Friday, November 17, 2017

New ACLU poll suggests significant interest in criminal justice reform

This ACLU posting, headlined "ACLU Poll Finds Americans Reject Trump’s Tough-on-Crime Approach," reports on the result of notable new poll with notable new findings. Here are excerpts from the posting:

In a rejection of President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions' tough-on-crime approach, a new ACLU poll finds that a large majority of Americans believe the criminal justice system is unjust and needs to be significantly reformed.

Nine out of 10 Americans from across the political spectrum told our pollster that our criminal justice system needs fixing. This is an astounding number, but the results are even more impressive when you drill down into them. They show that criminal justice reform is a political issue the American people care about....

Our polling shows that Americans are uncomfortable with the land of the free putting so many of its people behind bars, particularly when two out of three respondents do not believe that the criminal justice system treats Black people fairly. Seventy-one percent of respondents said that the United States should reduce its prison population.

This support remained strong across people with very different political beliefs. Eighty-seven percent of Democrats, 67 percent of independents, and 57 percent of Republicans all agreed that we should reduce our prison population. But one of the most encouraging signs that Americans have had enough of mass incarceration is that 52 percent of Trump voters said it was important to reduce the size of the prison population.

Most people polled also believed that mass incarceration wasn’t just a serious problem but counterproductive. Seventy-one percent of respondents agreed that “sending someone to prison for a long sentence increases the chances that he or she will commit another crime when they get out because prison doesn’t do a good job of rehabilitating problems like drug addiction and mental illness.” This includes 68 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Trump voters. Bleeding-heart liberals they are not.

Americans also don’t want their prisons full of people with mental health disabilities. Eighty-four percent of respondents said that people with mental health disabilities belong in mental health programs instead of prison.

Two in three Americans would be more likely to vote for candidates who supported reducing the prison population and using the savings to reinvest in drug treatment and mental health programs, including 65 percent of Trump voters. And 72 percent said that they would be more likely to vote for an elected official who supports eliminating mandatory minimum laws. This is in direct contrast to the agenda pushed forward by President Trump and Attorney General Session, who have supported more mandatory minimums.

The majority of Americans recognize racial bias in the criminal justice system. Fifty-five percent of Americans agree that racism in policing, prosecution, and sentencing are responsible for racial disparities in our nation’s prisons and jails....

Sixty-one percent of Americans believe that people who have committed crimes involving violence can turn their lives around. Sixty-one percent of Americans also believe that people who suffer from drug addiction and commit serious crimes don’t belong in prison but should be in rehabilitation programs where they can receive treatment. And nearly nine out of 10 respondents believe that when people with mental health disabilities commit crimes that involve violence they should be sent to mental health programs where they can receive treatment from professionals.

The full ACLU poll producing these results are available at this link.  Because of the structure of some of the questions asked in this poll, I am not entirely convinced that there is quite as much public opposition to current Trump-era "tough-on-crime" approaches as the ACLU is here asserting.  But I do think this poll provides still further evidence that the public in general is eager to hear policy-makers and political candidates discuss the opportunities and need for criminal justice reform.

November 17, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"The Criminal Justice System Stalks Black People Like Meek Mill"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times op-ed authored by Jay-Z. Here are excerpts:

This month Meek Mill was sentenced to two to four years in prison for violating his probation. #FreeMeek hashtags have sprung up, and hundreds of his fans rallied near City Hall in Philadelphia to protest the ruling.

On the surface, this may look like the story of yet another criminal rapper who didn’t smarten up and is back where he started. But consider this: Meek was around 19 when he was convicted on charges relating to drug and gun possession, and he served an eight-month sentence.  Now he’s 30, so he has been on probation for basically his entire adult life. For about a decade, he’s been stalked by a system that considers the slightest infraction a justification for locking him back inside.

What’s happening to Meek Mill is just one example of how our criminal justice system entraps and harasses hundreds of thousands of black people every day.  I saw this up close when I was growing up in Brooklyn during the 1970s and 1980s. Instead of a second chance, probation ends up being a land mine, with a random misstep bringing consequences greater than the crime. A person on probation can end up in jail over a technical violation like missing a curfew.

Taxpayers in Philadelphia, Meek Mill’s hometown, will have to spend tens of thousands of dollars each year to keep him locked up, and I bet none of them would tell you his imprisonment is helping to keep them safer. He’s there because of arrests for a parole violation, and because a judge overruled recommendations by a prosecutor and his probation officer that he doesn’t deserve more jail time....

Look at what he’s being punished for now: In March, he was arrested after an altercation in a St. Louis airport. After video of what had actually happened was released, all charges were dropped against Meek. In August, he was arrested for popping a wheelie on a motorcycle on his video set in New York.  Those charges were dismissed after he agreed to attend traffic school. Think about that.  The charges were either dropped or dismissed, but the judge sent him to prison anyway....

[I]t’s time we highlight the random ways people trapped in the criminal justice system are punished every day. The system treats them as a danger to society, consistently monitors and follows them for any minor infraction — with the goal of putting them back in prison.

As of 2015, one-third of the 4.65 million Americans who were on some form of parole or probation were black. Black people are sent to prison for probation and parole violations at much higher rates than white people.  In Pennsylvania, hundreds of thousands of people are on probation or parole.  About half of the people in city jails in Philadelphia are there for probation or parole violations.  We could literally shut down jails if we treated people on parole or probation more fairly....  Probation is a trap and we must fight for Meek and everyone else unjustly sent to prison.

Prior related post:

November 17, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Notable crime fighting comments by Deputy AG Rosenstein in Chicago

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein delivered this lengthy speech at an awards dinner in Chicago on Thursday evening, and it included a number of interesting passages about crime fighting. I recommend the speech in full, and here are a few passages I thought especially worth highlighting:

In the first few decades after its creation in 1919, the Chicago Crime Commission battled bootleggers, gangs, and public corruption. It famously named Al Capone as Public Enemy Number One, which inspired the FBI to create its Ten Most Wanted List.

The challenges Chicago faces today demand a similar approach. In 2016, more than 4,300 Chicagoans were shot, and 760 were killed. On average, one person was shot every two hours, and two people were killed every day.  This year, with more than 600 homicides so far, Chicago is on track to report the second-highest murder total this century....

Gang violence accounts for the majority of the shootings and killings. Most of the violence relates to drug trafficking. Gang members do not just kill each other. T he also murder innocent bystanders -- men, women, and even children.

I mentioned earlier that I have a particular interest in a Chicago case from almost a century ago. It arose following the most notorious Chicago gang murder in history, known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  In 1929, seven victims were lined up against a wall and shot with machine guns.  The sensational crime shocked the city and provoked a public outcry to crack down on crime....

So Eliot Ness and his allies sent Capone to prison for a more readily provable crime -- tax evasion. Attorney General Robert Kennedy adopted a similar approach in 1961, when he counseled agents to fight organized crime with all available tools, even if it required prosecuting gangsters for minor offenses. In this century, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered prosecutors to disrupt terrorist plots by pursuing any lawful charges to put suspects behind bars before they carry out their murderous plans.

The lesson of Ness, Kennedy and Ashcroft informs my approach to violent crime.  The lesson is that if we really want to save lives, we must have the courage to order our law enforcement agencies to employ proactive policing. To prevent crime, you need to identify killers and remove them from the community before they strike again.

I support education, job-training, rehabilitation, and other efforts to teach people not to commit crimes. But for police and prosecutors, our unique power is the ability to send people to prison.  The challenge is to focus on the right people and to make it count.  Local police agencies spend much of their time reacting to emergency calls and investigating past crimes, but they convict only a fraction of the perpetrators.

During my briefings with the leaders of the Chicago Police Department this morning, I learned that Chicago is now working to drive down violent crime through proactive policing.  We know that proactive policing works.  Proactive police and prosecutors identify violent repeat offenders, then they commit the resources needed to gather evidence of any readily prosecutable crimes.

Targeting dangerous repeat offenders for proactive enforcement is not a "zero tolerance" strategy of arresting random people for minor offenses.  It is a thoughtful strategy of identifying the career criminals and gangs that are fomenting violence in our communities, and using constitutional policing to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate them....

The lesson is that deterrence requires enforcement and rules that matter to criminals are the ones that carry expected penalties the criminals are unwilling to pay.  Deterrence is about fear of consequences. We want criminals to fear the police and the consequences of committing crimes.  If dangerous criminals are not afraid, then law-abiding citizens are in jeopardy.

When we see a surge in violent crime that follows a dramatic disruption in policing, as happened in Baltimore and Chicago, it is obvious that there is a lapse in the deterrent effect of law enforcement.  The debate about what caused the recent lapse in deterrence will endure, as will efforts to remedy root causes and improve relationships between police officers and residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods.

In the meantime, the crime surge can be suppressed if law enforcement agencies work together to secure lengthy sentences for armed felons, build proactive drug and conspiracy cases against members of gangs that foment violence, and prosecute dangerous offenders who violate probation or parole conditions.  I saw that approach work in Baltimore from 2007 to 2014. Both shootings and arrests fell dramatically.  It can work again....

Unfortunately, some people will not act good.  The national violent crime rate rose nearly seven percent over the past two years. The homicide rate increased more than 20 percent. Proactive policing can help reverse that trend....

The Attorney General also announced the creation of the National Public Safety Partnership to combat violent crime, and we hosted a National Summit on Crime Reduction and Public Safety.  The Attorney General established a new charging policy that authorizes prosecutors to charge defendants with the most serious offense.  It is not really a new policy; it is a return to the policy that worked when crime was falling....

We also are hiring additional federal prosecutors to focus on violent crime.  More police officers will patrol the streets with COPS hiring grants.  The Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Forces helps implement a National Gang Strategy Initiative.  We offer training and technical assistance to state and local partners, and we collaborate with local law enforcement and exchange best practices.

There are many other things that we do to help reduce crime, but I want to conclude by talking about one of the most important.  We fight crime by promoting respect for the police. We need police to serve as role models.  Contacts with the police create indelible memories in the minds of citizens.  Police have a special responsibility to follow ethical and professional standards.  And citizens should show respect for law enforcement.  There is no excuse for people to harass law enforcement officers....

Chicago Police are still burdened by the requirement that they spend up to 45 minutes filling out a form every time they make a routine investigative stop. People who impose those requirements may be well-intentioned, but they usually fail to weigh the benefit of more bureaucracy against the cost of human lives lost to criminals who now are not stopped.

Fortunately, Superintendent Johnson’s police commanders are working to overcome their hurdles and give officers the tools and support they need to fight crime. Those tools include crime cameras, crime-mapping and predicting patrolling. I saw those tools demonstrated this morning at the Chicago Police Department’s Seventh District, where Commander Kenny Johnson and his crime analysts hold daily strategy meetings to decide where to assign patrol officers. They also run weekly shooting reviews attended by both state and federal prosecutors.

I also learned this morning that Chicago police data reports show that drug arrests lead to violent crime reductions. The most important single variable that reduces shootings in Chicago is to make a drug arrests. That is just a fact. As John Adams famously said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of the facts and evidence.”

It is good to see police leaders who are stubborn about facts.  Superintendent Johnson’s police officers do not mindlessly make mass drug arrests.  They arrest drug dealers who disrupt neighborhoods and foment violence.  They do exactly what Ness, Kennedy and Ashcroft did.

There are many notable aspects to this full speech, but I find especially interesting that the Deputy AG (1) references the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre without noting its link to alcohol Prohibition, (2) states that most of Chicago's violence relates to drug trafficking, and (3) asserts drug arrests lead to violent crime reductions.

November 16, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Justice reform is real and conservative governors are leading the way"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Fox News commentary authored by Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin.  Here are excerpts:

During the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, I participated in a national panel on criminal justice reform with like-minded, conservative governors Nathan Deal of Georgia and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma.  It was an honor for me to discuss how best to create second chance opportunities with these two veterans of criminal justice reform.

When I was elected as governor in 2015, it was my intention that Kentucky would also be making significant changes to our criminal justice system. That is exactly what we have been doing.  With a rising prison population, severely depleted workforce participation rates, and the highest percentage in the nation of children with at least one incarcerated parent, we unfortunately had plenty of room for improvement. For years Kentucky had maintained an outdated, “lock-em-up and throw away the key” approach. That was unsustainable from both a societal and financial cost and we were determined to shake up the status quo.

Transforming our justice systems, supporting policies that safely reduce our jail and prison populations, putting ex-offenders back to work, creating safer communities—doing what is right for the people we represent is not a political statement. We began by making it easier for formerly incarcerated people to get back to work, passing a comprehensive felony expungement bill that allows certain former offenders, who have been crime-free for five years, to wipe their slates clean.  We also passed a bold reentry initiative that provides for more job training and eliminates regulatory barriers to employment for people with criminal records.

Our administration implemented “ban the box” for state government agencies to give ex-offenders a fair shot at employment, and launched the “Justice to Journeyman” initiative, which paves a pathway for inmates and detained youth to earn nationally recognized credentials in a skilled trade.  Kentucky’s success as the center for engineering and manufacturing excellence in America is only being enhanced as we pioneer changes in criminal justice policy....

I ... encourage ... all governors to tackle criminal justice reform policy with a sense of urgency and purpose. Some political advisors still speak passionately about being “tough on crime”, and caution that supporting criminal justice reform policy could be politically dangerous at election time.

This is a ridiculous notion. After all, more than 90 percent of those now incarcerated will eventually re-enter society.  We either pave a path towards second opportunities or we settle for recidivism. Which is better for our communities?

If we want voters to continue electing conservatives, we must offer serious solutions. We can no longer afford to cling to the outdated idea that prison alone is the only way to hold people accountable for their crimes.  Instead, we need to take a smarter, more measured approach to criminal justice.  More than simply removing lawbreakers from society, we must also rehabilitate and re-assimilate them back into society.

In the midst of national division in many fronts, a community of conservative governors are uniting to build trust and offer real solutions to some of our country’s greatest problems.  Transforming our justice systems, supporting policies that safely reduce our jail and prison populations, putting ex-offenders back to work, creating safer communities — doing what is right for the people we represent is not a political statement.

America has always been a land of opportunity and second chances.  When we hold individuals fully accountable for their actions while treating them with respect in the process, all of society benefits.

November 16, 2017 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Could post-Harvey Houston justice be a national model rather than a natural disaster?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent Houston Chronicle article headlined "Prosecutors, attorneys cut 'Harvey deals' in jail basement as flood-damaged courthouse is repaired."  The article reviews various ways the local Houston justice system has had to adjust to the disruptions caused by Hurricane Harvey, and this passage really caught my eye:

[Defense] lawyers said the crush of criminal cases has caused judges and prosecutors to evaluate their dockets with an eye toward getting rid of as many cases as possible. "If the case is something not so serious, you've got a chance at getting a 'Harvey deal,' " said one lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But if it's serious, you get delays."

[District Attorney Kim] Ogg confirmed that in the wake of the storm, her top lieutenants reviewed about 600 low-level drug cases in a feverish bid to make plea deals. "We dismissed about 110 of those cases, and we pled about 200 others," Ogg said. "There were about 300 that we couldn't plead."

Ogg said her office sought to expedite state jail felony drug cases, which typically involve possession of small amounts of cocaine or other drugs. "I intend to continue to try to clear our table of cases that produce the least public safety benefit but suck the most resources," she said. "And those are low-level drug cases and those that involve the mentally ill."

Because of the varied disruptions caused by Hurricane Harvey, it likely would be very hard to confidently identify the precise impact of the dismissal and expedited processing of hundreds of low-level drug cases reported here by the DA.  But I genuinely believe it would be beneficial for every chief prosecutor in every jurisdiction, without awaiting a natural disaster, to "try to clear [the] table of cases that produce the least public safety benefit but suck the most resources."  If Houston's post-Harvey experiences prove positive, maybe DA Ogg can and will report on the potential case processing benefits that emerged from the necessities created by an unfortunate disaster.

November 16, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

New report asserts California could and should cut its prison population by another 30,000

SquarelogoThis notable report by Californians for Safety and Justice, titled "Safe and Sound: Strategies to Save a Billion in Prison Costs and Build New Safety Solutions," makes the case that California could and should reduce its prison population by another 30,000 in order to close prisons and free up resources to spend on drug rehabilitation, mental health, job training and other programs. Here is an excerpt from the long report's executive summary:

Between 2006 and 2016, California has seen: A 25% drop in state prison incarceration.  A 10% statewide average drop in county jail populations.  A 64% drop in the number of people on state parole and a 22% drop in the number of felony filings in criminal courts annually.  Today more than 1.5 million Californians are eligible to remove nonviolent felony convictions from their old conviction records — opening the door to new opportunities for stability and empowerment. Rehabilitation programs are becoming more available to people in the justice system to help stop the cycle of crime. Trauma recovery centers are expanding across the state — from just one five years ago to eleven centers today—providing crisis care and help for underserved survivors of violent crime.  And, with the incarceration declines, hundreds of millions of dollars are finally being reallocated from bloated, costly prisons to community-based treatment and prevention....

Despite this progress, the Golden State’s incarceration rate is still so high that it remains a historic anomaly. California still spends more than $11 billion a year on state prisons.  That’s a 500% increase in prison spending since 1981.  In fact, California spends as much today on prisons as every state in the United States combined spent on prisons in 1981 and it has increased annual prison spending at a rate that has significantly outpaced other states.  When local crime response costs in California are factored in, such as the cost of county jails, that figure is nearly doubled from $11 billion to $20 billion annually....

In the next five years, California leaders must commit to further reducing state incarceration and prison spending to finally achieve a balanced approach to public safety.  If California leaders can continue to rightsize the state’s incarceration rate — and substantially reduce prison spending — the state would have increased capacity to invest in new safety solutions that more effectively support people vulnerable to crime, prevent crime from happening in the first place and stop the cycle from continuing.

This report outlines the strategies available to local jurisdictions to reduce the flow of people into the justice system and the burdens local criminal justice systems face. It also describes the sentencing and prison length of stay reforms that can continue to safely reduce the number of people in state prison, strategies that are supported by data on what works to reduce recidivism.

If state leaders implement the sentencing and prison length of stay reforms outlined in this report, the state could safely reduce the length of prison terms for the majority of people in prison by 20%, and reduce the number of people in state prison by about 30,000.

November 16, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Violent Crime: A Conversation; Is it rising or declining? Does it matter?"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Marshall Project piece that captures highlights of a conversation last month that included a number of leading criminal justice researchers and advocates.  I recommend the full piece, and here is the  introduction and parts of the first few reprinted comments:

Over the last two years, there has been a great deal of arguing about the prevalence of violent crime in America and how the national crime rate is changing.  The president and attorney general say it’s soaring. Criminal justice reformers aren’t so certain.  A Who’s Who of crime researchers and experts gathered to tackle the question at the Smart on Crime Innovations conference at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City last month.... These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity. You can watch the conversation in its entirety here.

Thomas Abt: Just to start us off, in 2016, the last year for which we have the official UCR [FBI Uniform Crime Reporting] data, there were 17,250 homicides. That's up 8.6 percent from 2015 and that comes on the heels of a 12.1 percent increase in 2014-2015. That adds up to about a 21 or 22 percent increase in homicide over two years, which is the largest two-year increase in 25 years. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that the rates of violent crime here in the United States right now are about half of what they were at their peak in the early 90's....

In some ways this question of, “Is this a trend?” is somewhat besides the point because in some ways it doesn't matter. The rates were already far too high, much higher than in other developed nations and especially too high for poor communities of color. One thing I want to get across is that this issue of violent crime, of homicide, is an important issue, literally a matter of life or death, whether or not there is a trend going on. And too often this issue is considered a political football that's carried back and forth.

Criminal justice reformers sometimes want to downplay the issue because they worry that this is going to impact the momentum for other criminal justice reforms. Other people want to exaggerate the issue, and so fear and division link this to other issues like a broader cultural war, or tough on crime, or law and order agenda about crime and immigration.  It's very important that there is a progressive criminal justice response to the issue of violent crime. It disproportionately impacts the constituencies that we reformers claim we care about, which is poor communities of color. The violence in these communities causes intense suffering and if we fail to address that suffering, it's a real disservice to them.

Adam Gelb: Put yourself back 10, 12 years. 2005, 2006 we had two consecutive years of increase in violent crime. And at the time there were dire warnings that we were headed back to the peaks of the early '90s. That did not come to pass, which was terrific and I'm not going to try to prognosticate here. But there are a number of reasons to think that we might be seeing a leveling off, maybe even a decrease.

But in 2007, so exactly 10 years ago, after these two consecutive increases, the attorney general at the time, Alberto Gonzales, issued a statement that I think captures pretty darn well exactly where we are today after two years of consecutive increases. I'm going to read it to you so I get it right. In a speech, he said, "In general it doesn't appear that the current data reveal nationwide trends. Rather they show local increases in certain communities. Each community is facing different circumstances and in many places violent crime continues to decrease."...

Jim Parsons: Yes, there's been this average aggregate increase, but in 68 percent of places, either the crime rate stayed the same or it went down.  So if you're thinking about making national policy, about making national policy decisions based on these crime rates, and if you have the theory that being more punitive or reacting to increasing crime is going to improve the situation, then that would not apply in two-thirds of places.  You'll be making a decision and trying to fix something that was not broken — or at least the trend suggests that things are not getting more dangerous — in two-thirds of places....

David Kennedy: ...[I]n all big cities ... and in lots and lots and lots of other cities there are particular communities that have — while they've come down usually from the worst years of the 1990s — people who are living in unconscionable conditions of persistent violence, trauma, and fear.  We as a nation have taken that as normal and so when things change, we focus on the change.  The scandal is what's normal.  And in this moment where we're debating these small changes and the national homicide rate had come down to between four and five per 100,000 and is now edging back up toward five.  There are communities all over the country where especially young men of color are experiencing persistent homicide rates of over 500 per 100,000 year after year after year after year. That's the story, and everything we know about the increases are that they are in those same places, those same communities, those same people.  This is not reaching out into different demographics. It's not reaching out into different communities. It's not reaching out into places that have not experienced this problem. It’s worsening among the people and places that have been enduring this forever.

November 16, 2017 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

West Virginia Supreme Court finds life sentence under recidivist statute violates state constitution's proportionality principle

During a recent class discussion on the future of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence as a limit on extreme prison terms, I mentioned the important reality that some state constitutions have punishment provisions with text providing defendants with more protections than the federal constitution.  For example, Article III, Section 5, of the West Virginia Constitution states: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted.  Penalties shall be proportioned to the character and degree of the offence."

Marc A. Kilmer is surely very grateful for the last sentence quoted above, because yesterday that provision led to the West Virginia Supreme Court, by a 4-1 vote, declaring his life sentence unconstitutional in West Virginia v. Kilmer, No. 15-0859 (W. Va. Nov 14,2017) (majority opinion available here).  Here are the essential from the start of the majority opinion:

Marc A. Kilmer was sentenced to life in prison under the recidivist statute based upon a predicate felony conviction for unlawful assault and two prior felony convictions for driving while license revoked for driving under the influence (DUI).  Mr. Kilmer argues on appeal that his life sentence violates the proportionality clause of Article III, Section 5 of the West Virginia Constitution because the two prior felony offenses do not involve actual or threatened violence.  The State asserts that the violence of the predicate felony for unlawful assault satisfies the goals of the recidivist statute and that Mr. Kilmer’s two prior felony convictions are factually similar to those in other cases in which we have upheld recidivist life sentences.  We conclude that the felony offense of driving on a license revoked for DUI does not involve actual or threatened violence and reverse the circuit court’s imposition of Mr. Kilmer’s recidivist life sentence.

The Chief Justice was the sole dissent to this opinion, and his dissenting opinion starts this way:

I dissent to the majority’s decision to reverse the petitioner’s recidivist sentence.  This sentence — life in prison with the possibility of parole — is mandated by the Legislature through West Virginia Code § 61-11-18(c) (2014): “When it is determined . . . that such person shall have been twice before convicted” of a felony, “the person shall be sentenced to be confined in the state correctional facility for life.” Id. (emphasis added).  Contrary to the majority’s conclusion, there is nothing constitutionally disproportionate about imposing a sentence of life with the possibility of parole upon a criminal who brutally beats and then sexually assaults an injured woman, when these violent offenses represent an escalation in the culprit’s existing felonious criminal record.

November 15, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Ohio unable to complete execution for elderly murderer once called death penalty “poster child”

As detailed in this AP report, headlined "Ohio calls off execution after failing to find inmate's vein" the state of Ohio had the wrong kind of eventful lethal injection experience this morning.  Here are the details:

It was only the third time in U.S. history that an execution has been called off after the process had begun.

The execution team first worked on both of Alva Campbell's arms for about 30 minutes Wednesday while he was on a gurney in the state's death chamber and then tried to find a vein in his right leg below the knee.  Members of the execution team used a device with a red flashing light that appeared to be a way of locating veins while also periodically comforting Campbell, patting him on the arm and shoulder.

About 80 minutes after the execution was scheduled to begin, the 69-year-old Campbell shook hands with two guards after it appeared the insertion was successful. About two minutes later, media witnesses were told to leave without being told what was happening.

Gary Mohr, head of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said the team humanely handled the attempt, but the condition of Campbell's veins had changed since checks in Tuesday.  He said he called off the execution after talking with the medical team. "It was my decision that it was not likely that we're going to access veins," Mohr said.

Campbell, who was scheduled to die for killing a teenager during a carjacking two decades ago, shook hands with execution team members and wiped away tears after being informed the execution was being called off, said his attorney, David Stebbins.  "This is a day I'll never forget," Campbell said, according to Stebbins. 

Stebbins said he doesn't know what will happen next, but he added that Campbell's health problems and poor veins are a continuing problem.  Campbell, who was scheduled to die for killing a teenager during a carjacking two decades ago, will be sent back to death row and there will be some consideration for a future execution date, Mohr said....

Campbell's attorneys had warned the inmate's death could become a spectacle because of his breathing problems and because an exam failed to find veins suitable for IV insertion.  They argued he was too ill to execute, and also should be spared because of the effects of a brutal childhood in which he had been beaten, sexually abused and tortured....

Franklin County prosecutor Ron O'Brien called Campbell "the poster child for the death penalty." Prosecutors also said Campbell's health claims were ironic given he faked paralysis to escape court custody the day of the fatal carjacking.  On April 2, 1997, Campbell was in a wheelchair when he overpowered a Franklin County sheriff's deputy on the way to a court hearing on several armed robbery charges, records show. Campbell took the deputy's gun, carjacked the 18-year-old Charles Dials and drove around with him for several hours before shooting him twice in the head as Dials crouched in the footwell of his own truck, according to court records....

Earlier this month, Campbell lost a bid to be executed by firing squad after a federal judge questioned whether lawmakers would enact the bill needed to allow the method.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ACLU of Ohio already has issued this press release headed "Ohio Must Enact Moratorium on Executions."  It will be interesting to see if the rhetoric at the start of the press release becomes used by abolitionists throughout not just Ohio but the country:

After nearly 30 minutes of torture as medical personnel attempted to find a useable vein for the lethal injection of Alva Campbell, Jr the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections called off his execution. This comes after weeks of advocacy from Campbell’s counsel explaining that he was too ill and death by lethal injection would be tortuous. The following statement can be attributed to ACLU of Ohio Senior Policy Director Mike Brickner:

"This marks the fifth botched execution for Ohio in recent years, and the second time the state could not complete an execution.  This is not justice, and this is not humane.  Campbell was poked and prodded for nearly two hours as prison officials and medical personnel attempted to find a useable vein.  This type of state-sponsored torture is not acceptable and the state of Ohio must place a moratorium on executions immediately.  Today the state made a spectacle of a man’s life, and the cruel and unusual practice of lethal injection must end."

Recent prior related post:

November 15, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Should life in jail be worse than life outside?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new commentary authored by Chris Barker in The Week. Here are excerpts:

The crucial concept governing carceral practices is something called "less eligibility." The idea dates back to the English Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which codified English practices of dealing with the indigent. In 1832, the economist Nassau William Senior described how the "first and most essential of all conditions" in administering relief to the poor (often by moving them into a workhouse) is that the indigent's "situation on the whole shall not be made really or apparently so eligible as the situation of the independent laborer of the lowest class."  That is, the conditions in the workhouse should be awful: worse even than the poorest of the poor.

But even before Senior's famous line, a different carceral ideal was afoot: equality. In 1791, writing specifically about criminal offenders, the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that "the ordinary condition of a convict doomed to a punishment that few or none but the individuals of the poorest class are apt to incur, ought not to be made more eligible than that of the poorest class of subjects in a state of innocence and liberty."  As the historian Janet Semple observed in Bentham's Prison (1993), his rule of severity is not "less eligibility" but a more commonsense equality principle — offenders should have access to no more resources than they had while free. "Bentham," Semple wrote, "did not envisage grinding his convicts down to below the level of the poorest of the poor."

Other countries do not run their jails and prisons according to a principle of less eligibility. German prisons operate under an "approximation" principle, wherein offenders' rights to privacy, dignity and property are protected.  Norwegian prisons use a similar "normality principle," which holds that daily prison life should be, as far as possible, no different from ordinary life.  Fellow Englishman and Bentham disciple James Mill embraced the normality principle in 1825 by arguing that inmates in pre-trial incarceration should be allowed to lead the same life that they enjoyed prior to arrest, including access to employment and freedom to make small purchases with their own money.  Today, U.S. jails and prisons have rejected these examples in thrall to "less eligibility," and not just for the poorest of the poor....

If, as I think, the aim of punishment is rehabilitation, it is hard to justify less rather than equal eligibility.  But not all agree that rehabilitation is the primary aim of punishment. Deterrence theorists think that controlling crime is the most important aim of punishment. Retributivists hold that punishment should repay the harm done to another in a like manner: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth....

Too often, the U.S. conversation about criminal justice is about principles and theories of punishment: rehabilitation, retribution, deterrence. What I am arguing here is that these theories amount to little if we ignore less eligibility, or how we punish.  Visiting a jail without an outdoor yard, where offenders have no physical contact with friends and family during their incarceration, or a prison where life unfolds within coils of obtrusive razor wire, is not a normal life, and doesn't prepare you to return to normal life.  As opinion in the U.S. starts to move away from some punitive strategies such as solitary confinement, we should reconsider which of our other carceral practices meet or violate the crucial secondary principles (leniency, proportionality, egalitarianism) of a just criminal justice system....

It is a tragedy if the attempt to have a just society with a suitable criminal justice system has been transformed into criminogenic warehousing, based on surveillance and discipline, which achieves few or none of the goals of punishment.  It is foolishness to countenance such a system merely because it has not yet touched you.  The road to the present state of affairs leads through less eligibility, which, on the surface, is a principle that makes sense: treat offenders to a life that is worse than life on the outside.  After all, why should offenders have air conditioning if the farmer "living in innocence and liberty" does not?  But the answer is that it is too easy to forget the other constraints on the dignity, privacy, and autonomy of those incarcerated in jails and prisons.

Our present system is costly and ineffective; it creates aberrant economies and empowers prison gangs that in turn influence street gangs.  Prisons reproduce the cultural inadequacy of life on the inside on our streets and in popular culture, and when offenders are released into communities, their lack of rehabilitation justifies further segregation and other collateral consequences, such as employment and housing discrimination.

November 15, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Notable protests and legal appeals as rapper Meek Mill's harsh sentence for probation violation shines light on back-end of justice system

ImagesKMOOADW6Because I do not know Pennsylvania's procedures, I have been a bit unsure how best to cover controversy over the 2-4 year prison sentence given to rapper Meek Mill for violating his probation from a 2008 gun and drug case.  This new CNN article, headlined "Outrage mounts over Meek Mill's prison sentence," provides some useful background on the case while reporting on the protest that took place at Philadelphia's Criminal Justice Center on Monday and highlighting that the "case has sparked outrage not just from the hip-hop community but from activists for criminal justice reform around the nation." 

Now this lengthy new Philadelphia Inquirer article, headlined "Meek Mill appeals sentence, asks city judge Brinkley to step down," provides a useful accounting of legal issues and related stories swirling around this case. Here are excerpts:

Lawyers for imprisoned Philadelphia-born rapper Meek Mill have launched what one lawyer called a “flurry of legal filings” to try to get the 30-year-old hip-hop star released from his 2- to 4-year prison term for violating the terms of his 10-year-old probation.

The first filing Tuesday — a day after hundreds of supporters met outside the city Criminal Justice Center demanding Mill’s release — asked Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Genece E. Brinkley to disqualify herself from further involvement his case and allow a new judge to reconsider Mill’s prison sentence. The 14-page motion, buttressed by 143 pages of court transcripts, maintains that Brinkley, 61, a judge since 1993, had “assumed a non-judicial, essentially prosecutorial role in the revocation process,” and ignored the recommendations of the probation officer and prosecutor, neither of whom sought imprisonment.

The motion contends that Brinkley has gone beyond “the proper bounds of the judicial role, even as supervisor of a probationary sentence. Judge Brinkley has repeatedly offered inappropriate personal and professional advice to the defendant, who had become a successful professional entertainer during the pendency of this case. On some occasions, Judge Brinkley has done so off the record, or on the record while attempting inappropriately to keep that record secret from the defendant and his counsel.”

“Last week’s hearing was a farce,” said defense attorney Brian J. McMonagle. “It was a miscarriage of justice that lacked even the semblance of fairness. Today, we have asked this Judge to step aside so that a fair minded jurist can right this terrible wrong.”

McMonagle said he would file a motion seeking bail for Mill, who was taken into custody following the Nov. 6 hearing before Brinkley for violating his probation from a 2008 drug and gun case. McMonagle said Brinkley has 30 days to respond to the motions filed Tuesday. If she does not respond, Mill’s lawyers can take the case to Superior Court. For Mill, the problem with a Superior Court appeal is that, unless he is allowed bail pending appeal, he could serve his minimum sentence before a decision.

Nor does the Superior Court have a reputation for disturbing lower court sentences in such cases. An article in Sunday’s Inquirer reviewed seven Superior Court appeals of probation violation sentences imposed by Brinkley over the last four years. All were affirmed.

Mill, born Robert Williams, is now in the state prison at Camp Hill near Harrisburg undergoing evaluation before his permanent prison assignment. “He’s holding up OK,” said McMonagle, adding that Mill is in “protective custody” – in a single cell for 23 hours a day with one hour out for exercise.

A motion to reconsider the sentence is the first step in any criminal appeal to the state Superior Court, the intermediate appeals court between the trial courts and the state Supreme Court. Unless she modifies or vacates Mill’s sentence, Brinkley will be required to write an opinion for the appeals court explaining her reasons for sending him to prison.

At the Nov. 6 hearing during which Brinkley sentenced Mill, the veteran judge recounted almost 10 years of court proceedings in which he had violated his probation, and she had sentenced him to short periods in jail and then had extended his probation.

Mill’s most recent “technical violations” were testing positive for the prescription narcotic Percocet earlier this year and two misdemeanor arrests, for an altercation at the St. Louis airport and a traffic violation in Manhattan involving a motorbike.

Brinkley also reminded Mill of the night she actually tried to verify that he was feeding the homeless, part of the community service she ordered. She went to a Center City soup kitchen run by the Broad Street Ministry – and found him instead sorting clothes. “It was only when you realized that I came there to check on you that you decided to serve meals,” Brinkley told the rapper.

Mill’s lawyers contend the judge’s surreptitious visit was also questionable: “Judge Brinkley thereby made herself a fact witness on the question of whether Mr. Williams was in compliance on that occasion, as well as to any statements he may have made. Judge Brinkley then relied on her own version of this incident … among the reasons for imposing a state prison sentence.”

Mill’s lawyers contend that Brinkley also demonstrated a personal bias involving Mill in a private in-chambers meeting during a Feb. 5, 2016, probation-violation hearing. At that hearing, Mill’s then-attorney Frank DeSimone told Brinkley that Mill wanted to discuss his experiences performing community service but “would feel more comfortable relaying some of his thoughts and experiences” to the judge in private....

Joe Tacopina, a lawyer for Mill based in New York City – who was not in the private meeting – has said Brinkley asked Mill last year to record a version of a Boyz II Men ballad, “On Bended Knee,” and to mention the judge in it. Tacopina said Mill laughed off the request and told Brinkley: “I can’t do that. It’s not my music. I don’t sing that stuff. And I don’t do, like, you know, shout-outs to people in my songs.” Brinkley replied, “’OK, suit yourself,’” according to Tacopina.

Tacopina also alleged that Brinkley asked Mill to drop his current management, Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, and to return to Philadelphia-based Charles “Charlie Mack” Alston, who worked with Mill early in his career....

In a related development Tuesday, authorities dismissed a New York Post internet report that the FBI was investigating Brinkley’s role in recommending Mill return to Mack’s management. An FBI spokeswoman in Philadelphia said that, per Justice Department policies, her office could not confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation. However, a federal law enforcement official in the city said that he was not aware of any active probe into the matter.

November 14, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issues statement in support of sentencing provisions of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017

As reported in this news release, yesterday "the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a statement in support of certain provisions in the Senate’s bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, which proposes to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for particular nonviolent offenses and to return discretion to judges in more cases." This three-page statement is available at this link, and here are excerpts (with footnotes omitted):

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, by majority vote, supports certain sentencing reduction provisions in the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, recently introduced in the Senate.  The bill proposes to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for particular nonviolent offenses and to return discretion to judges on sentencing in more cases.  It moves sentencing levels down in many cases so that low-level crimes are adequately but not excessively punished.  It also makes retroactive sentencing reductions in crimes involving crack cocaine, which, prior to the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, were punished with extreme sentences compared with crimes involving powder cocaine.  The fair administration of justice requires criminal penalties to be proportional to the offense committed and for similar crimes to be subject to similar punishments. In addition, fair administration depends on public faith in the American justice system; this bipartisan bill takes important steps to restore the basis for that faith by addressing longstanding inequity.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act contains necessary and important steps towards more equitable punishments in the federal system, advancing the fair administration of justice by better fitting punishment to crime.  If enacted, it would help reduce the outsize U.S. prison population without jeopardizing public safety.  It stands in contrast to the change in charging policy announced by the United States Department of Justice in May.  The Department of Justice’s policy regarding mandatory minimum sentences will result in lengthier, harsher prison sentences and additional taxpayer costs for both actual imprisonment and post-incarceration integration unless it is changed or checked by Congress through sentencing reform....

The application of harsher penalties and mandatory minimum sentences historically falls hardest on communities of color.  Although facially race-neutral, these policies have been applied in a racially disparate manner, raising concerns regarding legitimacy and fairness of our nation’s criminal justice system.  Use of mandatory minimum sentencing contributed to high incarceration rates for African-American and Latino men, despite comparable rates of drug use across communities of all races.  Devastating, community-wide impacts of these policies include one in nine children of color having a parent in prison.

National and international bodies have noted racially disparate treatment throughout the American criminal justice system, including in the application of mandatory minimum sentences.  Perhaps the most notable and egregious example of the racial disparities can be found in the different mandatory minimum sentences provided for offenses involving crack versus powder cocaine.  A bipartisan consensus in Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, reducing disparities between mandatory minimum sentences for different drugs, in part “because the public had come to understand sentences embodying the 100-to-1 ratio as reflecting unjustified race-based differences.” These changes should be made retroactive as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 proposes in order to reduce excessive punishments for those already sentenced.

November 14, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

New report explores "Florida Criminal Justice Reform: Understanding the Challenges and Opportunities"

This press release provides highlights regarding this big new report from the Project on Accountable Justice examining Florida's criminal justice system and relatively high levels of incarceration. Here are excerpts from the press release:

The Project on Accountable Justice (PAJ) [has] released an interactive, web-based research report focused on the Florida prison system.  The report, entitled “Florida Criminal Justice Reform: Understanding the Challenges and Opportunities,” is an effort to help citizens and policy makers understand some of the dynamics that make Florida’s prison system large, dangerous, and expensive.

The report shows how short-sighted policies and practices drove the state’s prison population to higher than one hundred thousand people, and how Florida’s experience differs from those of other states like New York.  In discussing the underlying dynamics of Florida’s prison system — who is going to prison and why, who is in prison and for how long — the report demonstrates a trifecta of ineffective and expensive strategies: 1) too many people are sent to prison for minor and nonviolent offenses; 2) overly punitive sentencing policies — like mandatory minimum sentences — keep people in prison for exceptionally long terms that are too often incongruous with the nature of their crime; and 3) the unavailability of prisoner review systems and incentive structures to reward prisoners for good behavior prevent state officials from introducing release strategies that could safely reduce the prison population while also making it more manageable....

“Florida Criminal Justice Reform” argues that policy makers should know how the state’s criminal justice system measures up, and suggests some key metrics: Is the system fair and unbiased?  Are prison sentences reserved for dangerous people who pose a threat to public safety? What are the costs and benefits of the prison system, in terms of rehabilitation and public safety, or recidivism and expense?  As former Florida Attorney General and PAJ Chairman Richard Doran asks, “Do the current investments, practices, and policy strategies employed by our state’s criminal justice and correctional systems result in the returns Floridians expect and deserve?”

“Florida Criminal Justice Reform” is an accessible and interactive introduction to these questions. Among its findings are the following:

  • Nonviolent offenses drive prison admissions. Seventy-two percent of people admitted to prison in FY2015 were sentenced for a nonviolent offense.

  • In FY2015, the state spent $300 million to incarcerate people for drug offenses, and $107 million to incarcerate people for probation violations.  The vast majority — more than 70 percent — of people sentenced to prison for a violation of probation were on probation for a nonviolent offense.

  • Florida’s mandatory minimum drug laws cost Florida taxpayers $106 million in FY2015.

  • Florida’s criminal justice system does not adhere to basic notions of fairness: your ZIP code and the color of your skin can sometimes matter more than your behavior.

  • Statewide, black Floridians are 5.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white Floridians.

  • Residents of Panama City (14th Circuit) are 32 times more likely to be sent to prison for a VOP than people who live in Palm Beach (15th Circuit).

  • Statewide, black adults are almost twice as likely to be in prison for a drug offense than residents of the UK are to be in prison for any reason.

The report’s authors conclude with six recommendations, with guidance from previous research:

  • Enhance external oversight to improve transparency and effectiveness of Florida’s correctional facilities.

  • Build a risk-based system of pretrial practices to replace the current money-based bail system.

  • Keep youth out of confinement and the adult criminal justice system.

  • Review and modernize sentencing practices and policies.

  • Encourage local, community-driven solutions to crime through incentive funding.

  • Measure criminal justice success with better data collection and reporting.

“These reforms are possible and will make Florida a safer place to live and visit,” said the report’s lead author, Cyrus O’Brien. “A smaller system that judiciously reserved incarceration only for the purpose of incapacitating dangerous individuals would face fewer challenges and accomplish better results. Achieving a better system will require sustained, purposeful, and systemic reform.”

November 14, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1)

US Sentencing Commission releases new report on "Demographic Differences in Sentencing"

Via this webpage, the US Sentencing Commission provides a helpful summary and some key findings from its latest data publication titled ""Demographic Difference in Sentencing." The full 49-page report is available at this link, and here is the USSC's summary and accounting of key findings:

For this report [link in] prior two reports, The Commission used multivariate regression analyses to explore the relationships between demographic factors, such as race and gender, and sentencing outcomes.  These analyses were aimed at determining whether there were demographic differences in sentencing outcomes that were statistically significant, and whether those findings changed during the periods studied.

The Commission once again updated its analysis by examining cases in which the offender was sentenced during the period following the 2012 report.  This new time period, from October 1, 2011, to September 30, 2016, is referred to as the “Post-Report period” in this publication.  Also, the Commission has collected data about an additional variable — violence in an offender’s criminal history — that the Commission had previously noted was missing from its analysis but that might help explain some of the differences in sentencing noted in its work. This report presents the results observed from adding that new data to the Commission’s analysis....

Key Findings

Consistent with its previous reports, the Commission found that sentence length continues to be associated with some demographic factors. In particular, after controlling for a wide variety of sentencing factors, the Commission found:

1. Black male offenders continued to receive longer sentences than similarly situated White male offenders. Black male offenders received sentences on average 19.1 percent longer than similarly situated White male offenders during the Post-Report period (fiscal years 2012-2016), as they had for the prior four periods studied. The differences in sentence length remained relatively unchanged compared to the Post-Gall period.

2. Non-government sponsored departures and variances appear to contribute significantly to the difference in sentence length between Black male and White male offenders. Black male offenders were 21.2 percent less likely than White male offenders to receive a non-government sponsored downward departure or variance during the Post-Report period. Furthermore, when Black male offenders did receive a non-government sponsored departure or variance, they received sentences 16.8 percent longer than White male offenders who received a non-government sponsored departure or variance. In contrast, there was a 7.9 percent difference in sentence length between Black male and White male offenders who received sentences within the applicable sentencing guidelines range, and there was no statistically significant difference in sentence length between Black male and White male offenders who received a substantial assistance departure.

3. Violence in an offender’s criminal history does not appear to account for any of the demographic differences in sentencing. Black male offenders received sentences on average 20.4 percent longer than similarly situated White male offenders, accounting for violence in an offender’s past in fiscal year 2016, the only year for which such data is available. This figure is almost the same as the 20.7 percent difference without accounting for past violence. Thus, violence in an offender’s criminal history does not appear to contribute to the sentence imposed to any extent beyond its contribution to the offender’s criminal history score determined under the sentencing guidelines.

4. Female offenders of all races received shorter sentences than White male offenders during the Post-Report period, as they had for the prior four periods. The differences in sentence length decreased slightly during the five-year period after the 2012 Booker Report for most offenders. The differences in sentence length fluctuated across all time periods studied for White females, Black females, Hispanic females, and Other Race female offenders.

These are really interesting (though not especially surprising) findings, and it will be interesting to see how the US Department of Justice and members of Congress pushing for federal sentencing reform might respond. I will need to take a little time to dig into some of the particular because providing my own assessment and spin, but I have always feared (and wrote an article a long time ago) that differences in the resources and abilities of defense counsel may create or enhance disparities in federal sentencing outcomes in ways that can not be easily measured or remedied.

November 14, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, November 13, 2017

Interesting reviews of accomplishments and challenges in dealing with drug cases in West Virginia

At a time when there is so much talk about reforming how the criminal justice deals with low-level drug offenders, I found both encouraging and depressing this recent local story reporting on recent developments in West Virginia.  The article is headlined "Drug offenses straining already overburdened jail system, prosecutor says," and here are excerpts:

With its jails and prisons already bursting at the seams, Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Chuck Miller figures West Virginia is either going to have to come up with another way of handling drug offenders or plan on building more correctional facilities.  Miller recently discussed the available alternative sentencing options with a legislative committee tasked with looking at problems facing the state’s correctional system, points out jails and prisons here are understaffed and overflowing, in large part because drug addiction and the crimes associated with it have spiraled out of control.

How bad is it? According to the Department of Military Affairs & Public Security, 43 percent of the offenders processed at one of the state’s regional jails last year had to go through a detoxification protocol due to substance abuse issues....

It’s not a new problem, either. State leaders long ago realized the prison population was outstripping available resources and in 2012 decided to carve out a data-driven strategy to address it — realizing that, left unchecked, they’d have to spend at least $200 million to build more prison cells plus another $70 million a year in operating costs.  Rather than build more prisons, West Virginia opted to increase its reliance on community-based resources, including drug courts and day report centers.

They’ve not been without success: More than 1,300 adults and juveniles have graduated from drug court, typically an 18-24 month program that helps low-risk offenders.  As of March 2016, West Virginia’s drug courts had graduated 857 and 506 juveniles, in each case just over half of those who’d been accepted in the program.  About 500 more were still active in the program.  According to the West Virginia Supreme Court:

• Recidivism rates for adults after one year was reported to be 1.88 percent, and after two years, 9.4 percent — much lower than the nearly 80 percent recidivism rate for drug offenders who’d been incarcerated. Recidivism for juvenile graduates was said to be 14.6 percent, compared to 55.1 percent for youths in traditional juvenile probation programs.

• Per participant adult drug court program costs — about $7,100 for adults and $6,900 for juveniles — was a fraction of the per diem for housing adult offenders in regional jail (more than $17,000 per year) or prison (more than $28,000 per year).  Likewise, the state said it spent $6,900 to rehabilitate its juvenile drug court alumni — a fraction of what it would have cost to keep them in a secure juvenile facility, a group home or a hospital treatment facility.

Day Report Centers also provide intensive supervision and individualized services, including counseling, to non-violent offenders in lieu of incarceration, helping parolees reintegrate into society and saving millions in jail costs.  Kanawha’s Day Report Center, for example, said its program had saved more than $3 million in jail costs in 2016.  Since its inception in 2005, KDRC has graduated nearly 1,000 clients and had a recidivism rate under 13 percent.

Also in West Virginia’s sentencing toolkit: Pre-trial diversion agreements which allow first-time offenders to avoid jail by obtaining counseling and other treatment, and home confinement, allowing offenders to serve their sentence at home with electronic supervision in lieu of incarceration.  Participants generally must stay within range of a landline telephone and are subject to random drug and alcohol testing....

The programs aren’t without their challenges, however. Pre-trial diversions, for instance, require offenders to undergo treatment, but “availability of detoxification treatment facilities is sparce,” Miller notes.  Likewise, home confinement requires a home and a landline phone.

But, with an opiate epidemic showing no sign of slowing, he said West Virginia is going to have to find answers — even if means building a secure facility dedicated to treating offenders with drug dependencies, one they couldn’t walk away from, or expanding traditional jails and prisons.

“If we have a facility devoted to drug treatment, maybe we’d decrease crowding in our jails and increase our success with people,” Miller said, adding, “We’re not going to prosecute our way out of it and every solution ... requires money.”

November 13, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Boom and Bust of American Imprisonment"

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

We are teetering at the edge of a mass incarceration binge.  Lawmakers are reconsidering overly harsh criminal punishments.  At the same time, eight years later, people are still furious that elite criminals and CEOs avoided criminal punishment in the wake of the last financial crisis.  Many have complained that no Wall Street bankers went to jail. What do these conflicting tendencies mean? In this book review, first, I discuss the new book by business professor Eugene Soltes titled "Why They Do It," which explores psychological research on risk-taking by corporate criminals.  Second, I discuss law professor Sam Buell's "Capital Offenses," an engaging book that examines why it is so challenging to punish business crimes due to the structure of the economy, corporations, and our federal criminal justice system.  Third, I turn to law professor Darryl Brown's "Free Market Criminal Justice," which explores the role of free market ideology in the divide in American criminal justice. 

I conclude by exploring the implications of these arguments and this research for mass incarceration as well as corporate accountability at the high and low ends of our criminal justice system — we are finally turning a corner on mass incarceration in this country, and the problems and solutions that these authors identify partly explain why and whether better things or new fears lie around that corner.  We are at a crossroads.  We need voices of reason like Soltes's, Buell's, and Brown's, today more than ever.

November 13, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Voting intrigue in SCOTUS capital case dissent on latest order list

The Supreme Court wrapped up its formal pre-Thanksgiving public activities toady with the release of this order list.  The list will surely generate news based on the granting of cert in three First Amendment cases, one dealing with abortion issues, one dealing with polling places, and one with some criminal procedure elements.  But sentencing fans, particularly those eager to predict the future of the Supreme Court's capital jurisprudence, will want to give some attention to this lengthy cert denial dissent by Justice Sotomayor in Reeves v. Alabama.  This dissent was joined (only) by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan, and it starts this way:

Petitioner Matthew Reeves was convicted by an Alabama jury of capital murder and sentenced to death. He sought postconviction relief in state court based on, as relevant here, several claims of ineffective assistance of trial and appellate counsel.  Among those claims, Reeves argued that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to hire an expert to evaluate him for intellectual disability, despite having sought and obtained funding and an appointment order from the state trial court to hire a specific neuropsychologist.  His postconviction counsel subsequently hired that same neuropsychologist, who concluded that Reeves was, in fact, intellectually disabled.  Reeves contended that this and other evidence could have been used during the penalty phase of his trial to establish mitigation.

The Alabama Circuit Court held an evidentiary hearing on Reeves’ postconviction petition, at which Reeves presented substantial evidence regarding his intellectual disability and his counsel’s performance.  He did not, however, call his trial or appellate counsel to testify.  The court denied the petition, and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. In doing so, the Court of Criminal Appeals explained that a petitioner seeking postconviction relief on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel must question his counsel about his reasoning and actions.  Without considering the extensive record evidence before it regarding Reeves’ counsel’s performance or giving any explanation as to why that evidence did not prove that his counsel’s actions were unreasonable, the Court of Criminal Appeals held that Reeves’ failure to call his attorneys to testify was fatal to his claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.  The Alabama Supreme Court denied review.

There can be no dispute that the imposition of a categorical rule that counsel must testify in order for a petitioner to succeed on a federal constitutional ineffectiveassistance-of-counsel claim contravenes our decisions requiring an objective inquiry into the adequacy and reasonableness of counsel’s performance based on the full record before the court. Even Alabama does not defend such a rule.  Instead, the dispute here is whether the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in fact imposed such a rule in this case.  I believe it plainly did so.  For that reason, I respectfully dissent from the denial of certiorari.

After this start, Justice Sotomayor goes on for 10+ pages to provide great detail on the proceedings below and the errors she sees therein.  Her dissent concludes with a call for a summary reversal and remand "so that the Court of Criminal Appeals could explain why, given the full factual record, Reeves’ counsel’s choices constituted reasonable performance."  This concluding recommendation, along with length of the dissent, leads me to wonder if it was drafted with the hope that there would be five or more votes to send this case back to the Alabama courts given that, as Justice Sotomayor explains, Alabama itself "does not attempt to defend the Court of Criminal Appeals’ rule on its merits."

Of course, the issuance of this dissent shows that Justice Sotomayor could not get five or more votes to send this case back to the Alabama courts.  But, as SCOTUS fans know, only four votes are needed to grant certiorari, and Justice Breyer would seem to be an obvious candidate to provide a fourth vote for taking this capital case up on its merits.  I am inclined to guess that Justice Breyer decided to issue a so-called "defensive denial" vote: as explained here, Justice Breyer's vote in Reeves may involve the "strategy by which a justice will vote to deny review because the justice fears that, if review is granted, the Court will reach the wrong result and make bad law."

Because I am not a SCOTUS procedure guru, I am not going to spend too much time speculating about what the voting dynamics might reveal in Reeves.  But in the wake of his Glossip opinion and other subsequent comments and votes, some have been coming to believe that Justice Breyer would now vote in favor of a capital defendant in any and every close or tough case.  His vote to deny cert in Reeves suggests that, in deciding how to resolve capital cert petitions, he is still concerned with matters other than just how he thinks he should resolve each and every particular capital case that comes before him.

November 13, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Might last week's voting results in Virginia help lead to voting rights for everyone, including those with criminal records?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this extended HuffPost piece headlined "Democrats Just Won A Massive Victory For Voting Rights In Virginia." Here are excerpts:

On a night of Democratic victories, one of the most significant wins came in Virginia, where the party held onto the governor’s mansion. Democratic governor-elect Ralph Northam’s victory will enable him to expand voting rights to disenfranchised people and exert some control over the redistricting process.

The election had high stakes for voting rights. Virginia strips people of their right to vote if they are convicted of a felony, and those rights can only be restored by the governor. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) moved aggressively to restore rights to more than 168,000 former felons ― a policy Northam has said he is proud of and will continue.

In 2016, the nonprofit Sentencing Project estimated there were 508,680 people in Virginia who remained disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, meaning hundreds of thousands more could benefit from Northam’s policies. More than 1 in 5 people disenfranchised in the commonwealth because of a felony conviction were African-American, according to the organization....

Expanded voting rights restoration will benefit people like LaVaughn Williams and Brianna Ross, who are in their 50s and lost their right to vote decades ago, when they were convicted of felonies. Both women had their rights restored in the last year and voted for the first time in their lives on Tuesday, something they said made them feel like equal citizens. “If you had asked me maybe a year and a half, almost two years ago, I would’ve said ‘No,’ I didn’t never think I would vote,” Williams said on Tuesday after voting.

“Government and governors have come to the conclusion that even though we have not done a lot of good things in our lifetime, as far as I’m concerned, they have decided that they will put those past mistakes in the past and give us that second chance,” she said. “That’s all any person that’s an ex-felon can hope for, that second chance. Me getting my rights back is that second chance.”...

Voting rights became an important issue in the race after Northam’s Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, used highly misleading television advertisements to criticize the policy of restoring voting rights to former felons. Gillespie also personally oversaw the Republican effort to win state legislators and draw electoral boundaries to the party’s advantage in 2010. The high stakes attracted attention from voting groups like Let America Vote and Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

“Ralph Northam’s win tonight is a victory for every Virginian, a victory for the Democratic movement resisting President Trump’s disastrous administration and a victory for the protection of voting rights everywhere,” Jason Kander, the former Missouri secretary of state and president of Let America Vote, said in a statement. “Ralph made his defense of voting rights a campaign priority,” Kander said. “Virginians took notice, which is why they came from all over the commonwealth to join Let America Vote and many other groups to get out the vote.”

Though I am not aware of any exit polling that suggests that Northam swayed a large number of voters with his advocacy for voting rights, I suspect that Gilllespie's attack on restoring voting rights to former felons would have been given too much credit if he had secured a come-from-behind win. More generally, in a nation that rightly takes pride in democratic governance, I am ever hopeful that advocacy for expanding the franchise can and will generally prevail over advocacy for restricting the franchise.

Because I have long thought that the biggest problem with democracy in the US results from too few rather than too many people voting, I continue to adhere to the positions developed here in support of allowing even incarcerated felons the right to political participation through the voting booth. In this context, it is worth recalling that we fought a war for independence based in part on the slogan "no taxation without representation." In that tradition, I think until we hear someone making the case for felons to be exempt from taxation, we ought in turn be ever-suspicious of the case for preventing felons from voting.

November 13, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Former state Arizona AG, only now, says his state's death penalty is "unconstitutional" and "bad policy"

Terry Goddard, who served as the Arizona's attorney general from 2003 to 2011, apparently just now got around to figuring out that how his state administers the death penalty makes it unconstitutional and bad policy.  He explains his new thinking in this commentary headlined "Arizona's 40-year experiment with the death penalty has failed."  Here are excerpts (with some emphasis added for my follow-up commentary):

As the attorney general, I was responsible for overseeing dozens of appeals from sentences of death.  Six people were executed during my tenure.  It was critical for me that we imposed the ultimate sanction only on those most deserving.

Tragically, our state has failed in this undertaking in fundamental ways.  The breadth of our statute, capturing nearly every first-degree murder, makes it unconstitutional.  But more than that, Arizona’s use of the death penalty is bad policy.

Arizona does not have a good track record for getting it right.  At least nine times our death penalty has swept up the innocent in its net.  Nationwide, 160 people have been exonerated from death row.  Getting it wrong once is one time too many.  Death, in its finality, means correcting a wrongful sentence is not an option.  Sentencing the innocent to die undermines the public’s confidence in the entire criminal justice system, and is reason alone to abandon the death penalty.

Moreover, Arizona’s death penalty scheme has unsettling racial disparities in its application.  People in Arizona who are accused of murdering white victims are more likely to receive the death penalty.  Hispanic men who are accused of murdering whites are more than four times as likely to be sentenced to death as white defendants accused of murdering a Hispanic victim.  Any other state policy with that sort of disparity would be quickly repudiated.  The Legislature should end this horrible death penalty malfunction.

The spiraling costs of seeking and imposing a death sentence are further reason to abandon the policy.  These costs have caused the location of the crime to take precedence over its heinousness.  Several counties simply cannot afford to pursue the death penalty, creating imbalances having nothing to do with the crime....

The costs associated with defending Arizona’s statute (never mind the cases themselves) have been substantial. Dozens of convictions have been set aside because Arizona, unlike almost every other state, did not provide for jury sentencing in capital cases.  Arizona was one of two states to extend the death penalty to felony murders, leading to a rebuke by the Supreme Court and further reversals.  The Arizona Supreme Court narrowly interpreted our state’s prohibition on executing the intellectually disabled until they were recently forced to reconsider.  And case after case has been reversed because of flaws in the instructions given in capital sentencing proceedings....

We’ve been here before. In 1972, the court struck down every state’s death-penalty statute because they operated to execute a “capriciously selected random handful,” rather than the worst offenders.  Similar to other states’ efforts, then-state Sen. Sandra Day O’Connor and Rudy Gerber (who later became an Arizona judge) rewrote Arizona’s statute to comply with the court’s narrowing requirements by obligating the prosecutor to prove one or more aggravating factors before the death penalty could be imposed.

More than four decades have passed and we are back to square one.  Despite the efforts of O’Connor and Gerber, Arizona has failed to narrow the application of the death penalty and has been unable or unwilling to provide the guidance necessary to ensure that the death penalty is only imposed on the worst offenders.

Though I am not an expert on the statutory and practical ins-and-outs of the death penalty in Arizona, I am pretty sure that the vast majority of the problems cited here by former state AG Goddard were plenty evident circa 2003 when he started serving his eight years at the top lawyer and law enforcement official in the state.  For example, this DPIC list of death row exonerations indicates that eight of the nine exonerations in Arizona occurred by 2003.  If "getting it wrong once" is, as Goddard says now, "one time too many" and "reason alone to abandon the death penalty," why didn't Goddard while serving as AG become a vocal opponent of capital punishment?

Similarly, I believe the breadth of the Arizona statute allowing capital punishment for nearly all first-degree murders is not a new reality.  If that reality makes the statute unconstitutional in the view of Goddard, why did he work vigorously to uphold death sentences under that statute for eight years?  In his role as AG, Goddard swore an oath to uphold the US Constitution, and he should have felt duty-bound not to seek to preserve capital convictions secured via an unconstitutional statute.  But, it would seem, Goddard was very slow to achieve this critical constitutional wisdom.

Likewise, I would guess that "unsettling racial disparities" in the  application of Arizona's death penalty did not only recently become evident.  (Linked here, for example, is a 1997 article with data on this kind of disparity and discrimination in Arizona.)   Did Goddard even care about the data on disparities when serving in the AG role for eight years?   If he really believes "any other state policy with that sort of disparity would be quickly repudiated," I would like to ask him why he did not quickly repudiate the death penalty over the eighth years he was in an ideal official position to do something about this state policy. 

I make these points not only to suggest that there is a notable johnny-come-lately quality to Goddard's capital criticisms, but also to wonder if Goddard might someday write another commentary that explains why a person in the role of Attorney General cannot or will not face up to problems in a state's criminal laws until long after completing service.  I have always wondered whether it is just political and institutional pressures that prompt government officials to defend questionable criminal laws and practices, or whether other sets of personal and professional factors are the heart of this story.  Some first-person accounting of just how and why Goddard has now come to a different view of these issues a number of years after his extended tenure as state AG could actually make his commentary much more valuable than the standard abolitionist review of reasons to oppose the death penalty.

November 12, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Retiring House Judiciary Chair Goodlatte mentions "enacting criminal justice reform" as an out-the-door priority

As explained here via an official missive, Congressman Bob Goodlatte released a letter this week to announce that he will not seek re-election in 2018. These parts of the letter, with my emphasis added, account for why this news strikes me as blogworthy:

For the past 25 years, it has been my honor to represent the Sixth Congressional District of Virginia.  I cannot begin to express how blessed I am to have had the opportunity to serve and take part in the great experiment of self-government envisioned by our Founders.  It has been a labor of love to work countless hours and travel endless miles on the roads of our District for a quarter of a century....

After much contemplation and prayer, we decided it was the right time for me to step aside and let someone else serve the Sixth District.  I will not seek re-election.  With my time as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee ending in December 2018, this is a natural stepping-off point and an opportunity to begin a new chapter of my career and spend more time with my family, particularly my granddaughters.

While I’m not running for re-election, my work in the 115th Congress is far from done.  There is much that I hope we can accomplish in the next year, including: bolstering enforcement of our immigration laws and reforming the legal immigration system, simplifying the tax code in order to stimulate job growth and benefit families in the Sixth District, enacting criminal justice reform, repealing Obamacare, advancing protections of the freedoms and liberties enshrined in our Constitution, and, of course, continuing first-class constituent service for the citizens of the Sixth District....

As House Judiciary Chair, Goodlatte plays a very important role in determining if and how proposals for federal statutory sentencing reform can move forward. I have generally heard that he is a tepid supporter of reform: I sense he would not champion any reforms, but also would not seek to kill any bill that has broad support on this side of the aisle.  Now, with only a dozen or so months in this role and in Congress, it seems possible that Goodlatte might be a little more motivate to make the enactment of some significant federal criminal justice reform part of his legacy.  Or maybe not ... as I always struggle to understand the mysterious ways and people that lurk inside the Beltway

November 12, 2017 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)