Thursday, December 3, 2020

New Pew report highlights how "States Can Shorten Probation and Protect Public Safety"

Shorten_Probation_and_Public_Safety_Report_650px_Figure2This important new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts, titled "States Can Shorten Probation and Protect Public Safety," provides a great accounting of key data and good policy in the probation area.  Here are excerpts from the report's overview:

More than 3.5 million, or 1 in 72, adults were on probation in the United States at the end of 2018 — the most recent year for which U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) data is available — more than triple the number in 1980.  Nationwide, on any given day, more people are on probation than in prisons and jails and on parole combined.

At its best, probation — court-ordered correctional supervision in the community — gives people the opportunity to remain with their families, maintain employment, and access services that can reduce their likelihood of reoffending while serving their sentences.  But, as previous research by The Pew Charitable Trusts has shown, the growth and size of this population have overloaded local and state agencies and stretched their resources thin, weakening their ability to provide the best return on taxpayers’ public safety investments, support rehabilitation, and ensure a measure of accountability.

One key factor driving the size of the probation population is how long individuals remain on supervision.  A growing list of high-quality studies have shown that long probation sentences are not associated with lower rates of recidivism and are more likely than shorter ones to lead to technical violations — noncompliance with one or more supervision rules, such as missing appointments or testing positive for drug use.  Recent research from the Council of State Governments has found that such violations contribute significantly to state incarceration rates and correctional costs: More than 1 in 10 state prison admissions are the result of technical violations of probation rather than convictions for a new crime.  To date, the average length of probation has not been well documented, because data on individual terms has been lacking.

To begin addressing this gap and help criminal justice stakeholders better understand how long people spend on probation — as well as the effects of term length on individual recidivism outcomes — The Pew Charitable Trusts conducted an in-depth analysis of BJS data from 2000 through 2018.  Additionally, Maxarth LLC examined Oregon and South Carolina data to quantify the potential to reduce probation lengths without increasing re-offending in those states, and the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) reviewed probation sentencing statutes in all 50 states.  This report provides a first-of-its-kind national and state-level portrait of the average length of probation and explores whether term lengths can be safely reduced and what options are available for state policymakers looking to improve their system’s outcomes....

No national standard exists for how long probation should be for any given case.  Rather, the findings of this and other research suggest that probation should be only long enough to meet its basic objectives of providing accountability proportional to the underlying criminal offense, connecting people to needed treatment and services, and enabling individuals to complete programs such as cognitive behavioral therapy and counseling that have been shown to reduce the risk of re-offending.

Research indicates that people are at the highest risk of re-offending early in their probation terms; for example, among people on felony probation in Oregon who were rearrested within three years of entering probation, 69% were arrested in the first year.  Further, studies show that after the first year, many supervision provisions, such as reporting requirements and community-based services, have little effect on the likelihood of rearrest, so keeping probation terms short and prioritizing resources for the early stages of supervision can help improve success rates among people on probation, reduce officer caseloads, and protect public safety.

Although probation was originally conceived as an alternative to incarceration, criminal justice officials, policymakers, and other stakeholders increasingly acknowledge that keeping people on probation longer than is needed to deliver public safety benefits carries unnecessary and unproductive costs and wastes scarce resources. This report aims to help state and local leaders better understand and address the critical issue of probation length by providing essential data and offering policies and practices that can improve outcomes for probation departments and the people they supervise across the U.S.

December 3, 2020 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Group of criminal justice leaders call for ending federal death penalty immediately

As detailed in this press release from Fair and Just Prosecution, " a bipartisan group of nearly 100 criminal justice leaders — including over 60 current elected prosecutors (District Attorneys, State Attorneys, Prosecuting Attorneys and Attorneys General), nine former U.S. Attorneys and 14 current and former Police Chiefs and Sheriffs — issued a joint statement calling for an immediate halt to federal executions and asking the President to commute the sentences of the five people now scheduled to be executed by the federal government over the next two months."  The full three-page joint statement and the list of signatories is available here, and the statement gets started this way: 

We are a group of nearly 100 current and former elected prosecutors, Attorneys General, and law enforcement leaders, and former United States Attorneys and Department of Justice officials writing in opposition to the application of the death penalty, and in support of clemency, for those individuals scheduled for federal execution in the coming months. Case after case has revealed that our nation’s long experiment with the death penalty has failed.  The process is broken, implicates systemic racism and constitutional concerns, and distinguishes our country from many other democratic nations in the world. If ever there were a time to revisit this practice, that time is now.

Many have tried for over forty years to make America’s death penalty system just.  Yet the reality is that our nation’s use of this sanction cannot be repaired, and it should be ended.  The death penalty raises serious concerns in tension with the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law.

It is unequally and arbitrarily applied, ineffective at improving public safety, and a waste of taxpayer resources; and its use presents the perilous risk of executing an innocent person.  We also now know that we have not executed the worst of the worst, but often instead put to death the unluckiest of the unlucky — the impoverished, the poorly represented, and the most broken.  Time and again, we have executed individuals with long histories of debilitating mental illness, childhoods marred by unspeakable physical and mental abuse, and intellectual disabilities that have prevented them from leading independent adult lives.  We have executed individuals with trial lawyers so derelict in their duties and obligations that they never bothered to uncover long histories of illness and trauma. We have also likely executed the innocent.

December 3, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Cruel & Unusual Non-Capital Punishments"

The title of this post is the title of this new article available via SSRN authored by William Berry.  Here is its abstract:

The Supreme Court has rendered the Eighth Amendment a dead letter with respect to non-capital, non-juvenile life-without-parole sentences.  Its cases have erected a gross disproportionality standard that seems insurmountable in most cases, even for draconian and excessive sentences.  State courts have adopted a similar approach in interpreting state constitutional Eighth Amendment analogues, often finding that they are no broader than the Court’s narrow interpretation of the Eighth Amendment, despite linguistic variations in many cases.

Nonetheless, in a handful of state cases, state courts have found that state punishments violate the Eighth Amendment or its state constitutional analogue.  This article examines those cases to identify what non-capital punishments have caused courts to limit state punishment practices even in the shadow of an overwhelming, albeit unfortunate, trend of according constitutional deference to state punishment practices.  In light of these decisions, this Article advances a series of possible arguments by which to attack state and federal punishment practices in an effort to create more exceptions to the draconian status quo constitutional rule.

In Part I, the Article begins by providing an overview of Eighth Amendment gross disproportionality doctrine and its use in state constitutional analogues to the Eighth Amendment.  Part II examines the handful of state court cases that have found punishments unconstitutionally disproportionate.  In Part III, the Article advances one set of arguments — both systemic and case-based — for use in attacking non-capital state punishments under state constitutions.  Part IV, the Article advances a second set of arguments — both systemic and case-based — for use in attacking non-capital state punishments under the Eighth Amendment.

December 3, 2020 in Examples of "over-punishment", Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Ramos, Tasmanian tigers and Teague, oh my: SCOTUS debates retroactivity of jury unanimity rule in Edwards oral argument

Lions-and-tigers-and-bears-oh-my

The Supreme Court often seems to have a Wizard-of-Oz like quality, especially now that we are all behind a COVID curtain, and so I could not resist an Ozian title for this post noting today's interesting oral argument in Edwards v. Vannoy.   At issue in Edwards is whether the Court’s decision last Term in Ramos v. Louisiana, holding that the Sixth Amendment establishes a right to a unanimous jury that applies in both federal and state courts, applies retroactively to cases that have already become final on direct review.  This Bloomberg Law account of the argument, headlined "Justices Divided on Making Jury Unanimity Decision Retroactive," provides a great summary, and here are excerpts:

Supreme Court justices were divided during oral argument over whether their decision barring nonunanimous jury convictions last term applies retroactively.

Questions on Wednesday from Justices Neil Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer suggested all three may favor retroactivity, but the defendant, Thedrick Edwards, could have trouble attracting two more justices to join them. 

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan, both of whom could hold crucial votes, asked tough questions of both sides....  It’s unclear how the newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett, will vote.  She replaced the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who voted with the majority in last term’s Ramos v. Louisiana.

Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Brett Kavanaugh are likely votes against retroactivity.  Kavanaugh voted with the majority in Ramos, but said in a concurrence that he didn’t think the decision should apply retroactively....

Edwards, a Black man, was convicted in 2007 of armed robbery, kidnapping, and rape by a nonunanimous Louisiana jury and sentenced to life in prison.  The lone Black juror voted to acquit on all counts.  The states most recently to allow split verdicts were Louisiana and Oregon, which were found to have enacted their systems for discriminatory purposes.  Nonetheless, those states, Puerto Rico — which also had them — and the Justice Department are pressing the high court to keep intact the nonunanimous convictions that have already been upheld.  That would bar relief for Edwards and potentially over a thousand people like him who want to take advantage of Ramos even though they already exhausted their initial round of appeals.... 

Bélanger downplayed the notion that a ruling for Edwards would overload the system with new trials.  Prompted by questioning from Breyer, he said “we’re really looking at our estimates of maybe two to three cases per prosecutor.” He said “the system is more than capable of accommodating this type of caseload.”  Louisiana Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill deemed that assessment unrealistic.  “You can’t just hand out cases to anybody who happens to be an assistant district attorney,” she said.  “I mean, some of those people actually enforce laws in city court and — or do — you know, they collect money from — they do civil cases.”

One way for decisions to apply retroactively is if they reaffirmed an old rule.  Gorsuch, the author of Ramos, expressed support for that idea, while Kagan called it a “steep climb” at the argument.  Another way the court could view the Sixth Amendment unanimity right from Ramos is as a newly-recognized criminal procedure rule, which generally wouldn’t apply retroactively.  But under the court’s 1989 ruling in Teague v. Lane, it can if it’s a “watershed” right implicating fundamental fairness and accuracy.

Yet the court has never expressly identified such a watershed right — it has indicated the right to counsel that predated Teague could be one — leading Gorsuch to wonder if the watershed test is a “false promise.”  Alito said it reminds him “of something you see on some TV shows about the — the quest for an animal that was thought to have become extinct, like the Tasmanian tiger, which was thought to have died out in a zoo in 1936, but every once in a while, deep in the forests of Tasmania, somebody sees a footprint in the mud or a howl in the night or some fleeting thing running by, and they say, a-ha, there still is one that exists.”

Both Kagan and Barrett pressed lawyers about what exactly accuracy means in the Teague analysis.  “I’m having trouble understanding what we’re measuring,” Barrett said. “Are we trying to ask whether juries wrongfully convicted someone because the majority saw the case in the wrong way and the — and the one dissenter in the jury or the two dissenters in the jury were right?”...

[T]hough she dissented in Ramos, Kagan seemed to struggle with whether defendants should benefit from it retroactively.  “I mean, Ramos says that if you haven’t been convicted by a unanimous jury, you really haven’t been convicted at all,” she told assistant to the U.S. solicitor general Christopher Michel, who supported Louisiana’s Murrill at the argument. “And so how could it be that a rule like that does not have retroactive effect?” she asked....

The court could also avoid the retroactivity issue entirely.  Some justices — at least Thomas, Alito, and Kavanaugh — expressed during the argument that habeas corpus restrictions could bar Edwards from relitigating the issue at all.

December 2, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Fourth Circuit becomes the fourth circuit to embrace a robust view of sentence reduction authority under 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act

I am very pleased to see today yet another important circuit rulings on the reach and application of the compassionate release provisions amended by the federal FIRST STEP Act.  As regular readers know, in lots of (pre-COVID) prior posts I made much of the provision of the FIRST STEP Act allowing federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  I have consider this provision a big deal because, if applied appropriately and robustly, it could and should enable many hundreds (and perhaps many thousands) of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced. 

The Second Circuit back in September was the first circuit to rule in Zullo/Brooker, quite rightly in my view, that district courts have now broad discretion to consider "any extraordinary and compelling reason for release that a defendant might raise" to justify a sentence reduction under 3582(c)(1)(A).  Then, on the same day last month, the Sixth Circuit in Jones and the Seventh Circuit in Gunn issued similar opinions recognizing that district court now have broad authority after the FIRST STEP Act to determine whether and when "extraordinary and compelling" reasons may justify a sentence reduction when an imprisoned person files a 3582(c)(1)(A) motion.  Now, today, the Fourth Circuit has become the fourth circuit to get into this act with a great panel opinion in US v. McCoy, No. 20-6821 (4th Cir. Dec. 2, 2020) (available here).  Here is how this opinion gets started:

The defendants in these consolidated appeals were convicted of robberies and accompanying firearms violations under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). At the time, sentences under § 924(c) were “stacked,” which exposed the defendants to additional mandatory minimums and led to sentences ranging from 35 to 53 years of imprisonment. After the defendants’ convictions became final, Congress passed the First Step Act and ended sentence “stacking” under § 924(c). Today, the defendants’ sentences would be dramatically shorter – in most cases, by 30 years – than the ones they received.

At the same time it shortened sentences under § 924(c), the First Step Act significantly expanded access to compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A). Prior versions of § 3582(c)(1)(A), which empowers courts to reduce sentences for “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” had allowed review of sentences only at the request of the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”). The First Step Act removed the BOP from that gatekeeping role, authorizing defendants themselves to file motions for sentence reductions.

Relying on both these First Step Act provisions, the defendants moved for reductions in their sentences under § 3582(c)(1)(A), resting their case for “extraordinary and compelling reasons” primarily on the length of their § 924(c) sentences and the disparity between their sentences and those that Congress deemed appropriate in the First Step Act. After considering each defendant’s individual circumstances – including their youth at the time of the offenses, their lack of significant prior criminal history, their exemplary behavior and rehabilitation in prison, and their already-substantial years of incarceration – the district courts granted the defendants’ motions and reduced their sentences to time served.

We now affirm the judgments of the district courts. As the government emphasizes on appeal, § 3582(c)(1)(A) prohibits sentence reductions that are not consistent with “applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission.” But contrary to the government’s argument, treating the defendants’ § 924(c) sentences as an “extraordinary and compelling” reason for release is not inconsistent with any “applicable policy statement” of the Sentencing Commission for the simple reason that the Commission has yet to issue a policy statement that applies to motions filed by defendants under the recently amended § 3582(c)(1)(A). Nor was it otherwise improper, we conclude, for the district courts to consider the First Step Act’s declaration of the appropriate level of punishment under § 924(c) in assessing the defendants’ cases, on an individualized basis, for compassionate release.

Like the other circuit opinions and many comparable district court opinions, this Fourth Circuit ruling is the real McCoy, and its closing paragraph provides a fitting summary of the sound work that district courts are doing in accord with the congressional guidance in the FIRST STEP Act:

We return to the Second Circuit’s description of the First Step Act and its amendment of § 3582(c)(1)(A): an “incremental” change that does not mandate more lenient sentences across the board but instead gives new discretion to the courts to consider leniency.  Zullo, 976 F.3d at 230.  The district courts in these cases appropriately exercised the discretion conferred by Congress and cabined by the statutory requirements of § 3582(c)(1)(A).  We see no error in their reliance on the length of the defendants’ sentences, and the dramatic degree to which they exceed what Congress now deems appropriate, in finding “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for potential sentence reductions. The courts took seriously the requirement that they conduct individualized inquiries, basing relief not only on the First Step Act’s change to sentencing law under § 924(c) but also on such factors as the defendants’ relative youth at the time of their offenses, their post-sentencing conduct and rehabilitation, and the very substantial terms of imprisonment they already served.  Those individualized determinations were neither inconsistent with any “applicable” Sentencing Commission guidance nor tantamount to wholesale retroactive application of the First Step Act’s amendments to § 924(c).

A few of many, many prior related posts:

December 2, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Lots of (surprising and unsurprising) clemency chatter ... and great advocacy for clemency change

The lame-duck end of a presidential (or gubernatorial) term is often a time for lots of discussion of clemency possibilities.  And who follows this space surely sensibly expected that the Term of Prez Trump would wind down with plenty of clemency chatter.  But, as detailed via these recent headlines and links, the array of stories afoot are remarkable:

From Business Insider, "Joe Exotic's lawyer thinks he's 'very, very close' to getting a presidential pardon from Trump"

From the New York Times, "Trump Has Discussed With Advisers Pardons for His 3 Eldest Children and Giuliani"

From NPR, "Justice Department Investigating Possible Bribery-For-Pardon Scheme"

Though I might have "hot takes" about the latest clemency news, the recent piece most worth considering in this space comes from Emily Galvin-Almanza via The Appeal under the headline "Biden Must Fix The Broken Executive Clemency Process.  This Is Who He Should Select To Lead That Effort."  Here are excerpts:

[W]e must work at all levels to transform our criminal legal system.  But we can’t neglect powerful, fast tools like clemency.  We shouldn’t box clemency away as merely some form of mercy, when in fact it is something much more akin to a high-speed mechanism for undoing the worst impacts of bad, outdated policy and enforcement choices.  And yet, we have done exactly that: As [Rachel] Barkow has pointed out, we’ve taken this powerful tool and abandoned it in a dusty closet somewhere in the basement of the Department of Justice.  That’s where a brave new Administration must begin....

As you might expect, this choking process has left clemency in a state of crisis.  It is dysfunctional, available primarily to the powerful, and raises only false hopes for marginalized people. But we are standing, post-election, on the verge of tremendous change.  Looking to a Biden Administration that, at its core, has indicated a commitment to righting the wrongs of the past and looking for smarter, more human (and humane) solutions.  Clemency is a fantastic opportunity for such an administration: fixing clemency in a way that would spur transformative change doesn’t require congress, doesn’t require massive bureaucracy, and doesn’t require anything other than strong executive action–and an executive ready to leverage the unique depths of his own empathy.

The process is simple: first, the new President Joe Biden must move the clemency process out of DOJ and into the White House, and appoint someone with deep grounding in the topic–and bipartisan credibility–to lead a committee on clemency that would not only build a system to process individual applications faster, but create proactive tactics for finding ways to use the clemency power to undo the worst impacts of bad, carceral law–even for people who hadn’t been able to file for relief on their own.  Best of all, this idea isn’t particularly controversial: it was supported during the primary by everyone from Senators Amy Klobuchar to Bernie Sanders, it made it through the Biden-Sanders Unity Taskforce, and it was integrated into the 2020 Democratic Party platform.  For context, this makes it significantly less controversial than, say, legalizing marijuana — a policy many, many states are already enacting.

Rachel Barkow, of course, would be a very smart choice, as someone whose primary body of work has focused on building a better clemency system, and who has also been celebrated by advocates from across the political spectrum.  She’s not only a respected scholar and former clerk to the iconic Justice Scalia, she’s a national policy player who has been through Senate confirmation once already, joining the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2013.  But importantly, her views aren’t limited to the ivory tower — she’s done the actual work of helping people apply for clemency: she and co-author Mark Osler started a “pop up” clemency clinic to help people apply for clemency in 2014....

Leading a team that would not just include but center the experiences of people who had lived through incarceration, and also reserve space for public defenders, civil rights lawyers, and progressive prosecutors who carry a more modern understanding of second chances than their old-school peers, Barkow could hand the President a mechanism for fostering liberty, opportunity and restoration out of the wreckage of our bloated system.  She could change the game by building a faster, smarter process.  For people who love comparisons, Barkow’s role in the clemency conversation is not dissimilar from the robust academic-yet-tactical power Senator Elizabeth Warren has brought to the conversation around the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  Tasking Barkow with bringing clemency into the White House would be a little like letting Sen. Warren supercharge the CFPB.

Instead of placing endless barriers between deserving, promising people and their chance to be heard, or allowing prosecutorial dinosaurs at DOJ to stand between ordinary people and opportunity, she and her committee could fast-track applications and give President Biden an opportunity to be a groundbreaking leader in this area.  They could seek out specific areas where we know sentences are too long and out of step with current enforcement priorities and find people who may not have had the capacity to file a petition, but whose sentence is wildly out of step with modern views. It would be especially beautiful to break down the legacy of 1994 — and 1990s punitive measures more generally — with this unique and deceptively simple action.

December 2, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Interesting advocacy for Senator Durbin to take over top Dem spot on Senate Judiciary Committee

In my upper-level sentencing class, I spend a lot of time highlighting for students how many different system players have an impact on sentencing law, policy and practice.  Too often, a cursory discussion of sentencing looks only at trial judges and judicial decision-making.  But at the case-specific level, decisions by victims and police and prosecutors and defense attorneys can often have a profound and even controlling impact on sentencing outcomes.  System-wide, players inside and around all levels of legislative, executive and judicial branches can directly and subtly impact sentencing law and policy.  These realities are on my mind upon seeing this recent Hill piece headlined "Criminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot."  Here are the details:

A coalition of criminal justice groups is signaling support for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in his bid to take over the top Democratic spot on the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Justice Roundtable, a coalition of more than 100 groups, sent a letter to Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), obtained exclusively by The Hill, signaling support for Durbin, citing his previous work on criminal justice reform.

"At this inflection point in the nation’s history, particularly as we confront a devastating pandemic and systemic racial inequality, we are comforted to know Senator Durbin’s long-standing commitment to human rights, fairness and justice will guide him at this critical time.  He is a trusted and experienced leader, and we welcome his ascension in the Judiciary Committee," Justice Roundtable leadership wrote to Schumer.

Durbin, who was recently reelected to serve as the Senate Democratic whip in the next Congress, has worked for years on criminal justice legislation.  Most recently he teamed up with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who was then the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act and the First Step Act.  The First Step Act, which incorporated provisions of the first bill, was passed in 2018 after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agreed to give it a vote amid pressure from the White House and a bipartisan group of senators.

"If not for Dick Durbin sentencing reform would not be a part of the First STEP Act. He was very much an ally of the criminal justice groups and the liberal groups," Inimai Chettiar, the federal legislative and policy director for the Justice Action Network, told The Hill, crediting Durbin with "holding people's feet to the fire."

Durbin and Grassley, who will chair the Judiciary Committee if Republicans keep the majority, have also teamed up this year on legislation reforming compassionate release for federal prisoners amid the coronavirus.

Durbin, who is serving in the No. 2 spot as party whip, announced that he would seek the party's top position on the panel after Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she would step down from the spot. Some progressives, however, have signaled support for Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who has also been active on criminal justice and prison reform and has been a leading voice in the caucus on issues like campaign finance reform and the judiciary....

"Anyone who cares about criminal justice reform and its impact on racial justice should want [Durbin] to be the top Democrat on Senate Judiciary," Kevin Ring, the head of the FAAM Foundation, tweeted amid the progressive pushback against Durbin. He added on Monday that "this is madness. You don’t pass over Michael Jordan to shake things up. Dems should pick Durbin if they want to pass bolder criminal justice reform."...

The offers of support for Durbin comes as criminal justice groups are gearing up to try to get additional legislation passed under the incoming Biden administration. Biden, during the White House race, vowed to end the government's use of private prisons, end cash bail and work to end the use of the death penalty.

If Durbin or Whitehouse would be chair or ranking member of the Judiciary Committee remains unclear because which party will control the Senate will come down to the two Georgia runoff elections on January 5. "I think it is critically important who the leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee is going to be and I think Dick Durbin has a very proven record of being able to fight for criminal justice reforms," Chettiar said.

It is so interesting to see criminal justice reform advocates advocating to a Senate leader about who should ge given a leadership role in the chamber.  These advocates fully understand the importance of having a vocal proponent for criminal justice reform serving in a key Senate role (although how key that role is to be awaits the run-off results next month in Georgia).  As I explained in this post last month, I am cautiously optimistic that some form of sentencing reform will be an arena for important bipartisan discussion and work in the next Congress no matter who is in charge.  But who is in charge still matters a lot, so it will be interesting to see how the new Senate Judiciary Committee takes shape. 

December 2, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Seventh Circuit panel says old guideline does not limit potential "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for 3582(c)(1)(A) motions after FIRST STEP Act

Last night in this post, I noted the big compassionate release ruling from the Sixth Circuit in US v. Jones, 20-3701 (6th Cir. Nov. 20, 2020) (available here), which ruled that "the passage of the First Step Act rendered § 1B1.13 'inapplicable' to cases where an imprisoned person files a motion for compassionate release."  In other words, the Sixth Circuit held that district courts now have broad authority to determine what now qualifies as "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for a sentence reduction under the statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) despite the fact that a pre-FIRST STEP provision of the guidelines, § 1B1.13, might seem to limit that authority. 

Helpfully, a couple of readers made sure I did not miss another ruling from another circuit on the same topic that happened to be handed down the same day as Jones.  Specifically, a Seventh Circuit panel in US v. Gunn, No. 20-1959 (7th Cir. Nov. 20, 2020) (available here), had this (and more) to say on this topic:

Like the Second Circuit, see United States v. Brooker, 976 F.3d 228 (2d Cir. 2020), we disagree with this reading of the statute’s trailing paragraph.  It says that a reduction must be “consistent with” all “applicable” policy statements.  Section 1B1.13 addresses motions and determinations of the Director, not motions by prisoners.  In other words, the Sentencing Commission has not yet issued a policy statement “applicable” to Gunn’s request.  And because the Guidelines Manual lacks an applicable policy statement, the trailing paragraph of §3582(c)(1)(A) does not curtail a district judge’s discretion.  Any decision is “consistent with” a nonexistent policy statement.  “Consistent with” differs from “authorized by”.

The statute itself sets the standard: only “extraordinary and compelling reasons” justify the release of a prisoner who is outside the scope of §3582(c)(1)(A)(ii).  The substantive aspects of the Sentencing Commission’s analysis in §1B1.13 and its Application Notes provide a working definition of “extraordinary and compelling reasons”; a judge who strikes off on a different path risks an appellate holding that judicial discretion has been abused.  In this way the Commission’s analysis can guide discretion without being conclusive....

Like the district court, we hope that the Sentencing Commission’s ability to revise its guidelines and policy statements will be restored by the appointment of additional members.  Until that happens and §1B1.13 is amended, however, the Guidelines Manual lacks an “applicable” policy statement covering prisoner-initiated applications for compassionate release.  District judges must operate under the statutory criteria — “extraordinary and compelling reasons” — subject to deferential appellate review.

A few of many, many prior related posts:

December 2, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

House Judiciary subcommittee to hold oversight hearing on federal Bureau of Prisons

As detailed at this link, the US House of Representative's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security (of the Committee on the Judiciary) has scheduled for the morning of December 2, 2020 on "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service." The witness list, available at this link, shows Directors of the Bureau of Prisons and of the United States Marshals Service, as the only witnesses.  I believe the hearing can be watched started at 9am on Dec 2 at this link

The written testimony of Michael Carvajal, Director of the Bureau of Prisons, is available at this link. Here is some interesting bits of data from this written  testimony:

The Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), vocational and occupational training, education, and Federal Prison Industries (FPI) have been shown to reduce recidivism. In previous research studies, RDAP participants were 16 percent less likely to recidivate and 15 percent less likely to have a relapse in their substance use disorder within three years after release. Inmates who participate in vocational or occupational training were 33 percent less likely to recidivate, and inmates who participate in education programs were 16 percent less likely to recidivate.

I am pleased to report that since March 26, 2020, BOP has transferred 18,112 inmates to Home Confinement, and there are an additional 175 who are scheduled to transfer to Home Confinement in the coming weeks. These assessments remain ongoing and will continue for the duration of the pandemic.

UPDATE This Courthouse News Service piece, headlined "Officials Spar Over Covid Spread Through Prison System," provides an overview of some parts of the hearing.

December 1, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sixth Circuit panel rules "courts have full discretion" to determine extraordinary and compelling reasons for 3582(c)(1)(A) motions

I only today saw a big notable Sixth Circuit ruling from a few weeks ago discussing the reach and application of the compassionate release provisions amended by the federal FIRST STEP Act.  As regular readers know, in lots of (pre-COVID) prior posts, I made much of the provision of the FIRST STEP Act allowing federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  The SIxth Circuit's recent ruling in US v. Jones, 20-3701 (6th Cir. Nov. 20, 2020) (available here), constitutes the second big circuit decision ruling that district courts have broad discretion to determine what now qualifies as "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for a sentence reduction.

The first significant circuit ruling on the reach and application of § 3582(c)(1)(A) came from the Second Circuit in US v. Zullo/Brooker, No. 19-3218-CR (2d Cir. Sept. 25, 2020) (available here; discussed here).  This latest circuit ruling from the Sixth Circuit in Jones folllows the same path by providing a thoughtful and thorough accounting of the history of applicable law on the way to these important statements: 

We now join the majority of district courts and the Second Circuit in holding that the passage of the First Step Act rendered § 1B1.13 “inapplicable” to cases where an imprisoned person files a motion for compassionate release.  See United States v. Brooker, 976 F.3d 228, 234 (2d Cir. 2020).  Until the Sentencing Commission updates § 1B1.13 to reflect the First Step Act, district courts have full discretion in the interim to determine whether an “extraordinary and compelling” reason justifies compassionate release when an imprisoned person files a § 3582(c)(1)(A) motion....

By following the Second Circuit’s lead, we weave together three compatible aspirations: preserving as much of § 1B1.13 that can be saved, adhering to Congress’s intent, and respecting the Sentencing Commission’s thoughtful authorship of § 1B1.13’s commentary.  In cases where incarcerated persons file motions for compassionate release, federal judges may skip step two of the § 3582(c)(1)(A) inquiry and have full discretion to define “extraordinary and compelling” without consulting the policy statement § 1B1.13.  Thus, the district judge in Jones’s case permissibly assumed for the sake of argument that extraordinary and compelling circumstances existed without reference to the policy statement § 1B1.13.

There is a lot more in the Sixth Circuit ruling in Jones worth checking out, but most consequential is this clear statement that district courts are not limited by the (now-dated, pre-FIRST-STEP-Act) language of § 1B1.13 when assessing what may qualifies as "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for a sentence reduction.  I believe a few other circuits are considering this issue now, and it will be interesting to see if any more rule of this matter before we get tho the two-year anniversary of the FIRST STEP Act later this month.

A few of many, many prior related posts:

December 1, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Federal Defenders' updated fact-sheet on COVID-19 and federal detention

Sentencing Resource Counsel for the Federal Public Community Defenders now have updated this fact sheet on "The COVID-19 Crisis in Federal Detention."  This two-page document is dense with information and links about the continued ugly state of federal detention amidst the pandemic.  I recommend the full document and all its helpful links, and here are some of the details (absent the links):

Eight months into the pandemic, the failure to control COVID-19 in federal detention remains “both a public health catastrophe and a moral one.”  In the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the disease is infecting incarcerated individuals at a rate at least 4.77 times the general population.  The U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) doesn’t publicly post data on infections, but in statements to the media, it has reported that as of mid-November, 6,676 individuals in its custody had tested positive for COVID-19 and 20 had died. Federal officials have the power to protect individuals in federal custody from harm, but have failed to do so....

There have now been 157 reported deaths of individuals incarcerated in BOP, a devastating loss.  They were parents, siblings, and children.  They were us.  And some of their deaths surely were preventable.  BOP’s press releases reveal that the majority — 117 — were at higher risk of complications from COVID-19 and that BOP knew it.  Nearly a third of those who have died in BOP’s care were sixty-five or older.

At least 25 individuals died in BOP custody after filing—and in some cases, even after being granted — requests for release.  Many wrote to the court to plead for their lives in the days, weeks, and months preceding their deaths....

BOP and AG Barr have barely used the tools Congress gave them to safely lower prison populations.  The CARES Act authorized AG Barr to dramatically expand the use of home confinement to protect the most vulnerable from COVID-19.  Instead, AG Barr and BOP issued restrictive guidance and memos, each “more confusing than the next,” that together establish a “complex set of procedural and logistical hurdles to home confinement.”  The OIG found that BOP failed to use its early-release authorities to transfer vulnerable individuals to safety in its reviews of hard-hit facilities like Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) and Oakdale FCC.  During the first three months of the pandemic, BOP approved only 11 of the 10,940 — 0.1% — of compassionate release requests it received.  The First Step Act of 2018 expanded compassionate release so that individuals may file a motion directly with the court 30 days after the warden’s receipt of a request, but that delay, coupled with routine opposition to release by DOJ, prevents vulnerable defendants from obtaining critical relief.  Based on a survey of defense attorneys representing clients across the country, we are not aware of a single BOP-initiated motion for compassionate release based on heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19 infection.

December 1, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Seventh Circuit panel upholds 140-year with parole state sentence for 15-year-old offender

Via How Appealing, I just saw an interesting new opinion from the Seventh Circuit in Sanders v. Eckstein, No. 2:11‐cv‐868 (7th Cir. Nov. 30, 2020) (available here).  The start of the opinion explains why I describe the matter as interesting:

Rico Sanders received a 140‐year sentence for raping four women.  He was 15 at the time of the sexual assaults, and his offense conduct was heinous and cruel in the extreme.  Now 40 years old, Sanders will first be‐ come eligible for parole under Wisconsin law in 2030.  He sought post‐conviction relief in state court, arguing that Wisconsin’s precluding him from any meaningful opportunity of parole before 2030 offends the Supreme Court’s holding in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010).  Sanders later added a claim that the sentencing court’s failure to meaningfully con‐ sider his youth and prospect of rehabilitation when imposing the 140‐year sentence runs afoul Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012). After the Wisconsin courts rejected these claims, Sanders invoked 28 U.S.C. § 2254 and sought relief in federal court.  The district court denied the application, and we now affirm.

Here is a part of the unanimous panel's substantive analysis:

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals determined Sanders’s chance of parole at age 51 — twelve years before his expected end of life at 63 — respects Graham’s requirement of a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” 560 U.S. at 75.  Nothing about that conclusion reflects an unreasonable application of Graham.  In time the Supreme Court may give more definition to what constitutes a “meaningful opportunity” for early release.  For now, however, the Wisconsin court’s conclusion that Sanders will have his first chance at parole at the age of 51 is by no means unreasonable.

December 1, 2020 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Can Kim Kardashian help stop next week's scheduled federal execution?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Los Angeles Times piece headlined "Kim Kardashian West flexes her prison-reform muscle, taking on death-penalty case." Here are excerpts:

Kim Kardashian West is flexing her criminal justice reform muscles for perhaps the last time before President Trump leaves office, asking that the sentence of federal death-row inmate Brandon Bernard be commuted to life in prison without parole before Bernard’s Dec. 10 execution date.

Bernard was sentenced to death in 2000 for the murder of Stacie Bagley, who was killed with her husband after a carjacking and robbery in June 1999 left them locked in the trunk of their car, which was set on fire after both victims were shot. Todd Bagley died from the gunshot, but Stacie died in the fire, which was set by Bernard. The murders took place on Ft. Hood military land in Texas, making it a federal case.

“First, I want to say that a terrible crime was committed and me fighting for a stay of execution does not take away from the sympathy I have for the victim’s Todd and Stacie Bagley, and their families. My heart breaks for everyone involved,” the reality TV star and beauty mogul wrote Sunday in a series of tweets.

Kardashian West first revealed her interest in criminal-justice reform in 2018, when she and others successfully lobbied President Trump to pardon Alice Marie Johnson, who had served 22 years of a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense. Since then, she has started studying law and has stepped up on behalf of numerous other convicts. In April, she released “Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project,” a documentary on Oxygen.

“While Brandon did participate in this crime, his role was minor compared to that of the other teens involved, two of whom are home from prison now,” Kardashian West continued Sunday on Twitter.

The fourth man involved in the crimes, Christopher Andre Vialva, was executed Sept. 24 after being sentenced to death on three of the four charges he faced and life in prison on the other. Bernard also received life sentences on three of the four counts, which included committing or aiding and abetting carjacking and conspiracy to commit murder.

Kardashian West tweeted that Bernard wasn’t involved in the initial carjacking and was “stunned” when the Iowa youth ministers were shot. He feared for his own life, she said, when he sprayed lighter fluid into the car and set it on fire to destroy the evidence.

The 40-year-old mother of four cited a recent article written by the prosecutor who defended Bernard’s death sentence on appeal but now believes that sentence should be tossed. She also posted videos from two of the five jurors who — out of the nine jurors still alive — now regret their vote for the death sentence two decades ago. None of those people, however, doubts Bernard’s guilt.

“At trial Brandon’s attorney fell short by not hiring any experts who could have explained to the jury why Brandon decided to leave the video game store that night or how he had grown up in an abusive home, or how his homeless father had left him searching for protection in the streets,” Kardashian West tweeted. “His trial attorney also failed to tell the jury how remorseful he was or anything about his background. We now know this testimony would have spared his life.”...

Bernard, who was convicted of the same four charges Vialva was, got the death sentence for Stacie Bagley’s killing. He was 18 at the time of the murders and, like Vialva, a gang member, according to court documents.

It might seem silly to think a reality TV star like Kim Kardashian West would have sway with the President of the United States.  But, of course, the current President is himself a reality TV star, and he has been greatly influenced by Kimme in the past to reduce the severity of some federal sentences.  I would be quite surprised if she can convince Prez Trump to halt an execution, but I supposed I have learned the last four years to put nothing past this President.

A few prior related posts:

December 1, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 30, 2020

"Prisons Are Covid-19 Hotbeds. When Should Inmates Get the Vaccine?"

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

They live in crowded conditions, sharing bathrooms and eating facilities where social distancing is impossible.  They have high rates of asthma, diabetes and heart disease.  Many struggle with mental illness. A disproportionate number are Black and Hispanic, members of minority communities that have been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

So should prisoners and other detainees be given priority access to one of the new Covid-19 vaccines?...

[T]he C.D.C. advisory committee has prioritized correctional officers and others who work in jails and prisons for the first phase of immunizations.  The federal prison system will set aside its initial allotment for such employees, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The discrepancy raises a chilling prospect: another prison outbreak that kills scores of inmates after the only preventive was reserved for staff.  Officials at the Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Now several groups, including the American Medical Association, are calling for coronavirus vaccines to be given to inmates and employees at prisons, jails and detention centers, citing the unique risks to people in confinement — and the potential for outbreaks to spread from correctional centers, straining community hospitals....

The idea is controversial.  Allocating precious medical resources to people who are serving time may be anathema to much of the public, but it is widely accepted that the nation has an ethical and legal obligation to safeguard the health of incarcerated individuals.

There is also a powerful public health argument to be made for prison vaccination: Outbreaks that start in prisons and jails may spread to the surrounding community.  “Prisons are incubators of infectious disease,” Dr. Toner said. “It’s a fundamental tenet of public health to try and stop epidemics at their source,” he added.

One approach, under consideration by the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice, would be to prioritize vaccination only for prisoners and detainees whose medical conditions or advanced age put them at great risk should they become ill.  “This isn’t a criminal justice recommendation,” said Khalil Cumberbatch, a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan group focused on criminal justice policy.  “It’s a public health recommendation. The virus is not in a vacuum if it’s in a state prison.”

November 30, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (2)

Reviewing again links between lead exposure and crime rates

Long-time readers may recall that I have always been intrigued by the (often overlooked) social science research that suggests lead exposure levels may better account for variations in crime rates than just about any other single variable.  In an number of older posts (linked below), I flagged some articles on this topic, and I have always been eager to note work by researcher Rick Nevin who has been talking up the lead-exposure-crime-link evidence for many years. 

Mr. Nevin sent me a note today to flag some of his recent work at this new website of his.  The first post from this new site, titled just "Consistency," concludes with this summary proposition:

[A] robust research literature shows a clear association between preschool lead exposure and crime at the individual, census tract, city, suburb, county, state, national and international levels.  The association occurs with a lag of about two decades, reflecting neurobehavioral damage in the first years of life that especially affects the peak age of offending in the late-teens and early-20s.

Without vouching for his data, I am happy and eager to note some additional recent posts by Mr. Nevin's (with a recommendation that everyone click through to see all his charts and cites):

Rick Nevin, "Has any other crime theory predicted crime trends with so much accuracy, over so many years, in so many nations?":

Burglary rates fell 50% or more from 2002-2018 in [Canada, Australia, Britain, and the USA].  Robbery rates in Britain and Australia peaked in 2001, but Canada and USA robbery rates peaked 10 years earlier, reflecting the earlier phase-out of leaded gasoline in Canada and the USA.  Australia’s robbery rate fell 62% from 2002-2018.  The Canadian robbery rate fell almost 50% from 1991-2018, including a 39% decline from 2002-2018.  The USA robbery rate fell 68% from 1991-2018, including a 41% decline from 2002-2018.  The police recorded robbery rate in Britain fell 57% from 2001-2014, but then increased from 2014-2018.  The U.K. Office for National Statistics believes that part of the trend since 2014 reflects a real increase in robberies, but notes that the 2014-2018 rise also reflects crime recording changes since 2014 that made “substantial contributions” to the 2014-2018 rise in recorded robberies. Except for the anomalous 2014-2018 robbery trend in Britain, the 2002-2018 burglary and robbery trends for Canada, Australia, Britain, and the USA have all tracked earlier preschool blood lead trends reported for each nation.

Rick Nevin, "“A black male baby born today … stands a” near-zero chance of going to prison":

The 2000-2019 change in male incarceration rates reflects ongoing trends in arrests by age. From 1994-2019, violent crime arrest rates fell 72% for ages 0-14, 73% for ages 15-17, and 65% for ages 18-20, but rose 21% for ages 50-54. From 1988-2019, property crime arrest rates fell 89% for ages 0-14, 83% for ages 15-17, and 74% for ages 18-20, but rose 11% for ages 50-54.

Falling juvenile and young adult arrest and incarceration rates and rising rates for older adults are all explained by birth year trends in lead exposure. The decline in juvenile arrest rates through 2019 compares juveniles born after the 1970-2000 decline in lead exposure versus juveniles in the late-1980s and early-1990s, born near the early-1970s peak in leaded gas emissions. The increase in arrest rates for ages 50-54 compares adults in 2019 born near the circa 1970 peak in lead exposure versus adults ages 50-54 in the late-1980s and early-1990s born before the 1945-1970 rise in leaded gas emissions.

Some older related posts from this blog:

November 30, 2020 in National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (0)

Two criminal cases up for SCOTUS oral argument this week

A day before the calendar makes it official, the Supreme Court starts its December argument sitting this morning. Two cases being heard this week are interesting criminal matters, and here are the basics thanks to SCOTUSblog:

Van Buren v. United States (Nov. 30): Whether a person who is authorized to access information on a computer for certain purposes violates Section 1030(a)(2) of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act if he accesses the same information for an improper purpose.

Case preview: Justices to consider breadth of federal computer fraud statute (Ronald Mann)

 

Edwards v. Vannoy (Dec. 2): Whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Ramos v. Louisiana, holding that the Sixth Amendment establishes a right to a unanimous jury that applies in both federal and state courts, applies retroactively to cases that have already become final on direct review.

November 30, 2020 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Reviewing CJUTF Recommendations: will the Biden Administration go all in with progressive prosecutors?

Right after the election, I blogged a bit (here and here) about some criminal justice reform recommendations from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force (available here pp. 56-62).  And last week, as explained here, I decided to start a series of posts to spotlight and amplify some recommendations from the CJUTF that ought to be of particular interest to sentencing fans.  This post will focus on prosecutors, and  begin by noting this recent Hill commentary by Miriam Krinsky headlined "Biden can rebuild trust in our justice system by prioritizing prosecutorial reform."  I recommend this piece in full, and here are a few choice passages:

[P]rosecutors wield vast power to determine whether someone comes into the justice system and the course of their case thereafter.  They control which charges to bring and make the high-stakes determination of whether to seek to keep people in jail as they await trial — which, in turn, makes them four times more likely to be sentenced to prison than if released pre-trial....

[T]he new administration’s ability to impact the criminal justice system will depend, in significant part, on its ability to support and work alongside local prosecutors.  To start, a robust task force on “21st Century Prosecution” can propel a new national vision of what it means to be a fair and just prosecutor — and a strategy for how to get there.

In other words, prosecutors are arguably the most consequential players in the criminal justice system, and reform advocates are eager to see the Biden Administration advance a "new national vision of what it means to be a fair and just prosecutor."   So, here is some of what the CJUTF has to say on this front:  

Task Force on Prosecutorial DiscretionCreate a new task force, placed outside of the U.S. Department of Justice, to make recommendations for tackling discrimination and other problems in our justice system that result from arrest and charging decisions....

Federal Prosecutorial Guidelines: Immediately withdraw the Trump Administration’s guidance advising prosecutors to pursue the harshest penalties possible, even for low-level offenses.  Reinstate the Obama-Biden Administration's Smart on Crime Initiative, and issue new federal guidelines that advise prosecutors not to overcharge cases in order to coerce plea deals, or to pursue harsher sentences in order to penalize citizens for exercising their right to a jury trial....

Appointing Prosecutors:  Appoint people committed to criminal justice reform to key prosecutorial positions, including AG, DAG, and U.S. Attorneys.

Transparency & Data Collection: Direct DOJ to collect data on federal prosecution practices and make it public. Include opening investigations, charging, pretrial detention and release, plea offers, and sentence recommendations. Include data on racial disparities....

Support Progressive Prosecutors: Support new state prosecutors through funding and technical support in their efforts to ensure public safety while reducing incarceration.

The commitment to reinstate the Obama-Biden Administration's Smart on Crime Initiative strikes me as notable, though not quite game-changing.  A serious commitment to require DOJ to collect comprehensive data about its practices could be a bigger deal than any particular substantive policy change, though it is unclear just how this data might be collected and used.  Perhaps an independent task force on prosecutorial discretion can and will figure out how to effectively gather and operationalize federal prosecutorial data. 

In the end, the biggest game-changer could be if the Biden Administration were really to go all in with the progressive prosecutors movement.  Directing special federal funding and support to local progessive prosecutors could add momentum to an already significant local movement.  And the commitment to appoint reform-minded folks to all "key prosecutorial positions, including AG to DAG, and U.S. Attorneys" sounds like a commitment to having progressive prosecutors throughout the federal criminal justice system.

In the end, I suspect we will see a broad definition of "people committed to criminal justice reform" in key Biden appointments, and I do not think anyone should expect dramatic change in this arena right away.  But I do think there is reason to be hopeful that in coming years the US Department of Justice could become more of an ally, rathen than a persistent opponent, of at least some progressive criminal justice reforms.

Prior related posts:

November 29, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"The Legality of Presidential Self-Pardons"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new article authored by Paul J. Larkin, Jr. now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The traditional understanding of the Article II Pardon Clause is that the President may grant clemency to anyone who has committed a federal offense.  Yet, a question exists whether that “anyone” includes the President.  The issue has arisen on three occasions: in the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon was under investigation for his involvement in crimes associated with Watergate; in the 1980s, when the Iran-Contra Investigation raised the question whether President George H.W. Bush knew about an illegal arms-for-hostages arrangement; and more recently when President Donald Trump publicly stated that he had the legal authority to pardon himself to end a Department of Justice investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election.  No court has ruled on the legitimacy of a presidential self-pardon, and commentators have disagreed over the issue.  In my opinion, the Article II Pardon Clause allows the President to pardon himself, but the Article I Impeachment and Removal Clauses permits Congress to remove the President for doing so.

Clemency was a prerogative of the English Crown.  The King’s grant of a pardon was conclusive and not subject to revision by Parliament or the English courts.  The Pardon Clause reflects the prerogative nature of that power.  Its text contains only two restrictions — one limiting clemency to federal offenses, the other denying the President the ability to halt impeachment proceedings — and neither one prevents self-pardons.  Supreme Court case law does not justify creating a self-pardon exception.  As interpreted by the Court, the Pardon Clause is the last surviving remnant of the royal prerogatives.  To be sure, the Take Care Clause imposes a fiduciary obligation on a President, one comparable to the obligation borne by a private trustee, to act in the best interests of his client — the public — and a President can breach that duty by excusing himself from criminal liability.  But the Impeachment and Removal Clauses provide the appropriate remedy for any abuse of presidential authority, including any misuse of the pardon power.  That conclusion will not satisfy anyone who believes that there must be a judicial remedy available for every wrong, but it is the best reading of the text of our Constitution.

November 29, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, November 28, 2020

"Misaligned incentives and the scale of incarceration in the United States"

Thanks to twitter, I just saw this notable recent article, which I use for the title of this post, published in the November 2020 issues of the Journal of Public Economics. The article is authored by Aurélie Ouss and here is its "highlights" and "abstract":

Highlights
  • In the US, states typically pay for prison, while county employees (judges, prosecutors, probation officers…) determine time spent in custody.
  • When the cost of incarceration is internalized by the entity choosing punishment, incarceration is lower, without detectable effects on crime.
  • Misaligned incentives in criminal justice may have contributed to the growth of incarceration in the United States

Abstract

The incarceration rate has increased substantially in the United States between the 1980s and the 2000s.  In this paper, I explore an institutional explanation for this growth: the fact that costs of incarceration are not fully internalized.  Typically, prison is paid for at the state level, but county employees (such as judges, prosecutors or probation officers) determine time spent in custody.  I exploit a natural experiment that shifted the cost burden of juvenile incarceration from state to counties, keeping overall costs and responsibilities unchanged.  This resulted in a stark drop in incarceration, and no increase in arrests, suggesting an over-use of prison when costs are not internalized.  The large magnitude of the change suggests that misaligned incentives in criminal justice may be a significant contributor to the current levels of incarceration in the United States.

November 28, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

In praise of Judge Stephanos Bibas ... for his copious sentencing scholarship

I could not resist blogging today about the latest jurist to be thrust into the national spotlight by the Trump campaign's quixotic quest to challenge election outcomes despite having "neither" "specific allegations" or "proof."   The words in quotes in that last sentence come from the first paragraph in this Third Circuit panel opinion authored by Judge Stephanos Bibas, whose name should be familiar to many sentencing fans.  Before being appointed to the Third Circuit by Prez Trump, Judge Bibas had been Professor Bibas for nearly two decades, and he wrote thoughtfully and provocatively on a range of criminal justice and sentencing topics. 

I have long had a particular affinity for Prof Bibas not only because of his long history as a sentencing scholar, but also because we worked together on a Supreme Court case in which he was an appointed amicus, and we co-authored one of my favorite articles about Blakely and Booker jurisprudence, Making Sentencing Sensible.  More than a decade ago, Judge Bibas and I also co-authored an essay about capital sentencing, Engaging Capital Emotions, that also served as a basis for a short book entry under the title The Heart Has its Value: The Death Penalty's Justifiable Persistence.

Long-time blog readers may recall that Judge Bibas did a stint of guest-blogging in this space in conjunction with the release of his 2012 book, The Machinery of Criminal Justice.  All of his posts are linked under the category tab, Guest blogging by Professor Stephanos Bibas, and his book and postings are still quite timely.  So, too, are so many of his law review articles about sentencing and criminal procedure.  Drawing from this SSRN listing of more than 50 pieces authored by Judge Bibas, I will link to a half-dozen classics going back two decades that are especially worthy of a (re-)read by anyone in a Bibas state of mind this weekend:

November 28, 2020 in Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (1)