when the cellphone clip emerged publicly three days later.

But the jurors in the state case were unable to agree whether he had committed a crime. At least one of them sat in the courtroom Monday, this time as an observer....

The hearing resembled a trial without the same rules of evidence and procedures that can slow proceedings. And the ultimate arbiter of justice is Norton, who can pick any sentence between no prison time and up to life behind bars.  A pre-sentencing report suggested a term of between 10 and nearly 13 years in prison, but defense attorneys asked the judge Monday for a “significant” departure from those guidelines because of the role Scott played in his own death.

In my prior post about this case after Slager's plea, I calculated based on the government advocating for the court to apply the guidelines for second degree murder and obstruction of justice that Slager would be facing a guideline range of roughly 17 to 22 years of imprisonment. But it would appear that the PSR in this case has urged the court to consider Slager guilty only of voluntary manslaughter for sentencing purposes. Of course, Slager has in fact only pleaded guilty to "a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 242, Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law," but in the magical world of federal sentencing the offense of conviction still often does not really matter all that much.  In this high-profile case, it will be a judge not a jury tasked with both deciding what crime he really committed and what sentence should go with that crime.

Prior related post:

December 4, 2017 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Blakely in Sentencing Courts, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

USSC conducting public hearing on "Fentanyl, Fentanyl Analogues, and Synthetic Cannabinoids"

Tomorrow morning, as detailed in this agenda schedule, the US Sentencing Commission will be hearing from experts on an issue at the intersection of law enforcement, chemistry and public health.  Here are the basic details:

Public Hearing on Fentanyl, Fentanyl Analogues, and Synthetic Cannabinoids

Tuesday, December 5, 2017 at 9:00 a.m.

Pursuant to Rule 3.4 of the Rules of Practice and Procedure of the United States Sentencing Commission, a public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, December 5, 2017, at 9:00 a.m. (ET).  The public hearing will be held at the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building, One Columbus Circle, N.E., Washington, DC in Suite 2-500 (South Lobby).

The purpose of the public hearing is for the Commission to receive testimony from experts on fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, and synthetic cannabinoids, including their chemical structure, pharmacological effects, trafficking patterns, and community impact.

As of this writing, the written testimony of the 16 scheduled hearing witnesses are not yet posted.  But the USSC typically does a fine job of making testimony publicly available so I expect some will be accessible here before long.   I cannot help but wonder if Kellyanne Conway, whom some are calling the new "Opioid Czar" after comments by AG Jeff Sessions last week, might be at the hearing as part of her responsibilities coordinating and leading effort from the White House in this arena.

December 4, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Two Justices make statement about Alabama capital case in which cert is denied

There was not too much of note in today's order list from the Supreme Court, though sentencing fans might be intrigued by Justice Sotomayor's short statement, joined by Justice Breyer, regarding the denial of certiorari in Floyd v. Alabama. Here is how the statement starts and ends:

Petitioner Christopher Floyd was sentenced to death by an Alabama jury that was selected in a manner that raises serious concerns under our precedent in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), J.E.B. v. Alabama ex rel. T.B., 511 U.S. 127 (1994), and Foster v. Chatman, 578 U.S. ___ (2016).  Although the unique context of Floyd’s case counsels against review by this Court, I find the underlying facts sufficiently troubling to note that in the ordinary course, facts like these likely would warrant a court’s intervention....

That we have not granted certiorari should not be construed as complacence or an affirmance of all of the reasoning of the courts below.  The unusual posture in which Floyd raised his Batson and J.E.B. claims warrants caution in the exercise of the Court’s review here.  Yet, courts reviewing claims in circumstances like these must be steadfast in identifying, investigating, and correcting for improper bias in the jury selection process.  Such discrimination “‘casts doubt on the integrity of the judicial process,’ and places the fairness of a criminal proceeding in doubt.” Powers v. Ohio, 499 U. S. 400, 411 (1991) (citation omitted).

December 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, December 03, 2017

SCOTUS with a set of intriguing big and small cases as it winds down 2017 oral arguments

This coming week, the Supreme Court has its last set of oral arguments before the end of the calendar year.  The case sure to get most of the mainstream press attention is Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, with wedding cakes, religious liberty, same-sex marriage and free expression in the discourse. 

The three cases I will be watching most closely in the week ahead involve limits on federal preemption powers (Christie v. National Collegiate Athletic Association), attorneys fees in prisoner suits (Murphy v. Smith) and tax law obstruction requirements (Marinello v. United States).  The folks at SCOTUSblog have their always helpful argument previews posted for these cases, and here are links to these previews:

Christine v. NCAA:  Argument preview: The 10th Amendment, anti-commandeering and sports betting 

Murphy v. Smith:  Argument preview: Who should pay attorneys who win on behalf of prisoners? 

Marinello v. United States Argument preview: What limits tax law obstruction-of-justice charges? 

The federalism case is obviously the most consequential of this bunch and for many areas of law.  I helped a bit with this amicus brief discussing some of the potential criminal justice implications of these issues raised in Christie v. NCAA, and I will be quite interested to see whether and how the Justices during oral argument frame the discussion of these issues.

December 3, 2017 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Lies, damn lies, and executions statistics for the first year of recent presidential terms

This recent story, reporting that Texas' last scheduled execution of the year was canceled, suggests it is not too early to start taking stock of 2017 with respect to the application of the death penalty.  This DPIC upcoming execution page reports that no more executions are slated to go forward in 2017, meaning that Ohio closed the books on 2017 executions with its failed efforts to kill Alva Campbell (details here) and that Texas and Florida were the last states to actually complete executions with their separate executions on November 8th (details here).  Notably, the AP has this new accounting headlined "US executions increase slightly in 2017," which includes these details:

The year-end numbers also show that Texas will regain its standing as the nation’s most active state in carrying out capital punishment....

Texas put to death seven prisoners this year, matching the state total from 2016. They were among the 23 inmates — up from 20 last year — put to death in eight states in 2017. Arkansas carried out four executions, followed by Alabama and Florida with three each, and Ohio and Virginia with two each. Georgia, which topped the nation in 2016 with nine, executed one prisoner this year, as did Missouri.

Oklahoma, which typically has one of the busiest execution chambers in the country, went another year without putting any inmates to death as the state struggles with implementing a new execution protocol. Oklahoma put all executions on hold two years ago after several mishaps, including a botched lethal injection in 2014 and drug mix-ups in 2015, and the state’s attorney general’s office has said it won’t request any execution dates until at least 150 days after new protocols are released....

Executions in the U.S. peaked in 1999, when 98 inmates were put to death. The following year, Texas alone carried out a record 40 executions. As recently as 2010, the national total was 46, but it has been declining steadily. “Partly it’s because of impediments to execution, like the embargo of the optimum drugs,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which advocates for capital punishment.  “Although Texas seems to have found ways to get them, many states have not.” Scheidegger also attributed the decline to a “dramatically lower” homicide rate compared with the 1990s and “greater selectivity in which defendants are sentenced to death, by both prosecutors and juries.”...

At least eight inmates — five from Texas and one each from Missouri, Alabama and Ohio — are set to die in the first quarter of 2018. The first, scheduled for Jan. 18 in Texas, is Anthony Allen Shore, who confessed to killing multiple people and is known in the Houston area as the “Tourniquet Killer.”

As the title of this post hints, one (distorting?) way to look at this year's execution numbers is to reflect on the impact (or lack of impact) from a change in presidential leadership in 2017. Because executions take place almost exclusively at the state level — there has not been a federal execution in nearly 15 years — arguably the politics and actions of the person in the Oval Office has little or no impact on yearly execution realities. But I actually think a President (and an Attorney General) can and historically have, at least in subtle ways, an impact on capital policies and practices nationwide. And, as the accounting below suggests, the raw first-year-of-term US execution numbers (drawn from DPIC here) are just intriguing:

Jimmy Carter only term: 1 execution in 1977

 

Ronald Reagan first term: 1 execution in 1981

Ronald Reagan second term: 18 executions in 1985

 

George H.W. Bush only term: 16 executions in 1989

 

Bill Clinton first term: 38 executions in 1993

Bill Clinton second term: 74 executions in 1997

 

George W. Bush first term: 66 executions in 2001

George W. Bush second term: 60 executions in 2005

 

Barack Obama first term: 52 executions in 2009

Barack Obama second term: 39 executions in 2013

 

Donald Trump first term: 23 executions in 2017

 

So, in last four decades we have had: five Democratic Prez first terms with a total of 204 executions (40.8/year); six Republican Prez first terms with a total of 184 executions (30.7/year). 

This fact that there have been, in modern times, an average of 10 more executions in the year starting Democratic terms than in the year starting Republican terms is itself perhaps proof that who is in the Oval Office is of no matter to state execution practices. But I still find even this facile sort of number crunching interesting, as will be watching whether Prez Trump and his Department of Justice gives any attention to these matters in the years ahead.

December 2, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thanks to SCOTUS McDonnell ruling, record-long sentence for Congress member reduced to (significant) time served

A little more than eight years ago, as detailed in this post, federal prosecutors were seeking a (within-guideline) sentence of 27 years or more years for former US Representative William Jefferson following his bribery convictions.  Jefferson’s attorneys urged a sentence of less than 10 years, noting that no member of Congress had ever previously been sentenced to more than 100 months in prison.  As reported in this post, US District Judge T.S. Ellis ultimately imposed a record-setting prison sentence of 13 years.

Fast forward to this press story from yesterday, and we learn the details of the notable final chapter in this particular federal white-collar sentencing saga:

Ex-New Orleans Congressman Bill Jefferson walked out of a suburban Washington courthouse Friday owing no further obligations to the United States government, aside from monthly check-ins with a federal parole officer.  The five years and five months Jefferson spent in prison, as well as the $189,215.42 the feds seized from his bank accounts, served as enough punishment for Jefferson’s corruption convictions, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III ruled.

The judge signed off on an agreement between Jefferson’s attorneys and federal prosecutors letting the disgraced former lawmaker walk away from the public corruption case against him after serving less than half of his original prison sentence.  “So, Mr. Jefferson, this ends a long saga,” Ellis said as Jefferson, his balding head shaved smooth and shoulders stooped slightly, stood before him. “You have paid your debt."

The former nine-term Democratic congressman was toppled from power a decade ago amid high-profile FBI raids on his home and congressional offices. Agents had secretly recorded meetings between Jefferson and a wealthy Virginia businesswoman acting as an FBI informant, eventually capturing Jefferson on video accepting a suitcase with $100,000 in cash in a suburban hotel room.  Agents later found $90,000 of the money in Jefferson’s freezer, wrapped in tinfoil and stuffed inside frozen food boxes.  The raid garnered national headlines and left Jefferson’s reputation in tatters....

Ellis, who presided over Jefferson’s trial and originally sentenced him to 13 years in federal prison, threw out seven of the ten counts against Jefferson in October in light of a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring federal prosecutors to do more to prove public officials had abused their positions in corruption cases. The decision, which vacated the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, triggered a wave of appeals from other former public officials. The judge also ordered Jefferson to be released early from federal prison.

Jefferson, however, had faced the prospect of returning to prison. Ellis left three counts of the conviction standing, each of which carried a potential prison term well beyond the five years Jefferson spent locked up. At Friday’s hearing, Jefferson said little, instead letting his attorneys — both of whom represented him during his eight-week trial — do the talking....

Jefferson offered his gratitude to friends, relatives and supporters who’d stood by him over the years while speaking to reporters outside the courtroom.  The former politician said he plans to stay retired from public life but hopes to become involved in the community and his local church....  “I don’t have time to be angry with anything,” Jefferson said when asked if he harbored bitterness about his time in prison.  Jefferson maintained his innocence in the case even after his conviction but declined Friday morning to say whether he did anything wrong.

As part of the deal with prosecutors, Jefferson accepted his conviction on two federal conspiracy counts and agreed not to file any further appeals in the case.  Ellis, in signing off on the agreement, noted that federal sentencing guidelines recommend 8 to 10 years in prison on those two charges.  The judge called it a fair resolution for everyone involved.  Yet Ellis still castigated the ex-lawmaker’s actions as “venal” in handing down the lesser sentence.

Prior related posts from 2009:

December 2, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 01, 2017

Looking into the politics and personnel of state-level criminal justice reforms

The December 2017 issue of the ABA Journal has this lengthy article on state-level reform efforts, giving particular attention to recent reforms in Louisiana and Alaska. In the magazine the article has the headline "“Rallying for Reform: Criminal justice reform may be languishing at the federal level, but it’s becoming a reality in the states with bipartisan support," and here is an excerpt:

Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project, says 36 states have enacted some kind of criminal justice reform — eight of them more than once — over the past 10 years.

And although those reforms can be a struggle to get through legislatures, they tend to win approval — even in “red” states such as Louisiana — because they have bipartisan support. They bring together legislators with diverse backgrounds and interests, including controlling crime, reducing corrections costs, embracing religious ideas about redemption, reducing the size of government, grappling with the effect of imprisonment on families and minority communities, and questioning the morality of locking up so many people.

“The reason that it is so bipartisan and cross branch is that it meets many objectives,” says Alison Lawrence, Criminal Justice Program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “I would say behind all of it, everybody cares about public safety, and that’s the underlying factor.”...

According to the Urban Institute, which studies the outcomes of justice reinvestment, achieving a better return can be met in several ways.  Reducing sentences, in a thoughtful and politically palatable way, is one component.  But so are reducing the number of people held in lieu of bail and the time they’re held, expanding eligibility for parole and other ways to be released from prison, and providing alternatives to prison for probation and parole violations.

By reducing the number of prisoners, states save money — often hundreds of millions of dollars.  Then, states “reinvest” some of that money in programs they believe will reduce crime, and therefore the need for prisons.  That includes prison-based re-entry or job training programs, more probation and parole officers, and grants to community groups that help with re-entry-related problems like mental health and substance abuse.  States may also lift the legal restrictions they place on former offenders, such as eligibility for professional licenses.

States are receptive, Gelb says, in part because they’ve seen the success of earlier adopters — especially Texas, which is the widely acknowledged godfather of justice reinvestment.  In 2007, the Texas Department of Public Safety, which handles corrections, anticipated that it would need 14,000 to 17,000 more prison beds over the next five years.  So it asked the legislature for $2 billion.  Legislators blanched at that cost and instead tried to make the new prison beds unnecessary by spending $241 million on behavioral health and alternative sanctions programs.

Ten years — and several more bills — later, Texas has actually closed several prisons.  State authorities estimate that Texas has reduced its incarceration rate by 20 percent and its crime rate by 30 percent, all while avoiding $4 billion in costs.  It’s also become a model for other states, particularly its Southern neighbors.

December 1, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

With guilty plea entered, former national security director Michael Flynn now faces (easy?) sentencing

As reported here via the New York Times, "President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, pleaded guilty on Friday to lying to the F.B.I. about conversations with the Russian ambassador last December during the presidential transition."  Here are the most basic legal particulars:

Mr. Flynn, who appeared in federal court in Washington, acknowledged that he was cooperating with the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into Russian interference in the 2016 election. His plea agreement suggests that Mr. Flynn provided information to prosecutors, which may help advance the inquiry....

Mr. Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements to F.B.I. agents about two discussions with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak. Lying to the F.B.I. carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.

Sentencing fans know, of course, that the statutory maximum for any federal offense of conviction typically matters much less than the applicable federal guideline sentencing range. For that reason and others, sentencing fans will want to check out Michael Flynn's "Plea Agreement" and "Statement of Offense" available here via the National Law Journal.  (The folks at Lawfare also have lots of Flynn docs at this link.)  Pages 2-3 of the plea agreement highlight the sentencing story (which serves as the basis for the "easy" adjective in this post title), and here is a snippet: 

A. Estimated Offense Level Under the Guidelines

The parties agree that the following Sentencing Guidelines sections apply:

U.S.S.G. Base Offense Level: 6

Total: 6

B. Acceptance of Responsibility

The Government agrees that a 2-level reduction will be appropriate, pursuant to U.S.S.G. 3E1.1, provided that your client clearly demonstrates acceptance of responsibility, to the satisfaction of the Government, through your client's allocution, adherence to every provision of this Agreement, and conduct between entry of the plea and imposition of sentence....

In accordance with the above, the applicable Guidelines Offense Level will be at least 4....

D. Estimated Applicable Guidelines Range

Based upon the agreed total offense level and the estimated criminal history category set forth above, your client's estimated Sentencing Guidelines range is zero months to six months' imprisonment (the "Estimated Guidelines Range")....

The parties agree that, solely for the purposes of calculating the applicable range under the Sentencing Guidelines, neither a downward nor upward departure from the Estimated Guidelines Range set forth above is warranted, subject to the paragraphs regarding cooperation below. Accordingly, neither party will seek any departure or adjustment to the Estimated Guidelines Range, nor will either party suggest that the Court consider such a departure or adjustment, except as provided in the preceding sentence.

December 1, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22)

Can, should and will AG Sessions seek a federal prosecution of Garcia Zarate after "disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case"?

Download (4)The provocative question in the title of this post is prompted by this news of a (surprising?) trial verdict in California state court in a high-profile prosecution and the immediate reactions thereto.  Here are the basics (with some emphasis added):

A jury handed a stunning acquittal on murder and manslaughter charges to a homeless undocumented immigrant whose arrest in the killing of Kate Steinle on a San Francisco Bay pier intensified a national debate over sanctuary laws.

In returning its verdict Thursday afternoon on the sixth day of deliberations, the Superior Court jury also pronounced Jose Ines Garcia Zarate not guilty of assault with a firearm, finding credence in defense attorneys’ argument that the shot that ricocheted off the concrete ground before piercing Steinle’s heart was an accident, with the gun discharging after the defendant stumbled upon it on the waterfront on July 1, 2015.

Garcia Zarate, a 45-year-old Mexican citizen who was released from County Jail before the killing despite a federal request that he be held for his sixth deportation, was convicted of a single lesser charge of being a felon in possession of a gun. He faces a sentence of 16 months, two years or three years in state prison. Garcia Zarate, who has already served well over two years in jail and gets credit for that time, will be sentenced at a date not yet determined.

The verdict set off a flurry of reactions.  Defense attorneys said the case had been overcharged, while U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions blamed the killing on San Francisco’s policy of refusing cooperation with immigration agents. Jim Steinle, who had been strolling on the pier with his daughter when she fell, told The Chronicle he was “saddened and shocked,” adding, “Justice was rendered, but it was not served.”...

President Trump, who has cited the case in his effort to build a border wall, said on Twitter, “A disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case! No wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration.”

Defense attorney Francisco Ugarte suggested a different lesson, saying, “From day one, this case was used as a means to foment hate, to foment division, to foment a program of mass deportation ... and I believe today is a vindication for the rights of immigrants.”...

Garcia Zarate was charged from the beginning with murder, and prosecutors gave the jury the option of convicting him of first-degree murder, second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. Jurors rejected all three.

The defendant is not likely to be released again in the city. San Francisco officials have long said they will turn over undocumented immigrants to federal authorities if they obtain a warrant, and records show Garcia Zarate is being held on a U.S. Marshals Service warrant. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “will work to take custody of Mr. Garcia Zarate and ultimately remove him from the country,” Tom Homan, the agency’s deputy director, said in a statement.

Steinle, 32, had been walking with her arm around her father on Pier 14 when she was struck in the back by a single bullet. The round had skipped off the concrete ground after being fired from a pistol that had been stolen, four days earlier, from the nearby parked car of a federal ranger. Prosecutors told the jury that Garcia Zarate brought the gun to the pier that day to do harm, aimed it toward Steinle and pulled the trigger. Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia spent much of the trial seeking to prove the pistol that killed Steinle couldn’t have fired without a firm pull of the trigger, while establishing that Garcia Zarate tossed the weapon into the bay before fleeing the scene.

Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, said Thursday that prosecutors had found sufficient evidence for the charges at every step of the case. “The verdict that came in today was not the one we were hoping for, but I think it’s unequivocal that both sides gave it their all,” Bastian said. “This really is about the Steinle family. They’ve shown incredible resolve during this whole process, and our hearts go out to them.”

Defense lawyers said the shooting was an accident that happened when Garcia Zarate, who had a history of nonviolent drug crimes, found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt or cloth under his seat on the pier just seconds before it discharged in his hands. Lead attorney Matt Gonzalez said his client had never handled a gun and was scared by the noise, prompting him to fling the weapon into the bay, where a diver fished it out a day later....

During the monthlong trial, jurors watched video from Garcia Zarate’s four-hour police interrogation, in which he offered varying statements about his actions on the pier. At one point he said he had aimed at a “sea animal,” and at another point, he said the gun had been under a rag that lay on the ground near the waterfront, and that it fired when he stepped on it. Gonzalez said it was clear in the video that Garcia Zarate — who has spent much of his adult life behind bars, was living on the street before the shooting, and has a second-grade education — did not fully understand what the officers were asking him through an officer’s Spanish translation.

What primarily prompts the question in the title of this post is the possibility that the current federal administration might view the California state court acquittal of Garcia Zarate in terms comparable to the California state court acquittal of Los Angeles police officers for their beating of motorist Rodney King. (These verdicts, as well as OJ Simpson's acquittal, lead me to think Californians at least sometimes take "beyond a reasonable doubt" quite seriously.)  The outrage over that state court acquittal surely played a significant role in the decision by federal authorities to pursue federal charges against the LA officers.  Perhaps similar outrage (at least from Prez Trump) over this state court acquittal will have federal authorities thinking the same way. (And, as criminal procedure gurus know, the dual sovereignty doctrine means there is no Double Jeopardy limit on the feds pursuing parallel charges in this case.)

I highlighted the limited severity of the sentence that Garcia Zarate now faces in state court to highlight another reason why federal authorities might be inclined to take up this case. Even if the federal prosecutors were only able secure a federal conviction for felon in possession, that charge alone in federal court would carry a sentence of at least up to 10 years and might actually have a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years if Zarate's criminal history made him subject to the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).  And, of course, the feds could and would get their usual two bites at the apple if they also charged various homicide offenses: a jury conviction of homicide charges would immediately raise the sentencing stakes, but even a jury acquittal would not preclude prosecutors from arguing to the judge that Steinle's death was critical "relevant conduct" at sentencing that should drive up his guideline range.

Last but not least, as I was typing up these thoughts, I saw this new FoxNews report headlined "DOJ weighing federal charges in Kate Steinle murder case, after not guilty verdict." Here is a snippet:

Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores acknowledged Friday that the DOJ is looking at federal charges.  She suggested a possible charge could be felony re-entry or a charge pertaining to a violation of supervised release.  “We’re looking at every option and we will prosecute this to the fullest extent of the law because these cases are tragic and entirely preventable,” Flores said on “Fox & Friends” Friday.

If DOJ is really serious about "prosecut[ing] this to the fullest extent of the law," it seems to me that there are many more charges available beyond just immigration offenses (although those offenses, too, could be used to imprison Zarate for decades).

December 1, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Does federal statutory sentencing reform become a bit more likely if Senator Tom Cotton were to become CIA Director?

The question in the title of this post is what kept coming to mind as I scanned this new Washington Post article headlined "White House readies plan to replace Tillerson with Pompeo at State, install Cotton at CIA." Here is the start of the piece:

The White House has readied a plan to oust embattled Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who has become one of the most personally loyal and politically savvy members of President Trump's national security team, two administration officials confirmed Thursday.

The plan, hatched by White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, is expected to be set in motion over the next few weeks, and has broad support within Trump's inner circle, the officials said. But it was unclear whether Trump had signed off on the plan yet, and the president has been known to change his mind about personnel and other matters before finalizing decisions with public announcements.

Under the plan, Pompeo would likely be replaced at the CIA by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), one of Trump's most steadfast defenders and a confidant to some leading members of the foreign policy team, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House has not publicly announced the moves.

Federal statutory sentencing reform has not made much progress this year while GOP leadership in Congress has been focused on health care and tax reform. But, as noted here last month, some in-the-know folks believe the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act could receive 70 votes in the Senate if ever brought to a vote.  And, based on all of his vocal opposition to reform expressed last year (as noted in posts below), I think Senator Cotton is one big reason the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act seems unlikely to get a vote in the Senate in the near future.  But if Senator Cotton becomes CIA Director Cotton, maybe these political dynamic change for the better for those eager to see sentencing reform enacted in Congress.

Prior related posts about Senator Cotton's opposition to sentencing reform:

November 30, 2017 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Might we soon see Top 10 rankings of state criminal justice systems emerging from the Bureau of Justice Statistics?

The question in the title of this post is my slightly tongue-in-cheek reaction to the news reported here by The Crime Report

President Trump has announced his intention to appoint a director of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) who has no apparent experience in the field. He’s Jeffrey H. Anderson, a former senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute who is described by the White House as a “constitutional scholar” and a “leader in formulating domestic policy proposals.”... 

This year, the Trump administration named him to direct the Office of Health Reform at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where the White House said he led efforts “to reduce insurance premiums, regulatory burdens, and opioid abuse.”

The only statistical experience cited by the White House in Anderson’s background was co-creating the Anderson and Hester Computer Rankings, which boast of computing college football’s “most accurate strength of schedule ratings,” taking into account the quality of teams’ opponents.

The Crime Report article goes on to explain why this really is not a laughing matter:

BJS directors under President Obama, James Lynch of the University of Maryland and William Sabol, now of Georgia State University, both were long-time criminologists and recognized experts in crime and justice statistics.

In May, under the auspices of the American Statistical Association, four former BJS directors wrote to Attorney General Jeff Sessions urging that “serious consideration” to head BJS, which operates in Sessions’ Department of Justice, [be given] “to individuals who have strong leadership, management, and scientific skills; experience with federal statistical agencies; familiarity with BJS and its products; visibility in the nation’s statistical community; ability to interact productively with Congress and senior DOJ staff; and acceptance of the National Academies’ Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency.”

The letter was signed by Lynch, Sabol, Jeffrey Sedgwick, who served as BJS director in the last three years of the George W. Bush administration and now directs the Justice Research and Statistics Association, and Lawrence Greenfeld, who headed BJS in the first five years of the Bush administration.

Anderson does not appear to have any of those qualifications.

The same four recent BJS directors wrote in May to leaders of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees arguing that the requirement for Senate confirmation for the BJS director should “be restored and that the director’s status be changed from serving at the will of the president to serving a fixed term of at least four years, staggered from the presidential election.”  The ex-directors said in their letter: “It is imperative that policy discussions about the often-contentious issues regarding crime and justice be informed by statistical data trusted by the public to be objective, valid, and reliable…”

“To ensure BJS data are viewed as objective and of highest quality, BJS must be seen as an independent statistical agency wherein data collection, analysis, and dissemination are under the sole control of the BJS.”

As of this writing, the current Anderson and Hester Computer Rankings has Wisconsin ranked #1, University of Central Florida #2, Clemson #3, Georgia #4 and Alabama #5.  What this might portend fore the future of the Bureau of Justice Statistics is anyone's guess?

November 29, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Disrupting the Cycle: Reimagining the Prosecutor’s Role in Reentry - A Guide to Best Practices"

The title of this post is the title of this big new report from the NYU Center on the Administration of Criminal Law.  Here is the report's executive summary:

The report provides concrete recommendations that prosecutors can implement in order to focus on reentry and target the risk of recidivism.  The report proceeds in four parts:

PART I focuses on reforms that prosecutors can implement at the “front end” of the process, including considering how prosecutorial discretion at various stages of a criminal case can impact defendants’ risk of recidivism and affect their reentry process.  This includes using discretion to make screening and charging decisions, considering diversion and other alternatives to incarceration, supporting pretrial release of defendants where appropriate, and considering the use of creative sentencing alternatives;

PART II focuses on reforms that prosecutors can implement at the “back end” of the process to begin preparing for an incarcerated individual’s eventual reentry to their community.  This includes prerelease reentry planning, and removing barriers that interfere with their ability to reintegrate into their communities, such as obtaining identification and drivers’ licenses, providing them opportunities to expunge their convictions and reduce fines that may burden them upon release, and collaborating with employers and community-based resources;

PART III focuses on the prosecutor as office leader and highlights office-wide reforms that can shift office culture to include anti-recidivism concerns as part of a broader focus on public safety; and

PART IV focuses on the prosecutor’s role in the larger community and how he or she can use his or her power to engage a diverse group of stakeholders in outreach and education initiatives, including legislative reforms designed to target recidivism at the front and back ends of the justice system.

November 29, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

AG Sessions announces stepped up efforts to address opioid crisis

This new press release, titled "Attorney General Sessions and Acting DEA Administrator Patterson Announce New Tools to Address Opioid Crisis," reports on new developments from the Justice Department on the opioid front. Here are the basics from the start of the press release:

Joined by Acting DEA Administrator Robert Patterson, Attorney General Sessions announced the following efforts during a press conference at the Department of Justice: over $12 million in grant funding to assist law enforcement in combating illegal manufacturing and distribution of methamphetamine, heroin, and prescription opioids; the establishment of a new DEA Field Division in Louisville, Kentucky, which will include Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia, a move meant to better align DEA enforcement efforts within the Appalachian mountain region; and a directive to all U.S. Attorneys to designate an Opioid Coordinator to work closely with prosecutors, and with other federal, state, tribal, and local law enforcement to coordinate and optimize federal opioid prosecutions in every district.

“Today we are facing the worst drug crisis in American history, with one American dying of a drug overdose every nine minutes,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “That’s why, under President Trump’s strong leadership, the Department of Justice has been taking action to make our drug law enforcement efforts more effective. Today we announce three new initiatives to do just that. First, we will invest $12 million in funding for our state and local law enforcement partners to take heroin and methamphetamine off of our streets. Second, we will restructure DEA's Field Divisions for the first time in nearly 20 years. Third, we will require all of our federal prosecutors' offices to designate an Opioid Coordinator who will customize our anti-opioid strategy in every district in America. These steps will make our law enforcement efforts smarter and more effective—and ultimately they will save American lives."

“DEA continually looks for ways to improve operations and interagency cooperation and more efficiently leverage resources,” said Acting DEA Administrator Robert W. Patterson. “By creating a new division in the region, this restructuring places DEA in lockstep with our partners in the area to do just that. This change will produce more effective investigations on heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioid trafficking, all of which have a significant impact on the region.”

The Attorney General's two-page memo to United States Attorneys can is available here, and the text of the speech he gave to discuss these developments is available here.  That speech concludes this way:

I believe that these changes will make law enforcement more effective — and make the American people safer.  But our work is not finished.  We will not slow down for one day or even for one instant.  With one American dying of a drug overdose every nine minutes, enforcing our drug laws is more important than ever.

We will not cede one city, one neighborhood, or one street corner to gangs, violence, or drugs.  We need to use every lawful tool we have — and we will.  This Department will continue to take whatever steps we deem appropriate and effective toward our goal of turning the tide.

I know that this crisis is daunting — the death rates are stunning — and it can be discouraging.  But we will turn the tide. When the men and women of law enforcement work effectively in a focused way, we can stop the growth of destructive addiction, keep the American people safe, and save lives.  Thank you.

November 29, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Anyone have hot sentencing takes on the Supreme Court's big Fourth Amendment Carpenter case being argued today?

Folks interested in both criminal law and technology have been buzzing about the case Carpenter v. United States for quite some time.  Today, finally, the Supreme Court hears oral argument on this basic issue: "Whether the warrantless seizure and search of historical cellphone records revealing the location and movements of a cellphone user over the course of 127 days is permitted by the Fourth Amendment."

As they do so well, the folks at SCOTUSblog provide lots of helpful background and coverage though this case page with all the briefs linked, this preview by Amy Howe, and this on-line summer symposium.  And I expect SCOTUSblog will have lots of post-argument analysis this afternoon and in the days ahead, especially if this morning's oral argument is as interesting as everyone expects.

I have not blogged about the Carpenter case in part because it is well covered by many others and in part because the sentencing echoes of the case may be remote.  But practitioners may see more direct connections between Carpenter and sentencing than I see from the ivory tower, and I welcome this morning any and all "hot takes" on the case as it might relate to any and all sentencing stories.

November 29, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

"Looking Criminal and the Presumption of Dangerousness: Afrocentric Facial Features, Skin Tone, And Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now on SSRN authored by Mark Bennett and Victoria Plaut. Here is the abstract:

Social psychologists have established that faces of Black males trigger thoughts of violence, crime, and dangerousness and thoughts of crime trigger thoughts and images of Black males. This presumption of dangerousness increases with darker skin tones (colorism) and greater Afrocentric facial features and affects both men and women.

We examine the history of the stereotype of Blacks and crime, violence, and dangerousness arising in the United States from the time of slavery.  We focus on the historical development of this stereotype through a lens of history, literature, pseudo-science, emerging neuroscience, media distortion of crime reporting, and the development of the Negro-ape metaphor.  We then look beyond the Black-White race dichotomy to explore the evolving social science literature examining the influence of skin tone and Afrocentric facial features on the length of criminal sentences.  We further explore the social science supporting the presumption of dangerousness and conclude with recommendations to help ameliorate this problem that permeates the American criminal justice system.

November 28, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)