Friday, September 24, 2021

"Sex Offender Registration in a Pandemic"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece authored by Wayne Logan now posted on SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This Essay, part of a symposium examining how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the criminal justice system, addresses whether, and how, state and local governments maintained their requirement that individuals convicted of sex offenses meet with authorities in person to confirm and update their registry information.  Focusing in particular on the first months of 2020, the tale told highlights the distinctiveness of registration: while many governmental operations were suspended, or went online, in-person registration very often persisted.  As a result, registrants were required to travel to a government office (perhaps by public transport), wait in a closed space very possibly with poor ventilation, sometimes for extended periods of time, where social distancing might not have been feasible.  If they failed to satisfy the registration requirement they faced significant criminal punishment.

The in-person registration requirement remained in effect even though registrants often share many of the same health and age-related characteristics of the broader at-risk population, risks often aggravated by sanitary problems associated with chronic homelessness (e.g., lack of access to soap for hand washing) that registrants often experience.  As a result, in-person registration posed the threat of registrants transmitting and contracting the virus, affecting not only the registrants themselves, but also friends, family, and employers, as well as the governmental authorities with whom they had to interact.  As states and localities undertook aggressive measures to stem the spread of COVID-19, the persistence of in-person registration provides a stark reminder of the continued exceptionalism of registration and the population it targets (individuals convicted of sex offenses).

The Essay explores the reasons accounting for this distinctiveness and provides some thoughts on how and why in-person registration persisted in the early stages of the pandemic when so many other governmental operations were suspended or significantly modified.

September 24, 2021 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Law enforcement and prosecutor groups urge Prez Biden to commute sentence of all in home confinement cohort

Via email, I learned this morning about this new letter to Prez Biden from the groups Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration, Fair and Just Prosecution, and Law Enforcement Action Partnership. Here is how it starts:

We write as individuals and on behalf of our respective national organizations — Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, and Fair and Just Prosecution — as it pertains to the approximately 4,000 individuals placed on home confinement pursuant the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act, who face the continued threat of reincarceration due to the prior administration’s January 15, 2021, Office of Legal Counsel memo (“OLC memo”).  We are pleased to see reports that your Administration is beginning to consider commutations for individuals who have committed nonviolent drug offenses and have been placed on home confinement pursuant the CARES Act.  Joining members of Congress, justice reform advocates across the political spectrum, and companies that currently employ these individuals, we seek to add our law enforcement perspective and urge you to grant clemency to all individuals placed on home confinement pursuant the CARES Act — regardless of underlying offense or sentence.

Some of many prior related posts:

September 24, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Notable new report spotlights onerous nature of electronic monitoring in US

This new NBC News piece, headlined "Other than prison, electronic monitoring is 'the most restrictive form' of control, research finds" report on this interesting new report from folks at George Washington University Law School, titled "Electronic Prisons: The Operation of Ankle Monitoring in the Criminal Legal System."  Here are excerpts from the press piece:

In the past 18 months, as the judicial system has increasingly used electronic monitoring instead of prisons to monitor inmates through the coronavirus pandemic, newly released data confirm what activists and advocates have long argued: Ankle monitors are onerous, and they often subject wearers to vague rules, like avoiding people of “disreputable character.”  The ankle monitoring business, the research found, is also dominated by four profit-seeking companies, and it ultimately could drive more people back to prison.

The new, comprehensive collection of hundreds of electronic monitoring-related rules, policies and contracts, obtained through public records requests across 44 states, demonstrates that four companies that make millions of dollars a year account for 64 percent of the contracts examined in the study.  The companies — Attenti, BI Inc., Satellite Tracking of People LLC and Sentinel Offender Services LLC, according to the report — also keep location data indefinitely, even after monitoring is completed, which is within the law.  Governments also often require family members or employers to act as agents of the government and report potential violations, putting them in an awkward position in which they must be both supportive and supervisory.

Crucially, wearers must pay both one-time and ongoing fees for the monitors, which can be $25 to over $8,000 a year.  The report argues that such costs “undermine financial security when it is needed most.”  By comparison, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons said in 2018 that it costs just under $100 per day to incarcerate a federal inmate, or over $36,000 a year....

“This is a form of incarceration that happens outside of prison walls,” said Kate Weisburd, an associate professor of law at George Washington University, who led a team of 10 law students that filed and analyzed the trove of documents . “It’s always intended to be a positive alternative to incarceration.  But based on what we found, it’s doing the opposite.  More rules and more surveillance generally leads to higher incarceration.”...

Put another way, people on monitors are subject to a vast number of government rules, which “makes compliance difficult,” according to the report.  Some of the rules are quite vague.  For example, the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Parole mandates that wearers “shall abandon evil associates and ways,” while the New Mexico Corrections Department says parolees must “maintain acceptable behavior.”...

Weisburd’s research found that because the results are open to interpretation and wearers can be hit with “technical violations” of the rules, “people are more likely to be reincarcerated for minor infractions that previously would have been invisible and ignored.”  In most cases, electronic monitoring is coupled with a form of house arrest — wearers must stay at or near their homes for a certain amount of time. They cannot leave without permission in advance.  But according to the policies and contracts that Weisburd and her team obtained, most agencies do not clearly explain how far in advance such permission must be sought. “Basically, every record we looked at had a negative impact, and by every measure it undermines people’s ability to survive outside of prison,” she said. “Just having to comply with the sheer number of rules, vague and broad rules, it means people are getting dinged more easily.”...

The most recent data from the Pew Charitable Trust, released in 2016, found that about 131,000 people were on monitors during a single day.   Weisburd and her team say in the report that “it is likely that the numbers are higher considering the pressure to release people from incarceration because of the pandemic.”...  The frequency with which such monitoring is assigned varies wildly across the country.  For example, Weisburd’s research shows that over 11,000 people who are on probation are also on monitors in Marion County, Indiana, alone, while the entire state of Florida has less than half that number, at just over 5,400.

Here is the introduction of the 54-page report:

The use of surveillance technology to tag and track people on pretrial release, probation and parole is on the rise.  The COVID-19 crisis in prisons and jails, bail reform efforts and bipartisan support for curbing mass incarceration accelerated interest in purported alternatives to incarceration.  As a result, the use electronic monitoring devices, including GPS-equipped ankle monitors, went up dramatically.

Thanks to the leadership of community organizers and advocates, the harmful and racialized nature of this type of carceral surveillance has been exposed.  This report seeks to add to those efforts by examining the specific policies, procedures, contracts and rules that govern the use of electronic monitoring of people on probation, parole and pretrial release.  Drawing on over 247 records from 101 agencies across 44 states and the District of Columbia, this report focuses on the operation of electronic monitoring and reveals the degree to which monitoring impacts all aspects of everyday life and undermines the ability of people to survive and thrive.  In particular, this report focuses on the specific rules and policies governing people on monitors and how they restrict movement, limit privacy, undermine family and social relationships, jeopardize financial security and result in repeated loss of freedom.  Unlike traditional models of probation and parole, electronic surveillance is more intensive, restrictive and dependent on private surveillance companies that are driven by profit motive.  The findings in this report demonstrate what advocates have long said: Electronic surveillance is not an alternative to incarceration, it’s an alternative form of incarceration.  And like incarceration, the deprivations and restrictions of electronic monitoring further entrench race and class-based subordination.

September 23, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (1)

"How often does a judge end up sentencing someone for breaking a law the judge personally disagrees with?"

The question in the title of this post is the "September Question of the Month" from the National Judicial College emailed as "an informal, non-scientific one-question survey to its more than 12,000 judicial alumni in the United States and abroad."  Here are the results, as reported here, for this "informal, non-scientific one-question survey":

Of the 350 NJC alumni who responded, nearly 95 percent said it had happened to them either a few times (55 percent), more than a few times (27 percent) or often (12 percent). Only 5 percent of the judges said they had never had to make a ruling that conflicted with their personal beliefs.

Among the roughly 100 judges who left comments, a common sentiment was that a judge’s job is to apply the law to the situation at hand; judges can’t write the statutes.  “It does not matter how I feel concerning the matter before me,” wrote one anonymous judge.  “My job is to interpret the law as put in place by the legislature, whether I agree with it or not.”  Circuit Judge Michael E. Raiden of Hardee County (Florida), was even more definite: “My subjective personal beliefs … are simply irrelevant.”

Some judges who commented provided examples of categories of laws that conflicted with their personal beliefs. These included:

  • Marijuana and other drug usage/possession
  • Possession of firearms or other weapons
  • Mandatory minimum sentencing

One anonymous judge said marijuana prohibitions “were founded on a lack of scientific analysis and led to more Fourth Amendment confusion than any other law in my lifetime.”

Another judge seemed to disapprove of a law against possession of a firearm.  The judge said the law carried a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence without the possibility of parole, probation or suspension of sentence, regardless of whether the weapon was property registered.

Connecticut Superior Court Judge Eddie Rodriguez Jr. said mandatory minimum sentences are “an affront to judicial independence and … a violation of the separation of powers….”

Both the question as framed and this discussion of responses leaves me a bit unsure if the goal was to assess whether judges had to enter convictions for what they thought should not be crimes or merely had to impose sentences they thought inappropriate.  I sense both sorts of concerns were part of the answers, but this ambiguity is perhaps a useful reminder of how challenging it can be to make precise inquiries about judicial sentiments.

September 23, 2021 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Understanding Drug Sentencing" conference feature keynote with former AG Eric Holder and Piper Kerman

Understanding-Drug-Sentencing_for-web_update-768x281After pandemic delays in the hope we could do an in-person event, I am a bit sad that a conference organized by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center and the Academy for Justice now set for October 7-8, 2021, is still going to have to be on-line.  But, of course, the upside is that everyone all over the country and the world can now attend this event formally titled "Understanding Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment." The main event page is here, with this overview:

Join the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center and the Academy for Justice October 7-8, 2021 to explore the myriad issues surrounding drug sentencing and its contribution to mass incarceration and mass punishment during this major symposium.  In addition to academics, researchers, and advocates discussing sound drug sentencing policies, this event also includes judges, current and former prosecutors, defense attorneys, and justice-involved individuals sharing their perspectives on drug sentencing practices.  The symposium will take place virtually.

Discussion of the “war on drugs” frequently fails to examine precisely how drug offenders are sentenced — and how they should be. Drug sentencing practices are implicated in many fundamental criminal justice issues and concerns.  Research suggests incarcerating people for drug offenses has little impact on substance use rates or on crime rates more generally.  And, despite reports of comparable use rates, people of color are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug-related offenses than white counterparts. Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes are applied commonly, but inconsistently, in drug cases and for persons with a criminal history that involves drug offenses.  And while states have created specialty courts to handle the cases of low-level drug offenders, the efficacy and appropriateness of the “drug court movement” has long been subject to debate.

Distinct state and federal realities complicate our understanding of the relationship between the drug war and punishment.  Nearly all federal drug defendants get sent to prison and nearly 50% of the federal prison population is comprised of drug offenders; relatively few state drug offenders are sent to prison and less than 20% of state prisoners are serving time on drug charges.  But data on arrests, jail populations, and community supervision highlight the continued, significant impact drug cases still have on state and local justice systems.  The role of drug criminalization and sentencing contributes to mass incarceration, yet mass punishment can look quite different depending on the criminal justice system(s) and the drugs.

Registration

Separate registrations are provided for each day’s events. Attendees may register separately for each of the events on Thursday, for all Friday events, or both.  See the Agenda page for details and registration links.

As the agenda page details, on day one of the symposium (exactly two weeks from today), there will be the "Inaugural 2021 Menard Family Lecture on Drug Policy and Criminal Justice" on Thursday, October 7 from 12:30-2pm EDT.  Here is the summary description of a discussion that I will have the honor of moderating:

The Drug Enforcement and Policy Center is pleased to invite you to the Inaugural 2021 Menard Family Lecture on Drug Policy and Criminal Justice featuring Eric H. Holder, Jr., former Attorney General of the United States, and Piper Kerman, social justice advocate and author of “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” with special guests Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Chief U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley for the Southern District of Ohio.

September 23, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

NJ Supreme Court holds, as a matter of state constitutional law, that "fundamental fairness" precludes sentence enhancement based on acquitted conduct

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this notable unanimous opinion by the Supreme Court of New Jersey in State v. Melvin, NO A-44-19 (N.J. Sept. 23, 2021) (available here).  Sentencing fans and long-time readers should know why I think this ruling is spot-on and today's must-read.  Here is how the opinion gets started:

One of the most important tenets of our criminal justice system is the finality of a jury’s verdict of acquittal. These consolidated appeals test that principle through a common legal issue: whether a trial judge can consider at sentencing a defendant’s alleged conduct for crimes for which a jury returned a not guilty verdict.

In State v. Melvin, the jury found Melvin guilty of second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun and, after two trials, not guilty of the most serious charges against him, including first-degree murder and first-degree attempted murder.  At his second sentencing, the trial court -- notwithstanding the jury’s not-guilty verdicts on the murder charges -- determined that the evidence at trial supported the conclusion that Melvin shot the victims.  Citing United States v. Watts, 519 U.S. 148 (1997), the trial judge found that it was within the court’s broad discretion at sentencing to consider all circumstances of the case, including evidence that Melvin was the shooter.  Despite the jury’s verdict, the trial court found that Melvin not only possessed the weapon, but used it to shoot three people.  The trial court sentenced Melvin to a term of sixteen years’ imprisonment with an eight-year period of parole ineligibility.  The Appellate Division affirmed that sentence.

In State v. Paden-Battle, in a trial before the same judge who presided over Melvin’s case, the jury found Paden-Battle guilty of kidnapping, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, and felony murder. The jury acquitted Paden-Battle of the remaining seven counts, including first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder.  At sentencing, the trial judge again relied on Watts to make findings of fact, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Paden-Battle, despite having been acquitted of the most serious murder charges, was the mastermind who orchestrated the victim’s murder.  The trial court stated that Paden-Battle falsified her testimony and found that she was the moving force behind the murder and ordered her co-conspirators to act.  The trial court sentenced Paden-Battle to a sixty-year sentence. On appeal, the Appellate Division vacated Paden-Battle’s sentence and remanded the matter for resentencing, holding that the trial court enhanced her sentence based on its belief -- a belief contrary to the jury’s verdict -- that Paden-Battle ordered the execution.

We granted the petitions for certification in both cases and now reverse in Melvin and affirm in Paden-Battle.  Article I, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution bestows upon all citizens certain natural and unalienable rights.  From those rights flows the doctrine of fundamental fairness, which “protects against arbitrary and unjust government action.” State v. Njango, 247 N.J. 533, 537 (2021).  For the reasons stated below, we hold today that fundamental fairness prohibits courts from subjecting a defendant to enhanced sentencing for conduct as to which a jury found that defendant not guilty.

September 23, 2021 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Still more great essays at Inquest, including an especially disheartening book review

It has been a couple of weeks since I blogged about Inquest, which is "a forum for advancing bold ideas to end mass incarceration in the United States."  Though regular readers may tire of my promotion of the must-read essays on the site, I am not tired of spotlighting  these recently added pieces:

From Jessica González-Rojas, "Decarcerate Rikers Now: Nothing short of setting people free from the jail complex, and keeping others from going there, will prevent the death and hopelessness now ravaging it." 

From Shima Baradaran Baughman, Christopher T. Robertson & Megan S. Wright, "Cracking the Black Box: One way to keep prosecutors accountable and check their carceral impulses is by shedding some light on their vast discretion to charge crimes. Here’s a start." 

From Angel Harris, "A Judge on a Mission: Here's how a former public defender elected to judicial office in New Orleans works to chip away at mass incarceration." 

The newest posting is a book review by Daniel Harawa of Carissa Byrne Hessick's new book assailing plea practices.  The review make the dispiriting point that trials may be so biased against people of color that harmful plea practices may be the best we can hope for.   I recommend this piece in full, which is titled "Trials Without Justice: Plea bargaining may be a bad deal overall. But for many Black and Brown defendants, is the alternative any better?".  Here is a short excerpt:

Hessick’s portrayal of a plea system that’s out of control is compelling.  The solution that Hessick identifies — more trials — is important, but also raises additional questions and concerns that should not be ignored.  As Hessick explains, the problems with plea bargaining cut across racial lines, yet Black and Brown defendants have another question they must consider before standing on their trial rights — a question that white defendants can usually breeze past: How will their race affect trial?  Hessick acknowledges early on that because the book is “about the criminal justice system, it is inevitably a book about race.”  And as she shows, you cannot consider why someone may accept a guilty plea without thinking about why they would not risk trial . But there is an uncomfortable truth underlying the book: Black and Brown defendants may plead guilty because they think (or know) that they will not get a fair trial because of their race.  Just as the other coercion points that Hessick describes may push a defendant to plead guilty, so too may a defendant’s race.  The decision to go to trial can look very different for Black and Brown people than it does for white people.

September 22, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"In The Extreme: Women Serving Life Without Parole and Death Sentences in the United States"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report authored by Ashley Nellis of The Sentencing Project.  Here is how the report gets started:

Extreme punishments, including the death penalty and life imprisonment, are a hallmark of the United States’ harsh criminal legal system.  Nationwide one of every 15 women in prison — over 6,600 women — are serving a sentence of life with parole, life without parole, or a virtual life sentence of 50 years or more.  The nearly 2,000 women serving life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences can expect to die in prison.  Death sentences are permitted by 27 states and the federal government, and currently 52 women sit on death row.

This report presents new data on the prevalence of both of these extreme sentences imposed on women.  Across the U.S. there are nearly 2,000 women serving life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences and another 52 women who have been sentenced to death.  The majority have been convicted of homicide.  Regarding capital punishment, women are sitting on death row in 15 states.  As shown in Figure 1, women are serving LWOP sentences in all but six states.  Three quarters of life sentences are concentrated in 12 states and the federal system.  It is notable that in all states with a high count of women serving LWOP, there is at least one woman on death row as well.  Two exceptions to the overlap are Colorado and Michigan which do not have anyone serving a death sentence because it is not statutorily allowed.

September 22, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Sending a better clemency message while shooting the messenger

This new New Republic commentary, fully headlined " Biden’s Conservative Vision on Clemency: Thousands of incarcerated people went home early thanks to a Covid relief program. Why would the Biden administration send them back to prison?," continues the annoying tendency of blaming the Biden folks for threatening to send the home confinement cohort back to prison when it is the law passed by Congress (as interpreted by two Justice Departments) that has created the problem.  Here are excerpts (with links from the original):

The Cares Act ... gave the Bureau of Prisons discretion to send certain people home early.  The process involved a rigorous vetting, to ensure that the people chosen were low risk and had served a substantial part of their sentence, and it was effective: Of roughly 4,400 people released under the program, only 190 were sent back for violations, a strikingly low number given how easy it is to break the terms of home confinement. No serious crimes have been reported.

But before Donald Trump left office, administration lawyers determined that once pandemic emergency measures were lifted, Cares Act recipients would have to return to prison.  And Biden’s Office of Legal Counsel declined to reverse the memo.  Still, advocates were hopeful that Joe Biden would issue mass clemency.  So far, that hasn’t happened, leaving Cares Act people anxious about their future and frustrating criminal justice advocates....

Last week, Politico reported that some case workers are being encouraged to have their Cares clients apply to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, which sounds promising.  But it also suggests that Biden is wedded to an inefficient process that’s created a backlog of close to 16,000 petitions.... 

It’s not clear whether special considerations will be applied to Cares Act recipients, perhaps allowing them to avoid the long trek through the Justice Department.  In fact, not much is clear at all.  Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said that outside of some leaks to the media, both Cares Act inmates and their advocates are in the dark.  “It’s a crazy lack of transparency,” Ring said.  “Friday afternoon, there’s a phone call to BOP halfway houses saying, this person should fill out a clemency petition in the next couple of days.  Who?  Why?  What [are] the criteria?”...

Amy Ralston Povah, who runs the CAN-DO Foundation, which helps nonviolent drug offenders, is hopeful but frustrated....  She added that Biden’s vision for who deserves early freedom is exceedingly conservative.  “Nonviolent drug offenders are such a limited category,” Povah said.  “Why are others left out?” 

I share Kevin Ring's concerns about a "crazy lack of transparency," though I want to be hopeful along with Amy Ralston Povah about where this is headed.  But I am frustrated because so many seem content to assail the Biden Administration about a problem that is clearly of Congress's making.  As I explained in this post some months ago, titled "Why aren't there much stronger calls for CONGRESS to fix post-pandemic home confinement problems?",  though Prez Biden could (and I think should) use his clemency authority to extended home confinement for those at risk of being sent back to federal prison post-pandemic, Congress is the body that created the CARES Act home confinement authority, and Congress can and should amend the CARES Act to do extend that authority though a few words in an express statutory provision.  Put simply, this matter is a statutory problem that calls for a statutory fix, and blaming Prez Biden for not fully fixing this problem strike me as shooting the messenger. 

I get especially frustrated by this discourse when it is members of Congress who are the ones urging Prez Biden to fix the statutory problem created by Congress.  As explained in this Hill piece, late last week a new letter from more than two dozen House Democrats called on "President Biden to commute the sentences of thousands who were placed on home confinement."  Frustrations aside, I do like that this new letter has legislators asking Prez Biden to improve the existing and badly broken clemency infrastructure.  Here is a key paragraph from the letter:

In addition to the 4,000 people who have been released to home confinement, there are another 15,752 people who, in the midst of this infectious and deadly pandemic, have pending clemency petitions with no real insight on the best way forward for their case.   Thousands with pending clemency petitions have been waiting for a response for years as their cases have languished during previous administrations, including most recently the Trump administration.  While the Trump administration made an effort through home confinement to reduce the number of people inside of BOP facilities, thousands more have been ignored.  The dismissal of their petitions serves only to demonstrate just how ambiguous and broken our clemency system has become.  We, therefore, implore you to establish an advisory board — independent of the Department of Justice — to streamline and modernize the decades-old clemency process, and provide expeditious review of the thousands of cases awaiting answers to their clemency petitions.  This advisory board must address the racially disproportionate impacts of our criminal-legal system.  There is no reason to wait.

Even though I am never keen to see folks shooting the messenger, I am always pleased to see a better clemency message being delivered in the process.  If the push for clemency for the home confinement cohort ends up helping to get our clemency process improved, all the frustrations may almost be worthwhile.

Some of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: The PBS Newshour had this recent segment on these matters under the headline "Inmates released to home confinement during pandemic fear ‘devastating’ reincarceration."

September 21, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Rounding up some recent reform reads

As is too often the case, my news feed and in-box is full of really good pieces about criminal justice issues and reform that all merit more attention that the limited bloggy time I have mid-semester.  So I will try to cover lots of ground with this round-up of recommended pieces:

From Ames Grawert & Lauren-Brooke Eisen, "Don’t Let Misleading Claims Derail Federal Sentencing Reform"

From Dana Hall McCain, "A Christian view of prison reform"

From Dawinder Sidhu, "Society has failed to provide adequate ‘offramps’ away from criminal behavior"

From Greg Berman, "America’s Justice System Needs a ‘Course Correction’: Jeremy Travis"

From Joe Lancaster, "Pennsylvania Could Put a Homeless Man in Prison Over 43 Cents"

From John J. Lennon, "I Am Serving 28 Years to Life. Why Does One Person Decide if I Deserve Mercy?"

From Lauren Gill, "Breaking the Link Between Community Supervision and Mass Incarceration"

September 21, 2021 in Recap posts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Oklahoma top court sets executions dates for seven condemned men over the next six months

In this post last month I asked, "Might Oklahoma really try to move forward with seven executions over the next six months?"  That post was prompted by the Oklahoma Attorney General's request to the state's Court of Criminal Appeals to set execution dates for seven death row inmates, including in the high-profile case of Julius Jones.  Now, as reported in this local article, all these execution date have been set:

High-profile death row inmate Julius Jones has been scheduled for execution Nov. 18.  The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals on Monday set execution dates for Jones and six other inmates convicted of murder. The court set the date for Jones even though the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended Gov. Kevin Stitt commute his death sentence.

The board voted 3-1 Sept. 13 to recommend his sentence be commuted to life in prison.  If the governor agrees, Jones immediately would be eligible for parole.  Stitt could choose to commute the sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He also could deny commutation.

Oklahoma's new attorney general, John O'Connor, asked the court to schedule the execution dates. O'Connor made the request in August after a federal judge ruled six of the inmates could no longer participate in a legal challenge to the state's execution procedures....  Still in the legal challenge are 26 other death row imates. Their lawsuit in Oklahoma City federal court focuses mainly on the use of a sedative, midazolam, in lethal injections.  Trial is set for Feb. 28.

Jones, 41, is facing execution for the 1999 fatal shooting of an Edmond insurance executive during a carjacking.  Jurors chose the death penalty as punishment at a 2002 trial. The victim, Paul Howell, was gunned down in his parents' driveway in Edmond after a back-to-school shopping trip with his daughters. Stolen was his 1997 Suburban. Jones claims that he is innocent, that the real killer framed him and that his trial was unfair....

Oklahoma has not carried out an execution since January 2015.  Scheduled for execution first is John Marion Grant, 60, an armed robber who was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing a prison kitchen worker in 1998. His execution was set for Oct. 28.

Next is Jones.  Third is Bigler Jobe Stouffer, 78, who was sentenced to death for the 1985 fatal shooting of a Putnam City elementary school teacher. His execution was set for Dec. 9....

Fourth is Wade Greely Lay, 60, who was sentenced to death for killing a security guard during a botched bank robbery in 2004.  His execution was set for Jan. 6.

Fifth is Donald A. Grant, 45, who was sentenced to death for killing two workers at the LaQuinta Inn in Del City during a 2001 robbery.  His execution was set for Jan. 27.

Sixth is Gilbert Ray Postelle, 35, who was convicted of murdering four people on Memorial Day 2005 outside a trailer in Del City. He was sentenced to death for two of the murders and to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the other two.  His execution was set for Feb. 17.

Seventh is James Allen Coddington, 49, who was sentenced to death for killing a Choctaw man in 1997 during a cocaine binge.  His execution was set for March 10.

O'Connor initally had asked for earlier dates. He revised his request when the appeals court did not act.  He told the court he was doing so so that inmates will get a required notice and to allow the parole board time to conduct clemency hearings.  In the order, the four judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals found that the setting of execution dates is now appropriate and required by law.  They acknowledged in a footnote that they are aware of Jones' commutation request. They wrote "this Court's duty to set a date certain is dictated" by law because there is currently no stay in effect.

Given that there have only been four state executions nationwide since the start of the pandemic more than 18 months ago, I would be quite surprised if Oklahoma actually completes so many executions in the next few months. But, as we recently saw with the federal system in 2020, sometimes an attorney general very motivated to restart the machinery of death can get death chambers humming pretty quickly.

Prior related post:

September 21, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (17)

Monday, September 20, 2021

"Supplementing the Pardon Power: Second Looks and Second Chances"

The title of this post is the title of this online panel scheduled for tomorrow and the second in a terrific series of online panels that will explore in depth the federal clemency powers.   As I detailed in this prior post, this series is jointly organized by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, the Federal Sentencing Reporter, and the David F. and Constance B. Girard-diCarlo Center for Ethics, Integrity and Compliance at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. 

A whole lot of folks are doing great work putting this series together, and Margaret Love merits extra praise for her efforts and for helping to assemble writings on these timely topics in Volume 33, Issue 5 of the Federal Sentencing Reporter (which largely provides the foundation for these panels).  Here are more details about this first panel:

Supplementing the Pardon Power: Second Looks and Second Chances

Tuesday, September 21, 2021 | 12:30 – 2:00 p.m. EDT | Zoom  (register here)

This panel will look at supplementing, if not supplanting, the pardon power in performing functions that may be better performed by the courts.  That is, should at least some of the pardon action be removed to the federal courts through statutory mechanisms to reduce prison sentences and restore rights and status?  Judge John Gleeson will describe his firm’s Holloway project, which sought to reduce its clients’ lengthy prison terms through the sentence reduction authority in the First Step Act, and consider the extent to which this statutory mechanism should be used to take some of the burden off the pardon power.  Professors JaneAnne Murray and Jack Chin will consider how federal law might be reformed to allow courts to grant pardon-like relief following completion of sentence, through the lens of two 2016 cases in which Judge Gleeson granted post-sentence relief to women he had sentenced more than a decade earlier.  Judge Beverly Martin will consider the role of courts as dispensers of mercy, based on her experiences as a federal prosecutor, a federal trial judge, and a federal appellate judge.  Did Trump’s departure from past pardoning practices pave the way for moving many of pardon’s functions into the courts, as most states have done?

This event is hosted by the David F. and Constance B. Girard-diCarlo Center for Ethics, Integrity and Compliance at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.

Panelists:

Jack Chin, Edward L. Barrett Jr. Chair of Law, Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Law, and Director of Clinical Legal Education, University of California, Davis, Law School
John Gleeson, attorney and former United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York
Judge Beverly Martin, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
JaneAnne Murray, professor of practice, University of Minnesota Law School

Moderator:

Carter Stewart, executive vice president, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio

September 20, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Two notable new Forbes pieces on the state of federal sentencing and clemency practices

Though both piece merit their own posts, a busy time means I have to combine my coverage of two recent Forbes piece that are worth full reads.  I will be content with a link and a paragraph to whet appetites:

From Brian Jacobs, "The U.S. Sentencing Commission’s Inadequate Response To Covid-19":

For the past 18 months, federal courts have grappled with the impact of Covid-19 on sentencing proceedings, and a curious disparity has emerged.  On the one hand, anecdotal evidence suggests that federal judges are imposing more lenient sentences in recognition of how the pandemic has made imprisonment harsher and more punitive than in the past. On the other hand, reports available from the U.S. Sentencing Commission tell a different story — at least for now — suggesting that courts have to a great extent ignored the pandemic when imposing sentence.  I have written in the past (here and here) about how the body of sentencing law is effectively hidden from public view (as it exists primarily in court transcripts).  This dearth of readily accessible sentencing law is particularly problematic during the Covid-19 pandemic, as courts are grappling with novel issues in hundreds of cases.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission is uniquely positioned to fill this gap, but so far has largely failed to do so.

From Walter Palvo, "Biden Considering Options To Avoid Returning Federal Inmates To Prison Post Covid-19":

The Biden administration’s Department of Justice has started sending out applications to inmates at home under the CARES Act for consideration of a presidential clemency. To be eligible, the inmate must be home under CARES Act, have been convicted of a drug offense and have 4 years or less remaining in their sentence. I spoke with Amy Povah who runs the non-profit Can Do for Clemency program to help prisoners achieve freedom from federal prison through changing laws and clemency. “President Biden has been handed an easy political gift. There are 4,000 inmates functioning in society, obeying the laws, bonding with family and held accountable for their past actions. There is no better group vetted to be given clemency than this group of CARES Act inmates.

September 20, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Senator Cotton: "our severe federal drug sentences are ineffectual, so let's not try to reform them"

Bluto-Being-a-Douche-Punching-A-Horse-In-Popeye_408x408.jpgSenator Tom Cotton can usually be relied upon to provide the "tough-and-tougher" perspective on federal criminal justice laws and policies, and he yet again plays the role of cruel Bluto via this new National Review commentary.  The piece is fully headlined "No More Jailbreaks: Republicans should oppose Democratic efforts to reduce or soften sentencing for drug crimes."  The first paragraph of the piece does not exactly say what I have in quotes in the title of this post, but it strikes me as pretty close:

Last year, for the first time in American history, more than 100,000 Americans died as a result of drug overdoses and homicides.  This deadly contagion of crime continues to afflict our communities and even shows signs of worsening.  Yet politicians in Washington plan to reduce federal sentences for criminals and release thousands of drug traffickers and gang members back onto the streets.

The rest of the piece goes on to largely mischaracterizes various current reform bills — e.g., I believe Senator Cotton is referencing the bill prohibiting sentence enhancements based on acquitted conduct when he assails a proposal "prohibit judges from taking into account certain past criminal activity in sentencing" — and does so using all sorts of silly rhetoric about "jailbreak" bills while making a bizarre claim that small reforms to the federal sentencing system might somehow "hurt the American rule of law and render our federal prison system impotent." 

Senator Cotton never tires of beating the drum for more and more and more incarceration in the United States, despite the fact we remain the most incarcerated nation in the world.  Notably, though, as he rails against the FIRST STEP Act, he fails to note that this reform was championed by Prez Trump and many on the far right of his party.  And most of those on the GOP side who pushed for the FIRST STEP Act are also supportive of additional federal reforms. Given that Senator Cotton these days seems to be one of the very few, even on the GOP side of the aisle, to be calling for "tough-and-tougher" lock-them-all-up approaches to complicated problems, perhaps we ought all just marvel at what it looks like as he spits into the criminal justice reform wind.

September 20, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable accounting of a decade of decarceration via Decennial Census

The Marshall Project has this notable new piece fully headlined "There Are Fewer People Behind Bars Now Than 10 Years Ago. Will It Last?: Census data show incarceration rates are down. It may have more to do with the pandemic than broad reforms."  The piece highlights census data that ought to be encouraging to those troubled by modern mass incarceration, but also notes why April 2020 incarceration data may not reflect persistent realities.  I recommend the piece in full, in part because it enables drilling down into a lot of great data, and here are excerpts:

Nearly two million adults were incarcerated across the country, according to the 2020 Decennial Census.  The latest figures show a 13% drop in the total number of incarcerated people, or nearly 300,000 fewer people, compared with the 2010 Census.  Roughly one-third of the drop in total numbers occurred in just two populous states — California and New York.  In total, 41 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico saw reductions in the total number of incarcerated people.

In five states, the number of incarcerated people actually increased compared with a decade ago, but the incarceration rate still shrank because their total population grew more quickly than the prison population. Just four states — West Virginia, Alaska, Nebraska and Arkansas — saw their incarceration rate increase.

The Decennial Census offers a comprehensive and geographically granular look at the U.S. population by attempting to collect information about where everyone lives as of April 1.  By definition though, it is a snapshot of a brief moment in time, which is a limitation in trying to capture fluctuating numbers.

If the Census was held later in the year, for example, it might have shown a more substantial drop.  The Marshall Project’s COVID-19 tracker showed state and federal prisons had 100,000 fewer prisoners in June 2020 than in April, when the census was taken.  Another study estimated that from mid-year 2019 to mid-year 2020, county jails nationwide had 185,000 fewer people.

Experts say that a combination of factors contributed to this decrease: The court system and parole offices slowed down as they moved operations online, which has reduced the number of people who were sentenced or caught up in parole violations.  In many jurisdictions, police departments also cut back on proactive tactics, such as traffic stops, and the number of drug crimes dropped significantly.  Some prison and jail officials also rushed to empty out facilities to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks.

Broadly, these numbers have already started to tick back up as criminal courts begin to reopen and the criminal justice system is returning to normal, according to a recent report from the Vera Institute of Criminal Justice.  Given how unstable incarceration rates have been since the start of the pandemic — which overlapped with the entire period of census data collection — it may be impossible to draw any long-term conclusions from the apparent drop seen in Census data....

In most states, the raw numbers of incarcerated people didn’t change much, despite widespread efforts to decarcerate prisons and jails during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Instead, a few populous states lost a larger share.  For example, California’s incarcerated population shrunk by 50,000, and New York’s by 30,000.  Together, they account for approximately one-third of the national decrease in incarcerated population, while representing less than one-fifth of the country’s population.  Nine states saw an increase in the incarcerated population.

The incarceration rate provides another perspective.  Many southern states with slightly higher incarcerated populations also saw the fastest population increase in the past ten years. Because the number of people in these states grew faster than the number of incarcerated people, their incarceration rates still went down.

September 20, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 19, 2021

"Crime, quarantine, and the U.S. coronavirus pandemic"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Ernesto Lopez and Richard Rosenfeld just published in Criminology & Public Policy.  Here is its abstract:

Research Summary

Prior research has produced varied results regarding the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on crime rates, depending on the offenses and time periods under investigation.  The current study of weekly offense rates in large U.S. cities is based on a longer time period, a greater number of offenses than prior research, and a varying number of cities for each offense (max = 28, min = 13, md = 20).  We find that weekly property crime and drug offense rates, averaged across the cities, fell during the pandemic.  An exception is motor vehicle theft, which trended upward after pandemic-related population restrictions were instituted in March 2020.  Robbery rates also declined immediately after the pandemic began.  Average weekly homicide, aggravated assault, and gun assault rates did not exhibit statistically significant increases after March.  Beginning in June 2020, however, significant increases in these offenses were detected, followed by declines in the late summer and fall.  Fixed-effects regression analyses disclose significant decreases in aggravated assault, robbery, and larceny rates associated with reduced residential mobility during the pandemic.  These results support the routine activity hypothesis that the dispersion of activity away from households increases crime rates.  The results for the other offenses are less supportive.

Policy Implications

Quarantines and lockdowns, although necessary to reduce contagious illness, are not desirable crime-control devices.  An object lesson of the coronavirus pandemic is to redouble effective crime reduction strategies and improve police–community relations without confining people to their homes.

September 19, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (0)

Split Eight Circuit panel upholds order Missouri must improve its parole process to comply with Miller

In this post from two years ago, I noted a federal district court ruling finding that the Missouri's parole policies and practices failed to give juveniles subject to life terms a meaningful opportunity to obtain release as required by Eighth Amendment doctrines. This past Friday, a split Eighth Circuit panel upheld the bulk of this ruling in Brown v. Precythe, No. 19-2910 (8th Cir. Sept. 17, 2021) (available here). Here is how the majority opinion starts and ends:

This appeal arises from a constitutional challenge to Missouri’s remedial parole review process for individuals sentenced to mandatory life without the possibility of parole for homicide offenses committed as juveniles.  The plaintiffs, a class of Missouri inmates who were sentenced to mandatory life without parole for such juvenile homicide offenses (collectively, Plaintiffs or the JLWOP Class), claim that Missouri’s parole review policies and practices violate their rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and their rights to due process of law under the U.S. Constitution and the Missouri Constitution.  The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Plaintiffs, holding that Missouri’s parole review process did not provide a meaningful opportunity for release based on Plaintiffs’ demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.  After ordering Missouri to present a plan to remedy those constitutional violations, the district court also ordered that Missouri (1) could not use any risk assessment tool in its parole review process unless the tool was developed specifically to address members of the JLWOP Class, and (2) was not required to provide state-funded counsel to JLWOP Class members in their parole proceedings.  Having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm in part, vacate in part, and remand to the district court for further proceedings....

Accordingly, we affirm the order of the district court that the parole review process of SB 590 violated Plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment rights, and we affirm the order that Missouri cannot use a risk assessment tool in its revised parole proceedings unless it has been developed to address the unique circumstances of the JLWOP Class.  We vacate the order regarding appointment of counsel and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.  

Judge Colloton's extended dissent gets started this way:

In Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190 (2016), the Supreme Court addressed how a State may remedy a violation of the rule of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), that a court may not sentence a juvenile homicide offender to a mandatory term of life without parole.  Montgomery declared that “[a] State may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them.”  577 U.S. at 212. Missouri did what Montgomery prescribed: it provided by statute that a juvenile homicide offender who was originally sentenced to mandatory life without parole may petition for parole after serving twenty-five years of his sentence.  Mo. Rev. Stat. § 558.047.1(1).  That should be the end of this case.

The court goes much further and purports to apply the Eighth Amendment rule of Miller and Montgomery regarding imposition of sentence in a criminal case to Missouri’s parole process.  The result is a federal injunction that dictates detailed changes to the Missouri parole procedures and a remand to consider whether the Constitution requires the appointment of state-funded lawyers to represent juvenile homicide offenders in parole proceedings.  It seems to me that there are several analytical difficulties with the court’s approach.

September 19, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, September 18, 2021

"'They’re Taking My Stuff!' What You Need to Know about Seizure and Forfeiture"

The title of this post is the title of this new report by Dan Greenberg with the Competitive Enterprise Institute.  Here is its executive summary:

Law enforcement officers in the United States seize billions of dollars in cash and other personal property from members of the public every year.  Most of this seized property is eventually forfeited to state and federal governments.  These seizures and forfeitures rarely require proof of criminal conduct; rather, they often rest merely on the suspicion that the property in question is related to a crime.  As critics of these practices have noted, seizure and forfeiture sometimes result in confiscation of the property of innocent, law-abiding civilians.  Furthermore, because the proceeds of forfeiture typically go straight to law enforcement budgets, this creates perverse incentives that make it more likely that law enforcement officers and prosecutors might devote disproportionate effort to this endeavor.

This paper explains how seizure and forfeiture work.  More precisely, it contains an account of the relatively minimal legal protections that law-abiding civilians have against both seizure and forfeiture.  The paper also provides strategies that the law-abiding civilian can use to reduce the chance of having property seized while traveling.

September 18, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 17, 2021

Making the important (but insufficient) claim that jurors should "know what the penalties for a guilty verdict will be"

A couple of month ago, I flagged here the notable new article by Daniel Epps and William Ortman titled "The Informed Jury."  I was pleased to see that this week Epps and Ortman brought their work to the pages of the Washington Post via this notable commentary under the headline "Jurors don’t know what the penalties for a guilty verdict will be. They should."  Here are some extended excerpts (with a bit of commentary to follow):

The American criminal justice system asks jurors to do something extraordinary: They make decisions that have enormous consequences for their fellow citizens’ lives — depriving them of freedom for decades, for example — without knowing those consequences in advance.  That’s because most American jurisdictions follow a rule of jury ignorance, meaning that neither judges nor lawyers may tell jurors what punishment a defendant could receive if convicted....

Keeping juries ignorant, however, exacerbates one of the U.S. criminal justice system’s worst tendencies — its inclination to grow more punitive.  Evidence from both history and social scientific experiments suggest that jurors are less likely to convict if they know a defendant’s punishment could be extremely harsh.  The rule of jury ignorance eliminates an important check on the system.  If politicians thought juries would be less likely to convict when a sentence was severe, for instance, they would be less likely to pass draconian laws.

Replacing ignorant juries with informed ones therefore could be an important criminal justice reform.  As a general rule, then, we propose that judges should tell jurors the range of sentences, including the statutory maximum and any mandatory minimums, that a defendant would face upon conviction. (We make the case in a forthcoming article in the Vanderbilt Law Review.)...

The argument that juries should be informed about sentences should appeal to both liberal and conservative justices of an “originalist” bent — with liberals focusing on how such a reform would democratize the criminal justice system, and originalists focusing on the fact that the ignorant jury lacks a solid historical foundation.

Indeed, juries informed about punishment were quite familiar to the founding generation.  In the 18th century, both in Britain and its American colonies, jurors understood that by finding a defendant guilty of a less serious crime (“libidinous actions,” say) instead of a more serious one (adultery), they could spare them from a death sentence.  Often they did exactly that, even when it was obvious to all that the defendant was guilty of the more serious offense.  It was only in the 19th century — when prisons and incarceration replaced the death penalty as the leading form of criminal punishment — that judges undermined jurors’ opportunity to shape punishment by shielding them from any knowledge of it....

Under our proposal, jurors would know about the punishments that await defendants on the other side of a guilty verdict: Judges would spell out the minimum and maximum sentences as part of their instructions to the jury.... In rare cases, juries would acquit even clearly guilty defendants where they saw the punishment as unjust.

But the transformative potential of informed juries goes beyond what they’d do in individual cases. Informing juries about punishment would alter the incentives for three key actors in criminal justice: Defendants might be more willing to roll the dice at trial (counting on juries to see the unfairness of sentences); prosecutors might think twice before “overcharging” (to avoid losing more cases); and lawmakers might hesitate before enacting severe penalties (after seeing the preceding developments). Informed juries could not single-handedly end mass incarceration or racial disparities, but they could be a step in the right direction....

Informed juries would also be more democratic juries; we’d effectively be asking a group of citizens to authorize a punishment before a judge could impose it. While most criminal laws are enacted at the state or national level, criminal juries are typically drawn more locally, from cities or counties.  Even when members of the communities impacted the most by punitive criminal justice are shut out of decision-making by lawmakers, they can still have a powerful impact in the jury room — if they have the relevant information on which to act.  Such juries would also better honor the spirit of the Constitution’s guarantee of a jury trial than the juries we have today.  Criminal juries were intended by the founders to be powerful checks on state power over criminal punishment; they weren’t supposed to just be narrow fact-finders.

How to bring this reform about?  Legislatures could direct courts to inform jurors about sentencing. Or courts could, on their own accord, reverse the wrong turn they made on juries more than a century ago. (Several federal court judges have expressed frustration over jury ignorance in recent years.)  By giving jurors the important power to determine the fate of those accused of crime, our system places a tremendous amount of trust in the judgment of ordinary people. We should trust juries with information that is critical to their making the soundest, most just decisions possible.

Long-time readers will not be surprised that I support this proposal.  Ever since being deeply moved by Justice Stevens' opinion in Apprendi and Justice Scalia's opinion in Blakely, I have been a avid supporter of having juries play a greater role in our criminal justice systems. (I even wrote an article some years ago making an originalist (and modern) argument that juries should be involved in federal habeas decision-making.) 

But I do not think it is enough to just have juries informed about sentencing possibilities, I think they should also have a direct role in sentencing decision-making.  Specifically, in order to better advance many of the sound goals that Epps and Ortman champion, I think citizen jurors, at least in the federal system, should be authorized and encouraged to provide sentencing advice to federal judges somewhat akin to how the federal sentencing guidelines now provide sentencing advice to federal judges.  That is, I would like to see citizen jurors provide a suggested sentencing range to federal judges, but that range would be advisory and serve as just one factor for the sentencing judge's consideration along with the other 3553(a) factors. 

Problematically, because roughly 95% of all criminal cases are resolved by pleas, informing jurors at a traditional trial only impacts a handful of cases.  I think Epps and Ortman are right that all other other actors in our criminal justice system will be impacted by informed jurors, but I am not sure the impact will always be significant (or positive).  But my vision of advisory federal sentencing juries includes the possibility of making them available in all cases even if the defendant chooses to accept guilt and plead guilty.  Of course, the parties could still bargain around these juries (just as now parties can sometimes bargain around the federal sentencing guidelines), but I suspect in a lot of challenging and important cases some or all of the parties would see the benefit of citizen juror involvement in making a suggested sentencing recommendation.

September 17, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Second Texas inmate gets execution stay based on religion claim SCOTUS considering in Ramirez

As reported in this post, the Supreme Court last week stayed the execution of John Ramirez and granted certiorari to consider Ramirez’s request that his pastor be allowed to physically touch him and audibly pray in the execution chamber while Ramirez is put to death by the state of Texas.  In this follow-up post, titled "A short de facto execution moratorium?: could other condemned inmates secure a stay until SCOTUS decides new Ramirez case on religious liberty?", I wondered aloud if the SCOTUS cert grant in Ramirez could produce a short de facto execution moratorium based on other death row inmates making a religious liberty claim like Ramirez’s request.

This new AP piece, headlined "Judge delays another Texas execution over religious freedom claims," reports that at least one other Texas inmate has secured an execution stay on the basis of Ramirez.  Here are the details:

Another Texas inmate has had his execution delayed over claims the state is violating his religious freedom by not letting his spiritual adviser lay hands on him at the time of his lethal injection.

Ruben Gutierrez was set to be executed on Oct. 27 for fatally stabbing an 85-year-old Brownsville woman in 1998.  But a judge on Wednesday granted a request by the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office to vacate the execution date. Prosecutors said the U.S. Supreme Court’s upcoming review of similar religious freedom issues made by another inmate, John Henry Ramirez, whose execution the high court delayed last week, will impact Gutierrez’s case.

“As the Ramirez matter may be dispositive of any issue related to Gutierrez’s religious liberty claim, it is in the best interest of the state, the family of the victim of Gutierrez’s crimes, that his execution be delayed,” prosecutors said in a motion filed Tuesday.

Gutierrez was previously an hour away from execution in June 2020 when the Supreme Court granted him a stay because his spiritual adviser was not allowed to accompany him in the death chamber.

Last month, Gutierrez’s attorneys filed a complaint in federal court alleging the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was violating his right to practice his religion by denying his request to have his priest touch his shoulder, pray out loud and perform last rites when he was executed.

Gutierrez, 44, said that these three things need to be done “to ensure my path to the afterlife,” according to his complaint.  His attorneys cited the Constitution’s First Amendment and a federal statute that protects an inmate’s religious rights. Ramirez made similar claims when he was granted a stay.

The Supreme Court has dealt with the presence of spiritual advisers in the death chamber in recent years but has not made a definitive ruling on the issue.  That could change after it hears oral arguments in Ramirez’s case on Nov. 1.

Prior related posts:

September 17, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)