Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Ninth Circuit panel rules appropriations rider precludes federal prosecution of individuals in complaince with state medical marijuana laws

A Ninth Circuit panel today finally ruled in US v. McIntosh, No. No. 15-10117 (9th Cir. Aug. 16, 2016) (available here), on a series of appeals concerning "whether criminal defendants may avoid prosecution for various federal marijuana offenses on the basis of a congressional appropriations rider that prohibits the United States Department of Justice from spending funds to prevent states’ implementation of their own medical marijuana laws." Here is a key passage from the heart of the opinion:

DOJ, without taking any legal action against the Medical Marijuana States, prevents them from implementing their laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana by prosecuting individuals for use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana that is authorized by such laws.  By officially permitting certain conduct, state law provides for nonprosecution of individuals who engage in such conduct.  If the federal government prosecutes such individuals, it has prevented the state from giving practical effect to its law providing for non-prosecution of individuals who engage in the permitted conduct.

We therefore conclude that, at a minimum, § 542 prohibits DOJ from spending funds from relevant appropriations acts for the prosecution of individuals who engaged in conduct permitted by the State Medical Marijuana Laws and who fully complied with such laws.

Some previous related posts:

August 16, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Should I be more troubled by drug dealers facing homicide charges after customers' overdose death?

The question in the title of this post reflects my ambivalent reactions to this lengthy and interesting AP article headlined "Prosecution trend: After fatal OD, dealer charged with death." Here are excerpts:

He knew he was in trouble even before he read the text message: "Did u hear what hapnd 2 ed?"  Ed Martin III had been found dead in the bathroom of a convenience store, slumped over on his knees with a needle and a residue-stained spoon in his pocket.  He'd mainlined fentanyl, an opioid up to 50 times more powerful than heroin.  A pink plastic bag of white powder sat on the sink.

Michael Millette had heard. The overdose death of his friend, just 28, brought tears to his eyes.  But he was scared, too. He was Martin's dealer, the man who'd sold him his final fix.  In panic, Millette fled to Vermont.  But within a day he was back, selling again. He needed money for his own habit.

Now, though, police had a tip that "Mike on Main Street" had been Martin's dealer.  Undercover officers began watching his furtive deals on a pedestrian bridge behind his apartment; they secretly photographed his visitors.  After he sold drugs to an informant, they swooped in and arrested him.

That's when Millette earned a dubious distinction: He became one of a growing number of dealers around the nation to face prosecution for the fatal heroin and fentanyl overdoses of their customers.  He was charged not just with drug dealing, but with causing Martin's death.  Maximum penalty: life behind bars.

In many states, including Ohio, Maine, West Virginia and New Jersey, authorities grappling with an alarming surge in opioid abuse are filing homicide, involuntary manslaughter or related charges against dealers.  They argue the overdose deaths should be treated as crimes leading to stiff sentences that deter others — and deliver a measure of justice.

"We need to send that message that you can't sell things that are the functional equivalent of poison," says New Hampshire Attorney General Joseph Foster, whose state has witnessed an explosion in drug-related deaths in recent years....

Littleton is the essence of New England charm, with a white clapboard inn that has welcomed visitors since they arrived by stagecoach, a 19th-century opera house and even a bronze statue of Pollyanna, the fictional optimist whose author was born here.

But beyond the postcard image is the crime blotter police Capt. Chris Tyler sees every day. In recent years, he says, drugs have been linked to 85 to 90 percent of the major crimes — burglary, theft, armed robbery, forgery, identity fraud....  When heroin first took hold here around 2013, Tyler explains, "there was just a general sense of denial. That was something that happens in big cities where people fall between the cracks. It wasn't going to happen here. But unfortunately it has."

It's not just heroin, but cocaine, fentanyl and a resurgence of crystal methamphetamine.  In one seven-month stretch last year, there were three overdose deaths, all connected to fentanyl.  In May, a police informant was fatally shot; he'd allegedly cooperated in identifying dealers in the area.

In New Hampshire, drug-related deaths have soared from 163 in 2012 to a projected 478 this year.  Fentanyl is increasingly the culprit.  From 2011 to last year, deaths caused solely by the synthetic opioid exploded from five to 161, according to the state coroner's office.  In that same period, the number of deaths caused by fentanyl combined with other drugs, including heroin, rose from 12 to 122....

Millette, 55, had been linked to another young man's fatal fentanyl overdose, but the witness wasn't credible so police didn't pursue the claims.  Millette insists he never was a big-time dealer, just a desperate addict.  But Tyler notes he peddled fentanyl, heroin and cocaine to more than 30 customers.  His strongest stuff was called "the fire."

Millette says he wasn't sure what he'd sold Martin, only that it was stronger than heroin.  He never tested what he sold. "If he's going to do it to a friend, who else will you do it to?" Tyler says. "He was somebody who needed to be stopped."

The prosecution of Michael Millette was part of a new thrust against opioid dealing in New Hampshire. In the spring, the U.S. attorney's office and the state's attorney general formed a task force to pursue dealers who sell opiates that result in fatal overdoses.  So far, 56 cases are being investigated, says Benjamin Agati, senior assistant attorney general.  In July, his office trained law enforcement throughout the state on how to identify these deaths and work with special prosecutors on investigations.

Though New Hampshire isn't ruling out filing homicide charges if needed — a strategy used in some other states — Agati says his office is pursuing dealers based on a law in which it must show they knowingly provided a drug that resulted in death.  The heightened focus on dealers, he says, partly stems from a sense among social workers, pharmacists and rehab experts that "'we can't treat our way out this. We can't do this alone. There has to be some way to stem the supply.  That's one reason we're trying the new approach."

But is this the right strategy?  The legal community is divided. "I just don't think the ultimate responsibility lies with the person who sells another addict a drug," says Marcie Hornick, who was Millette's public defender.  "I find it so counterproductive that they think sending these people to prison for long periods of time is going to have any deterrent effect.  It's an easy fix and perhaps it satisfies part of the population.  In reality, they come out and don't have the tools or skills to return to society."

But James Vara, who prosecuted the case and now is the governor's special drug adviser, rejects suggestions this is a politically motivated plan without merit. "Say that to a family who lost their child, their son, their brother, their daughter," he says. "Say that to Ed Martin's two children who are without their father as a result of this."

I agree with the statement by the public defender that the "ultimate responsibility" for an overdose death lies with the drug user not the drug dealer. But, especially as the number of these OD deaths are skyrocketing and drug dealers are seemingly not deterred from selling deadly drugs even when customers end up dead, it is not obvious to me that prosecuting dealers for homicide really is "counterproductive" or that it will not have some beneficial deterrent impact.

One reason I am generally supportive of marijuana reform and often troubled by long mandatory minimum sentencing terms for drug trafficking is because I dislike the nanny-state paternalism I see in decisions to criminalize and severely punish behaviors that do not obviously inflict serious harms upon innocent victims.   But if and when drug dealers (whether on street corners or Big Pharma corner offices) are profiting from knowingly and recklessly selling a product that is regularly killing purchasers, my disaffinity for criminalization and significant punishment fades.

August 16, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Poll suggests Nebraska voters will reject legislature's rejection of death penalty

As this local article reports, "poll results released Sunday by death penalty supporters suggest a majority of Nebraska voters favor repealing the bill that ended capital punishment in the state last year." Here is more from this press report:

In the poll of 600 likely general election voters conducted Aug. 7-10, 47.8 percent said they would definitely vote to keep the death penalty and another 10.5 percent said they probably would vote to keep the death penalty, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty said. Combined, voters favoring a vote to repeal the bill outpaced voters in support of the bill eliminating the death penalty by a 58.3-30.3 percent margin. The poll's margin of error is 4 percent.

“If the election were held today, Nebraskans would vote in overwhelming numbers to repeal LB268 in order to keep the death penalty,” Don Stenberg, honorary co-chair of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, said in a news release. Stenburg is a former Nebraska attorney general and current state treasurer....

In a response to the poll, a spokesman for Retain a Just Nebraska said residents of the state are tired of spending millions of dollars on a failed government program. “This is a flawed poll and should not be viewed as an accurate measurement of how Nebraskans view the death penalty," Dan Parsons said. "It’s a push poll that misleads Nebraskans into thinking they have no other option than getting rid of the death penalty. When in reality, the question that will appear on the November 8 ballot asks voters if they wish to replace the death penalty with life in prison.

"Our polling and numerous others across the country show that when given that choice, voters chose life in prison.”...

According to the survey, support for the death penalty is strong among men and women, across all of Nebraska’s congressional districts and among members of different political parties. The Legislature passed LB268 last year over a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts, but a successful petition drive last summer blocked the law until voters have their say in November.

Helpfully, we will have an actual vote in a few months and so will not have to figure out whether this poll is accurate or not as a reflection of Nebraskan voters' perspective on capital punishment.

August 15, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Former AG Eric Holder brags about his "too little, too late" approach to dealing with federal sentencing's myriad problems

Holder-covington-feature-heroEric Holder, who served as attorney general of the United States from 2009 to 2015, has this notable New York Times op-ed that I ultimately find more frustrating than encouraging. The article is headlined "Eric Holder: We Can Have Shorter Sentences and Less Crime," and here are excerpts that prompt my frustration (based on the dates I highlighed above, and related dates highlighted below, and a bit of inserted commentary):

The financial cost of our current incarceration policy is straining government budgets; the human and community costs are incalculable. Today, a rare bipartisan consensus in favor of changing drug-sentencing laws presents an opportunity to improve the fairness and efficiency of America’s criminal justice system. But to build on this coalition for reform, which includes senior law enforcement officials, we need action in Congress.

In February 2015, President Obama convened a group of lawmakers — including the Republican senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Rand Paul of Kentucky and the Democratic senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Cory Booker of New Jersey — to build support for sweeping reforms. But the momentum has slowed thanks to opposition from a small group of Republican congressmen using language dredged from the past. One, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, even claimed recently that “we have an under-incarceration problem.”

The Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, is now fanning fears about the level of crime in America, which is actually at historic lows [Ed Note: crime was at historic lows in 2014 and has recently been going up]. Such pandering is a reminder of how we got here in the first place....

Controlling for other factors, the United States Sentencing Commission found that between December 2007 and September 2011, black male defendants received sentences 20 percent longer than their white counterparts. From 1983 to 1997, the number of African-Americans sent to prison for drug offenses went up more than 26-fold, compared with a sevenfold increase for whites. By the early 2000s, more than twice as many African-Americans as whites were in state prisons for drug offenses....

The Justice Department has pioneered reform.  Three years ago, as attorney general, I established the Smart on Crime initiative to reduce draconian mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenses and encourage more investment in rehabilitation programs to tackle recidivism. The preliminary results are very encouraging. Over the last two years, federal prosecutors went from seeking a mandatory minimum penalty for drug trafficking in two-thirds of cases to doing so in less than half of them — the lowest rate on record. The initiative may not be solely responsible, but 2014 saw the first consecutive drop in the federal prison population in more than three decades, coinciding with a falling crime rate.

Those who argue that without the hammer of a mandatory minimum sentence defendants won’t cooperate are wrong — in fact, the rate of cooperation held steady under the initiative, and the rate of guilty pleas remained constant. The system remained effective and became fairer. Reform has not made us less safe....

Mandatory minimum sentences should be eliminated for many offenses, and where they are still applied, their length should be reduced. The legislative proposals necessarily reflect a compromise, but we must ensure that they go far enough: The judiciary needs greater discretion in imposing mandatory minimums, as do our prosecutors in seeking them. Given the absence of parole in the federal system, we should increase the amount of sentence-reduction credit available to inmates with records of good conduct. And all offenders, regardless of their designated risk level, should get credit for participating in rehabilitation programs....

There is still a disparity in sentencing for offenses relating to crack and powder cocaine, chemically identical substances. Given the policy’s differential racial impact, which erodes confidence in the justice system, this disparity must go. In the light of recent events, we can’t afford criminal justice policies that reduce the already fragile trust between minority communities and law enforcement agencies....

Whatever the outcomes of the bills before Congress and the presidential election, the Justice Department existing reforms must be preserved. Important as they are, all these initiatives have a bearing only on the federal justice system, which houses about 10 percent of the prison population.  For the federal effort to be a template for reform in the states, where most prisoners are detained, Congress must lead.

The nation’s lawmakers must stiffen their spines, ignore divisive language and schedule votes in this congressional session on reform legislation.  An opportunity like this comes once in a generation. We must not miss it.  The over-reliance on mandatory minimum sentences must come to an end.

I have emphasized dates here because I consider former AG Eric Holder (and his boss President Obama) to be among those who really should bear much responsibility if federal policy-makers miss what Holder calls a "once in a generation" opportunity for federal sentencing reform.  Tellingly, much of the incarceration data Holder stresses were well known and widely discussed when he assumed office in early 2009. (For example, in this Harvard Law & Policy Review piece from Fall 2008, I stressed the problems of modern mass incarceration and urged progressives to "mine modern movements in Constitutional and political theory to make new kinds of attacks on mass incarceration and extreme prison punishments" and to "be aggressively reaching out to modern conservatives and libertarians in order to forge new coalitions to attack the many political and social forces that contribute to mass incarceration.")  And yet, as Holder notes, he did not establish DOJ's Smart on Crime initiative until August 2013, and Prez Obama did not convene a group of lawmakers to push for reform in Congress until February 2015.

In other words, both Prez Obama and AG Holder fiddled while the federal sentencing system was still burning with tough-on-crime, mandatory-minimum "over-reliance" from 2009 to 2013 during the entire first Obama Administration Term.  And, critically, we should not lose sight of the important reality that Prez Obama's party controlled both houses of Congress until early 2011 and contolled the Senate until early 2015.  Moreover, the enduring and continued (misguided) opposition of Prez Obama and the Justice Department to mens rea reforms supported by the GOP establishment has arguably been the most critical roadblock to getting sweeping reform legislation enacted even now.

Last but not least, and as Holder reveals in this op-ed, federal prosecutors are still charging mandatory minimum drug sentencing provisions in near half of all drug cases (including in many crack cases where there is still a major, race-skewing sentencing disparity).  I suspect that when Holder says "mandatory minimum sentences should be eliminated for many offenses," he is largely referencing drug offenses in which no guns or violence were involved (where other mandatory minimums are applicable).  If Holder really believed that it would be sound and sensible to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences in such cases, he could have on his own included provisions in his Smart on Crime initiaitve to require line prosecutors to avoid charging under these statutes in all but the rarest drug cases rather than continuing to have these statutes still be applied in nearly half of all drug cases.

Sadly, I could go on and on and on about all the things former AG Holder could have and should have done while serving as U.S. Attorney General for six full years to deal with all the problems he now is quick to lament in the pages of the New York Times.  (Here it bears noting that he gets to write about these problems now from the safety of a corner office at a big DC firm where he is, according to this article, likely making more than $5,000,000/year, well over 20 times more than the hardest working federal prosecutors and federal defense attorneys make.)  Holder's closing sentiment urging federal lawmakers to "stiffen their spines" really gets my goat when his own spine struck me as so soft for his six years as Attorney General, and especially now that he gets to enjoy cashing in on the inside-the-Beltway privileges of allowing one's spine to blow back-and-forth with the prevailing political winds. 

August 14, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Saturday, August 13, 2016

"The Drug Court Paradigm"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Jessica Eaglin now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Drug courts are specialized, problem-oriented diversion programs. Qualifying offenders receive treatment and intense court-supervision from these specialized criminal courts, rather than standard incarceration.  Although a body of scholarship critiques drug courts and recent sentencing reforms, few scholars explore the drug court movement’s influence on recent sentencing policies outside the context of specialized courts.

This Article explores the broader effects of the drug court movement, arguing that it created a particular paradigm that states have adopted to manage overflowing prison populations. This drug court paradigm has proved attractive to politicians and reformers alike because it facilitates sentencing reforms for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders that provide treatment-oriented diversions from incarceration.  Though reforms adopted within the drug court paradigm have contributed to stabilizing prison populations and have created a national platform to discuss mass incarceration, this paradigm has limits that may prevent long-term reductions in prison populations.  This Article identifies three limitations of the drug court paradigm: First, by focusing exclusively on low-level drug offenders, the approach detrimentally narrows analysis of the problem of mass incarceration; second, by presenting a “solution,” it obscures the ways that recent reforms may exacerbate mass incarceration; third, by emphasizing a focus on treatment-oriented reforms, this paradigm aggressively inserts the criminal justice system into the private lives of an expanding mass of citizens.

This Article locates the current frame’s origin in the drug court movement. Identifying this connection is important for two reasons: First, it provides new insight to how we define “success” in criminal justice, and why.  Second, it illuminates a growing tension between government actors and the general public’s appetite for criminal justice reforms that meaningfully reduce mass incarceration.

I am putting this article on my must-read list because the author is 100% right when noting that "few scholars explore the drug court movement’s influence on recent sentencing policies outside the context of specialized courts." Indeed, I have been surprised about how little active discourse about drug courts there has been in recent years in academic and policy circles.

August 13, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, August 12, 2016

Highlighting the lowlights of the DOJ Inspector General report of federal private prisons

This Washington Post piece, headlined "Private federal prisons — less safe, less secure," provides a useful and effective summary of the findings of a significant recent Department of Justice report.  Here are the basics:

Private prisons — unsafe and insecure. That’s the picture emerging from a Justice Department Office of the Inspector General’s report that adds to a growing effort to take the profit out of penitentiaries.

The report’s central conclusion: “We found that, in most key areas, contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP (Bureau of Prisons) institutions and that the BOP needs to improve how it monitors contract prisons in several areas.” Those key areas are contraband, incident reports, lockdowns, inmate discipline, telephone monitoring, grievances, drug testing and sexual misconduct.

“With the exception of fewer incidents of positive drug tests and sexual misconduct, the contract prisons had more incidents per capita than the BOP institutions in all of the other categories of data we examined,” the OIG said. “For example, the contract prisons confiscated eight times as many contraband cellphones annually on average as the BOP institutions. Contract prisons also had higher rates of assaults, both by inmates on other inmates and by inmates on staff.”

The private facilities held 12 percent of BOP’s prison population in December, almost 22,700 low-security immigrant adult males with 90 months or less on their sentences. Three companies have the contracts — Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), GEO Group, Inc. and Management and Training Corporation (MTC).

In their responses included in the report, each of the three cited their largely homogeneous inmates as a significant factor in prison misconduct. “Our experience has been that the criminal alien population housed in contract prisons has a higher rate” of inmates who pose a security threat, said CCA, the nation’s oldest and largest private prison company. GEO said the “criminal alien” population “responds as one to any issue, real or perceived.” MTC rejected the report’s findings: “Any casual reader would come to the conclusion that contract prisons are not as safe as BOP prisons. The conclusion is wrong and is not supported by the work done by the OIG.”

Like any business, private prison companies are in business to make money. That can lead to cost-cutting and under-staffing that promotes dangerous and unhealthy conditions. “In recent years, disturbances in several contract prisons resulted in extensive property damage, bodily injury, and even the death of a correctional officer,” said Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz. “Last year, we audited one of these contract prisons and found that it was regularly understaffed in crucial areas, including correctional officers and health services workers.”

Many inmates, nearly half in some places and largely Mexican, are serving time for immigration offenses. “This is due to a new trend in the past decade of criminally prosecuting people for reentering the country rather than merely processing them through the civil deportation system,” said Carl Takei, an attorney with the American Civil Liberty Union’s National Prison Project. “The result is that people serve sometimes-lengthy prison sentences in BOP custody before … going through civil deportation proceedings.”...

Like the private companies, BOP’s response to the report cautioned against comparing the private prison populations with those in federal facilities. Nonetheless, the agency agreed to the report’s four recommendations, including increased verification “that inmates receive basic medical services such as initial medical exams and immunizations” and “periodic validation of actual Correctional Officer staffing levels.”

The full DOJ Inspector General report, which runs 86 pages and is exciting titled "Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Contract Prisons," is available at this link.

August 12, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Could "conservative Latinos religious groups" become a significant voice and force in death penalty debates (at least in California)?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this intriguing new Fox News Latino article headlined "Conservative Latino religious groups make big push to end death penalty." Here are excerpts:

A growing number of conservative Latino religious groups are beginning to shift their position on capital punishment, due in large part to a belief among them that it disproportionately affects minorities. “Given studies on how the death penalty is meted out, particularly for people of color, if it’s not a level playing field, we need to speak out,” Reverend Gabriel Salguero, founder of the national Latino Evangelical Coalition (NaLEC) told Fox News Latino.

“The needle has moved for Latinos and evangelicals," Salguero said. "Botched executions and advancements in DNA science have awakened us to a moral response."

According to the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Latinos represent a larger portion of those on death row than they did in the past. Half of new Latino death row inmates were from California, bringing their total to 157 inmates, the most in the country. Hispanics now represent 13.5 percent of the U.S. death row population – up from 11 percent in 2000.

A study conducted by University of Nebraska-Lincoln psychology and ethnic studies professor, Cynthia Willis-Esqueda and her colleague, Russ K.E. Espinoza of California State University, Fullerton, found that white jurors were more likely to impose the death penalty in cases where the defendant was Latino and poor. A study in California found that those who killed whites were over 3 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed blacks and over 4 times more likely than those who killed Latinos.

“There’s an almost impossibly disproportionate number of Latinos incarcerated – a third of the labor force has a criminal record,” Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of Latino Justice (PRLDEF), told Fox News Latino. “There’s easy acceptance that the criminal justice system is a racially skewed system,” Cartagena said.

In June, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA), a coalition of 40 prominent Latino organizations, joined several bipartisan groups calling for the end to the death penalty, saying that Latinos are “directly affected by its injustices.”...

This November, the death penalty will be on the California ballot. Proposition 62 seeks to repeal the statute. “There’s been a shift, not just attributed to religion, but a heightened understanding of the death penalty and its implicit bias in the criminal justice system,” Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, and a nationally recognized civil rights attorney, told Fox News Latino. “The time is right, but it’s a ballot with 17 measures on it. Whether the issue gets the attention it deserves, who knows,” he added.

Salguero said it made sense for clergy to lead the charge on the fight to end the death penalty. “We’ve been pro-life all along, but what does that mean? If even one innocent person is killed, it’s too many,” Salguero said....

“The gospel teaches us that crime has a place, but God has the last word," Salguero said. "We’re against the ultimate role. We have ministries in prisons. If anyone has a moral platform it is the clergy. I think in my heart of hearts we can do better than executing people." “Christ was an innocent man who was executed. If there’s a possibility that we execute one innocent person we should have pause.”

Because Latinos make up nearly 40% of the population in California, how they general cast their votes in this November's death penalty reform/repeal initiative battle is going to play a huge rule in the future of the death penalty in the state.  This press article from January 2016 reports on polling done around that time suggesting that Latino voters favored repealing the death penalty to speeding up executions by a margin of 54% to 42%.  If the opposition within the Latino community has continued to grow (and certainly if it reaches the typical 2-1 opposition found in polling of African Americans), I think the repeal efforts of abolitionists in California might have a pretty good shot at carrying the day.

August 11, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Public Defenders vs. Private Court Appointed Attorneys: An Investigation of Indigent Defense Systems"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing empirical paper recently posted on SSRN authored by Yotam Shem-Tov. Here is the abstract (with one line emphasized by me):

Individuals facing criminal charges in the U.S. have a constitutional right to attorney representation.  If they cannot afford one, the court is required to appoint and finance a legal counsel. Indigent defense systems are usually composed of private court appointed attorneys and/or a public defenders’ organization.  I investigate the causal effect of being assigned a public defender as oppose to a private court appointed attorney on defendants’ trial outcomes using a new “twins design” identification strategy.

I argue and show empirically that in co-defendant cases, the decision of who is assigned to the public defender organization can be treated as close to a randomized experiment, which can be exploited to measure the effectiveness of court appointed private attorneys relative to public defenders.  Using data from all multiple defendant cases in federal courts between 2001-2014, I find that defendants assigned a public defender in co-defendant cases had slightly worse outcomes: a higher probability of being convicted, an average of three months longer expected prison sentence, longer court proceedings and a higher probability of reaching a plea bargain.  However, there is large heterogeneity in public defender effectiveness across federal districts ranging from a 13.8 month longer prison term to a 16.1 month shorter prison term.

I lack the empirical skills to question or assess the new “twins design” identification strategy used in this paper, and the full paper is full of challenging empirical jargon like "The main regression specications is Yit = B . PDi + aj(I) + X'it􀀀 + Eit".  That said, my first reaction is to be quite suspicious of these findings/conclusions due to (1) my own experiences and high regard for the work of nearly all federal public defenders, and (2) my own normative instinct that, at least for a significant number of federal defendants, experiencing "longer court proceedings and a higher probability of reaching a plea bargain" is not at all a marker of a "worse outcome."

August 11, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Second Circuit panel rules that district court lacks ancillary jurisdiction to expunge a valid conviction

As noted in this new post at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, which is headlined "Federal expungement order reversed on appeal," the Second Circuit today ruled on the federal government appeal of former US District Judge John Gleeson remarkable ruling in Doe v. US, 110 F. Supp. 3d 448 (EDNY May 21, 2015) (discussed here) ordering expungement of old federal fraud conviction.  Here are excerpts from the majority opinion in Doe v. US, No. 15-1967 (2d Cir. Aug. 11, 2015) (available here):

We conclude that the District Court did not have jurisdiction over Doe’s motion pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3231 because Doe’s conviction was valid and the underlying criminal case had long since concluded....

Relying on Kokkonen, Doe argues that the District Court’s exercise of ancillary jurisdiction served to “vindicate its sentencing decree” issued in 2002. Appellee’s Br. 27. The District Court phrased the same point slightly differently by characterizing its original decree as having “sentenced [Doe] to five years of probation supervision, not to a lifetime of unemployment.” Doe, 110 F. Supp. 3d at 457.

We reject Doe’s argument.  The District Court’s sentence had long ago concluded and its decrees long since expired by the time Doe filed her motion.  Under those circumstances, expunging a record of conviction on equitable grounds is entirely unnecessary to “manage [a court’s] proceedings, vindicate its authority, [or] effectuate its decrees.”  Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 380.  “Expungement of a criminal record solely on equitable grounds, such as to reward a defendant’s rehabilitation and commendable post‐conviction conduct, does not serve any of th[e] goals” identified in Kokkonen’s second prong. Sumner, 226 F.3d at 1014; see also United States v. Lucido, 612 F.3d 871, 875 (6th Cir. 2010) (holding that a district court lacked jurisdiction to consider a motion to expunge records of a valid indictment and later acquittal because “[t]hese criminal cases have long since been resolved, and there is nothing left to manage, vindicate or effectuate”).

August 11, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

If you really want to fully understand what DEA has done/what is changing and not changing about federal marijuana law and policy...

2000px-US-DrugEnforcementAdministration-Seal.svgyou have to check out these two new posts and materials linked therein from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform for all the nuanced details:

If you do not have the time or inclination to read those posts, the DEA has this press release explaining these basics:

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced several marijuana- related actions, including actions regarding scientific research and scheduling of marijuana, as well as principles on the cultivation of industrial hemp under the Agricultural Act of 2014....

DEA has denied two petitions to reschedule marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). In response to the petitions, DEA requested a scientific and medical evaluation and scheduling recommendation from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which was conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in consultation with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Based on the legal standards in the CSA, marijuana remains a schedule I controlled substance because it does not meet the criteria for currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, there is a lack of accepted safety for its use under medical supervision, and it has a high potential for abuse.

In his letter to the petitioners, DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg offered a detailed response outlining the factual and legal basis for the denial of the petitions.....

DEA announced a policy change designed to foster research by expanding the number of DEA- registered marijuana manufacturers. This change should provide researchers with a more varied and robust supply of marijuana. At present, there is only one entity authorized to produce marijuana to supply researchers in the United States: the University of Mississippi, operating under a contract with NIDA.  Consistent with the CSA and U.S. treaty obligations, DEA’s new policy will allow additional entities to apply to become registered with DEA so that they may grow and distribute marijuana for FDA-authorized research purposes.

August 11, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

"The Obama Criminal Justice Reforms That Trump Could Undo"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Marshall Project piece by Eli Hager.  Here is how the piece sets up its "rundown of Obama’s efforts on criminal justice and how each of them could or could not be unraveled by a President Donald Trump":

Donald Trump has not said much about how he would handle matters of criminal justice if he is elected president.  Beyond a promise in his speech at last month’s Republican National Convention that “safety will be restored” in America — and a suggestion in December that he would seek the death penalty for anyone convicted of killing a police officer — the candidate has not articulated a policy agenda on issues such as the drug war, federal sentencing guidelines, community policing or clemency.

Yet Trump has made it clear what he will undo: the Obama administration’s executive actions and regulations, including those having to do with criminal justice.“You know, the great thing about executive orders is that I don’t have to go back to Congress,” he said at a campaign rally in Manassas, Va., on Dec. 2, according to the Daily Caller.

Experts on executive authority say the next president could absolutely — and immediately — rescind any and all executive orders made by President Obama during his eight years in office, including those tightening background checks, “banning the box” on federal job applications and banning the solitary confinement of juveniles in federal prisons.  “They can be overturned in one day, with the stroke of a pen,” said Susan Dudley, a professor of public policy at George Washington University and an expert on regulatory procedure.

Trump could also opt to slow-walk Obama’s policies — either by appointing cabinet officials who will not enforce them or by instructing his Justice Department to reprioritize which laws it will prosecute.  The department could also reach weakened, out-of-court settlements in the investigations that the Obama administration has launched into local police departments.

But other moves of Obama’s, from his pardons and commutations to his attempts to ease sentencing guidelines for drug offenders, will be harder to roll back.  “Trump could say he doesn’t want to pursue a certain policy anymore, but he can’t take away benefits and rights that have already gone out to people,” said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas and an expert on constitutional law and the federal system.

August 11, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Eager for practitioner views (and others) on how the "Obama judiciary" may be transforming sentencing jurisprudence and practice

The request for comments, particularly from federal court practitioners, appearing in the title of this post is prompted by this recent Politico article headlined "Did Obama win the judicial wars? Liberals say he shied away from too many battles and ran into GOP roadblocks. But the result is still a transformation of U.S. courts." Here is one excerpt from the article highlighting its themes:

It’s not yet clear whether Obama’s judicial legacy will include a Justice Garland, who could swing the direction of the highest court for decades.  But even if the Garland nomination stalls, Obama has already reshaped the judiciary, not only the Supreme Court but the lower courts that hear more than 400,000 federal cases every year.  And the unprecedented move by Senate Republicans to deny Garland a hearing is just the most intense skirmish in a larger battle over Obama’s nominees, a battle that has transformed the politics of the judiciary in ways that will reverberate long after his presidency.

Ultimately, most of those battles over judges have really been about Obama, a nasty front in the larger partisan war that has raged throughout his presidency.  And as with most of the foreign and domestic policy battles of the Obama era, the result, after a lot of bellicose rhetoric and political brinksmanship, has been a lot of change.  Obama has already appointed 329 judges to lifetime jobs, more than one third of the judiciary, and they’re already moving American jurisprudence in Obama’s direction.  He got two left-leaning women onto the Court: Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic justice, and Elena Kagan, his former solicitor general.  He also flipped the partisan balance of the nation’s 13 courts of appeals; when he took office, only one had a majority of Democratic appointees, and now nine do.  Just last week, two Obama appointees to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down some of North Carolina’s strict new election law, calling it a discriminatory effort to stop blacks from voting.

Obama is a political pragmatist and a public advocate of judicial restraint, so he hasn’t nominated the dream judges of the left.  But he certainly hasn’t appointed the kind of Federalist Society conservatives that George W. Bush favored, so liberal activists — who have indeed put aside their misgivings and supported Garland — have mostly approved of his impact on the justice system.  His appointees have already taken the progressive side in cases involving issues like gay marriage and transgender bathroom choices, as well as cases involving his own health reforms and carbon regulations.  And they really are diverse; 43 percent of Obama’s judges have been women, shattering the old record of 29 percent under Bill Clinton, and 36 percent have been non-white, surpassing Clinton’s record of 24 percent.  Obama has appointed 11 openly gay judges, when before him there was only one.

I have a lot of thoughts about a lot of aspects of Prez Obama's likely judicial legacy, but I am disinclined to discuss this legacy at length until we find out in the coming months if Merrick Garland becomes the next Justice. In the meantime, though, I would be eager to hear views from criminal justice practitioners who spend any time in the federal courts as to how big a different the 327 judges Obama has appointed to lower courts have impacted sentencing jurisprudence and practice. As the Politico article details, the federal judiciary looks a lot different thanks to the diversity of Prez Obama's appointment, and I am now eager to hear from informed persons whether it also feels a lot different when it comes to sentencing decision-making.

August 10, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Reflections from those working hard to get their clients clemency

The National Law Journal has this notable new article headlined "Lawyers Reflect on Clemency Work After Obama Executive Action," and here are excerpts:

When President Barack Obama commuted the sentences last week of 214 nonviolent drug offenders, he changed the lives of many inmates who may never have expected to leave prison.  The action also had a profound impact on defense lawyers involved in pursuing the clemency petitions that the president has now granted.

When criminal defense attorney James Felman calls down to the Cole­man Penitentiary in Florida to inform his clients that their clemency petitions have been granted, he said the experience is sometimes a little awkward. Surrounded by guards in the warden's office­­ — where prisoners are typically brought if they are in trouble or a loved one has died — the inmate may not exactly feel free to celebrate, Felman said. "It's not like they can start dancing," he said.

Felman, a partner at Kynes Markman & Felman in Tampa, saw five of his clients granted clemency on Aug. 3, when President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 214 inmates — the highest number a president has ever granted in a single day.  The move comes amid a broader effort by the president to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.  Since 2010, Obama has granted 562 commutations and 70 pardons, more commutations than the last nine presidents combined.

Of Felman's clients to receive clemency last week, all were men convicted on nonviolent drug charges.... "You can't imagine a more rewarding experience as a lawyer," Felman said.

Felman, whose firm has successfully advocated for 12 clemency petitions, served as the chair of the American Bar Association Section of Criminal Justice from 2014 to 2015, and is a member of the steering committee for the Clemency Project 2014, a working group of lawyers who review clemency petitions.  Through the project, inmates who qualify for clemency under the guidelines are assigned a lawyer, who works the case pro bono....

Marjorie Peerce, a New York partner at Ballard Spahr and a member of the project's steering committee, has been involved with the project since its inception, and supervises about 100 lawyers at her firm who work these cases.  She estimated that the project had submitted about 1,500 petitions to the U.S. Office of the Pardon Attorney and had about 4,000 lawyers volunteering, both from criminal defense backgrounds and from unrelated fields. "The private bar really stepped up," Peerce said.  Her firm had three clients granted clemency on Aug. 3, but she declined to discuss their cases specifically.

Sherrie Armstrong, a Washington environmental lawyer at Crowell & Moring, worked on behalf of Stephanie George, who had her life sentenced commuted in December 2013.  Armstrong worked with George's sister to collect recommendation letters, including letters from a community pastor, an interested employer and George's children. Armstrong added that the writing style demanded by these clemency petitions differs from that of her normal style as an environmental lawyer.  "You're not writing for a court.  It's a more persuasive, emotional appeal," she said.

August 10, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

As federal prosecutors urged, former Gov Blagojevich resentenced to same 14-year prison term despite a few vacated convictions

As reported in this Wall Street Journal piece, a "federal judge on Tuesday refused to reduce a 14-year prison sentence handed down to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich" at his resentencing. Here are more details on why and how Blago was resentenced earlier today:

“The fabric of this state is torn,” said U.S. District Judge James Zagel, adding that “the fault lies with the governor and no one else” for his lengthy sentence. The former governor, 59, now will have 10 years left to serve of his prison sentence.  Mr. Blagojevich — appearing via video feed from a prison in Colorado with his once-black hair turned grayish-white — appeared stunned and shook his head as the judge delivered his decision.

Mr. Blagojevich had appealed for a reduced sentence of just five years after an appeals court last year threw out five of the original 18 counts for which he was found guilty. In court on Tuesday, his lawyer Len Goodman argued that his case was “significantly different” after the appellate court’s ruling. Mr. Goodman also argued that Mr. Blagojevich wasn't acting inappropriately for personal gain, but to acquire political muscle and therefore should serve a shorter sentence.

“He never took a bribe,” said Mr. Goodman, speaking in court. “He bought his own clothes; he bought his own baseball tickets.” Mr. Blagojevich, speaking to the court via a blurry video feed, apologized for his mistakes and for his actions in his time as governor. “I recognize that it was my words and my actions that have led me here,” he said, with his family present in court. “I’ve made mistakes and I wish I had a way to turn the clock back.”...

Both his children addressed the court Tuesday, saying that their father was a good man and that their family was suffering greatly from his absence. They both broke down in court upon hearing the judge’s sentence. Mr. Goodman also submitted a series of letters to the court written by prisoners who were serving time with Mr. Blagojevich, all of whom said he was an inspiration who was helping them through their sentences and teaching them useful skills, including how to prepare for a job interview.

Judge Zagel said that Mr. Blagojevich’s good behavior in prison was “not especially germane” to his decision and that the same circumstances remained from when he rendered the sentence in 2011.

Speaking after the sentencing, Patti Blagojevich, the former governor’s wife, said that his family finds the sentence “unusually cruel and heartless and unfair.”

“I am dumbfounded and flabbergasted at the inability of the judge to see that things were different” than before, she said.

I would assume that the former Gov may now appeal this newly-imposed 14-year prison term. Depending upon how the full sentencing record now shapes up, it seems at least possible that a Seventh Circuit panel might give a hard look at the reasons given by the district judge here for not changing the sentence at all this time around.

Some older related posts on the Blagojevich case:

August 9, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Finding (substantive?) due process violation, federal district judge refuses to apply statutory mandatory minimum made applicable by government stash-house sting

A helpful reader alterted me to a very interesting new federal sentencing opinion authored by Gerald Austin McHugh, Jr. in US v. McLean, No. 13-CR-487 (ED Pa Aug. 8, 2016) (available here). The full 29-page McLean opinion is a must-read for all persons interested in federal drug sentencing and dynamic views on sentencing limits that might be found in the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause. The opinion's introduction highlights why this decision is so interesting (and might make for a very interesting case to watch if federal prosecutors appeal to the Third Circuit):

The latitude given to federal authorities in charging drug offenses has been described as creating a “terrifying capacity for escalation of a defendant's sentence.”1 [FN1: United States v. Barth, 990 F.2d 422, 424 (8th Cir. 1993).]  This case exemplifies that reality, as a defendant caught by an undercover “sting” operation faces a Guideline sentence of 35 years to life imprisonment, with a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years, because of a professed willingness to rob a drug stash house that was invented entirely by Government agents, containing a fictional amount of drugs chosen by those agents.  At sentencing, Defendant Clifton McLean argued that his sentence should be reduced because the Government improperly inflated his culpability by choosing a quantity of drugs — 5 kilograms of cocaine — that would trigger such a high mandatory minimum.

In an earlier opinion, I described the historical background of ATF “sting” cases, and concern among both judges and commentators over the consequences of this particular law enforcement tactic.  United States v. McLean, 85 F. Supp. 3d 825 (E.D. Pa. 2015).  Although I denied Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss the Indictment, resulting in his trial and conviction, as to this issue, I agree that imposing the sentence prescribed for the quantity of cocaine charged would violate his constitutional right to Due Process of Law on the facts of this case.  I have as a result imposed a sentence that excludes consideration of the amount specified by the Government, imposing only two of the three mandatory minimums for the reasons that follow.

August 9, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Put Away The Pitchforks Against Judge Persky"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new Politico commentary authored by Lara Bazelon, which carries this sub-headline "Yes, he gave Stanford rapist Brock Turner a break. But to recall him would be to overturn our legal system."  Here is how the commentary, which merits a full read, gets started:

On this we can all agree: Brock Allen Turner, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, one-time All-American Stanford freshman swimmer, is stone cold, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt guilty of committing a violent sexual assault against an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Because what Turner did was brutal, criminal and depraved, and because of his utter lack of remorse—much less insight into his behavior—he should have gone to prison.

But the reaction to the lenient sentence given to Turner by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky is, frankly, frightening, dangerous and profoundly misguided.

In a charge spearheaded by Stanford law professor Michele Dauber — a close friend of the victim’s family — an effort is underway to recall Persky from office.  Sixteen state legislators have demanded that the California Commission on Judicial Performance investigate Persky for misconduct. Over a million members of the feminist organization UltraViolet signed an online petition voicing their agreement.  The group also hired a plane to fly over Stanford during graduation carrying a banner that said, “Protect Survivors. Not Rapists. #PerksyMustGo,” and paid for a billboard on a nearby, high-traffic freeway that sends the same message.

Earlier this summer, prosecutors filed a motion to disqualify Judge Persky from presiding over another sexual assault case involving an unconscious victim — a sedated patient allegedly fondled by a nurse.  More recently, Persky came under fire once again for imposing a three-year sentence on a Latino man who committed an assault, that, on the surface at least, seemed similar to Turner’s.   But unlike the Turner case, the sentence was imposed after the defense and the prosecution agreed to it.  Nevertheless, the mob pounced. It was yet another sign, they said, of Persky’s bias toward white, affluent men — presumably the only kind of person he was able to relate to.  Dauber told NPR, “Hopefully, a qualified woman will replace him.”

As a law professor well-versed in the vital importance of an independent judiciary, Dauber should know better. Removing a judge — never mind investigating him for misconduct — because of a single bad decision undermines the rule of law.  It sends a chill down the spines of elected judges everywhere, which is nearly every judge in the state court across the United States.

I am pleased to see someone talking about rule-of-law concerns if/when folks get heavily invested in seeking to recall a judge for what is viewed as a bad ruling. But I actually think the Brock Turner case serves as even more of an object lesson in how hard it will be to fully address modern mass incarceration in the United States when there are still so many powerful and prominent Americans who are eager to devote time and energy to vindicate and operationalize the view that lengthy terms of incarceration are the only "fitting" form of punishment for many crimes and many defendants.

Some prior related posts:

August 9, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Highlighting the notable absence of criminal trials in a high-profile federal district court ... thanks to the modern "trial penalty"

Jury1Yesterday's New York Times had this article on the modern reality of negotiated federal criminal justice headlined "Trial by Jury, a Hallowed American Right, Is Vanishing."  Here are excerpts:

The criminal trial ended more than two and a half years ago, but Judge Jesse M. Furman can still vividly recall the case.  It stands out, not because of the defendant or the subject matter, but because of its rarity: In his four-plus years on the bench in Federal District Court in Manhattan, it was his only criminal jury trial.

He is far from alone. Judge J. Paul Oetken, in half a decade on that bench, has had four criminal trials, including one that was repeated after a jury deadlocked.  For Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who has handled some of the nation’s most important terrorism cases, it has been 18 months since his last criminal jury trial.  “It’s a loss,” Judge Kaplan said, “because when one thinks of the American system of justice, one thinks of justice being administered by juries of our peers. And to the extent that there’s a decline in criminal jury trials, that is happening less frequently.”

The national decline in trials, both criminal and civil, has been noted in law journal articles, bar association studies and judicial opinions.  But recently, in the two federal courthouses in Manhattan and a third in White Plains (known collectively as the Southern District of New York), the vanishing of criminal jury trials has never seemed so pronounced.  The Southern District held only 50 criminal jury trials last year, the lowest since 2004, according to data provided by the court.  The pace remains slow this year.

In 2005, records show, there were more than double the number of trials: 106. And decades ago, legal experts said, the numbers were much higher. “It’s hugely disappointing,” said Judge Jed S. Rakoff, a 20-year veteran of the Manhattan federal bench. “A trial is the one place where the system really gets tested.  Everything else is done behind closed doors.”

Legal experts attribute the decline primarily to the advent of the congressional sentencing guidelines and the increased use of mandatory minimum sentences, which transferred power to prosecutors, and discouraged defendants from going to trial, where, if convicted, they might face harsher sentences.  “This is what jury trials were supposed to be a check against — the potential abuse of the use of prosecutorial power,” said Frederick P. Hafetz, a defense lawyer and a former chief of the criminal division of the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan, who is researching the issue of declining trials.

Julia L. Gatto, a federal public defender, recalled the case of Oumar Issa, a Malian arrested in Africa in a 2009 sting operation on charges of narco-terrorism conspiracy, which carried a mandatory minimum 20-year sentence, and conspiring to support a terrorist organization, which had no minimum.  Although Ms. Gatto and her client believed that elements of the case were weak and that there were strongly mitigating circumstances, Mr. Issa concluded that the risk of going to trial was too high.  He pleaded guilty in 2012 to material support, with prosecutors dropping the other charge.  He received 57 months in prison. “It was the only thing he could do,” Ms. Gatto said. “His hands were tied.”

In 1997, according to federal courts data nationwide, 3,200 of 63,000 federal defendants were convicted in jury trials; in 2015, there were only 1,650 jury convictions, out of 81,000 defendants....

Judge P. Kevin Castel, who helped to organize the court’s 225th anniversary celebration in 2014, recalled taking a friend, Mary Noe, a legal studies professor at St. John’s University, to see an exhibit of courtroom illustrations documenting Southern District trial scenes of past decades.  But as they reached the end, Professor Noe observed that the sketches of more recent defendants, like Bernard L. Madoff and the would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad showed them pleading guilty.  “I was like, what happened to the trials?” she recalled.

Judge Analisa Torres said she had felt the difference ever since joining the federal bench in 2013.  Judge Torres, a former state court judge who handled about two dozen criminal trials a year in Manhattan and the Bronx, said she has since had just a few such trials. “It’s day and night,” she said. On the state bench, she said, she spent her entire day in the courtroom but for the lunch hour. “Now, I am in chambers all day long.”

This article rightfully suggests that the vanishing jury trial is a sentencing story related to the distinctive severity of federal statutes and guidelines and the impact of the modern "trial penalty" in federal courts. Competent defense attorneys have to tell their federal clients that the decision to test the government's evidence at trial will almost always risk adding years, if not decades, to any eventual federal sentence on any charge that produces a conviction.

It is ironic, but not really surprising, that this problem has only gotten worse since the Blakely and Booker SCOTUS rulings a decade ago made much of a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.  Had the Booker court adopted a "jury trial" remedy to "fix" federal guideline sentencing rather than the advisory remedy, we likely would have seen an increase in jury trials focused on specific guideline enhancements (especially in fraud and other kinds of high-profile cases more common in the Southern District of New York).  In addition, modern federal sentencing doctrines that diminish the need for and significance of jury determinations — like guideline anhancements based on "acquitted conduct" and "uncharged conduct" and "relevant conduct" — would be no more.

It is also disconcerting, but not surprising, that federal district judges are now so quick to lament the lack of jury trials, but are still so slow to explore their powers and opportunities to encourage more trials.  Though subject to some legal uncertainty (and sure to generate some federal prosecutorial pushback), federal judges still could today consider requiring limited jury trials to aid the resolution of any major factual disputes that have major guideline sentencing consequences.  Notably, in other high-profile settings, especially with respect to the death penalty and fraud sentencings and collateral consequences, SDNY federal district judges have been willing to test the reach and limits of thier judicial authority to move the law forward as they see fit.  If these judges really lament the vanishing criminal trial so much, they can and should be more aggressively exploring just what they might be able to do about this problem.

August 9, 2016 in Blakely Commentary and News, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Monday, August 08, 2016

Great coverage and analysis of Prez Obama's recent clemency work at Pardon Power

Regular readers and/or hard-core clemency fans know that P.S. Ruckman over at the Pardon Power blog is a must-read whenever President Obama's gets his clemency pen out. Here are just some of many recent posts discussing the historic number of commutations that Prez Obama issued last week (basics here), and responding to some notable recent criticisms of what the Prez is up to:

August 8, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Data on sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Broad perspectives on the narrowness of recent federal clemency and sentencing reform efforts

Two of my favorite lawprof colleagues, Erik Luna and Mark Olser, remind me why they are among my favorites through this new Cato commentary titled "Mercy in the Age of Mandatory Minimums." Here are excertps:

Recently, we stood in a backyard eating barbecue with a man named Weldon Angelos.  He was only a few weeks out of federal prison, having been freed some four decades early from a 55-year sentence for selling a small amount of marijuana while possessing firearms.  Weldon was not among the 562 inmates whose sentences were commuted by President Obama, including Wednesday’s historic grant of commutation for 214 nonviolent prisoners. Instead, Weldon’s release was made possible through a negotiated motion by the government that, alas, cannot be replicated in other cases.

For a dozen years, Weldon had been the poster boy of criminal justice reform for liberals and conservatives alike. His liberation is cause for celebration for those who believed the punishment did not fit the crime.  Nonetheless, the Angelos case remains a cautionary tale about both the inherent ruthlessness of “mandatory minimum” terms of imprisonment and the ineffectiveness of the Obama administration’s clemency initiative.

Mandatory minimum laws bar the consideration of facts upon which a sentencing judge would normally rely.  In Weldon’s case, the law compelled a 55-year sentence.  It didn’t matter that Weldon was a first-time offender with no adult record or that he was the father of three young children.  Nor did it matter that he never brandished or used the firearms and never caused or threatened any violence or injury....

Most of all, it did not matter that the sentencing judge — a conservative Bush appointee known for being tough on crime — believed that the punishment was “unjust, cruel, and irrational.”  Ultimately, the judge was bound not only by the mandatory minimum statute but also the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, which largely acquiesces to prosecutors’ charging decisions while providing almost no check on excessive prison terms.

Absent a doctrinal reversal by the Supreme Court (don’t hold your breath), any meaningful safeguard against misapplication of mandatory minimums will have to come in the form of legislation from Congress or from the president through the application of the clemency power.  As for the former, lawmakers are considering several [reform] bills... [that] are entirely laudable, but they are also quite modest.  Indeed, the Senate bill passed in April expands some mandatory minimum provisions and adds a couple of new ones to the federal code....

The positive aspects of the reform bills should be supported all the same.  Sadly, legislative efforts appear to be mired in an intramural fight among Republicans, as well as hindered by Democratic intransigence toward another worthy reform, namely, a requirement that law enforcement prove a culpable mental state rather than holding defendants strictly liable.  Until lawmakers can agree on a means to prevent draconian sentences, clemency will remain the only remedy for such miscarriages of justice.

Unfortunately, the federal clemency system is also dysfunctional.  Weldon’s petition for clemency was filed in November 2012 — and it then sat, unresolved one way or another, for three-and-a-half years.  The support for the petition was unprecedented, spanning activists, academics and experts from every political camp imaginable.  While Weldon is not wealthy and could not afford high-priced lobbyists or attorneys, the facts of his case drove the story onto the pages of leading news outlets.  Yet nothing happened.  Even when the Obama administration launched the “Clemency Project 2014” and Weldon’s case was accepted into that program, he languished in prison as the petition slogged through the seven vertical levels of review any successful clemency case must navigate.

Clemency is meant for cases like Weldon’s, where the requirements of the law exceed the imperatives of justice.  The fact that a case like his cannot receive clemency from an administration dedicated to expanding the use of this presidential prerogative lays bare the root problem we face — too much process and bureaucracy coursing through a Department of Justice that bears a built-in conflict of interest....

It was thrilling to see Weldon free, eating off of a paper plate in the light of a Utah evening.  He is just one of many, though, and systemic reform of both mandatory minimums and the clemency process should be an imperative for this and the next administration.

August 8, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Two midsummer New York Times editorials lamenting federal sentencing nightmares

In Act 1 of Scene 1 of The Bard's famous summer comedy, Lysalnder notes that "The course of true love never did run smooth."  And in Act 4 of Scene 1 of his play set in a watery city, Portia explains that "The quality of mercy is not strained."  These two literary references came to mind after I saw these two New York Times editorials, which might be headlined "The course of sentencing reform has not run smooth" and "The Justice Department has strained to show quality mercy."  Here are the editorial's true headlines and key passages:

"Holding Sentencing Reform Hostage"

An opportunity to pass the most significant federal criminal justice reform in a generation may be slipping away — despite the tireless efforts of many top Republicans and Democrats in Congress, as well as a rare exhortation from President Obama during last month’s State of the Union address....

The sentencing reform legislation is not perfect, but it represents remarkable progress in what is often a harsh, oversimplified debate about crime and punishment in America.  It should not be weakened, either by narrowing its reach or by sneaking in an unrelated mens rea provision.

Throughout all of this, red and blue states around the country continue to take big, bold steps to reduce state prison populations by shortening sentences and giving inmates returning to society a real chance to succeed.  Congress should be racing to catch up. 

"Mercy Is Far Too Slow at the Justice Department"

The country needs a variety of mechanisms for reducing unreasonably long sentences.  And the Justice Department, which has considerable latitude in these matters, needs to do more within the course of its regular operations to deal with the legacy of sentencing policies that have been recognized as destructively unfair....

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 authorizes the bureau to ask a federal judge to reduce an inmate’s sentence when there are “extraordinary and compelling” reasons for doing so.

That provision is typically used for elderly or gravely ill inmates. But the bureau has the ability to define the term as it sees fit, which means that the program could cover people who were unfairly sentenced as well. The agency has, however, done virtually nothing on this front.  The Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General was sharply critical of the bureau in a 2013 report, noting that the agency did not “have clear standards on when compassionate release is warranted,” which led to ad hoc decisions.

The United States Sentencing Commission took up this issue in April, when it broadened compassionate-release criteria.  Under the amended policy, federal inmates may be eligible for compassionate release for reasons of age, medical condition, family circumstances or “other extraordinary and compelling reasons.”  The commission also urged the prison bureau to take cases back to court when the defendant meets the criteria laid out in the new policy.

A more broadly conceived compassionate-release mechanism would not by itself cure the problem of unfair sentencing.  But the Justice Department should be using every tool it has to mitigate unfair sentences.  A system that funnels this problem to the president’s office is not enough.

August 7, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Interesting results from survey of crime victims suggests they support "smart on crime" reforms

This Washington Post article, headlined "Even violent crime victims say our prisons are making crime worse," reports on this results of an interesing survey of crime victims.  Here are excerpts:

A first-of-its-kind national survey finds that victims of crime say they want to see shorter prison sentences, less spending on prisons and a greater focus on the rehabilitation of criminals.  The survey, conducted in April and released Thursday by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a criminal justice reform group, polled the attitudes and beliefs of more 800 crime victims pooled from a nationally representative sample of over 3,000 respondents....

 "Perhaps to the surprise of some, the National Survey on Victims’ Views found that the overwhelming majority of crime victims believe that the criminal justice system relies too heavily on incarceration, and strongly prefer investments in treatment and prevention to more spending on prisons and jails," according to the report.

By two-to-one, victims said the criminal justice system should focus more on rehabilitating people who commit crimes, as opposed to punishing them.  By similar margins, the victims preferred shorter prison sentences over keeping criminals incarcerated "as long as possible."...

More recent surveys have uncovered overwhelming support for eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for federal crimes.  But congressional efforts to implement policies like these have often been stymied by "tough-on-crime" senators, including Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who are skeptical of many reform efforts. They often cite the experiences of crime victims and their families in their arguments against reform.  For instance, in 2009 Feinstein and Republican Sen. Jon Kyl argued in an op-ed that "for too long, our court system has tilted in favor of accused criminals and has proven appallingly indifferent to the suffering of crime victims." In 2014, Grassley argued on the Senate floor that "lower mandatory minimum sentences mean increased crime and increased victims.  Why would we vote to increase crime and create more crime victims?"

But the new survey suggests that crime victims' interests don't always align with those of the tough-on-crime lawmakers who invoke their names. The survey suggests this may be because many crime victims don't see prison as an effective tool for reducing the crime rate and preventing others from being victimized.

In the survey, 52 percent of victims said that prison makes people more likely to commit crimes again. Only 19 percent said that prison helps rehabilitate people into better citizens.  This skepticism of prisons is in line with most social science research, which has generally shown that mass incarceration causes more crime than it prevents, that institutionalizing young offenders makes them more likely to commit crime as adults, and that spending time in prison teaches people how to be better criminals....

The survey report quotes Judy Martin, an Ohio woman whose son was shot and killed in a parking lot.  "The way our criminal justice system is set up currently doesn’t allow for redemption," Martin says.  "We must treat each other, even those among us who have made serious mistakes, with more humanity.  It’s the only way forward." 

The full report, which is titled "Crime Survivors Speak," is available at this link.

August 6, 2016 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 04, 2016

After inquiries by members of Congress, Oregon US Attorney agrees to drop federal marijuana charges against Native American teen

I reported in this post last week about the suprising federal prosecution in Oregon of Devontre Thomas, 19-years-old Native American subject earlier this year to a one-count federal misdemeanor charge for possessing "about a gram" of marijuana.  The press coverage of this case prompted members of Congress from Oregon, as reported in this local piece, to inquire about this prosecution:

Three members of Oregon's congressional delegation are demanding U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams explain why his office is prosecuting a Native American teenager for allegedly possessing a gram of marijuana.  In letter [sent August 4, 2016], U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, all Oregon Democrats, ask Williams to give them a full list of the marijuana crimes his office has pursued since 2014, when Oregon voters legalized recreational cannabis.

"Marijuana possession charges have declined in Oregon over the past few years, and we hope to see that trend continue," the delegation writes. "We hope that your office continues this focus on dangerous criminal activity, rather than pursuing crimes involving a substance legal in Oregon."

Now, and surely not coincidentally, this piece from Marijuanapolitics.com reports in its headline that federal prosecutors are "to Drop Charges Against Oregon Teen Devontre Thomas." Here are the latest details:

Even those that don’t support legalizing cannabis were hard pressed to support the federal government threatening Oregon teen Devontre Thomas with a year long prison term over about a gram of marijuana.  Drug War reform advocates and concerned citizens across the nation were frankly appalled of such a harsh sentence facing a nonviolent teenager in a state that had legalized cannabis with over 56% of the vote in 2014.

Thomas’ attorney, Ruben Iniguez worked tirelessly for his client and he left me a message stating that the charges would be dismissed in 60 days so long as Thomas stayed out of trouble and stayed employed and/or in school, conditions he was confident the teen would fulfill.  Iniguez thanked advocates for reaching out and offering to help with Thomas’ case.

August 4, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

State public defender, lamenting funding issues, appoints Mizzou Gov to represent indigent defendant

As reported in this local article, headlined "Missouri's head public defender assigns case to Gov. Nixon, cites overburdened staff," Missouri's head public defender as ordered the state's Governor to put his mouth where his money isn't. Here are the details and context:

Fed up with what he says is the governor’s failure to properly fund his overwhelmed office, the state’s lead public defender ordered Gov. Jay Nixon this week to represent a poor person in Cole County this month. Michael Barrett said he was using a provision of state law that allows him in extraordinary circumstances to delegate legal representation “to any member of the state bar of Missouri.” He’s starting with the state’s highest-profile lawyer: Nixon.

Barrett says the governor has repeatedly declined to give the public defender system the money it requests and is withholding promised funding increases this year. “Providing counsel to poor people who face incarceration is the obligation of the state. It’s not fair to go after private attorneys who are trying to pay the rent when they had nothing to do with contributing to this,” Barrett said in an interview Wednesday.

Barrett never exercised this power before because he thought it was wrong to place the burden of public cases on private attorneys “who have in no way contributed to the current crisis,” he wrote in a letter to the governor dated Tuesday. “However, given the extraordinary circumstances that compel me to entertain any and all avenues for relief, it strikes me that I should begin with the one attorney in the state who not only created this problem, but is in a unique position to address it,” Barrett wrote, referring to Nixon, a Democrat who was a four-term attorney general before becoming governor.

Studies have found that the Missouri Public Defender System lacks the resources or staff to serve the state’s neediest. The system has struggled with high caseloads, high turnover, low salaries and tired, overworked attorneys for years. The Missouri constitution allows the director of the public defender system to assign cases to any lawyer in the state, regardless of whether the lawyer is a public defender, Barrett said.

Just this June, the legislature granted the public defender system a $4.5 million increase, which would’ve helped in hiring 10 more employees and some private attorneys on a contractual basis. The office currently employs more than 370 attorneys. Officials with the public defender’s office had asked for a $23.1 million boost, while Nixon recommended a $1 million increase.

Last month, Barrett and the Missouri State Public Defender Commission filed a lawsuit claiming that Nixon withheld $3.5 million of that $4.5 million increase. Barrett claims Nixon is targeting the public defender system for budget cuts while leaving more money for other programs he likes. Nixon’s office could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday night.

A 2014 study found that the state’s public defender system needs almost 270 more attorneys to meet its current case volume, which fluctuates between 70,000 and 100,000 cases every year. In 2009, Missouri’s was the second-lowest-funded public defender system in the country. Now, Barrett says that he has even fewer lawyers than when that study was done. He’s lost 30 lawyers because he doesn’t have the money to hire replacements as employees leave for private law firms. Meanwhile, the system’s caseload has gone up 12 percent over the past year to about 82,000 cases, Barrett said. Each of his lawyers has to handle 125 to more than 200 cases at a time.

The full letter that the state public defender wrote to Gov Nixon when appointing him is available at this link.

August 4, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Prez Obama commutes 214 more federal sentences

Commutations_chart_0As reported here by Politico, "President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 214 people on Wednesday, bringing his total number of commutations to 562." Here is more about this latest encouraging clemency news, with some political context:

The president's biggest batch of commutations comes as Donald Trump touts a "law and order" message. But for advocates of sentencing reform, it's a sign that the administration isn't letting up on the 2014 Justice Department initiative to ease punishments for low-level drug offenders who received long sentences due to mandatory minimums. It includes 67 people who had been facing life sentences.

Obama has granted more commutations than his nine most recent predecessors combined, White House Counsel Neil Eggleston noted in a blog post on Wednesday.  However, he added, “Our work is far from finished. I expect the President will continue to grant clemency in a historic and inspiring fashion.”

While criminal justice reform advocates have cheered the intention behind the initiative, they’ve complained that the pace of commutations has failed to meet expectations and that the process appears arbitrary. Eggleston promised to speed things up this spring, noting new resources for the Pardon Attorney, and in April, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote to a consortium of defense attorneys helping prisoners to submit applications, urging them to get applications in by May....

This latest batch of commutations comes at a politically sensitive time, just two weeks after Trump stressed a “law and order theme” at the Republican National Convention, with warnings of danger in the streets fueled by attacks on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge.... The focus on policing issues has drawn public attention away from the broader criminal justice reform agenda. Though there is bipartisan support for changes that would reduce mass incarceration, and the House is expected to vote on sentencing reform when it returns in September, advocates acknowledge that prospects for full passage before the election look grim.

The chart reprinted above comes from the White House blog posting by Eggleston, which also includes these statements of note:

Today began like any other for 214 federal inmates across the country, but ultimately became a day I am confident they will never forget. This morning, these individuals received a message from the President: your application for clemency has been granted.

This news likely carries special weight to the 67 individuals serving life sentences – almost all for nonviolent drug crimes – who, up until today, could only imagine what it might be like to once again attend a loved one’s birthday party, walk their child to school, or simply go to the grocery store. All of the individuals receiving commutation today, incarcerated under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws, embody the President’s belief that “America is a nation of second chances.”...

To date, President Obama has granted 562 commutations: more commutations than the previous nine presidents combined and more commutations than any individual president in nearly a century. Of those, 197 individuals were serving life sentences. And, today’s 214 grants of commutation also represent the most grants in a single day since at least 1900.....

In each of these cases, the President examines the application on its individual merits. As a result, the relief afforded is tailored specifically to each applicant’s case. While some commutation recipients will begin to process out of federal custody immediately, others will serve more time.

For some, the President believes that the applicant’s successful re-entry will be aided with additional drug treatment, and the President has conditioned those commutations on an applicant’s seeking that treatment. For others, the President has commuted their sentences to a significantly reduced term so they are consistent with present-day sentencing policies. While these term reductions will require applicants to serve additional time, it will also allow applicants to continue their rehabilitation by completing educational and self-improvement programming and to participate in drug or other counseling services. Underlying all the President’s commutation decisions is the belief that these deserving individuals should be given the tools to succeed in their second chance.

The individual nature of the clemency process underscores both its incredible power to change a person’s life, but also its inherent shortcoming as a tool for broader sentencing reform. That is why action from Congress is so important. While we continue to work to act on as many clemency applications as possible, only legislation can bring about lasting change to the federal system. It is critical that both the House and the Senate continue to work on a bipartisan basis to get a criminal justice reform bill to the President's desk.

August 3, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

"It's Silicon Valley vs. law enforcement on California death penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this local press report on the alignment of various participants in the debate over the future of the death penalty in California, where voters will be considering reform initiatives this fall.  Here are the details:

Two competing November ballot measures that aim to abolish or expedite California’s long-dormant death penalty each raised more than $3 million through the first half of the year, according to state campaign finance records, and largely drew their funding from a narrow group of major donors: Silicon Valley executives and law enforcement unions.

Proposition 62, which would replace capital punishment with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, led its rival campaign with nearly $4.1 million raised through June 30, filings show. Proponents argue that executions are costly, inhumane and bound to kill wrongly convicted people.

The dozen top contributors, each of whom gave at least $50,000, are nearly all affiliated with the technology industry in the Bay Area. They include Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, venture capitalist John O’Farrell, and data management company Integrated Archive Systems, which was founded by major Democratic donor Amy Rao. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Nicholas McKeown, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford University who has started several technology companies, have each given $1 million to the effort so far. Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and Y Combinator CEO Paul Graham both put in $500,000.

Supporters of Proposition 66, an initiative to speed up the death penalty by putting the California Supreme Court in charge of a revised appeals process with strict time limits, raised almost $3.5 million through June 30, according to financial records. It currently can take decades for a death row inmate to exhaust their appeals, though California has not executed anyone since 2006 because of legal challenges to its lethal drug cocktail.

Nearly 80 law enforcement groups have given to the campaign, led by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association with $325,000, the Peace Officers Research Association of California with $305,000, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen with $250,000 and the Los Angeles Police Protective League with $225,000. Among the largest contributors, twenty of whom have donated more than $50,000 to the campaign, are a handful of individuals, including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan, Orange County businessman Henry T. Nicholas III, and A. Jerrold Perenchio, the former CEO of Univision....

California voters last weighed in on capital punishment in 2012, when another initiative to repeal the death penalty narrowly failed. A January Field Poll showed an even split, with 48 percent of respondents supporting speeding up the process and 47 percent favoring abolishing it. If both Proposition 62 and Proposition 66 pass in November, whichever has a higher number of votes will become law.

Prior related posts:

August 3, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Does the weather and MLB baseball impact federal sentencing outcomes more than racial factors?

The seemingly somewhat kooky question in the title of this post is prompted by this seemingly somewhat kooky empirical paper now available via SSRN and authored by a group of data researchers and titled "Events Unrelated to Crime Predict Criminal Sentence Length." Here is the paper's abstract (with a key sentence emphasized to explain my post title query):

In United States District Courts for federal criminal cases, prison sentence length guidelines are established by the severity of the crime and the criminal history of the defendant.  In this paper, we investigate the sentence length determined by the trial judge, relative to this sentencing guideline.  Our goal is to create a prediction model of sentencing length and include events unrelated to crime, namely weather and sports outcomes, to determine if these unrelated events are predictive of sentencing decisions and evaluate the importance weights of these unrelated events in explaining rulings.

We find that while several appropriate features predict sentence length, such as details of the crime committed, other features seemingly unrelated, including daily temperature, baseball game scores, and location of trial, are predictive as well.  Unrelated events were, surprisingly, more predictive than race, which did not predict sentencing length relative to the guidelines.  This is consistent with recent research on racial disparities in sentencing that highlights the role of prosecutors in making charges that influence the maximum and minimum recommended sentence.  Finally, we attribute the predictive importance of date to the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case, United States v. Booker, after which sentence length more frequently fell near the guideline minimum and the range of minimum and maximum sentences became more extreme.

Based on a quick scan of the paper, I came to the conclusion that one would need to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of both federal sentencing patterns and empirical methods to assess the soundness of the analysis here.  Still, the paper's penultimate paragraph reinforces that this analysis led to some notable conclusions (with my emphasis again added):

A justice system reasonably aspires to be consistent in the application of law across cases and to account for the particulars of a case. Our goal was to create a prediction model of criminal sentence lengths that accounts for non-judicial factors such as weather and sports events among the feature set. The feature weights offer a natural metric to evaluate the importance of these features unrelated to crime relative to case-specific factors. Using a Random Forest, we found several expected crime related features appearing within the top 10% most important features. However, we also found defendant characteristics (unrelated to the crime), sport game outcomes, weather, and location features all predictive of sentence length as well, and these features were, surprisingly, more predictive than the defendant’s race. Further investigating this predictive ability would be of interest to those studying the criminal justice system.

August 3, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

In wake of Hurst, Delaware Supreme Court declares state's death penalty unconstitutional

The post-Hurst hydra took an especially big bite out the the death penalty in the First State this afternoon: as reported in this local article, via "a landmark decision, the Delaware Supreme Court has ruled that the state's death penalty statute is unconstitutional." Here are the basics:

A 148-page opinion released Tuesday afternoon said that the current law is a violation of the Sixth Amendment role of the jury. The decision of whether and how to reinstate the death penalty should now be left to the General Assembly, the opinion said.

The question before the top state court arose after the U.S. Supreme Court found in January that Florida's death penalty law was unconstitutional because it gave judges – not juries – the final say to impose a death sentence. Delaware and Alabama are the only other states that allow judges to override a jury's recommendation of life....

The last execution in the state was in 2012, when Shannon Johnson, 28, was killed by lethal injection. All pending capital murder trials and executions for the 14 men on death row are currently on hold while the court considered the constitutionality issue.

The full 148-page opinion in Rauf v. Delaware is available at this link.  A brief per curiam summary kicks off the opinion, starting this way:

The State has charged the Defendant, Benjamin Rauf with one count of First Degree Intentional Murder, one count of First Degree Felony Murder, Possession of a Firearm During those Felonies, and First Degree Robbery.  The State has expressed its intention to seek the death penalty if Rauf is convicted on either of the First Degree Murder counts.  On January 12, 2016, the United States Supreme Court held in Hurst v. Florida that Florida‘s capital sentencing scheme was unconstitutional because "[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death."  On January 25, 2016, the Superior Court certified five questions of law to this Court for disposition in accordance with Supreme Court Rule 41.  On January 28, 2016, this Court accepted revised versions of the questions certified by the Superior Court and designated Rauf as the appellant and the State as the appellee.

In this case, we are asked to address important questions regarding the constitutionality of our state‘s death penalty statute. The Superior Court believed that Hurst reflected an evolution of the law that raised serious questions about the continuing validity of Delaware‘s death penalty statute.  Specifically, Hurst prompted the question of whether our death penalty statute sufficiently respects a defendant‘s Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.

Because answering the certified questions requires us to interpret not simply the Sixth Amendment itself, but the complex body of case law interpreting it, we have a diversity of views on exactly why the answers to the questions are what we have found them to be.  But that diversity of views is outweighed by the majority‘s collective view that Delaware‘s current death penalty statute violates the Sixth Amendment role of the jury as set forth in Hurst.  We also have a shared belief that the importance of the subject to our state and our fellow citizens, reflected in the excellent briefs and arguments of the parties, makes it useful for all the Justices to bring our various perspectives to bear on these difficult questions.

August 2, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, August 01, 2016

Quickly responding to (nonexistant?) problem, NY Gov bars paroled sex offenders from playing Pokemon Go

Pokemon1n-5-webAs reported in this New York Daily News article, headlined "Cuomo orders Pokémon Go prohibition for sex offenders on parole," the chief executive of a state has decided he must chiefly concern himself with who plays with a new video game.  Here are the details (with one seemingly important fact from the story highlighted):

For sex offenders in New York, it will be Pokémon No Go. Gov. Cuomo Sunday ordered that the state make it a condition of parole for sex offenders that they stay away from Pokémon Go and similar interactive games, the Daily News has learned.

The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision is barring all registered sex offenders under supervision from downloading, accessing, or playing such Internet gaming activities, under the directive.

Roughly 3,000 predators currently on state parole will be immediately impacted, state officials said.  The state will also be sending guidance to the counties around the state that supervise another 5,000 lower level convicted sex offenders urging them to adopt the new policy.

"Protecting New York's children is priority number one and, as technology evolves, we must ensure these advances don't become new avenues for dangerous predators to prey on new victims," Cuomo said.  "These actions will provide safeguards for the players of these augmented reality games and help take one more tool away from those seeking to do harm to our children."

The Pokémon Go app sends players on a hunt to catch digital Pokémon characters.  If a sex offender is caught playing the game in New York, it would be a violation of the terms of their parole and they could be returned to prison, a Cuomo aide said.

Cuomo also sent a letter to software developer Niantic Inc. to request assistance in keeping Pokémon Go out of the hands of sex predators. "The State has taken action to prohibit sex offenders from using this game, but we need your assistance to make certain that sex offenders will not continue to use Pokémon GO by technologically barring their use," Cuomo wrote in the letter. "Working together, we can ensure that this danger today does not escalate into a tragedy tomorrow."

The governor also directed the Department of Criminal Justice Services to provide Niantic with the most recent version of the state's sex offender registry in the hopes the company will use the list to keep people from having access to the app. The Department of Criminal Justice Services will also contact Apple and Google "to inform them of these public safety concerns and work with them to enhance user safety," Cuomo said.

The order and letter came two days after state Sens. Jeffrey Klein and Diane Savino released a report titled "Protecting Our Children: How Pokémon Go and Augmented Reality Games Expose Children To Sex Offenders." After sending staffers over a two-week period to more than 100 homes of level-2 and level-3 sex offenders in the city, the senators found that characters generated by the Pokémon Go app appeared 57% of the time. That figure rose to 73% when related items like PokeStops and Pokémon gyms are factored in, the report showed. The two senators called for passage of legislation that would keep young children and other players at least 100 feet away from a convicted sex offender's home.

Officials have also expressed concern that a feature of Pokémon Go called a "lure" can make it easier for sex predators to tempt potential victims to come to their homes. Savino on Friday said there's no evidence to any kids were sexually abused after being lured by the Pokémon app.

In light of the last line I have highlighted above, suppose New Yorkers should be grateful that state officials have been so quick to deal with the problem of "Poke Perves" even before such a problem even exists.  Sigh.

August 1, 2016 in Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Reviewing disconcerting realities when kids are put on sex offender registries

Eric Berkowitz has this notable New York Times commentary, headlined "Punishment That Doesn’t Fit the Crime," about juveniles and sex offender registries. Here are excerpts:

When Matthew Grottalio was 10 years old, he and his older brother initiated a touching “game” with their 8-year-old sister. “None of us knew what we were doing,” he said, and he soon forgot about the episode.  But later that year, 1998, his sister’s teacher found out and notified the authorities.  Just weeks after Matthew’s 11th birthday, police officers handcuffed him outside his fifth-grade classroom.

Matthew and his parents agreed to a guilty plea in exchange for two years of probation, which he spent in a foster home. (His brother also pleaded guilty.)  When he returned to his family, they were stunned to learn that he was listed on the Texas sex offender registry website, and would be for 10 years.  He was just 13 years old.  Neighbors threw a Molotov cocktail at his house and shot and killed his family’s dog.  Local newspapers listed him by name along with adult sex offender “monsters” in the area.

He soon “hated life, hated everybody.”  Their sons’ ordeals shattered their parents’ marriage of two decades. Matthew dropped out of high school, ran away, was homeless for two years, sank into drugs and served time for burglary and parole violations.  His decade on the registry had ended by 2011, but internet searches continued to show him on the list — and still do.  Even worse, his parole included restrictions suitable to a serial child rapist.  He was barred from any unsupervised and unapproved contacts with people under 17, and from any contact with his sister, who was by then an adult. (She says she never considered him a threat.)  He also was barred from contact with the children of the woman he married in 2013. Even contact with the baby the couple had together was in limbo until he passed a sex offender evaluation....

Mr. Grottalio’s story is not unusual. In about 40 states, juveniles are listed on sex offender registries, often for their entire lives.  In about 19 states, there is no minimum registration age.  Prepubescent children are listed along with violent adult sex criminals.  While precise data is unavailable, it appears that as many as 24,000 of the nation’s more than 800,000 registered sex offenders are juveniles, and about 16 percent of that population are younger than 12 years old.  More than one-third are 12 to 14....

In her career as a criminal defense lawyer for juveniles and a researcher on juvenile sex offenders, Nicole Pittman, now a vice president at Impact Justice, defended or reviewed about 2,000 juvenile sex cases.  Most involved what she called “normative” sexual behavior and “experimentation.”  Nevertheless, on many sex offender websites, there are juveniles’ photos, names and addresses, and even maps to their homes....

2006, about 32 states had sex offender laws registering juveniles.  That year, the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act mandated, for the first time, that certain youths 14 and over be registered in the state where the violation occurred. (Once that happens, the person also goes on the national registry.) The law also said that offenses such as indecent exposure and public urination had to be included. At least six states now require juveniles to be on the register for life.  Given that state and federal laws have grown into an often conflicting tangle of requirements and penalties, there can be no end to some kids’ ordeals....

The expansion of sex offender laws to include juveniles was based on the assumption that kids who sexually transgress cannot be reformed.  However, research has shown this assumption to be false. Only 1 percent to 7 percent of children who commit sexual offenses will do it again — much lower than the 13 percent recidivism rates for adult sexual offenders.

The policy seems to succeed only in making life difficult for offenders, subjecting them to harassment and isolation. Of the more than 500 youth sex offenders whose cases Ms. Pittman examined, about 100 had attempted suicide.... Knowing this, prosecutors like Vicki Seidl, the senior lawyer in the juvenile division of the Kent County district attorney’s office in Michigan, now push for pleas that keep youths off registries.  Other prosecutors are following suit.

But that alone will not solve the problem.  Juveniles, particularly ones under 14, need to be off the registries entirely. In 2011, the Department of Justice relaxed the requirement for registering juveniles, but legislators still fear that they’ll be accused of being “soft” on sex crimes.

July 31, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Judge Jack Weinstein authors mega-opinion threatening to find sentence unconstitutional if offender not placed in certain prison(!?!?)

A number of helpful reader alerted me to this notable local story describing the latest remarkable (and legally suspect?) sentencing opinion by US District Judge Jack Weinstein.  The piece is (inaccurately) headlined "Brooklyn judge says no prison for convicted child molester," and here are the reported details:

A Brooklyn federal judge on Thursday urged the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to hold a convicted child molester in a medical facility and said he would find the 15-year mandatory minimum sentence unconstitutional if the bureau doesn’t comply.

The apparently unprecedented move by U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein, who said defendant “D.W.” — identified on the court docket as Darnell Washington — had mental problems and would be a suicide risk in the general prison population, reflected the judge’s long-standing criticism of mandatory minimums.

Weinstein said Washington, 27, of Brooklyn, a repeat offender convicted of both child pornography charges and sexual exploitation of a minor, had been abused as a child, raped during an earlier prison stint, identified as gay and was suicidal.

The judge said 15 years in a regular prison would make him “uniquely vulnerable” to abuse or solitary confinement, and amount to cruel and unusual punishment. He said the time should be served at the Federal Medical Center prison in Devens, Massachusetts, where sex-offender treatment is available, or another medical facility.

The Bureau of Prisons is not obligated to follow a judge’s preference, but Weinstein said if his recommendations were ignored and Washington was put in “general population of a medium or high security prison” he was “prepared” to find the sentence unconstitutional.

“The court is required . . . to impose a sentence of fifteen years in prison on this defendant,” Weinstein wrote in his 215-page ruling. “But, it has the responsibility and power to ensure that the sentence is carried out in a civilized way.”

Until I have an opportunity to review the 200+ page opinion in this case (which I cannot yet find on-line), I am not yet prepared to criticize Judge Weinstein's work here. Moreover, now that the judge has imposed the formal sentence, I am not sure he even has any proper jurisdictional basis to declare it unconstitutional if (and when?) prison official do not comply with his placement mandate.

UPDATE:  A helpful reader sent me a copy of the full opinion in US v. DW for posting here:  Download US v DW

July 30, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Friday, July 29, 2016

Is it lack of conviction, lack of courage, or just lack of cleverness that leads Dems to be so weak on criminal justice reform advocacy?

In this post on Monday, I predicted we would hear a lot more this week about criminal justice reform from leading Democrats during the DNC than we had heard last week from leading Republicans during the RNC.  I suppose that prediction was not entirely mistaken, as both Prez Obama on Wednesday and Prez candidate Clinton on Thursday each had a few lines about criminal justice reform in their speeches.  For those who missed the brief mentions of criminal justice in their two+ hours of speechification, here is what was said:

I suppose I was foolish for thinking and really hoping that Democratic leaders would have much more to say than this relative pablum about criminal justice reform circa 2016. And the deliberative decision to prioritize polite CJ reform pablum over actual CJ reform advocacy prompts the (frustration-filled) question in the title of this post.  Let me briefly unpack what I mean by this question, hoping to generate some serious and sober discussions on this front:

A lack of conviction?:  In light of Prez Bill Clinton's "tough-on-crime" legacy and Prez Obama's milquetoast efforts to reverse course, I am growing ever more convinced that leading Democrats are perhaps just not all that troubled by modern mass incarceration, the aggressive drug war, marijuana prohibition, private prisons, felon disenfranchisement, overcriminalization, inadequate defense funding, wrongful convictions, prosecutorial misconduct or a host of other persistent criminal justice problems that have nothing to do with the hot-button (dog-whistle?) topics of race or guns.

A lack of courage?:  I sincerely want to believe that leading Democrats (as well as leading Republicans and independents) really are troubled by modern mass incarceration, the aggressive drug war, marijuana prohibition, private prisons, felon disenfranchisement, overcriminalization, inadequate defense funding, wrongful convictions, prosecutorial misconduct and a host of other persistent criminal justice problems.  But if leading Dems do want to see real reform in these arenas, why do they lack the courage to encourage serious discussion of serious reforms?  Why thoughout the election season to date has (independent) Bernie Sanders been the only major candidate with the courage to keep talking forcefully about the probems of mass incarceration and to advocate for specific reforms like ending federal marijuana prohibition and the use of private prisons?

A lack of cleverness?:  I am never sure if I am comforted or further depressed when thinking that leading Dems genuinely care about criminal justice reform but ultimately lack the ability to speak about these issues in clever and politically shrwed ways to build on (now bipartisan) political interest in significant reforms.  For example, Prez Obama could have (and I think should have) added to his statement that he has been pleased to see many more "mayors and sheriffs and state's attorneys and state legislators" in red states as well as blue states committed to innovative justice programming seeking to reduce our nation's over-reliance on incarceration.  Similarly, Prez candidate Clinton could have (and I think should have) added to her statement that she would be eager to draw on the work and wisdom of both Republican and Democratic Governors and Attorneys General to identify state-level reforms that have proved most effective at rebuilding needed "trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve."

Sigh.....

July 29, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

Thursday, July 28, 2016

"California Votes 2016: An Analysis of the Competing Death Penalty Ballot Initiatives."

The title of this post is the title of this lengthy report recently published by the Alarcón Advocacy Center at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles and co-authored by Professor Paula Mitchell, executive director of the Alarcón Advocacy Center, and Nancy Haydt, Board of Governors, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.  The perspective on whether to end or mend the California death penalty is somewhat predictable based on the past work of the authors, and this overview from the document itself provides a summary of its analysis:

California voters will decide the fate of the state’s death penalty this November. There is now a broad consensus that California’s death penalty system is broken.  Voters will be asked to choose between two starkly different proposals to address its dysfunction and failures.  Competing ballot initiatives will ask voters either to replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, or to double down on the failed system by spending millions more to modify and expand it.

Voters can either support YES on Prop 62, which will replace the death penalty with life without parole and save the state $150 million per year.  Or, voters can support Prop 66 to keep the death penalty system and implement multiple changes to how it operates.  Each proposition would make substantial and far reaching changes to California’s criminal justice system. But only one can pass into law: if both propositions receive more than 50% of the vote, then the one with most votes will become law and the other will not.

This Report analyzes the competing initiatives.  It looks at the current state of the death penalty system in California and analyzes how each initiative will work in practice.  In particular it looks at whether the initiatives will achieve their stated goals, and whether there would be other, perhaps unintended, consequences to their passage into law.

This Report concludes that Prop 66’s proposed “fixes” to the current system will cost millions more than the already expensive death penalty system and will not speed up executions.  In fact, Prop 66 will only make matters worse by creating more delays and further clogging the state’s over-burdened court system.  Prop 66 will add layers of appeals to a system already facing an insurmountable backlog of decades of death penalty appeals waiting to be decided.

Prop 66 contains other provisions that proponents claim will speed up executions, such as keeping the lethal injection protocols secret and out of the public’s purview, exempting them from the Administrative Procedures Act.  This and other key features of Prop 66 will certainly be subject to litigation challenging the provisions on constitutional and other grounds, should Prop 66 pass, adding yet more delays to death penalty cases.

The Report further finds that Prop 66 fails to make the constitutional changes required to deliver the results it promises.  At the same time, its proposals are so convoluted that they are likely to create many new problems that will not only complicate the administration of the death penalty system, but will also impact and harm the rest of California’s legal system.

This Report finds that Prop 62, by contrast, is straightforward and transparent.  It replaces the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, saving the state $1.5 billion in the next ten years alone.  Prop 62 requires inmates to work and increases the victim compensation rate.  Prop 62 ensures that the state never executes an innocent person, without jeopardizing public safety.

July 28, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

US Sentencing Commission releases big new report urging reform of career offender enhancements

As detailed in this official press release, the US Sentencing Commission today released a big new report (running over 100 pages!) under the title "Report to the Congress: Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements." Here is how the press release summarizes this important new release from the USSC:

The United States Sentencing Commission (“Commission”) issued a Report to the Congress: Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements, analyzing career offenders’ prior criminal history, incarceration terms and recidivism rates.

Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission, stated, “The Commission’s research shows that there are important differences between violent career offenders and drug trafficking career offenders. Based on these findings, Congress should amend the statutory criteria such that career offender status would not be based solely on drug trafficking offenses.”

Currently, a defendant qualifies as a career offender if he or she: 1) is convicted of an offense that is either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense; and 2) has at least two prior felony convictions.  Career offenders face longer incarceration terms, receiving an average sentence of more than 12 years (147 months).  As a result of these longer sentences, career offenders now account for more than 11 percent of the total federal prison population.  Yet, career offenders are increasingly receiving sentences below the federal sentencing guideline range, often at the request of the government.  The research also shows that, compared to “drug trafficking only” offenders, violent career offenders generally have a more serious and extensive criminal history, recidivate at a higher rate, and are more likely to commit another violent offense in the future.  In fiscal year 2014, 45% of “drug trafficking only” offenders received sentences that were reduced at the government’s request.

In fiscal year 2014, nearly three-quarters (74.1%) of career offenders were convicted of a drug trafficking offense. Drug trafficking offenders often face higher statutory maximum penalties, including life imprisonment.  These offenders were also more likely to receive a sentence below the federal sentencing guideline range.

Earlier this year, the Commission voted unanimously to amend the definition of “crime of violence” in the federal sentencing guidelines, with an effective date of August 1, 2016.  Chair Saris added, “Based on the report’s findings and recommendations, Congress should adopt a new, single definition of ‘crime of violence’ that is consistent with the Commission’s revised approach.”

July 28, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

New Fair Punishment Project report laments frequent and persistent use of juve LWOP in one Michigan county

In this post earlier this year, I noted the new initiative emerging from Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP).   And the first big project of the FPP was this interesting report highlighting the history of Philadelphia frequently using life without parole sentences for juvenile murderers.  Now, as reported via this blog posting, FPP has another notabe report on this topic focused on another region another northern state.  Here are the details (and links) via the start of the blog posting:

A new report [focused on Michigan juvenile sentencing realities] highlights Wayne County’s frequent use of juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences, calling the county an “extreme outlier” in its use of the punishment.  The report also criticizes D.A. Worthy’s decision, which was announced Friday, to again seek life sentences for at least one out of three individuals currently serving this sentence.

The report urges District Attorney Kym Worthy to adopt a new approach to dealing with juveniles in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which determined that the court’s prior decision barring mandatory life without parole sentences for youth must be applied retroactively, and that the punishment is only appropriate in the rarest of cases where a juvenile is determined to be “irreparably corrupt.”

The report, Juvenile Life Without Parole in Wayne County: Time to Join the Growing National Consensus?, notes that Wayne County is responsible for the highest number of juvenile life without parole sentences in the country now that Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has recently announced that he will not be seeking LWOP sentences for any of the individuals previously sentenced to JLWOP there.

Currently there are more than 150 individuals serving JLWOP in Wayne County.  While Wayne County has just 18% of the statewide population, it has at least 40% of the JLWOP sentences in the state of Michigan.  Most incredibly, African-Americans are 39% of Wayne County’s population, but more than 90% of the individuals serving juvenile life with parole sentences from the county are Black.  D.A. Worthy’s office obtained 27 JLWOP sentences during her tenure.

July 28, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

How much is federal prosecution of Native American teen for a marijuana offense in Oregon going to cost taxpayers?

DownloadThe question in the title of this post is my effort to focus a bit more on the fiscal realities surrounding an interesting federal misdemeanor marijuana prosecution discussed in this lengthy local article from Oregon.  The article is headlined "Devontre Thomas is 19. He Could Face a Year in Prison. For a Gram of Marijuana. How could this happen in Oregon?".  The details here are so interesting for so many reasons, including a recent decision by the defendant not to agree to a plea to what seems to be federal charges less serious than might have been alleged.  Here are some details:

Devontre Thomas is 19 years old. In a few weeks, he goes on trial in federal court in Portland.  If he loses, he could go to prison for a year. For possessing an amount of cannabis that would fill one joint....

On April 7, 2016, the U.S. attorney for Oregon filed a one-count federal misdemeanor charge against Thomas for possessing "about a gram" of marijuana, according to his public defender, Ruben Iniguez.  That's barely enough cannabis to dust the bottom of a Ziploc.

"I've never seen a case like this in my entire time practicing in federal court," says Bear Wilner-Nugent, a Portland criminal defense lawyer for 12 years. "It's outlandish." It's the first time in at least three years that the feds are prosecuting a weed crime in Oregon.

Since then, Oregon voters legalized recreational marijuana. Anyone over 21 can walk into a store and buy up to a quarter ounce — 7 grams — of cannabis. In the first five months of recreational sales, the state collected $14.9 million in marijuana sales taxes. But weed isn't equally legal everywhere in Oregon.

Thomas is accused of screwing up like any other teenager. But his alleged mistake occurred at Chemawa Indian School, a boarding school in the state capital, Salem, operated by the Bureau of Indian Education, an arm of the federal government.  Observers say Thomas' prosecution, first reported by KGW-TV, is a poster case for how the nation's drug laws are still stacked against minorities — especially Native Americans. "There's absolutely racial disparity in how these cases are charged," says Amy Margolis, a lawyer at Emerge Law Group, a Portland firm that specializes in cannabis cases. "[Thomas] had the bad luck of being where and who he was."...

The prosecution of Thomas raises questions about the priorities of U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams, the state's chief federal prosecutor.  Among them: Why are federal prosecutors, who claim that Oregon is a den of heroin, meth and opioid trafficking, spending time and resources to go after a teenager for such a small amount of pot?  After two weeks of declining requests for comment, Williams finally issued this statement to WW: "We look forward to addressing the facts of the case in an appropriate manner and, most importantly, within the judicial process."

But members of Oregon's congressional delegation say it's alarming that Williams would prosecute the case at all. "I think it's deplorable," says U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). "What are we doing? Where are our priorities? A kid? Turning his life upside down? They don't have anything better to do to protect young people or Oregonians? It's incomprehensible to me."

As bizarre as Thomas' pot case is in weed-happy Oregon, the place where his alleged offense occurred is just as much of an anachronism. Chemawa, a Native American boarding school, was founded in 1880 and is the longest continually operating boarding school for Native American youth....

Thomas arrived at Chemawa from Madras High School, where he spent his first two years before transferring. He is a member of the Warm Springs tribe, and grew up with his parents and grandparents on the tribe's reservation 105 miles southeast of Portland.... A parent of a fellow Chemawa student described the Thomases as "a good family." His friends say his childhood was that of a normal, loved boy: spending the night at friends' houses, playing basketball on the Madras High junior varsity team....

Rayvaughn Skidmore, 20, also attended Chemawa with Thomas.... Skidmore says Thomas "would always help out his peers and be a leader—showing them what's the right things to do." Skidmore says Chemawa staff members would sometimes drive kids into town to go shopping at Keizer Station Shopping Center or Lancaster Mall in Salem, and he thinks that's when some students would meet up with marijuana connections and bring the substance back to campus.

But when kids on campus were caught with marijuana in their possession, "they'd get sent home." Skidmore says those infractions never resulted in legal charges, even though he knew plenty of classmates who regularly smoked weed. "These other students who are highly abusing any type of marijuana — I don't see why those guys get sent home when they should be prosecuted," he says....

Thomas was never technically arrested for marijuana possession.  On March 25, 2015, Iniguez says, a staff member at Chemawa found roughly a gram of marijuana in a student's backpack. That kid said Thomas had sold him the weed. The Marion County Sheriff's Office confirmed that it responded to a call on that date involving Thomas and a juvenile classmate for "delivery" of marijuana.

Nearly a year after a classmate ratted out Thomas, a Chemawa staff member and a police officer drove him to the federal courthouse in Portland to appear before a judge. Lawyers interviewed for this story say it's likely that Thomas is feeling outsized consequences because Chemawa Indian School is under federal jurisdiction....

Retired federal drug prosecutor John Deits says Thomas' case is probably being handled as a federal case because "it's the only jurisdiction that can respond to the charge."

"Nobody else has authority," Deits says. "Marion County doesn't have authority because it's exclusive federal authority. And Indian tribes don't have jurisdiction because it didn't happen on their land."...

The resulting prosecution of Thomas shocks national observers. "He's 19. This is going to potentially haunt him the rest of his life," says Alison Holcomb, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's national Campaign for Smart Justice in Seattle.  It's also a stark reminder that the War on Drugs isn't over — even in Oregon.

Observers find it bizarre that the feds have continued to pursue Thomas' case. But U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has been vocal about her desire to keep pot illegal.  Local responsibility for prosecuting Thomas falls to Williams, the U.S. attorney for Oregon.... "We are committed to just outcomes in every case," he says. "We look forward to exploring whatever the defense ask that we consider before determining what we believe is an appropriate outcome."

Other federal officials are critical of the prosecution. "The federal government hasn't prosecuted a marijuana-possession case in Oregon in five years," says U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). "Situations like this are best left to be handled by the state."

Blumenauer, who as an Oregon congressman has become one of the nation's loudest voices for marijuana legalization, is enraged. "It is such a powerful symbol of a waste of resources and the inequity of the system," says Blumenauer, "because you and I can walk around in Portland, or in states where it is illegal, and find people using it.  To single him out, to proceed with this, to ignore real problems that are killing people…" He pauses. "I'm sorry," he finally says. "I'm getting carried away. It's incomprehensible to me. I'm just sorry that Mr. Thomas is caught up in it."

The people surrounding Thomas in the federal courthouse in Portland on July 8 — Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Martin, U.S. District Chief Justice Michael Mosman, three functionaries and a probation officer — expected Thomas to plead guilty to drug possession and enter a six-month diversion program.  But a few moments earlier, Thomas' public defender, Iniguez, hustled into the courtroom with Thomas to announce a change of plans.

"He's not going to be pleading guilty today," Iniguez said. Martin, the prosecutor, looked shocked. "We want to go to trial?" she asked, flummoxed. "If we're making a federal case out of it," said Iniguez, sneaking in a smile, "we'll make a federal case out of it."

Holcomb, of the national ACLU, speculates that Thomas' last-minute decision not to plead guilty may show a steadfastness on his part to prove that he's no different from any other Oregon teenager who messed around with pot. "Devontre's response, to me, indicates a genuinely felt sense of unfairness," Holcomb says. "That it is unfair that he's being charged in federal court for this. It's the latest in a string of dramatic examples of how deeply people are feeling about unfairness and inequality…it sounds like that bubbled up for Devontre."...

Thomas is scheduled for trial Sept.13.

Like nearly all federal prosecutions that become media stories, I sense that this press account is revealing only the tip of an iceberg backstory. For starters, though subject formally only to a federal misdemeanor possession charge, the facts described here suggest that the defendant could have (and some might even say should have?) been subject to a federal felony marijuana distrubution charge. In addition, it seems the feds were seemingly eager to resolve the case through a plea that would prevent the defendant from serving any time or having a felony record. But now it seems that the defense may be gearing up for contesting the charges factually or perhaps constitutionally (or perhaps even via jury nullification if other avenues of defense falter).

I probably could go on and on about this case, and it is certainly one I will be keeping an eye on in the coming months. But, as suggested in the title of this post, whatever else one thinks about this case, I cannot help but wonder how many federal taxpayer dollars will end up being spent on this (minor?) matter.

July 28, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

John Hinkley now to be freed from a psychiatric hospital, now 35 years after his crime and verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity

As reported in this Reuters piece, "John Hinckley Jr., who wounded U.S. President Ronald Reagan and three other people in a 1981 assassination attempt prompted by his obsession with actress Jodie Foster, can be freed from a psychiatric hospital to live with his mother, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday."  Here is more about this notable ruling in perhaps the highest-profile insanity case of all time:

U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said Hinckley, 61, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in a 1982 trial, no longer posed a danger to himself or others. He said Hinckley could be released from St. Elizabeth's, a government psychiatric hospital in Washington, as soon as Aug. 5, subject to nearly three dozen conditions. "Since 1983, when he last attempted suicide, he has displayed no symptoms of active mental illness, exhibited no violent behavior, shown no interest in weapons, and demonstrated no suicidal ideation," Friedman said of Hinckley in a 103-page opinion.

In addition to Reagan, Hinckley's attack wounded presidential press secretary James Brady, a policeman and a Secret Service agent. It helped launch the modern gun control movement, as Brady and his wife, Sarah, founded what is now known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence after he was left permanently disabled. The Bradys' support helped the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act become law in 1993, imposing federal background checks on gun purchases and a five-day waiting period.

The Hinckley verdict also led several states to rewrite their laws making it more difficult to use the insanity defense while the U.S. Secret Service tightened its protocols for presidential security.

Upon his admission to St. Elizabeth's, doctors diagnosed Hinckley with depression and psychosis - two maladies they say have been in remission for years. Friedman said Hinckley will be required to spend at least a year living with his mother, Jo Ann, 90, in Williamsburg, Virginia, about 130 miles (210 km) south of Washington, where he has been making increasingly long furlough visits for several years.

If Hinckley's treatment team approves, he may then move into his own residence by himself or with roommates, Friedman said. He also said if Hinckley's mother becomes unable to monitor him in her home, his brother or sister will be required to live there with him until the hospital determines an alternate plan. In a May story about Hinckley's life, Washingtonian magazine cited neighbors in her gated community who liked Mrs. Hinckley but did not want him living there.

Hinckley had unsuccessfully sought jobs in Williamsburg at places such as Starbucks and a Subway sandwich shop and tried to become involved in volunteer programs in the town, Washingtonian said. He eventually took a volunteer job in the library of a psychiatric facility in Williamsburg. Hinckley's behavior during his furlough visits has been unimpeachable aside from a few occasions, the judge wrote. Twice in 2011, Hinckley lied to hospital staff about where he had been.

Friedman's order imposes nearly three dozen conditions, including a requirement that Hinckley meet with his psychiatrist in Washington monthly and notify the Secret Service when he travels for the appointment. He is barred from making contact with Foster or her family, Reagan's family and relatives of the other victims, and he is required to either work or volunteer at least three days per week. He is restricted to a 50-mile radius of Williamsburg and must make information about his mobile phone, vehicle and Internet browsing history available to his treatment team and law enforcement.

The petition for release from Hinckley was supported by his doctors but opposed by U.S. prosecutors. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did Hinckley lawyer Barry Levine. Hinckley was a 25-year-old college dropout with vague aspirations of a musical career when he fired at Reagan. He had become obsessed with Foster and the Martin Scorsese film "Taxi Driver" in which she played a teenage prostitute. Hinckley began to identify with the film's main character, Travis Bickle, who planned to assassinate a presidential candidate, and spent several years trying to make contact with Foster, who was a student at Yale University in Connecticut.

On March 30, 1981, Hinckley wrote Foster a letter detailing his plans to kill Reagan in an effort to win her over. Later that day, Hinckley approached Reagan outside the Washington Hilton Hotel and opened fire. Reagan suffered a punctured lung but recovered relatively quickly. Brady's death in 2014 was attributed to his wounds but federal prosecutors said the following year they would not charge Hinckley with his murder.

Foster has refused to comment publicly on Hinckley since addressing it in 1981, and a publicist for the Academy Award-winning actress did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

The full 103-page opinion in US v. Hinckley is available at this link.

Some prior related posts:

July 27, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Spotlighting the travesty of how the Eleventh Circuit is handling Johnson claims

I highlighted in this post here last week the potent opinions by a number of Eleventh Circuit judges explaining why they think the Circuit's precendents for dealing with prisoner petitions based on the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), are so very wrong and unjust.  A helpful reader made sure that I did not miss this recent Bloomberg commentary on this topic authored by Noah Feldman headlined "This Is What 'Travesty of Justice' Looks Like."  Here are excerpts:

Call it Scalia’s revenge. In one of the last cases that he authored before he died in February, Justice Antonin Scalia convinced his colleagues to strike down a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act because it was unconstitutionally vague.  As a result, thousands of convicted felons are now asking courts to have their sentences reduced.

The legal rules for considering such post-conviction requests are tricky and technical.  But in most of the country, prisoners are getting another day in court to have their ACCA convictions reviewed in the light of the new legal principle.  In the Eleventh Circuit, which includes Alabama, Georgia and Florida, the process has gone badly awry [and] a judge on the circuit's court of appeals cried foul, calling for a fundamental change in how its handling these cases....

Before a prisoner can go back to the district court for what’s called a “second, successive” post-conviction petition, he or she needs special permission from a federal court of appeals.  The stakes are high for the prisoners.  In some cases, the difference might be between the 15-year minimum imposed on felons with three prior convictions, and a sentence of 10 years or less for fewer convictions.

Consequently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has been immersed in the time-consuming process of figuring out who should be allowed a second chance to file a petition in District Court seeking review of their sentence.  It's studying presentence reports to ascertain whether any of the prior convictions should still count, and, if so, how that might change the petitioner's sentence.  Yet no other court of appeals appears to be engaging in this kind of case-by-case analysis. They’ve been approving the requests automatically and allowing a federal district court to sort out the details.

Judge Beverly Martin of the Eleventh Circuit issued an unusual and stirring opinion ... declaring that the process in her court wasn’t working.  Martin asserted that among the thousands of applications and hundreds of denials, her court has been making mistakes -- mistakes that, by their legal nature, can't be appealed. “A court of appeals is simply not equipped to construct a new basis for a prisoner’s old sentence in this way,” she wrote.

To make matters worse, the Eleventh Circuit gives itself 30 days to rule on each request.  The presentence report can be inadequate or misleading, and there are no attorneys involved to explain what it means.  And most prior convictions are under state law, which varies from place to place and have technical details that are hard for the court to determine without a lawyer’s help.

What's more, the Eleventh Circuit had rejected petitions for reconsideration before the Supreme Court said its Johnson ruling applied retroactively.

The upshot is that something very like a travesty of justice is happening in the Eleventh Circuit.  And as you know if you’re still reading this, the issue is sufficiently technical that it’s hard to draw attention to the problem.  But real people are spending potentially many extra years in prison on the basis of an unconstitutional law.  That’s wrong.  In the spirit of Justice Scalia, the Eleventh Circuit should change course and start allowing district courts to review post-Johnson ACCA petitions the way the other circuits do.

July 27, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"The Death Penalty and the Fifth Amendment"

The title of this post is the title of this essay authored by Joseph Blocker and just published online by the Northwestern Law Review. Here is part of the introduction: 

Can the Supreme Court find unconstitutional something that the text of the Constitution “contemplates”?  If the Bill of Rights mentions a punishment, does that make it a “permissible legislative choice” immune to independent constitutional challenges?

The dueling opinions in Glossip v. Gross have brought renewed attention to the constitutionality of the death penalty. In a dissent joined by Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer identified “three fundamental constitutional defects” with the death penalty.... Justice Breyer’s dissent marked the first time that two members of the current Court have announced a belief that the death penalty is likely unconstitutional “in and of itself,” and the opinion has justifiably been treated as a significant development.

In a blistering concurrence, Justice Scalia (joined by Justice Thomas) wrote that the dissent was full of “gobbledy-gook,” and that “not once in the history of the American Republic has this Court ever suggested the death penalty is categorically impermissible.” Justice Scalia argued that the Fifth Amendment afforded a textual basis for the capital punishment’s continued constitutionality....   Announcing his concurrence from the bench, Justice Scalia made the point even more strongly, saying that “the death penalty is approved by the Constitution.” He and many others have made some version of this point...

The Fifth Amendment contains prohibitions, not powers, and there is no reason to suppose that it somehow nullifies other constitutional prohibitions — most importantly, the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  The real target of the Fifth Amendment Argument can only be the Court’s longstanding Eighth Amendment doctrine, which is not limited to the punishments considered cruel and unusual at the time of the Constitution’s framing. Unless and until that doctrine changes, the Argument itself carries no weight.

To be clear, the inverse argument would be equally faulty. The weakness of the Fifth Amendment Argument does not mean that the death penalty is unconstitutional, let alone “categorically” so, only that the “constitutional defects” Justice Breyer identifies cannot be dismissed out of hand.  Glossip, along with other developments in law and practice, have made the continuing constitutionality of capital punishment a pressing question. That question should be answered without the distraction of the Fifth Amendment.

July 26, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)

Monday, July 25, 2016

How much (and what kind of) criminal justice reform talk can we expect to hear at the DNC?

I am going to be off-line much of today, and thus I am genuinely interested in having folks spend the day discussion what I see as the most interesting criminal justice reform question for this work-week.  I was not too surprised that we heard relatively little criminal justice reform discussion at the RNC last week, although arguably the emphasis by GOP Prez nominee Donald Trump on being the "law and order" candidate was an indication that the new GOP leader is inclined to get Republicans back to "tough-and-tougher" rhetoric and realities.

Meanwhile, Democratic Prez nominee Hillary Clinton seems likely to be eager to reach out (and motivate) voters interesting in significant sentencing (and police and marijuana) reforms, and these topics even were addressed this past weekend when she officially announced her VP pick Tim Kaine.  Consequently, I am expecting to hear a lot more express and significant reform talk at the DNC than at the RNC.  But how much, and what will be the main focus and more-frequent "talking points"?

In addition to hoping many folks will respond to this post with predictions about what we will hear at the DNC, I would also love to see folks explain just what they are hoping to hear.  So if you could, for example, script two of three sentences that would be in the speech to be given by Clinton or Kaine or others, what would they be?

A few recent related posts:

July 25, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Covering VP candidate Tim Kaine's history on crime and punishment issues (especially the death penalty)

Kaine_official_high_res_photoThe folks at FAMM now have this very helpful and timely webpage reviewing some recent and prior statements by Tim Kaine, the former Viginia Gov and current US Senator whom Hillary Clinton has now picked as her running mate.  That page also provides this interesting accounting of "Kaine’s record on criminal justice issues"

In addition, a number of mainstream and new media sources have now run a number of articles about Kaine's criminal justice history (most of which, notably, are focused on the death penalty). Here are headlines and links:

July 24, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Split Virginia Supreme Court deems unconstitutional mass effort by Gov to restore felon voting rights

As reported in this local article, the "Supreme Court of Virginia on Friday struck down Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to 206,000 felons, dealing a severe blow to what the governor has touted as one of his proudest achievements in office." Here is more about the ruling:

In a 4-3 ruling, the court declared McAuliffe’s order unconstitutional, saying it amounts to a unilateral rewrite and suspension of the state’s policy of lifetime disenfranchisement for felons. The court ordered the Virginia Department of Elections to “cancel the registration of all felons who have been invalidly registered” under McAuliffe’s April 22 executive order and subsequent orders.

As of this week, 11,662 felons had registered to vote under McAuliffe’s orders. The court gave a cancellation deadline of Aug. 25.

McAuliffe, a Democrat, took the sweeping action in April, saying he was doing away with an unusually restrictive voting policy that has a disproportionate impact on African-Americans. In a legal challenge, Republican leaders argued McAuliffe overstepped his power by issuing a blanket restoration order for violent and nonviolent felons with no case-by-case review.

The court majority found that McAuliffe did indeed overstep his authority. “Never before have any of the prior 71 Virginia governors issued a clemency order of any kind — including pardons, reprieves, commutations, and restoration orders — to a class of unnamed felons without regard for the nature of the crimes or any other individual circumstances relevant to the request,” Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons wrote in the majority opinion. “To be sure, no governor of this commonwealth, until now, has even suggested that such a power exists. And the only governors who have seriously considered the question concluded that no such power exists.”

In response, McAuliffe said he will “expeditiously” sign roughly 13,000 individual rights restoration orders for people who have already registered to vote. He said he’ll continue until rights are restored for all 200,000 people affected by the original order.

“Once again, the Virginia Supreme Court has placed Virginia as an outlier in the struggle for civil and human rights,” McAuliffe said in a written statement. “It is a disgrace that the Republican leadership of Virginia would file a lawsuit to deny more than 200,000 of their own citizens the right to vote. And I cannot accept that this overtly political action could succeed in suppressing the voices of many thousands of men and women who had rejoiced with their families earlier this year when their rights were restored.”...

Republicans have attacked the order as a political power grab, accusing McAuliffe of trying to help his friend and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton win a swing state by adding thousands of Democratic-leaning voters to the polls. GOP leaders called the court’s ruling a victory for the rule of law. “He spent 90 days bragging about this being the high point of his governorship,” said Del. Robert B. Bell, R-Albemarle, who’s running for attorney general in 2017. “And the court made it very clear that he acted unconstitutionally.”

In a joint statement, House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, and Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, said: “Our nation was founded on the principles of limited government and separation of powers. Those principles have once again withstood assault from the executive branch. This opinion is a sweeping rebuke of the governor’s unprecedented assertion of executive authority.” Howell and Norment were two of the plaintiffs behind the legal challenge. They argued that their future election bids could be tainted by participation of invalid voters.

Justices Cleo E. Powell and S. Bernard Goodwyn — the court’s two African-Americans — dissented from the ruling, arguing the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the case. Justice William C. Mims also dissented over the issue of standing, saying the court lacked sufficient evidence — most notably the governor’s list of the 206,000 felons affected — to fully consider the order’s impact....

Republicans argued McAuliffe lacks the authority to issue blanket restorations, but Attorney General Mark R. Herring and top constitutional scholar A.E. Dick Howard said McAuliffe was on firm legal ground. “The majority’s opinion is terribly disappointing, especially for the thousands of Virginians who will be thrown off the voter rolls after experiencing the joy, excitement, and fulfillment of getting back their voice and their vote,” Herring said in an emailed statement.

McAuliffe’s Democratic allies blasted Republicans for celebrating a legal victory that will block thousands of Virginians from voting. “It’s a sad and disappointing day when the Virginia Supreme Court bows to political pressure from right-wing ideologues who would rather bar citizens from the polls than compete for every vote,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia. Scholl said the “deciding vote” was Justice Stephen R. McCullough, whom Republicans elected to the Supreme Court this year after refusing to approve McAuliffe’s interim pick, former Justice Jane Marum Roush, for a full term. McCullough sided with the majority....

The legal rebuke comes at an awkward time for McAuliffe, who is scheduled to speak at next week’s Democratic National Convention celebrating Clinton and her newly selected running mate, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. Clinton praised McAuliffe after the order in April. When he was Virginia’s governor, Kaine declined to issue a blanket rights restoration order like the one pursued by McAuliffe, despite pressure from activists. The Supreme Court ruling referenced Kaine’s position, saying Kaine “correctly understood” he did not have blanket restoration power.

The full opinion from the split Virginia Supreme Court is available at this link.

July 23, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Michigan prosecutor wants 71-year-old "juve lifer" to still have no chance of parole

This local AP article, headlined "Prosecutor: No sentencing break for Michigan's oldest juvenile lifer," reports on the disinclination of a Michigan prosecutor to be open to considering even the possibility of parole for an elderly prisoner given LWOP more than a half-century ago. Here are the details:

Oakland County prosecutor Jessica Cooper said Friday she'll seek another no-parole sentence for a 71-year-old man who is the oldest so-called juvenile lifer in the Michigan prison system. Sheldry Topp has been in prison for nearly 54 years. He was 17 in 1962 when he ran away from a state hospital, broke into an Oakland County home and fatally stabbed the owner.

Life sentences with no chance for parole are no longer automatic for anyone under 18. Juvenile lifers have a right to new hearings as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Judges now have discretion and can consider an offender's childhood, education and a variety of other factors.

Prosecutors across Michigan are filing their sentencing proposals this week in more than 350 cases.

The prosecutor said she'll seek no-parole sentences again for 44 people who are in prison, including Topp. She declined to explain her position in Topp's case during an interview with The Associated Press, referring a reporter to a court filing, which wasn't available after business hours.

"When we talk about doing due diligence, we did an incredible amount of due diligence in these cases," said Cooper, a former judge. "The cases that we've been reviewing are not the kids who were at the wrong place at the wrong time. We're talking about stabbings, shootings and strangulations. ... I'm shocked."

Topp, who turns 72 in September, is in a prison in Muskegon. In a recent court filing, attorney Deborah LaBelle said he was in a hospital with heart problems. She couldn't be reached for comment Friday. In 1987 and 2007, the state parole board recommended that Topp's sentence be reduced, but governors declined.

Meanwhile, in Wayne County — the state's largest — prosecutor Kym Worthy said she would seek no-parole sentences again for at least 60 prisoners who were convicted of murder as teens.

Worthy said she'll ask that 81 people be given a certain number of years in prison instead of a no-parole sentence. That could lead to freedom for some who already have been locked up for decades.

July 23, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Guest posting from Prof Mark Osler with advice to US Sentencing Commission on revising drug sentencing guidelines

Earlier this month, federal sentencing reform guru Mark Osler informed me that he put together some suggestions for the US Sentencing Commission in response to its request for public comment about proposed priorities.  In turn, I urged Mark to put together a guest-post for this space to ensure his insights can be seen outside the Beltway.  Here is what he sent my way:

Each year, the United States Sentencing Commission goes through a seasonal cycle; it starts and ends in May, when the Commission publishes proposed amendments (closing out one cycle) while setting out proposed priorities and inviting public comments to begin the next cycle. This year the public comment period lasts until July 25. You can get more complete information at www.ussc.gov.

The proposed priorities for this year are strikingly broad and encouraging for reform advocates.  They include some specific items, including “consideration of expanding the “safety valve” at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f), and elimination of the mandatory “stacking” of penalties under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c),” but also some fascinating broader priorities.  The line that really caught my attention was this one: “the Commission intends to study possible approaches to (A) simplify the operation of the guidelines, promote proportionality, and reduce sentencing disparities; and (B) appropriately account for the defendant’s role, culpability, and relevant conduct.”

For those fascinated by federal sentencing, could there be a more enticing invitation?

I have submitted my own comment, which Doug has kindly linked here [down below].  It grows out of the response I got to a New York Times op-ed I wrote in 2014, suggesting that the weight of narcotics used in a conspiracy is a lousy proxy for the culpability of any one conspirator, and that it would be much better to instead simply enhance sentences for those individuals who make the most money from a narcotics operation.  After that piece ran, I was surprised at the group I heard from the most: sentencing judges.  A few pointed out (correctly) that they had proposed this decades ago, while others simply affirmed the problem with weight of narcotics as the central metric for a drug sentence.  And, of course, they had depressing stories to share of sentences they had been forced to give out (pre-Booker) to low-level players in large narcotics organizations.

Here is how my comment begins:

Currently, because of the structure and importance of the Drug Quantity Table at Guideline §2D1.1(c), the primary input of sentence computation in narcotics cases is the weight of the drugs at issue, either by an individual or conspiracy.  However, weight of narcotics is not a good proxy for culpability because it unfairly punishes the actions of too many low-level traffickers.  If a true kingpin imports 150 kilograms of cocaine into the country and pays a trucker $1,000 to haul it, both of them fall under Guideline §2D1.1(c)(2), which provides for a base offense level of 36. While guideline sections §3B1.1 & 1.2 (distinguishing roles in the offense) provide some level of differentiation, that differentiation will likely be at most a swing of six offense levels.

We all know that the one-off trucker is not nearly as culpable as the kingpin, but the guidelines don’t reflect that because weight-driven sentences are mandated by Guideline §2D1.1(c).  Sentencing judges have chafed at the resulting failure of proportionality ever since the beginning of the guideline era.

The false proxy of narcotics weight creates problems with proportionality and disparities because it too often obscures actual role and culpability.  Moreover, it imposes a complexity to the guidelines that is unnecessary.

After discussing the benefits and challenges of making such a change, I suggest three alternate ways to amend the guidelines and accomplish this goal.

Perhaps you agree with me, maybe you don’t, or it could be that you think there is a much cleaner route to simplicity, proportionality, and the reduction of disparities.  I urge you not only to read the rest of my comment, but to submit your own while the window is still open.

Download USSC comment 2016

July 21, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

"An Overlooked Key to Reversing Mass Incarceration: Reforming the Law to Reduce Prosecutorial Power in Plea Bargaining"

The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posted to SSRN and authored by Cynthia Alkon. Here is the abstract:

The need to “do something” about mass incarceration is now widely recognized.  When President Obama announced plans to reform federal criminal legislation, he focused on the need to change how we handle non-violent drug offenders and parole violators.  Previously, former Attorney General Eric Holder announced policies to make federal prosecutors “smart on crime.”  These changes reflect, as President Obama noted, the increasing bipartisan consensus on the need for reform and the need to reduce our incarceration rates.  However, proposals about what to reform, such as President Obama’s, tend to focus on some parts of criminal sentencing and on prosecutorial behavior as stand-alone issues.  These reform suggestions do not consider the fact that ninety-four to ninety-seven percent of criminal cases are resolved through plea bargains and how the use of this process influences incarceration rates.  Prosecutors hold extraordinary power in the criminal justice system. They not only decide what cases get filed, they also decide what charges and enhancements are added, and whether there will be a plea offer.  The structure of our criminal justice system, at both the state and federal level, strengthens prosecutorial power and create a plea bargaining environment with extreme power imbalances.  Prosecutors use this power to put pressure on defendants to accept plea deals, which contribute to the high incarceration rates in the United States.  Therefore, any reform intended to make a meaningful reduction in incarceration rates should recognize the power that prosecutors hold and include reform aimed at changing this underlying structure.

As is well documented, the United States has high incarceration rates and imprisons more people than any nation in the world.  African American and Latino communities suffer even higher incarceration rates.  Our incarceration rates increased dramatically in the 1980s and into the 1990s.  Some commentators identify the “war on drugs” as a major contributor to increasing incarceration rates during this period.  Others suggest that the increase is due to a number of factors including changes in criminal codes that increased potential penalties for crimes across the board, not only for drug crimes.  One scholar, John F. Pfaff, concludes that the single biggest reason for increased incarceration rates since 1990 is not an increase in arrests, or harsher sentencing, or the drug war, but instead is an increase in the percentage of felony filings per arrest.  Pfaff concludes that the reason there are more filings is because prosecutors are filing a higher percentage of cases and therefore prosecutors are the predominate reason for mass incarceration.

This article will begin by briefly describing how plea bargaining works and the often coercive atmosphere of plea bargaining that contributes to mass incarceration.  This article will then discuss Pfaff’s conclusions, based on his empirical studies, that prosecutors are the key reason for mass incarceration.  Building on Pfaff’s conclusions on the key role prosecutors play in mass incarceration, this article will discuss how the current structure of both state and federal codes reinforce prosecutorial power, particularly in the plea bargaining process.  This article will then discuss two proposals for legislative reform that could decrease the coercive atmosphere of plea bargaining.  First, this article will recommend revising how crimes are defined, reducing the number of crimes that can be charged as both misdemeanors and felonies and reducing some felonies to misdemeanors. Second, this article will recommend reducing potential punishment ranges by eliminating mandatory minimums for most crimes and for enhancements.  Legislative change alone will not reverse mass incarceration, but targeted legislative reform could help to change the overly coercive atmosphere of plea bargaining.  This effort can help to change the prosecutorial culture that surrounds plea bargaining and contribute to reducing incarceration rates.

July 21, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Should we all share Senator Grassley's optimism about federal statutory sentencing reform's prospects?

Long time readers know my hopefulness about significant federal sentencing reform moving through the current Congress has waxed and waned, especially as key leaders and members of both houses of Congress have expressed more or less optimism about the prospects for draft legislation getting full votes.  And, as this post a few weeks ago revealed, I have lately been gespecially pessimistic about the prospects for Congress to summon the spirit or find the time to get any reform bill to President Obama's desk.

But this new local article from Iowa, headlined "U.S. Sens. Grassley, Scott optimistic on sentencing reform," prompts me to become a bit more hopeful again. Here are excerpts:

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, joined by a fellow Republican lawmaker from South Carolina, is expressing optimism about the prospects for passing federal criminal sentencing reform legislation.

The senior Iowa senator spoke at a news conference Wednesday at the Des Moines International Airport with U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, who gave a powerful speech on the Senate floor last week in which he described being targeted by police because of he is black.  Scott was stopped by law enforcement seven times in one year while he was an elected official, sometimes for speeding, but other times simply because he was driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or other insignificant reasons, he said.

Scott saluted Grassley's work Wednesday on justice reform issues, saying the proposed legislation has attracted a broad coalition from the far left to the far right.  "This is an unusual time when we seem to have the stars aligning," he added. He described the legislation as serving the best interests of communities as well as individuals.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is authored by Grassley and co-authored by Scott.  The package would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and would expand prison programs intended to reduce the likelihood that inmates will re-offend.  It would also reduce sentences for inmates who successfully complete those programs. In addition, the bill would make changes to the federal justice system, such as allowing people convicted of certain crimes as juveniles to expunge their criminal records if they turn their lives around.

The bill has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Grassley, and is awaiting action by the full Senate.  Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has announced the House will consider several separate pieces of legislation to address criminal justice reform.  Grassley said the House proposals include addressing such issues as asset forfeiture, but he expressed confidence any differences can be ironed out in a House-Senate conference committee.

Grassley said the legislation responds to Iowans who have expressed concerns about a rising federal prison population, costs of housing them and the possibility that some people with relatively minor criminal backgrounds are receiving lengthy sentences intended for hardcore criminals.  "Successfully addressing the different perspectives has not been an easy task, especially if we want to ensure that career criminals and the most violent offenders are not allowed to wreak havoc once again in their communities," Grassley said.  "The work that we started more than a year ago has been a thoughtful, bipartisan deliberation that will promote opportunities to reduce recidivism while protecting our communities from violent career criminals."

My prior post expressed fear that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act was essentially dead in Congress, but I am certain Senator Grassley knows a lot more than I do about whether it may still have some legislative life left in it. I sure hope so.

July 21, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"How Judges Think about Racial Disparities: Situational Decision-Making in the Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new article authored by Matthew Clair and Alix Winter from the jounral Criminology and available at this link. Here is the abstract:

Researchers have theorized how judges’ decision-making may result in the disproportionate presence of Blacks and Latinos in the criminal justice system.  Yet, we have little evidence about how judges make sense of these disparities and what, if anything, they do to address them.  By drawing on 59 interviews with state judges in a Northeastern state, we describe, and trace the implications of, judges’ understandings of racial disparities at arraignment, plea hearings, jury selection, and sentencing.

Most judges in our sample attribute disparities, in part, to differential treatment by themselves and/or other criminal justice officials, whereas some judges attribute disparities only to the disparate impact of poverty and differences in offending rates.  To address disparities, judges report employing two categories of strategies: noninterventionist and interventionist.  Noninterventionist strategies concern only a judge’s own differential treatment, whereas interventionist strategies concern other actors’ possible differential treatment, as well as the disparate impact of poverty and facially neutral laws.

We reveal how the use of noninterventionist strategies by most judges unintentionally reproduces disparities. Through our examination of judges’ understandings of racial disparities throughout the court process, we enhance understandings of American racial inequality and theorize a situational approach to decision-making in organizational contexts.

July 20, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Why Donald Trump's "law and order" vision and voice is so important to advocates of sentencing reform (and marijuana reform)

Two new commentaries about current politics together help explain why I continue to view GOP Prez candidate Donald Trump as the most important (and also most opaque) national figure with respect to the future direction of a lot of on-going criminal justice reform movements.  The full headlines of the commentaries provides a window into my thinking:

Here are a few passages from these pieces, respectively:

From Jeet Heer:  "With the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Trump’s approach to politics has become squarely mainstream in his party.  The Trumpification of the GOP is not likely to go away soon.  It’s rooted in some fundamental demographic facts that the party has been struggling with for decades: that it’s increasingly a party of old white people in a nation that is becoming more diverse.  Even if Trump loses by a blowout in November, the party is likely to become even more Trumpified because the #NeverTrump people will have left the party — or at least become inactive — while the politicians and activists who are most responsive to his message will have stayed on.  That’s how Barry Goldwater conservatism continued to be a force after his epic defeat of 1964, and it’s likely to replicate itself with Trumpism.  Like it or not, the GOP will be the Party of Trump for many years to come."

From Steve Teles:  Trump [i]s like a throwback to New York in the 1980s.... The Right on Crime movement depends upon, in some important ways, the transformation of the Republican Party into a more consistently anti-statist party in the wake of the Tea Party, combined with the role that evangelical leaders have played in encouraging an emphasis on second chances and forgiveness.  Neither of those changes in conservatism is characteristic of the conservatism of Trump.  I could imagine him going all-in on a back-to-the-80s, Charles Bronson-ish approach to crime, and if he’s able to rebrand the Republican Party in that way, that would be very troublesome [for those supportive of criminal-justice reform].

July 20, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Federal judge refuses to accept plea of LA County Sheriff Lee Baca for obstruction because of inadequacy of maximum sentence of six months in

As reported in this lengthy Los Angeles Times piece, headlined "Judge throws out ex-L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca's plea deal, saying six months in prison not enough," a federal judge decided that a high-profile federal defendant had cut too sweet a plea deal to resolve charges of obstruction of justice.  Here are the interesting details concerning a rare (but not unprecedented) district court decision:

A federal judge on Monday threw out a plea agreement that would have given former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca a maximum of six months in prison, saying the sentence was too lenient considering Baca’s role in obstructing an FBI investigation into the county jails. Addressing a downtown courtroom packed with Baca’s supporters, U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson said the deal “would trivialize the seriousness of the offenses … the need for a just punishment [and] the need to deter others.”

Baca, 74, had pleaded guilty in February to a single charge of lying to federal investigators. But the former sheriff’s involvement in trying to derail the investigation reached further than that, Anderson said. At stake was what the investigators were trying to expose, Anderson said: an “us-versus-them” culture in which deputies covered up for one another and responded to inmates with enough violence to send them to the hospital.

Six months in prison for the man who ran the Sheriff’s Department “would not address the gross abuse of the public’s trust … including the need to restore the public’s trust in law enforcement and the criminal justice system,” Anderson said.

The judge said he would allow Baca to withdraw his guilty plea, setting a new hearing date for Aug. 1. The maximum sentence for the false statement charge is five years -- the same amount of time that Baca’s former No. 2, Paul Tanaka, received last month after going to trial in a related obstruction-of-justice case. Seven lower-ranking sheriff’s officials who have been convicted and sentenced in the obstruction case received a year and a half to more than three years in prison.

Baca’s plea agreement had called for a sentence ranging from probation to six months in prison. Prosecutors have said they agreed to the deal in part because of Baca’s willingness to plead guilty. Baca’s attorney, Michael Zweiback, argued that the former sheriff should not serve any prison time because he is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Baca must now choose among several unappealing options. He could go ahead with the sentencing and accept whatever punishment Anderson has in mind. He could withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial, taking his chances with whatever charges the government might decide to bring. He could negotiate a new deal with federal prosecutors for a longer sentence that the judge would find more acceptable.

After Monday’s hearing, Zweiback said he was disappointed with the judge’s decision but hoped to resume talks with prosecutors. He said that if he cannot reach an agreement that includes a specific sentence, rather than an open-ended guilty plea, he will not leave his client’s fate in Anderson's hands. “At that point, we might as well take our chances at trial,” Zweiback said.

Baca’s Alzheimer’s could be a factor if the case heads to trial and his ability to understand the proceedings deteriorates. The trial could be put on hold if he is declared mentally incompetent. “If the government believes it’s two years in ... getting to trial and sentencing him, that could leave Mr. Baca in very bad shape,” Zweiback said....

Legal experts said Anderson's move was unusual but not unexpected, considering his law-and-order reputation and comments he has made during sentencing in the related cases. “We already knew the defendant was facing a federal judge who believed these kinds of acts were as serious as they come,” said Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor who was the executive director of a county commission that investigated brutality by jail deputies and who served as a top aide to Baca’s successor, Jim McDonnell, during his first year in office....

Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor, said Anderson was not likely to be “swayed by sympathy or the emotional aspects of the case.” She said he was likely to be especially unforgiving of law enforcement officials who did not fulfill their duties. “He views this type of abuse of trust more seriously, notwithstanding Baca’s health concerns,” Levenson said.

Federal sentencing law provides that people who are higher up in an organization -- mob bosses, for example — are more culpable than lower-level members, said Joseph Akrotirianakis, another former federal prosecutor now in private practice. “Today’s events are not entirely surprising in light of the sentence that Mr. Tanaka received,” Akrotirianakis said. “That was not a fact known to the government at the time that Baca entered into his plea.”...

Brian Moriguchi, head of the union that represents Sheriff’s Department supervisors, said Baca is responsible for the actions of his subordinates, especially Tanaka, and should receive more than six months considering the sentences the others will serve.

Many sheriff's deputies have been closely watching the criminal prosecutions to see if the punishments for former bosses would approach those of lower-ranking employees following their orders. “It’s not only widespread in the department, it’s widespread in society — the feeling that those who have power seem to be exempt from the same rules as everyone else,” Moriguchi said.

July 19, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Perhaps previewing coming SCOTUS work in Beckles, four Eleventh Circuit judges make case against circuit's refusal to apply Johnson to guidelines

In this post after the US Supreme Court ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws" in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) (available here), I flagged the question of how Johnson would impact application of the (now older, pre-reform version) career offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines.  Notably, the Justice Department has consistently conceded Johnson-based constitutional problems with that career offender guideline, which in turn has led to most circuit courts finding Johnson-based constitutional problems with sentences based on that guideline. 

But, as noted in this post last September, an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Matchett, 802 F.3d 1185 (11th Cir. 2015) (available here), squarely addressed this issue and ruled that Johnson and its vagueness problem just do not apply to advisory sentencing guidelines.  I considered this ruling suspect, but an amicus brief I helped put together urging en banc review in Matchett did not led to its reconsideration.  As blogged here last month, though, we know have the ultimate judicial authority on this issue poised to weigh in: the final Supreme Court order list of last Term included a grant of certiorari in Beckles v. United States, No. 15-8544, which will explore whether Johnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in the older, pre-reform version of the career offender guideline.

For a variety of reasons, I am expecting that SCOTUS will ultimately agree with the majority of circuits that Johnson's holding applies to the career offender guidelines and thereby reject the Eleventh Circuit's Matchett precedent.  What I did not expect was that a number of Eleventh Circuit judges would set forth, in essence, some amicus briefing to SCOTUS in order to explain in detail why they think their own circuit's work in Matchett was wrong.  But that is what I see via a series of recent concurring opinions in In Re: William Hunt and In re: Charles Therion Clayton, cases in which a panel felt duty-bound to reject habeas applications due to the Matchett precedent but then followed up with separate opinions by Circuit Judges Wilson and (Jill) Pryor and Rosenbaum and Martin all explaining why they think Matchett is so wrong and so troublesome as we await a SCOTUS ruling in Beckles.

If you have read this far into this post, you probably have some interest in the application of Johnson and its impact on the career offender guidelines, which in turns means you ought to find the time to read all the judicial thoughts shared in Hunt and Therion.  I know that is my plan for this evening, and to whet everyone's appetite I will close this post by quoting the closing paragraph authored by Judge Pryor in these cases:

If the Supreme Court decides in Beckles that the residual clause in the career offender guideline is void for vagueness, there may be new hope for the scores of inmates who have tried to obtain relief since Johnson, only to be turned away by this Court based upon Matchett.  I hope next time around we will avoid the mistakes I have identified. And I hope that, rather than being behind the march of justice, we, as our nation’s designated guardians, will be at the front.

July 19, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Two Parties, Two Platforms on Criminal Justice: The Republicans nod to reforms, then take a sharp right turn."

The title of this post is the title of this timely new piece by Maurice Chammah, which includes a blow-by-blow accounting of how the party platforms have changed on criminal justice issues since 2012. Here is how the piece sets up the comparative look at how time changes platforms:

The 2016 Republican and Democratic party platforms — the GOP’s approved Monday night, the Democrats’ still in draft form — swing hard to the right and left, with Republicans amplifying their traditional positions against gay marriage, abortion, transgender rights, and immigration, and Democrats calling for expanded public healthcare and higher education, and a $15 minimum wage.  Platforms are not binding on candidates, but they distill a consensus of the forces within the party at this point in history.  That’s particularly clear this year on the subjects of crime and punishment.

In the new Democratic party platform, the fingerprints of the Black Lives Matter movement and Bernie Sanders are apparent, in calls for independent investigations of police-involved shootings, more body cameras, and training in de-escalation.  There is a declaration that “states that want to decriminalize marijuana should be able to do so.”  There is also a call for the end of the death penalty, something President Obama and Hillary Clinton have not endorsed.  Parts of the Democratic draft platform clearly repudiate the tough language their party embraced a generation ago, when their current candidate’s husband was president. The mother of Sandra Bland, who died at a Texas jail last year and became a symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement, is scheduled to speak at their convention next week in Philadelphia.

The Republican document reflects recent tensions in conservative circles.  It includes the language of conservatives who call for reducing incarceration — influential Republican patrons like the Koch brothers, politicians like Rick Perry, Rand Paul and Newt Gingrich — but it also includes plenty of traditional invocations of law and order.  An ambitious bipartisan sentencing reform effort in Congress, which Sen. Ted Cruz supported and then abandoned, has been whittled down and allowed to languish.  And it was opponents of that bill including Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke (who regularly attacks the "myths" of justice reform) who were in the lineup Monday night in Cleveland, where the evening’s theme was “Make America Safe Again.”  It was those figures who dominated the party’s televised presentation.

To feel the tension, consider the 2016 passage on mandatory minimum sentences, which says such sentences served a good purpose and should only be rolled back sparingly: "In the past, judicial discretion about sentences led to serious mistakes concerning dangerous criminals.  Mandatory minimum sentencing became an important tool for keeping them off the streets.  Modifications to it should be targeted toward particular categories, especially nonviolent offenders and persons with drug, alcohol, or mental health issues, and should require disclosure by the courts of any judicial departure from the State’s sentencing requirements."

Conservative criminal justice reformers, who have gathered under the banner of “Right on Crime,” had gotten brief nods to rehabilitation and non-prison sentences for drug crimes into their 2008 and 2012 platforms.  An April 2016 resolution they promoted, which was adopted by the Republican National Committee, points out that despite a massive growth in incarceration, many who are released from prison commit new crimes, meaning prisons might not be the best investment in public safety.  They added language acknowledging the success of conservative lawmakers in traditionally red states to reduce incarceration and save money. “90% of the prisoners in this country are not federal,” says Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia, “so it’s meaningful to talk about the experimentation and successes in the states.”

The rift in conservative circles was apparent when the 112 members of the full platform committee edited the document last week in Cleveland.  At one point, April Newland, a delegate from the Virgin Islands, proposed adding a line supporting a national registry of child murderers, which had been in the 2012 platform. She described how her brother’s three and five year-old children were murdered by a man who went on to be released from prison, moved near a school, and molested more victims. Other delegates pushed back.  “A federal mandate doesn’t work,” Maryland delegate JoeyLynn Hough said.  “So, I’m sorry about your family, but I don’t think this is the answer.”

The committee also added support for “mens rea” reform, an effort to force prosecutors to prove a defendant intended to commit a crime, as well as strong language supporting drug treatment programs, particularly for first-time offenders.  In other areas, the new platform’s language took a different tack, condemning the Supreme Court for limiting use of the death penalty, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch for her “present campaign of harassment against police forces around the country.”

At one of the hearings, delegate Giovanni Cicione, an attorney from Rhode Island, proposed language encouraging lawmakers to “fairly assess the social and economic costs of the failure of drug prohibition, and recognize that our states are sending a clear signal that a new approach is long overdue.”

“We have created with drug prohibition a multi-billion dollar underground economy, and a generation of Al Capones,” Cicione told the other delegates.  “And if you want to respond to the Black Lives Matter protesters, if you want to respond to the families of those police officers who died in Dallas, if you want to respond to the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile... we can’t answer these questions without explaining how we demean and weaken law enforcement by forcing them to enforce unworkable laws.”

He admits he may have gone overboard in bringing up Black Lives Matter, and his suggestion failed. North Carolina delegate Ron Rabin worried his state “could be regionally surrounded by states where the use of drugs is legal and they come into our state to harass.” Cicione didn’t expect to win, but he did notice that the the average ages of the yes and no votes were “separated by 40 years,” which to him signalled that reformers will eventually get their way. “Those of us who grew up in a more tolerant environment about drugs are less afraid of them,” he said.

July 19, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)