Thursday, August 17, 2017

US Sentencing Commission finalizes policy priorities and publishes notable holdover amendments

As reported in this press release, the US Sentencing Commission "today approved its final policy priorities for the upcoming amendment year ending May 1, 2018, which includes an examination of the overall structure of the guidelines and a continuation of its work on synthetic drugs [and] voted to publish several holdover proposals from the previous amendment cycle."  Here is more:

During the upcoming amendment year, the Commission will continue to explore approaches to simplify and strengthen the guidelines. “On this thirtieth year of the federal sentencing guidelines system, the Commission welcomes the opportunity to work with the Congress, the Courts, the Department of Justice, and other stakeholders to find ways to promote certainty and proportionality in sentencing while reducing the complexity of the guidelines,” stated Circuit Judge William H. Pryor, Jr., acting chair of the Commission.

The Commission will also continue its two-year study of synthetic drugs. In April, the Commission held a public hearing to receive testimony on the prevalence and effect of synthetic drugs. The Commission has since commenced a study of specific categories of synthetic drugs, including fentanyl. The Commission will research their chemical structure, pharmacological effects, potential for addiction, legislative and scheduling history, and other relevant issues. The study is intended to provide a meaningful distinction between categories of synthetic drugs so that closely related substances are more easily determined in the guidelines....

Stemming from the Commission’s research on youthful offenders as well as recommendations made by the Tribal Issues Advisory Group (TIAG) in its May 2016 report, the Commission will also continue to study how juvenile sentences are considered in the calculation of the defendant’s criminal history score.

Other priorities include continued work on mandatory minimum penalties. Following the release of the 2017 Mandatory Minimum Overview in July, which built on the Commission’s 2011 report, the Commission will release additional reports highlighting the impact of mandatory minimum penalties for certain offense categories. The Commission will also continue to work with Congress to adopt a uniform definition of “crime of violence” included in recommendations set forth in the 2016 Report to the Congress on Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements.

The Commission also published today several proposed guideline amendments from the previous amendment cycle and as an extension of its current policy priority work. “Today’s proposed amendments are a continuation of our work during the previous amendment year. These holdover proposals were not voted on last year due to the lack of a quorum during the deliberation process. Publishing today gives this reconstituted Commission an opportunity to carefully review these proposals and consider them as early as possible in the current amendment cycle,” stated Judge Pryor.

Among the proposed amendments published today are changes that would increase the number of federal offenders eligible for alternatives to incarceration. Informed by the Commission’s multi-year study on recidivism, one of the proposed amendments would add a downward adjustment to the guidelines for first offenders.

August 17, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Do Criminal Defendants Have Web Rights?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new piece at The Crime Report authored by James Trusty.  The piece provides a review of the Supreme Court's First Amendment work in Packingham v. North Carolina and its possible impact.  Here are excerpts:

Court-imposed web restrictions applied to criminal defendants may be going the way of dial-up internet service. In June, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in Packingham v. North Carolina that invalidated a state law banning registered sex offenders from accessing websites that could facilitate direct communications with minors.

While the majority opinion and concurrence seems grounded in — and specific to — sex offender restrictions, the evolving communications technology that operates in cyberspace today suggests that the ruling will have an impact on attempts to restrict web access for all criminal defendants in state or federal courts....

Lester Packingham ... [was] convicted of violating a North Carolina statute that prohibits convicted sex offenders from using social-networking websites, such as Facebook and Twitter. The unanimous Supreme Court opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reversed the conviction on First Amendment free speech grounds. According to Kennedy, the North Carolina statute was too broad, in that it effectively prevented sex offenders from accessing the “vast democratic forums of the Internet” that serve as principal sources of information on employment opportunities, current events, and opinions or ideas that have no connection to criminal plans or the potential victimization of children.

Justice Samuel Alito agreed, pointing out that the statute’s definition of social networking sites would in effect encompass even Amazon, the Washington Post, and WebMD — all of whom provide opportunities for visitors to connect with other users. In his concurrence, he noted that states were entitled to draft narrower, and constitutionally valid, restrictions because of their legitimate interest in thwarting recidivist sex offenders.

But it’s not at all clear that a state legislature can follow Justice Alito’s guidance and sufficiently narrow its sights on offender/child communication to the point where the law has its intended effect, while still passing constitutional muster.  There may undoubtedly be pedophiliac versions of Tinder or Match.com which could fit the definitions of sites where access can be restricted without harm to First Amendment protections. But today’s internet does not lend itself easily to such narrow definitions.  Even mainstream sites like The Washington Post or Amazon could be considered portals that might be compromised by criminal behavior.  Such sites encourage the kind of user engagement that, while they may not be fairly called a “chat room,” is close enough to a “bulletin board” to bring us right back into the perils of North Carolina’s now-invalidated law.

And what of the defendants facing internet restrictions for reasons other than molestation or child pornography violations?  There are numerous defendants who are bounced off the internet as a condition of probation or supervised release because the internet was an instrumentality for their crimes.  For instance, internet-based fraud, identity theft, or using pro-terrorism websites to construct weapons or murderous plans, are all offenses that have led judges to impose some form of web restriction on defendants.

Web restrictions for these defendants are now also in play in a post-Packingham world. The intention of the judges seeking to restrict web access in these cases is understandable.  They want to remove potential tools of victimization from the hands of convicted criminals.  But the Supreme Court’s recognition of the vast, evolving and multi-purpose nature of today’s internet has brought legitimate First Amendment considerations into almost every web-limiting decision.

We may soon see that the only web restrictions that are lawful and practically enforceable are ones stemming from the defendant volunteering to withdraw from the net — likely because of the perceived trade-off between more time in jail and the judge’s comfort level as to assurances that re-victimization by internet will not occur when the defendant is returned to the community.

In the meantime, Packingham may shape the battlefield when web-restricted defendants are alleged to have violated parole or probation by visiting websites. Judges facing considerably more ominous violations than Lester’s on-line celebration of beating a traffic ticket may find that website-messaging technology and powerful First Amendment concerns leave them with little recourse but to ban outright all attempts to restrict access.  To some, this may be an uncomfortably high price to pay for web freedom.

On a practical level, technology has largely out-paced the now-antiquated view that the Internet can be surgically sliced into “safe” websites and “unsafe” ones, and the unanimity of Packingham suggests that the Court did not struggle much with its rationale.  While the absence of web-restrictions would lead to the release of offenders to the community with an unavoidable dose of discomfort with their access to computers, it may also result in judges finding themselves increasingly satisfied with lengthy prison terms because of the lack of a satisfactory, less-restrictive condition of supervised release....

Perhaps the safer bet here is on technology — that some program, some application, or some web-alternative pops up in the future and revitalizes the possibility of judges restricting web access without violating First Amendment rights. 

August 17, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (0)

Police groups supportive, but prosecutor objects, to new Oregon law shifting drug possession offenses down from felony to misdemeanor

This AP piece, headlined "Oregon makes drug possession a misdemeanor," reports on the notable criminal justice reform signed into law this week in the Beaver State. I found especially interesting the diverse views on the legal charge expressed by police groups and at least one prosecutor. Here are the particulars: 

A bill signed by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday makes personal-use possession of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs a misdemeanor, not a felony. Oregon joined just a handful of other U.S. states in defelonizing drugs under the new law, which was supported by law enforcement groups and takes effect immediately.

Jo Meza, owner of Amazing Treatment, a rehab center in Salem, applauded the move. She has seen the damage caused by drug addiction in her 30 years in the field. “There’s a huge crisis out there, and locking people up is not going to work,” Meza said....

Among the bill’s supporters were the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police and the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association, which said felony convictions include unintended consequences, including barriers to housing and employment.  But the two groups, in a letter to a state senator who backed the bill, said the new law “will only produce positive results if additional drug treatment resources accompany this change in policy.”

“Reducing penalties without aggressively addressing underlying addiction is unlikely to help those who need it most,” the groups warned.  Another measure appropriated $7 million that can be used to pay for drug treatment.

Linn County District Attorney Doug Marteeny had tried to convince lawmakers to dump the defelonization of dangerous drugs from the bill, which also targets police profiling.  “To change the classification of this behavior from a felony to a misdemeanor is tantamount to telling our schoolchildren that tomorrow it will be less dangerous to use methamphetamine than it is today,” he wrote.

Those who have a prior felony conviction won’t be afforded misdemeanor consideration, nor will people who have two or more prior drug convictions or possess more than user amounts.

August 17, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

US Sentencing Commission to hold public meeting to finalize policy priorities and perhaps vote on guideline amendments

As indicated here, the US Sentencing Commission is holding a public meeting tomorrow.  Interestingly, the listed agenda for the meeting includes not only the usual "Vote on Final Policy Priorities for 2017–2018," but also a seemingly unusual "Possible Vote to Publish Proposed Amendments."

Every year around this time, the USSC finalizes its policy priorities after releasing tentative priorities and receiving comments.  For this year, here are the tentative priorities and here is the USSC's collection of some public comments it received.  On the main USSC page, the Commission states that it "received a record number of public comment submissions pertaining to proposed priorities for the 2017-2018 amendment year."  I am inclined to believe that the switch in Prez Administrations, some turn-over in USSC membership, and ever-growing concerns about the federal criminal justice system accounts for large number of comments this time around.

While finalizing of priorities are standard USSC activity this time of year, publishing of proposed amendments are not standard in August absent a need to respond to some pressing matter like a a consequential Supreme Court decision.  (In the usual course, guideline amendments get proposed in January and finalized in April.)  I suppose the USSC might think it worthwhile to propose amendments in response to recent SCOTUS federal sentencing decisions like Beckles and Dean, but I am not sure these rulings really demand immediate USSC amendment action.  Of course, as reported here, the USSC decided earlier in 2017 not to move forward with formal amendments for the 2017 amendment season because it lacked a quorum for a number of months.  With the USSC now having had a quorum in place for a number of months, perhaps it feels eager and able to move forward on some of the ambitious proposed amendments it released back in December 2016.

Happily, hard-core federal sentencing fans do not need to speculate about these matters for too long:  the USSC's meeting starts Thursday morning at 11am, and it can be live-streamed here.

August 16, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

DC sniper Lee Malvo loses one bid for Miller resentencing in Maryland state courts

As reported in this Washington Post piece, "Lee Boyd Malvo’s six life sentences, for the six Montgomery County, Md., slayings he committed as a 17-year-old in 2002, were allowed to stand Wednesday after a Montgomery judge found that Malvo was not given mandatory life terms." Here is more about this latest ruling in a high-profile case:

Malvo, now 32, could still have the sentences overturned by a federal court in Maryland, which is also considering his appeal. In Virginia, life sentences for his jury conviction in one murder case and his guilty pleas to two other murders were overturned in May by a federal judge because of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Virginia is appealing the order that Malvo must be resentenced in those three cases.

Malvo and John Allen Muhammad began a cross-country shooting rampage in Washington state in February 2002 and concluded with a series of 13 shootings, 10 of them fatal, in the D.C. area in October of that year. Malvo was tried first for a fatal shooting in Falls Church, Va., and a jury in Chesapeake, Va., convicted him but chose a life sentence without parole rather than a death sentence. Muhammad was tried for a slaying in Manassas, Va., and a jury in Virginia Beach convicted him and sentenced him to death. Malvo then pleaded guilty to two more slayings near Fredericksburg, Va., and received two more life sentences.

Having already been convicted of three slayings in Virginia, Malvo in 2006 testified against Muhammad in his trial in Montgomery County and then pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder. Montgomery Circuit Court Judge James L. Ryan then imposed six more consecutive life sentences on Malvo....

Judge Ryan has since retired. But Judge Robert A. Greenberg issued a 20-page ruling Tuesday, released publicly on Wednesday, that concluded that “Judge Ryan is presumed to have known the law,” and that Malvo was not facing mandatory life-without-parole sentences when he was sentenced. “Clearly, Maryland employs a discretionary sentencing scheme,” Greenberg wrote, noting that Ryan had a range of options from a suspended sentence to life without parole. “Judge Ryan would have been well aware that a juvenile (albeit one four months from majority) ought to be beyond rehabilitation before life-without-parole could be imposed … the court expressly considered Defendant’s youth in sentencing him. ”

But even if Malvo’s sentences were mandatory, Greenberg ruled, “Judge Ryan affirmatively considered all the relevant factors at play,” to include extensive biographical and psychological reports on Malvo, “and the plain import of his words at the time of sentencing was that Defendant is ‘irreparably corrupted.’ ”

Ryan’s ruling does not affect Malvo’s appeal of his sentences in the federal court in Maryland or his Virginia cases.

August 16, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Let Prisoners Learn While They Serve"

The title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times editorial.  Here are excerpts:

Criminal justice officials across the country are struggling to break the recidivism cycle in which prisoners are released only to land right back behind bars.  These prisoners are among the most poorly educated people in the country, and that fact holds the key to a solution.  Decades of research has shown that inmates who participate in prison education programs — even if they fail to earn degrees — are far more likely to stay out of prison once they are freed.

That prison education programs are highly cost effective is confirmed by a 2013 RAND Corporation study that covered 30 years of prison education research.  Among other things, the study found that every dollar spent on prison education translated into savings of $4 to $5 on imprisonment costs down the line.  Other studies suggest that prisons with education programs have fewer violent incidents, making it easier for officials to keep order, and that the children of people who complete college are more likely to do so themselves, disrupting the typical pattern of poverty and incarceration.

Findings like these have persuaded corrections officials in both Democratic and Republican states to embrace education as a cost-effective way of cutting recidivism. But Republican legislators in New York — which spends about $60,000 per inmate per year — remain mired in know-nothingism and argue that spending public money on inmates insults taxpayers.  They have steadfastly resisted Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s common-sense proposal for making a modest investment in prison education programs that have already proved highly successful on a small scale in New York’s prisons....

Prison education programs were largely dismantled during the “tough on crime” 1990s, when Congress stripped inmates of the right to get the federal Pell grants that were used to pay tuition.  The decision bankrupted many prison education programs across the country and left private donors and foundations to foot the bill for those that survived.

Despite limited and unreliable funding, these programs have more than proved their value.  New York lawmakers who continue to block funding for them are putting ideology ahead of the public interest.

August 16, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

ABA delegates pass resolution against mandatory minimums and defer vote on resolution against new Sessions charging memo

Aba-logo-defending-liberty-pursuing-justiceAs reported in this ABA Journal report, the "ABA House of Delegates on Tuesday approved a late-offered resolution backing a ban on mandatory minimum sentences, while sponsors withdrew another late sentencing resolution after hearing from the U.S. Justice Department." Here are more details:

Delegates approved Resolution 10B, which opposes the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences in any criminal case.  The resolution calls on Congress and state legislatures to repeal laws requiring mandatory minimums and to refrain from adopting such laws in the future....

“Sentencing by mandatory minimums is the antithesis of rational sentencing policy,” the report says.  Basic fairness and due process require sentences to be the same among similarly situated offenders and proportional to the crime, the report says.

Though the ABA is on record for opposing mandatory minimums, the resolution “is timely and it is indeed urgent” because Congress is considering a number of bills that would impose new mandatory minimums, according to Kevin Curtin of the Massachusetts Bar Association.  Curtin told the House that mandatory minimums have produced troubling race-based inequities.  Blacks are more likely than whites to be charged with crimes carrying mandatory minimum sentences, and they are more likely to be sentenced to a mandatory minimum term, he said.

The withdrawn proposal, Resolution 10A, would have urged the Department of Justice to rescind a policy adopted in May by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  The Sessions policy directs federal prosecutors to charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense, unless they get approval of superiors to deviate from the policy.  The ABA resolution urges that the department reinstate policies permitting federal prosecutors to make individualized assessments in each case....

Neal Sonnett, representing the ABA Criminal Justice Section, explained why the proposal was withdrawn.  The Justice Department has a designated seat within the section, but it did not voice an objection until Monday afternoon, he said.  The department indicated it believed there were errors in the section report and it wanted to continue discussions, Sonnett said.  The section withdrew the resolution to allow for those discussions and intends to bring it back to the House at the ABA Midyear Meeting in February.

A report to the House of Delegates said Sessions’ decision will lead to increased use of mandatory minimums for low-level and nonviolent drug offenders and a rise in incarceration.  “The draconian charging and sentencing policies urged by Sessions are a throwback to the policies of limited prosecutorial discretion and increased mandatory minimum sentences — policies that did not work — and are in stark contrast to the progressive trend in policies over the last 10 years,” the report says.

The ABA website provides information about the withdrawn Resolution 10A as well as the adopted Resolution 10B.

August 16, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Spotlighting a prominent constitutional challenge to Arizona's and the nation's death penalty

Chris Geidner has this new Buzzfeed News report about a new cert petition under the headline "A Top Lawyer Asks Supreme Court To Hear A Major Death Penalty Case." Here are some of the details:

An Arizona death row inmate, Abel Daniel Hidalgo, has been arguing for the past three years that the state’s death penalty law is unconstitutional because it doesn’t do enough to narrow who is eligible for the death penalty, among those convicted of murder. Earlier this year, Neal Katyal, best known these days for serving as the lead lawyer for Hawaii’s challenge to President Trump’s travel ban, agreed to serve as Hidalgo’s lawyer at the Supreme Court.

Katyal, the former acting solicitor general in the Obama administration, asked the justices in Monday’s filing to hear Hidalgo’s case and to strike down Arizona’s death penalty law.

The filing comes more than two years after Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, called for a wholesale review of the constitutionality of the death penalty. Justice Sonia Sotomayor has also expressed great concerns about the courts’ handling of death penalty cases, as well as some states’ death penalty laws.

And Justice Anthony Kennedy has expressed concerns about the death penalty’s imposition, and has cast key votes excluding groups of people — like children or the intellectually disabled — from being eligible for the death penalty. He has not, however, given any specific indication that he is ready to join Breyer’s call to review the constitutionality of the death penalty overall — and has allowed several executions to proceed since Breyer's call.

Katyal, however, joined by other lawyers at his firm, Hogan Lovells, as well as the Office of the Legal Advocate in Arizona and Arizona attorney Garrett Simpson, thinks the time is now — a move that could be tied to concerns by many liberal lawyers about whether and when Kennedy, at 81, might retire from the court. “I have spent the last few years with my team looking for cases that highlight the gross problems with the death penalty in practice, and this case is a perfect example of them,” Katyal told BuzzFeed News on Monday evening. “We look forward to the Supreme Court's review of Mr. Hidalgo's petition.”...

The brief points out that the court in Gregg found the new state death penalty laws to be constitutional because they required the finding of “aggravating” circumstances — a move that the court’s controlling opinion concluded would “direct and limit” who was eligible for execution “so as to minimize the risk of wholly arbitrary and capricious action.”

Forty years later, Arizona’s death penalty law is such that there are so many aggravating circumstances that “every first degree murder case filed in Maricopa County in 2010 and 2011 had at least one aggravating factor” making the person eligible for the death penalty. Hidalgo pleaded guilty in 2015 to two January 2001 murders in a murder-for-hire scheme in Maricopa County, Arizona. He was then sentenced to death by a jury. “Arizona’s scheme utterly fails,” Katyal wrote, to “genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty” as the court has required over the time since Gregg.

For this reason alone, Hidalgo’s legal team argues, the court should take the case and strike down Arizona’s death penalty law. But, beyond that, the filing goes on, “A national consensus has emerged that the death penalty is an unacceptable punishment in any circumstance.” The brief argues that the court should take the case and rule that the death penalty, nationwide, is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. This is so, the brief argues, because “the number of death sentences imposed and carried out has plummeted.”

The brief also points to three further key arguments in support of this larger aim: First, states can’t give guidance that ensures that only “the worst offenders” are sentenced to death. Second, states can’t enforce the death penalty without “ensnaring and putting to death the innocent.” And, finally, “the present reality of capital punishment” — decades spent on death row with “the remote but very real possibility of execution” — is its own possible constitutional violation.

The cert petition, available at this link, sets out these "Questions Presented":

I.  Whether Arizona’s capital sentencing scheme, which includes so many aggravating circumstances that virtually every defendant convicted of first-degree murder is eligible for death, violates the Eighth Amendment.

II.  Whether the death penalty in and of itself violates the Eighth Amendment, in light of contemporary standards of decency.

August 15, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Two notable new commentaries on how we define violent offenders and what to do with them

My twitter feed yesterday was filled with links to these two notable new commentaries about violent offenders that are both worth the time to read in full:

Here is how Balko's piece wraps up:

[P]aroling more people convicted of violent crimes will inevitably, at some point, somewhere down the line, produce a repeat offender.  The data overwhelmingly suggest that such incidents will be rare enough to be drastically overwhelmed by the benefits of a more generous and forgiving parole policy.  But those rare incidents will be easy to exploit. Advocates should be prepared for them.

In the end, this is a question of what sort of society we want to be. We can be a punitive society that believes in retribution, no matter the costs.  We can be a society that believes in redemption, regardless of cost.  Or we can be a society of people who strive for a rational, data-driven system that will never be perfect, but that will strive to protect us from truly dangerous people while also recognizing that, as the attorney and activist Bryan Stevenson puts it, “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

August 15, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9)

Monday, August 14, 2017

More notable talk by Prez Trump about possible use of his pardon authority

As noted in this post from a few weeks ago, Prez Trump earlier this summer got more than a few media members and academic talking about the historic presidential clemency authority when he reportedly starting asking about his whether he could pardon folks potential caught up in the on-going Russia investigation.  Today brings more summer pardon talk from Prez Trump, but with a notably different (though also controversial) target.  This Fox News piece, headlined "Trump 'seriously considering' a pardon for ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio," provides the details:

President Trump may soon issue a pardon for Joe Arpaio, the colorful former Arizona sheriff who was found guilty two weeks ago of criminal contempt for defying a state judge’s order to stop traffic patrols targeting suspected undocumented immigrants.  In his final years as Maricopa County sheriff, Arpaio had emerged as a leading opponent of illegal immigration.

“I am seriously considering a pardon for Sheriff Arpaio,” the president said Sunday, during a conversation with Fox News at his club in Bedminster, N.J. “He has done a lot in the fight against illegal immigration.  He’s a great American patriot and I hate to see what has happened to him.”  Trump said the pardon could happen in the next few days, should he decide to do so.

Arpaio, 85, was convicted by U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton of misdemeanor contempt of court for willfully disregarding an Arizona judge’s order in 2011 to stop the anti-immigrant traffic patrols. Arpaio had maintained the law enforcement patrols for 17 months thereafter.  The man who built a controversial national reputation as “America’s toughest sheriff” admitted he prolonged his patrols, but insisted he did not intend to break the law because one of his former attorneys did not explain to him the full measure of restrictions contained in the court order.

He is expected to be sentenced on Oct. 5 and could face up to six months in jail.  However, since he is 85 years old and has no prior convictions, some attorneys doubt he will receive any jail time.

Citing his long service as “an outstanding sheriff,” the president said Arpaio is admired by many Arizona citizens who respected his tough-on-crime approach.  Arpaio’s widely publicized tactics included forcing inmates to wear pink underwear and housing them in desert tent camps where temperatures often climbed well past 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  He also controversially brought back chain gains, including a voluntary chain gang for women prisoners.

Civil liberties and prisoner advocates as well as supporters of immigrants’ rights have criticized Arpaio for years, culminating in his prosecution.  He lost his bid for reelection last year. “Is there anyone in local law enforcement who has done more to crack down on illegal immigration than Sheriff Joe?” asked Trump. “He has protected people from crimes and saved lives.  He doesn’t deserve to be treated this way.”

Stopping the flow of undocumented immigrants across the southern U.S. border was a central theme of the president’s campaign. Arpaio endorsed Trump in January 2016. Trump indicated he may move quickly should he decide to issue a presidential pardon. “I might do it right away, maybe early this week. I am seriously thinking about it.”

Trump could decide to await the outcome of an appeal by Arpaio’s lawyers who contend their client’s case should have been decided by a jury, not a judge.  In a statement after the verdict, his attorneys stated, “The judge’s verdict is contrary to what every single witness testified in the case.  Arpaio believes that a jury would have found in his favor, and that it will.”

Reached Monday for reaction to the possible pardon, Arpaio expressed surprise that Trump was aware of his legal predicament. “I am happy he understands the case,” he told Fox News. “I would accept the pardon because I am 100 percent not guilty.”  The former sheriff said he will continue to be a strong supporter of the president regardless of whether he receives a pardon.  But he also voiced concern that a pardon might cause problems for Trump, saying, “I would never ask him for a pardon, especially if it causes heat. I don’t want to do anything that would hurt the president.”

Trump has not granted any pardons so far in his presidency.

While I was putting this post together, I received an email with a link to this ACLU comment on a possible Arpaio pardon.  The comment closes with these notably sharp statements:

ACLU Deputy Legal Director Cecillia Wang had this reaction to media reports that Trump may pardon Arpaio: “President Trump would be literally pardoning Joe Arpaio’s flagrant violation of federal court orders that prohibited the illegal detention of Latinos.  He would undo a conviction secured by his own career attorneys at the Justice Department.  Make no mistake: This would be an official presidential endorsement of racism.”

August 14, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Imaginging how the internet "could put an end to prisons as we know them"

Gosh knows the modern digital revolution and the internet has brought the demise of a number of brick-and-mortar institutions ranging from music stores to travel agencies.  But this new article from Australia makes the case that the internet could bring an end to brick-and-mortar prisons.  The intriguing piece is headlined "Internet of incarceration: How AI could put an end to prisons as we know them," and here is how it gets started:

Dan Hunter is a prison guard's worst nightmare. But he's not a hardened crim.  As dean of Swinburne University's Law School, he's working to have most wardens replaced by a system of advanced artificial intelligence connected to a network of high-tech sensors.

Called the Technological Incarceration Project, the idea is to make not so much an internet of things as an internet of incarceration. Professor Hunter's team is researching an advanced form of home detention, using artificial intelligence, machine-learning algorithms and lightweight electronic sensors to monitor convicted offenders on a 24-hour basis.

"If we had to use human beings, the cost of monitoring every single type of interaction would be prohibitively expensive," he says. But new technologies are now capable of providing automated surveillance at a fraction of that expense, he says, using equipment that's already in existence or under development.

Under his team's proposal, offenders would be fitted with an electronic bracelet or anklet capable of delivering an incapacitating shock if an algorithm detects that a new crime or violation is about to be committed. That assessment would be made by a combination of biometric factors, such as voice recognition and facial analysis.

His vision is futuristic, but it isn't simply technological fetishism. He's convinced such automation will make for a better society. Under his proposal, the main costs of incarceration are borne by the offender and his or her family, not by the state, while law-breakers are isolated from each other, decreasing the risk of offenders becoming hardened by the system.

While technology has transformed our society, the jails of the 21st century operate pretty much as they did 100 years ago. "We are at the point now where we can fundamentally rethink the way in which we incarcerate people," Professor Hunter says. "If what we want to do is we want to keep the community safe, if we want to have the greatest possibility of rehabilitation of the offender and if we want to save money, then there are alternatives to prison that actually make a lot of sense."

Readers may recall this prior post flagging this recent paper authored by Dean Hunter and colleagues titled "Technological Incarceration and the End of the Prison Crisis"

August 14, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (2)

Notable application of DOJ spending restriction to halt federal sentencing of convicted marijuana offenders

This new Los Angeles Times article, provocatively headlined "The feds seized guns, gold and 320 pot plants. So why did a judge rule they can't pursue marijuana charges?," reports on a notable federal District Judge ruling from last week.  Here are the basics:

When agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration raided a remote farm in Humboldt County five years ago, they found plenty to incriminate the owners, Anthony Pisarski and Sonny Moore. More than 300 marijuana plants were growing in a pair of greenhouses. Agents found guns in a house on the sprawling property and about $225,000 in cash, much of it bundled in vacuum-sealed pouches, hidden in a garage and some pickup trucks. Later searches uncovered another large stash of cash, along with bars of gold and silver.

Pisarski and Moore ultimately pleaded guilty to a federal charge of conspiring to manufacture and sell marijuana.

But in a ruling believed to be the first of its kind, a judge last week put a stop to the case before the men were sentenced to prison. The judge found he had no choice but to call off prosecutors in light of an unusual budget rule in Congress that forbids federal law enforcement from interfering with states where medical marijuana is legal.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg in San Francisco illustrates for the first time what could be a serious legal hurdle if U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, a fierce marijuana opponent, decides to crack down on medical marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law. While it remains to be seen how many other marijuana cases will be closed down like the one in San Francisco, supporters of states’ authority to legalize pot hailed the decision and said they hoped it served as a check on Sessions.

“This is a signal that hopefully will go totally across the country — that federal prosecutors should stop wasting their time and start focusing on real criminals,” U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), who has led a legislative campaign to rein in the Justice Department on medical marijuana cases, said of the judge’s order.  “My conservative friends like Jeff [Sessions] need to look themselves in the mirror and say, ‘We don’t like these people smoking marijuana, but they do have a right to do it because it’s their lives, not the government’s.’ ”

The ruling hinged on a short amendment written by Rohrabacher and then-U.S. Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), who recently retired, to an appropriations bill in late 2014 that authorized government spending for the upcoming year.  Though brief, the amendment was meant to have a significant effect: It forbade the Department of Justice from using funds in a way that obstructed a state “from implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana.” Congress has renewed the prohibition each year since.

Until now, U.S. district judges had rejected attempts by defendants to argue that the amendment applied to their cases.  In a case in Fresno involving a man convicted of illegally operating a marijuana cooperative, for example, a judge found the man had violated California’s medical marijuana law by selling marijuana for profit and therefore was fair game for federal prosecution....

For Pisarski and Moore, the budget amendment offered a last-minute lifeline.  The amendment was added when the pair were only days away from being sentenced. Prosecutors were asking the judge to send the men to prison for nearly three years.  The pair owned 242 remote acres of property that included a house, a warehouse and two greenhouses where agents discovered 320 growing marijuana plants, according to court records filed by the U.S. attorney’s office . Federal agents found a loaded firearm in both of their bedrooms.  Among the evidence seized was $189,000 in cash that had been welded inside the lining of a trailer.

Pisarski’s attorney, Ronald Richards, made an emergency request to postpone the sentencing in order to see if the amendment would be signed into law.  The judge agreed, and when the spending rule, which passed with broad bipartisan support, became law, Richards said he sent emails to public defenders and other defense attorneys across the country to alert them to the new legal avenue the amendment opened in marijuana cases....

Justice Department officials, however, balked at such an expansive interpretation of the amendment. They acknowledged the spending ban prohibited them from meddling in the affairs of state officials but did not accept that it prevented them from going after producers and sellers like Pisarski and Moore. Richards and Moore’s attorney sought to push back the sentencing over and over as the legal landscape on marijuana cases continued to shift.

Last year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that defendants in California and other states in the court’s jurisdiction with medical marijuana laws were entitled to a hearing to determine whether they had been in compliance with those state laws. If defendants could demonstrate that they had abided by state rules, prosecutors were to be blocked from pursuing federal drug charges, the court said.

Last month, Seeborg held a hearing for Pisarski and Moore. Their attorneys argued the marijuana plants the men grew were earmarked for two nonprofit collectives that distributed it to its members in line with California regulations. In a court filing, Pisarski told the judge he needed guns at the house to protect himself against “mountain lions, pigs with big teeth and bears” when he was outside at night. The government countered that the men had not proved that all the members of the collective were legitimate and that the guns, cash and gold indicated the men planned to sell the pot for profit.

On Tuesday, Seeborg sided with Pisarski and Moore, saying the men were under no burden to verify that members of the collectives were qualified to belong. He acknowledged that the money and weapons could be signs of a criminal operation, but said they were “equally consistent with the operation of a rural, cash-intensive enterprise.” In his ruling, Seeborg echoed the 9th Circuit when he emphasized his decision was valid only as long as Congress continues to renew the spending restrictions on the Justice Department.

Having admitted their guilt but not been sentenced, Pisarski and Moore find themselves in an odd legal limbo. Prosecutors in their case did not respond to requests for comment, leaving it unknown whether the U.S. attorney in the Northern District of California will ask for the case to be dismissed or try to wait to see if Congress does an about-face.

I cannot yet seem to find a copy of Judge Seeborg's notable ruling anywhere on-line as of this writing. I will be sure to post it if I can get a copy/link sent my way.

UPDATE:  A helpful reader sent me a copy of Judge Seeborg's 10-page ruling in US v. Pisarski, and it can be downloaded via this link:

  Download Seeborg spending rider ruling

August 14, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Making a case against sex offender registries

Newsweek has posted this new opinion piece authored by Professor Trevor Hoppe under the headlined "Are Sex Offender Registries Too Strict?." As evidenced by these excerpts, it seems the author believes the answer to this question is yes:

In my work on sex offender registries, I have found that black men in the U.S. were registered at rates twice that of white men—resembling disparities found in the criminal justice system at large. However, these findings speak to the scope of the problem of American sex offender registries, as approximately 1 percent of black men in the U.S. are now registered sex offenders.  My research suggests that inequality is deeply tied to sex offender policies....

Imagine being punished for something you did three decades ago.  You served your time and thought it was in the past. Under American sex offender laws, moving on is nearly impossible: Most state policies are retroactive, meaning they apply to offenders who committed offenses before these laws were put in place.  While these laws are the subject of several ongoing court battles, most remain in effect.

Offenders are subject to extensive public notification requirements, which include state-run search engine listings that feature their address, mugshot, criminal history and demographic information. In some cases, offenders are also required to publicly post flyers with their pictures or run newspaper notices advertising their residency.  Some states, such as Louisiana, stamp “SEX OFFENDER” in large red script on driver’s licenses.

Having a mugshot disseminated across internet search engines is only the tip of the iceberg; once registered, offenders are subject to a wide array of housing and employment restrictions.  In many places in the U.S., sex offenders are effectively zoned out of cities and towns because there are no residential areas that satisfy all of the numerous regulations. For example, offenders may be prohibited from living within a certain number of feet from a playground. They are often left with no choice but to live under highways or in improvised communities, such as the one in Pahokee, Florida depicted in the New York Times 2013 short film, “Sex Offender Village.”...

Lawmakers ... argue that more invasive policies are necessary because sex offenders are highly likely to commit future crimes. In their view, informing the public of their criminal history will offer protection.  But as the U.S. federal government’s Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking notes, sex offender registration requirements “have been implemented in the absence of empirical evidence regarding their effectiveness.”

Now that all 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. have developed such registries, the evidence testing the effectiveness of sex offender registries is beginning to mount. It is mixed, at best.

One study followed sex offenders who were labeled “high-risk” for reoffending and who were released from Wisconsin prisons in the late 1990s. That study compared offenders who were subjected to limited public notification requirements with those who were subjected to extensive requirements.  The researchers found no significant difference in the average time between release and a future offense.  In other words, extensive public notification did not deter future offenses.

However, another study evaluated the likelihood of reoffending for sexual offenders labeled “high risk” released from Minnesota state correctional facilities. Here researchers found that offenders subject to community notification were somewhat less likely to commit another sexual offense.

Finally, a recent study found that sex offenders released in Florida between 1990 and 2010 had lower rates of recidivism than offenders of other types of crime -- 6.5 percent for sex offenses, as compared to 8.3 percent for nonsexual assaults and 29.8 percent for drug offenses.  Moreover, that study found that recidivism rates increased after the state legislature implemented sex offender registration requirements in 1997.

While the evidence is mixed that these policies are effective at deterring crime, the evidence of their collateral consequences is more consistent.  Several studies of registered sex offenders have revealed how registries reinforce class inequality by creating patterned experiences of unemployment, harassment and homelessness.

From a public safety perspective, scholars note that registries provide the public with a false sense of security: While the existence of sex offender registries reinforces a myth of “stranger danger,” most offenders in reality are acquaintances or family members.  Balancing the thin support of the registries’ effectiveness against the more robust evidence of their negative effects, one scholar recently concluded these policies do more harm than good.

My research suggests there is also a racialized dimension to the war on sex offenders that complicates arguments in their favor. The evidence does not strongly suggest registries are effective at deterring crime. Rather, their most lasting impact may be their exacerbation of inequalities based on race, class and gender.

August 13, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

"Trump Wants to Get Tough on Crime. Victims Don’t Agree."

The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing New York Times piece about the results of this interesting recent survey of "crime survivors." Here are excerpts:

Sending more people to prison, deporting illegal immigrants, cracking down on marijuana use — those are some of the things the Trump administration has said will make America safer.  But what do crime victims think about all this? It is a group whose views are rarely measured, but a poll commissioned by the Alliance for Safety and Justice sought to find out.

A few notes of caution: The group supports criminal justice reform, including incarcerating fewer people, and seeks to promote the voices of victims who agree.  And the random survey, which has a margin of sampling error of 3.4 percent, was taken in May, before President Trump repeatedly criticized Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, on Twitter.

But it is a rare chance to hear from victims, more than 800 of whom were asked about their views on the administration’s criminal justice policies.  By and large, their priorities appear very different from the president’s.

Half of respondents said they felt less safe since Mr. Trump took office, though it was not clear that this was because of his approach to criminal justice.  Only 39 percent said they felt less safe when Mr. Trump discussed crime or criminal justice.  But when the president posts on Twitter, the number who feel less safe jumps to 57 percent, according to the survey.

About three in four said they were happy with their local police and law enforcement in general. While only about 42 percent rated Mr. Trump favorably, that was higher than the president’s favorability rating among the general population at the time. About a third held positive views of Mr. Sessions.

When victims were asked to name two things that contributed most to crime in their communities, just 12 percent blamed undocumented immigrants.  Almost nobody thought there were too few people in prison.  Instead, more than half named drug and alcohol addiction, and nearly a third pointed to poor parenting.  Mental health issues and a lack of job opportunities also ranked high on the list.

“‘Lock ’em up and throw away the key,’ that’s the traditional way of thinking, but many victims don’t want ‘tough on crime’ and incarceration,” said Aswad Thomas, 34, who was shot twice in the back during a robbery attempt in Hartford in 2009, ending his plans to play professional basketball. “Most of us want more rehabilitation services for crime victims.”

Mr. Thomas, now the membership director at the Alliance, said once he found out that both of the young men who had shot him had been victims of crime themselves, he became convinced that offering counseling and trauma services to victims could itself help reduce violent crime.

A vast majority of respondents supported increasing treatment for addiction and mental health, while they were less enthusiastic about Trump administration policies like seeking the maximum punishment for drug offenders and increasing deportations, which only 40 percent of respondents favored.  Nearly two-thirds said they did not want federal drug laws to be enforced in states where marijuana use has been legalized....

A majority of respondents — 84 percent — said additional funding should be spent on rehabilitation and drug and mental health treatment programs for people in the justice system. Some views held true despite the respondents’ political leanings. Among those who said they held a favorable opinion of Mr. Trump, more than half chose addiction as a leading driver of crime.

August 12, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Interesting and consequential Florida Supreme Court decision on retroactivity of Hurst

As this Death Penalty Information Center posting details, the Florida Supreme Court this past week reiterated that it would not apply retroactively its rulings requiring unanimous jury verdicts for death sentences to cases made final by June 2002 when SCOTUS decided Ring v. Arizona. The Florida court's per curiam opinion in Hitchcock v. Florida, No. SC17-445 (Fla. Aug. 10, 2017) (available here), mostly just restates a prior retroactivity ruling, but concurring and dissenting opinions make for interesting reads on retroactivity doctrines and policies.

As the DPIC posting notes, "Hitchcock's case was closely watched because the Florida courts had frozen the briefing schedules for 77 similarly situated death-row prisoners who also were arguing that Hurst should be enforced in their cases." I suspect most, if not all, of these prisoners will not be seeking certiorari to the US Supreme Court, but I would be surprised if SCOTUS takes up any of their cases.

August 12, 2017 in Apprendi / Blakely Retroactivity , Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 11, 2017

Lamenting the role of prosecutors in continued pursuit of juve LWOP sentences

This New York Times op-ed by Rashad Robinson zeroes in on the role of prosecutors in the continuance of juve LWOP sentences in the wake of Graham and Miller.  The piece is headlined "No Child Deserves a Life Sentence. But Try Telling Prosecutors That." Here are excerpts:

In 2012, the Supreme Court took a step toward righting a terrible wrong by banning mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for children. Last year, the court said that ban should apply retroactively: It told prosecutors to conduct resentencing hearings for the approximately 2,500 people who were serving life sentences for crimes they committed as adolescents. Many of them had been in prison for decades.

But if you walked into many courthouses today, you wouldn’t know that the Supreme Court had called for resentencing these juvenile offenders, the majority of them black. That’s because prosecutors are choosing to pursue life-without-parole sentences for these cases again.  Part of the problem is that the court kept the door open for overreach when it allowed prosecutors to impose a life sentence on the rare defendant who is “irreparably corrupt” and “permanently incorrigible.”

Consider Michigan, where prosecutors are denying parole or shorter sentences for 60 percent of juvenile lifers, even in cases where parole boards have recommended them. In Oakland County, northwest of Detroit, the share is a whopping 90 percent. While nearly half of all juvenile lifers are concentrated in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Louisiana, prosecutors elsewhere, like Scott Shellenberger in Baltimore County, Md., who has opposed ending such sentences for children, have also effectively thumbed their nose at the court’s ruling.

On top of this, many prosecutors are resentencing juvenile lifers to de facto life-without-parole sentences. The district attorney of Orleans Parish in Louisiana defended a “reduced” sentence for a juvenile lifer to a term that would have let him leave prison at age 101. (A Louisiana Supreme Court justice later reprimanded the district attorney for this “stunning” and “constitutionally untenable” position).

This is happening not because our prisons are full of unrepentant juvenile offenders who can never be rehabilitated, but because of a racist structure of perverse incentives that encourages prosecutors to pursue mass incarceration instead of justice.

For decades, prosecutors have sought high conviction rates and long sentences in the belief that appearing tough on crime would advance their careers. Indeed, prosecutors in any given local district or state attorney’s office, from the most junior rookie to the top elected official, tend to view their career prospects through the lens of average sentence length....

Black communities have borne the brunt of this overzealous approach, and racial disparities can be found anywhere prosecutors have control over sentences.  But in recent years, this racist incentive structure has begun to shift, as multiracial coalitions led by black Americans have elected prosecutors across the country who value safety and justice.  This is no liberal pipe dream, but it does require sustained activism and perseverance.  That’s what it took last November when voters in Chicago, Houston and other cities ousted prosecutors who were not serving their interests and elected reform-minded candidates. In those cities, community advocates and my organization, Color of Change, helped make criminal justice issues a key part of the debate.

But communities must work to hold all prosecutors accountable, even those who promise reforms.  Prosecutors are the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system; they aren’t going to start caring about the Supreme Court’s rulings on juvenile sentences and other vital reforms until voters give them a reason to.

Though there are evident racial skews in who gets subject to the most severe sentences in the US, I struggle to understand just how the political pressure and benefits that prosecutors experience from appearing tough on crime amounts to a "racist incentive structure."  Having prosecutors regularly subject to voter concerns through local elections creates what might be called a "politicized" or "majoritarian incentive structure," but I am not sure I see how the label "racist" is a sensible or helpful way to describe the traditional election process facing many local prosecutors.  I wonder if this author would likewise assert that mayors or local representatives (or other elected local officials who also can in various ways impact the operation of criminal justice systems) are subject to a "racist incentive structure" that impacts their governmental decision-making.

Because this op-ed ai part of a wave of important recent advocacy and scholarship emphasizing the importance of prosecutorial decision-making, I do not wish to make too much of my puzzlement over the assertion that local prosecutors are subject to a "racist structure of perverse incentives."  But I do wish to hear from anyone who might help me better understand what the author has in mind when referencing the "racist incentive structure" facing prosecutors.

August 11, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Certain Certiorari: The Digital Privacy Rights of Probationers"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper available via SSRN authored by Daniel Yeager. Here is the abstract:

In a recent oral argument, a judge on the California Court of Appeal told me they had “at least 50” pending cases on the constitutionality of probation conditions authorizing suspicionless searches of digital devices.  As counsel of record in three of the cases, I feel positioned to comment on this hot topic within criminal law.  My intention here is less to reconcile California’s cases on suspicionless searches of probationers’ digital devices than to locate them within the precedents of the United States Supreme Court, which is bound before long to pick up a case for the same purpose.

Specifically, the Court is bound to hear whether Riley v. California — its 2014 ruling excluding content found on digital devices in warrantless searches of arrestees’ grab-area — applies to probationers.  David Riley’s case arose out of his 2009 arrest by San Diego police, who had lawfully found firearms under the hood of his car.  Incident to Riley’s arrest, police found evidence of his gang membership in a search of his cell phone, which placed itself at an unsolved shooting.  Riley’s subsequent convictions were based on that evidence, which he sought without success to exclude until the Supreme Court reversed in Chief Justice Roberts’s hommage to cell phones — life-altering instruments which a “visitor from Mars might conclude were an important feature of human anatomy.”  Riley has since been cited over 3,000 times as a Fourth Amendment tract that privileges the “privacies of life” over the “often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime.”

But what, exactly, are Riley’s implications? Is it just a technical ruling on the privacy interests only of arrestees, with no specific applicability to post-conviction phases of criminal cases?  Because the Court’s most on-point precedents — one involving a probationer (United States v. Knights), the other a parolee (Samson v. California) — indicate no stance on Riley’s applicability beyond the arrest context, California courts improvidently consider those precedents legal non-events.  One way or another, the Court will inevitably settle the matter itself, almost certainly within one of the seven electronics-conditions cases now on review in the California Supreme Court.  This Essay details why and how.

August 11, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A reminder of why an active death penalty system in the US now seems so unlikley

Arguably the US has never had an active death penalty system, though there were a few hundred executions each year during the first decades of the 20th Century.  In the so-called modern death penalty era since 1976, the most completed executions in a single year was 98 (in 1999); there have been fewer than 50 executions in nearly every year over the last decades, and only 20 completed executions in 2016.  (This page from the Death Penalty information Center provides these recent details.)

As I have mentioned before, I find it notable that all the new law-and-order talk coming from the Trump Administration has not really included talk of ramping up use of the death penalty.  That, in my view, is a mark of a achievement by the abolitionist movement.  Another mark is the extraordinary difficulty these seems to be in securing death sentences, as discussed in this new Injustice Today piece headlined "Even in the deep red South, death sentences are on the decline." Here is an excerpt:

Twenty years ago, a brutal murder in a red state like Mississippi would likely guarantee a death sentence for a defendant.  But as last week’s sentencing of Scotty Lakeith Street illustrates, juries in the South and across the country continue to shift away from capital punishment.  In 1997, four people in Mississippi were sentenced to death; last year, 2016, not one person was. Street was sentenced to life without parole for stabbing retired teacher Frankie Fairley to death in 2014. The jury in Street’s trial, faced with a choice between the death penalty or life in prison, couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict, and split 10–2....

Those that opted for life without parole may have been swayed by Street’s extensive history of mental illness. As reported by WLOX, jurors heard testimony from his sister that Street had “been institutionalized so much, it’s beyond my count.” Street’s lawyers also presented testimony from a mental health provider who explained that Street suffered from schizophrenia and “needed to be in a group home with a caregiver.”  Street was also reported to have displayed “bizarre behavior,” including “putting plastic bags on his head to keep his brain from leaking out and running naked in public with objects tied to his scrotum.”...

Mental illness aside, death sentences are on the decline across the country.  Last year, 30 people were sentenced to death in the U.S., while in the mid-1990s, more than 300 people received capital sentences.  That decline in popularity is reflected in Street’s case, as well as in other Mississippi capital cases.  Though the death penalty’s legality remains alive and well, juries across the country are rejecting it.

August 10, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Notable new coverage of possible notable new appointment to US Sentencing Commission

Beth Reinhard has this interesting new Wall Street Journal article headlined "Sessions Promotes Tough-On-Crime Judge for Sentencing Panel."  The subheadline of this piece reports the core story: "Attorney General urges White House to nominate judge once nicknamed ‘Hang ’Um High’ Henry Hudson to panel that issues sentencing guidelines."  And here are excerpts:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is urging the White House to nominate a federal judge and tough-on-crime ex-prosecutor once nicknamed “Hang ’Um High” Henry Hudson to an independent, bipartisan panel that issues sentencing guidelines.  Mr. Sessions’ recommendation for one of three openings on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, confirmed by people familiar with the process, reflects the Justice Department’s broader crackdown on violent crime, including the reversal of several Obama -era policies.

The department is urging the commission to toughen sentences for certain violent criminals, drug offenders, illegal immigrant smugglers and so-called career offenders.  In its annual report to the commission, the department asked it to preserve the long, mandatory-minimum sentences that supporters say help fight crime but critics say inflate prison costs and disproportionately hurt minority communities without improving public safety.

President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise to “restore law and order,” has the authority but is under no requirement to fill two Republican vacancies and one Democratic spot on the seven-seat commission.

Judge Hudson, who has acknowledged his colorful nickname, was a candidate for FBI director earlier this year.  He is best known for sending pro-football quarterback Michael Vick to prison in 2007 for running a dogfighting ring and for finding unconstitutional a key provision of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

“I’m excited about the opportunity to serve on the commission,” Judge Hudson, who serves in the U.S. District Court in Richmond, Va., said in a telephone interview Thursday. “I’d like to make sure the guidelines are fair and consider every possible factor in a case.”

Mr. Hudson would be the first new commission member tapped by Mr. Trump, who has reappointed two members previously nominated by former President Barack Obama. A White House official declined to discuss Mr. Hudson’s prospects, but said the administration is committed to filling all federal vacancies....

Mr. Hudson would be expected to shake up the low-profile but powerful panel, which has produced research on the prison population, recidivism and sentencing that advocates have cited in pressing for an overhaul of the criminal justice system.

In its most consequential decision in recent years, the commission in 2014 rolled back penalties for most federal drug offenses, allowing more than 30,000 inmates to seek reduced sentences and helping to trim the federal prison population for the first time in decades. That trend is expected to reverse under Mr. Sessions, a former U.S. attorney and senator from Alabama. After a string of major overhauls of Obama administration policies that sought to curb potential abuses by police and prosecutors Mr. Sessions is now seeking to make his mark on the sentencing commission.

“That is the place where the biggest sentencing reforms have been made in Washington, in that nothing the White House or Congress has done comes close,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which favors lighter sentencing. “This little agency is a big deal and Sessions wants to exercise his influence, which is shaping up into a fight.”

Among Mr. Sessions’ recommendations is a proposal that the Sentencing Commission reduce the quantity of fentanyl, an opioid, that triggers a sentence of 10 to 16 months for possession with intent to sell. Stiffer penalties weren’t one of a slate of recent proposals made by the president’s task force on opioids, which included expanding treatment through the Medicaid program....

Mr. Hudson declined to comment on his own sentencing of some defendants to decadeslong mandatory-minimum sentences. “I’m anxious to hear the debate and hear everyone’s viewpoint,” he said. “I won’t come to the sentencing commission with any preconceived notions.”

In a 2007 memoir titled “Quest for Justice,” Mr. Hudson recalled that police in Arlington, Va., wore campaign buttons that said “I voted for “Hang ’Em High Henry” during his re-election campaign as a state prosecutor in the early 1980s. “I didn’t reject that nickname, nor did I solicit it,” he said Thursday. “My record as a judge speaks for itself.”

As a state prosecutor in liberal-leaning northern Virginia, Mr. Hudson shut down adult bookstores and massage parlors. That led to his chairmanship of former President Ronald Reagan’s national commission on pornography, which linked porn to violence. He was director of the U.S. Marshals Service during the 1992 deadly siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

He also stirred controversy for prosecuting a mentally disabled man for the murder of a woman in 1984. David Vasquez served five years in prison before DNA and other evidence exonerated him. “I certainly wish him the best and regret what happened,” Mr. Hudson wrote in his memoir, saying he remained convinced of his involvement in the murder.  “However, I offer no apologies.”

I do not know enough about Judge Hudson's sentencing (and political) history to know if he really would be eager or able to "shake up" the US Sentencing Commission, but I do know that advocacy by the US Justice Department always has a big influence on the USSC and that influence is likely only to grow if (and when?) the USSC is populated by Commissioners recommended by the Attorney General.  In recent years under the direction of Judge Patti Saris, who serves as USSC Chair from 2010 to 2016, there seemed to be a concerted effort by the Commission to act only via consensus. If Acting Chair Judge Pryor continues that ethos, it would be hard for a single USSC member to radically reverse the direction of USSC activity (though a single member could be able to block initiatives favored by many other colleagues). This article is written in a way that makes me think Judge Hudson will definitely be nominated to the USSC position, and it will be interesting to see who else might be (soon?) emerging as names for other open USSC spots.

Appropriately, this WSJ article reference the US DOJ's recent letter to the USSC about guideline amendment priorities, which the USSC has made available here.  Unsurprisingly, this letter starts by stressing the crime concerns that have been emphasized by AG Sessions in recent months.   The article fails to note another way AG Sessions can and has exercised some influence, namely through the Justice Department's "ex officio" position on the USSC.  As the end of the DOJ letter reveals (and as the USSC's own website reveals here), AG Sessions has recent put Zachary Bolitho in the role of DOJ's ex officio member of the USSC, whom I believe shares a lot of the "tough-on-crime" perspectives of his long-time boss Steve Cook.   (Zac just happens to be an OSU Law grad and was an award-winning law professor at Campbell Law before his recent re-appointment to DOJ, so I know and greatly respect Zac personally and professionally.) 

August 10, 2017 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Why are we sentencing children to life in prison without parole?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new Newsweek commentary authored by Vincent Southerland and Jody Kent Lavy.  Here are excerpts from the start and end of the commentary:

The barbaric practice of sentencing children to life in prison without the possibility of parole remains one of the most radically inhumane aspects of our criminal justice system.

For those of us who work daily to abolish this practice, the good news is that there are several recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that deem this brand of sentencing unconstitutional and attempt to limit its use.

The bad news is that despite these decisions and a national trend moving away from this practice, several outlier states and counties refuse to comply with the Supreme Court’s most recent mandate, which effectively banned life without parole for all children capable of rehabilitation.

The shameful news is that the United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and that children of color -- African American children in particular -- and children who have been abused and traumatized are disproportionately handed these sentences.

Taken together, these facts lead to a simple conclusion: The time has come to put an end to life without parole sentencing for children....

By tackling our most extreme sentences for children, and acknowledging that this harshest of punishments is imposed disproportionately on children of color coming from some of our most vulnerable communities, we must come to terms with the fact that race and socioeconomic status play a huge role in determining how much compassion the justice system will show a young person.

This should not be the case -- all children are created equal, and there is no such thing as a throwaway child. Our sentencing policies should reflect those truths.

State lawmakers would be well served to join the national trend abandoning the practice of sentencing children to life in prison without a hope of release.  It is imperative that together we work toward a justice system that offers the mercy that all children deserve.

August 10, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)