Thursday, January 26, 2023

New year and new Congress brings a new effort to advance new EQUAL Act

Regular readers likely recall some of my posts over the last two years about the EQUAL Act, a bill to reform federal crack cocaine sentencing by finally treating crack and powder cocaine the same at sentencing.  In short form, passage of the bill looked somewhat likely when the US House of Representatives passed it overwhelmingly in September 2021; but, as detailed in posts here and here from the first half of 2022, opposition from some key Republican Senators prevented the bill from getting to the desk of President Biden.  And, as detailed in this post, a lame-duck session compromise bill to the finish line.

Of course, the start of 2023 means a new Congress, so there needs to be a new version of the EQUAL Act introduced.  Interestingly, as this new FAMM press release highlights, there is already a "coalition of law enforcement, justice reform, and civil rights organizations urg[ing] Congress to pass the EQUAL Act" even before a new version has been formally introduced.  As the press release explains: "Today, FAMM along with 20 additional organizations sent a letter to Sens. Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham (the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, respectively) urging them to schedule a markup for the EQUAL Act as soon as it is reintroduced this Congress."  Here are parts of the letter:

We write today to urge you to schedule a mark-up for the EQUAL Act as soon as it is reintroduced. We believe that moving the bill early this year will help prevent the same disappointing fate the bill suffered last Congress....

Last Congress, the EQUAL Act was one of only a few pieces of legislation to enjoy clear bipartisan support. The House of Representatives passed the bill in September 2021 with an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 361-66. The Senate version of the bill enjoyed the support of more than 60 senators, but never received a vote in committee or on the floor. To ensure this strong bipartisan bill reaches President Biden’s desk, we urge you and your committee to begin work on this urgent piece of legislation immediately.

Notably, but not surprisingly, this letter to Congress makes no mention of the fact that, as discussed here, US Attorney General Garland released last month new federal charging guidelines that including instructions to federal prosecutors to treat crack like powder cocaine at sentencing.  Though these new charging guidelines do not have the legal force of statutory reform, they might readily lead members of Congress to see less urgency in advancing reform or even to be more resistance to reform as we saw late last year.  Fingers crossed that EQUAL can gather momentum again and actually finally eliminate the pernicious and unjustified crack/powder disparity once and for all.

A few of many prior posts on the EQUAL Act:

January 26, 2023 in Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

VERA Institute provides first-person accounts of "The Human Toll of Jail"

Via email today I learned that the Vera Institute of Justice has launched another round of first-person essays about jail experienced under the titled "The Human Toll of Jail."  Here is how the project is introduced on the site's main webpage (with links from the original):

Every year, people cycle through the revolving doors of the more than 3,000 jails operating in the United States — too often invisible to the public.  But the truth of this hidden population is that the roughly 10.3 million annual U.S. jail admissions cause immense harm and disruption to people’s lives, families, and communities.

In 2016, the Vera Institute of Justice launched the Human Toll of Jail project to humanize the costs of incarceration and uplift true stories about people whose lives are affected by jail, in their own words.  The project featured essays by people who had spent time in jail, their families and communities, and people who work in the system.

In 2023, mass incarceration continues to be the default setting of the U.S. “justice” system, and the conversation about the misuse of jails isn’t over.  Vera has now partnered with PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing program to embark on a second round of stories from people living the harsh realities of life behind bars.

Together, Vera and PEN invited submissions from currently incarcerated people, who give an up-close and honest view of life within U.S. jails today.  From a wide-ranging pool of submissions, a selection committee chose eight winners, whose work appears here with custom illustrations inspired by each essay.  With these personal and eye-opening essays, Vera and PEN America seek to amplify the voices of incarcerated writers, further conversations about the horrors and trauma of jail, and ultimately, ensure that people in the system are treated with dignity.

January 26, 2023 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Latest CCJ accounting of crime trends shows mostly encouraging news from 2022 about violent crimes (but not property crimes)

In this post last week, I flagged some of the encouraging 2022 homicide data drawn from this AH Datalytics webpage's "YTD Murder Comparison" Dashboard.  And I am now very pleased to see that the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) is continuing to do important and timely work on broader modern crime trends by continuing its on-going series of crime data reports under the heading "Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities."  The latest version of this report, titled "Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities: Year-End 2022 Update," was just released and this CCJ press release provides the data basic in its full heading: "Homicide, Gun Assault, Domestic Violence Declined in Major U.S. Cities in 2022 but Remain Above Pre-Pandemic Levels: New CCJ Analysis Also Documents a 59% Spike in Motor Vehicle Theft Since 2019, With Thefts More Than Doubling in 8 Cities."

The full report, which is based on "monthly crime rates for ten violent, property, and drug offenses in 35 U.S. cities in calendar year 2022," is available at this link.  Here are some of the "Findings" set forth on the report webpage:

January 26, 2023 in National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

"Where people in prison come from: The geography of mass incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this new report from the Prison Policy Initiative authored by Emily Widra. Here is how the data-heavy report gets started:

One of the most important criminal legal system disparities in the United States has long been difficult to decipher: Which communities and neighborhoods throughout the state do incarcerated people come from?  Anyone who lives in or works within heavily policed and incarcerated communities intuitively knows that certain neighborhoods disproportionately experience incarceration.  But data have rarely been available to quantify how many people from each community are imprisoned with any real precision.

But now, thanks to redistricting reforms that ensure incarcerated people are counted correctly in the legislative districts they come from, we can understand the geography of incarceration in twelve states with up-to-date data. These twelve states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington — are among the states that have ended prison gerrymandering, and now count incarcerated people where they legally reside — at their home address — rather than in remote prison cells.  This type of reform, as we often discuss, is crucial for ending the siphoning of political power from disproportionately Black and Latino communities to pad out the mostly rural, predominantly white regions where prisons are located.  And when reforms like these are implemented, they bring along a convenient side effect: In order to correctly represent each community’s population counts, states must collect detailed state-wide data on where imprisoned people call home, which is otherwise impossible to access.

These data also allow us to better understand how incarceration rates correlate with other community problems related to poverty, employment, education, and health.  While the data is not comparable between states, it does show us meaningful patterns in incarceration and researchers, scholars, advocates, and politicians can use the data in this report to advocate for programs and services housed outside the criminal legal system in the communities that need them most.

January 25, 2023 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Jury trials on hold in New Orleans because of apparent long-running failure to comply with new law to allow certain persons with felony convictions to serve as jurors

This local article, headlined "Jury trials in New Orleans criminal court halted through February," reports on interesting development in the Big Easy.  Here are the highlights:

Criminal court judges in New Orleans decided on Monday afternoon to put all jury trials on hold until at least March amid allegations that the court has been illegally excluding people with felony convictions from serving on juries for the last year and half.  In addition to delaying many criminal trials that were set to be held over the next five weeks, the decision is likely to bolster concerns over the legitimacy of dozens of jury trials in New Orleans dating back to August of 2021.

In a letter on Monday, Chief Judge Robin Pittman informed a lawyer for Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), Emily Posner, that jury venires — the legal term for the panel from which jurors are drawn — would be “deferred for the remainder of January 2023 and February of 2023.” VOTE, whose membership consists primarily of formerly incarcerated individuals, first raised concerns about the summons process in a letter to criminal court judges earlier this month....

The decision comes after the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal halted the attempted murder trial of Samuel Preston in New Orleans midway through jury selection last week, and ordered the trial judge in the case, Rhonda Goode-Douglass, to hold a hearing on whether or not the court has been using an outdated summons process in violation of state law.

In 2021, the Louisiana legislature changed the law to allow people with felony convictions to serve on juries as long as they have been off of probation or parole for five years, and are not under indictment. Prior to that, no one with any past felony conviction was able to serve on a jury.  The new law was signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, and went into effect on August 1, 2021.  But despite the new law, defense attorneys have argued that the criminal court in New Orleans has been continuing to exclude anyone with a past felony conviction by sending out summons with outdated information and failing to update their online questionnaire for jurors....

In their letter, VOTE pointed to summonses sent to potential jurors as recently as this year that still indicated anyone with a felony conviction was barred from jury service.  In addition, a questionnaire that potential jurors are required to fill out online asks about felony convictions, but does not inquire when an individual completed parole or probation. The organization urged the court to resummon a new jury pool before resuming jury trials “in a manner that respects the rights of jurors” as guaranteed by state law.

But the judges at that time declined to do so, and moved forward with trials last week, including that of Preston. Lawyers for Preston with the Orleans Public Defenders Office, echoing the allegations made by VOTE, attempted to get his jury pool thrown out, arguing that excluding all people with felony convictions from potentially serving on his jury violated Preston’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial. Goode-Douglass denied that challenge, but in response to a supervisory writ the Fourth Circuit sided with Preston and ordered an evidentiary hearing.

In another case out of Orleans Parish criminal court, Michael Shorts, who was found guilty of second degree murder in July of last year, has challenged his conviction based in part on the same allegations that his jury was not summoned in accordance with the recent change to state law. Lawyers for Shorts filed a motion in his case last week arguing that the “crucial legal error” in the summons process entitles him to a new trial. It is set for a hearing in front of Judge Laurie White on Feb. 1.

In addition to any individuals with felony convictions who received a jury summons since the law changed and did not respond due to misinformation on the form, or were excluded once they attempted to fill out the questionnaire, there are also open questions regarding how many people with felony convictions may have been permanently purged from the list of people who receive summons in the first place. If that’s the case, lawyers for Preston have argued, “then the systemic exclusion of those prospective jurors cannot be remedied by merely changing the language of the summons and the questionnaire.”

January 25, 2023 in Collateral consequences, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"From Causal Mechanisms to Policy Mechanisms: Why Did Crime Decline and What Lessons Can Be Learned from It?"

The newest issue of the American Journal of Criminal Justice has a bunch of new interesting articles on criminal justice reform.  The title of this post is the title of this article from the issue authored by John K. Roman.  Here is its abstract:

Criminology has not systematically identified the cause or causes of perhaps the most seminal event in crime and justice of the last half century: the crime decline of the 1990s. This paper uses a causes-of-effects analysis to infer the mechanisms of the crime decline.  This is not a purely academic exercise — there has been a large increase in violence, particularly gun violence at the beginning of the 2020s.  Identifying the mechanisms of the last crime decline can inform the development of contemporary strategies.  Here, two classes of crime decline causes are proposed: mechanisms that are endogenous to the criminal law system and mechanisms that are exogenous to it.  The latter class includes impacts of changes in macroeconomics, consumer behavior, and public interest policy where positive externalities that arose from those factors contributed to the crime decline.  A descriptive effect of causes analysis suggests that these exogenous mechanisms contributed disproportionately to the crime decline as compared to endogenous mechanisms. Further, consumer behavior and public interest externalities are well aligned with potential policy levers and particularly salient to current and future efforts to reduce crime and violence prospectively.  The analysis suggests that efforts to improve public safety require policies that fall outside of traditional criminal justice approaches.

January 25, 2023 in National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

"Glass Box Artificial Intelligence in Criminal Justice"

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

As we embrace data-driven technologies across a wide range of human activities, policymakers and researchers increasingly sound alarms regarding the dangers posed by “black box” uses of artificial intelligence (AI) to society, democracy, and individual rights.  Such models are either too complex for people to understand or they are designed so that their functioning is inaccessible.  This lack of transparency can have harmful consequences for the people affected.  One central area of concern has been the criminal justice system, in which life, liberty, and public safety can be at stake.  Judges have struggled with government claims that AI, such as that used in DNA mixture interpretation, risk assessments, facial recognition, and predictive policing, should remain a black box that is not disclosed to the defense and in court.  Both the champions and critics of AI have argued we face a central trade-off: black box AI sacrifices interpretability for predictive accuracy.

We write to counter this black box myth.  We describe a body of computer science research showing “glass box” AI that is interpretable can be more accurate.  Indeed, criminal justice data is notoriously error prone, and unless AI is interpretable, those errors can have grave hidden consequences.  Our intervention has implications for constitutional criminal procedure rights.  Judges have been reluctant to impair perceived effectiveness of black box AI by insisting on the disclosures defendants should be constitutionally entitled to receive.  Given the criminal procedure rights and public safety interests at stake, it is especially important that people can understand AI.  More fundamentally, we argue that there is no necessary tradeoff between the benefits of AI and the vindication of constitutional rights. Indeed, glass box AI can better accomplish both fairness and public safety goals.

January 24, 2023 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (0)

Different approaches to death penalty administration from different governors

When it comes to the administration of the death penalty, governors tend to have a huge (and outsized?) role at the state level.  Historically, that role has been exercised through grants of executive clemency, though it can also shape in various ways how death sentencing operates or how executions are conducted.  With the start of a new year, I have seen a number of notable new stories about a number of governors seeking to impact how their states approach capital punishment.

From the AP, "Arizona executions on hold amid review ordered by governor":

Arizona’s attorney general has put a hold on executions in the state until the completion of a review of death penalty protocols ordered by the new governor due to the state’s history of mismanaging executions.

The review ordered Friday by Gov. Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s first Democratic governor since 2009, came as the state’s new Democratic attorney general, Kris Mayes, withdrew her Republican predecessor’s request for a warrant to execute a convicted killer who initially asked to be executed but later backed out of that request.  While Hobbs’ order didn’t declare a moratorium on the death penalty, Mayes will not seek court orders to execute prisoners while the review is underway, said Mayes spokesperson Richie Taylor.

From the Nashville Scene, "Bill Lee Tries to Keep Lethal Injection Alive: Rather than reconsidering capital punishment, the governor will make leadership changes after a damning investigation into Tennessee executions":

In April of last year, the governor — then the media, then the public — learned that the state had bungled drug testing in the hours leading up to the planned execution of 72-year-old Oscar Franklin Smith. Lee issued a last-minute reprieve for Smith and, days later, suspended executions through 2022, citing “technical issues” with the state’s lethal injection process....

On Jan. 9, Frank Strada — previously the deputy director of Arizona’s Department of Corrections — assumed the role of commissioner at the Tennessee Department of Correction with an explicit mandate to bring back Tennessee executions.

From Florida Politics, "Gov. DeSantis calls for juror ‘supermajority’ to suffice in death penalty cases":

Gov. Ron DeSantis started out his week with the Florida Sheriff’s Association (FSA), where he discussed his desire to allow juries to administer the death penalty via a supermajority vote, rather than requiring unanimity.  “Fine, have a supermajority. But you can’t just say one person (can decide against the death penalty). So maybe eight out of 12 have to agree? Or something. But we can’t be in a situation where one person can just derail this,” DeSantis said at the group’s winter conference in St. Johns County, discussing death penalty verdicts left unachieved because of a rogue juror.

DeSantis told the FSA Monday that he wants a “supermajority” to constitute a sufficient vote count for execution. The pitch comes in the wake of the Parkland killer not getting the death penalty because of what DeSantis called one person’s “idiosyncratic” approach to the proceedings, though there ultimately were three votes not to execute the murderer.

January 24, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Monday, January 23, 2023

US Sentencing Commission provides "Public Data Briefing: Proposed 2023 Criminal History Amendment"

Among many notable and consequential proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines, the US Sentencing Commission has noticed a number of proposals connected to criminal history issues.  And today the Commission posted here a "Public Data Presentation for Proposed Criminal History Amendment."  Here is how this release (which includes a video and associated slides) is described on the USSC website:

The Commission is seeking public comment on proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines.  Commission staff prepared a data presentation to inform public comment on a proposed amendment related to criminal history and the Commission’s implementation of 28 U.S.C. § 994(j).  This briefing presents data on following aspects of criminal history to help inform public comment on the three-part proposed amendment:

  • status points;
  • offenders with zero criminal history points; and,
  • simple possession of marijuana offenses.

January 23, 2023 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Justice Gorsuch dissents from denial of cert in "civil" tax case involving Excessive Fines challenge

The new SCOTUS order list released this morning appears to relist again (re-relist?) the set of acquitted conduct cases that I have been following closely (some background here and here).  In addition to that notable news, the order list also including an intriguing short dissent from the denial of cert in Toth v. US, a case involving a woman who failed to disclose a foreign bank account being "assessed a civil penalty of $2.1 million — half of the balance of Ms. Toth’s account — plus another $1 million in late fees and interest."   The First Circuit turned back an Excessive Fines challenge, and Justice Gorsuch explained why he found this troublesome (with some cites removed): 

It held that the Constitution’s protection against excessive fines did not apply to Ms. Toth’s case because the IRS’s assessment against her was “not tied to any criminal sanction” and served a “remedial” purpose.

This decision is difficult to reconcile with our precedents. We have recognized that the Excessive Fines Clause “traces its venerable lineage” to Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights. Timbs v. Indiana, 586 U. S. ___, ___–___ (2019) (slip op., at 4–5).  We have held that “[p]rotection against excessive punitive economic sanctions” is “‘fundamental’” and “‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.’” Id., at ___ (slip op., at 7).  And all that would mean little if the government could evade constitutional scrutiny under the Clause’s terms by the simple expedient of fixing a “civil” label on the fines it imposes and declining to pursue any related “criminal” case.  Far from permitting that kind of maneuver, this Court has warned the Constitution guards against it.  See Austin v. United States, 509 U. S. 602, 610 (1993) (“[T]he question is not, as the United States would have it, whether [a monetary penalty] is civil or criminal, but rather whether it is punishment.”)....

Nor is a statutory penalty beneath constitutional notice because it serves a “remedial” purpose. Really, the notion of “nonpunitive penalties” is “a contradiction in terms.” United States v. Bajakajian, 524 U. S. 321, 346 (1998) (Kennedy, J., dissenting).  Just take this case.  The government did not calculate Ms. Toth’s penalty with reference to any losses or expenses it had incurred.  The government imposed its penalty to punish her and, in that way, deter others.  Even supposing, however, that Ms. Toth’s penalty bore both punitive and compensatory purposes, it would still merit constitutional review.  Under our cases a fine that serves even “in part to punish” is subject to analysis under the Excessive Fines Clause.  Austin, 509 U. S., at 610 (emphasis added).

Ms. Toth and her amici identify still more reasons to worry about the First Circuit’s decision.  They say it clashes with the approach many other courts have taken in similar cases.  Pet. for Cert. 18–25 (collecting cases).  They observe that it incentivizes governments to impose exorbitant civil penalties as a means of raising revenue. Id., at 25–30.  And they contend that it is difficult to square with the original understanding of the Eighth Amendment.  Brief for Professor Beth A. Colgan as Amicus Curiae on Pet. for Cert. 4–13.  For all these reasons, taking up this case would have been well worth our time.  As things stand, one can only hope that other lower courts will not repeat its mistakes.

January 23, 2023 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Warranted or unwarranted disparity?: noting different punishments for disrupting different government branches

This lengthy new NBC News piece shines a spotlight on the notable, but arguably justified, disparity between how disruptive protesters at Congress and at the Supreme Court are punished.  The full headline for the piece highlights its essentials: "Protesting against Congress may get you a $50 fine. Disrupting the Supreme Court is a different story. Protesters disrupting oral arguments can face at least a night in jail and a criminal conviction."  Here are some excerpts:

When Emily Paterson was arrested for protesting abortion law changes during a Supreme Court hearing in November, she spent the night in jail and now has a criminal conviction on her record. Across the street, Jack Murphy met a different fate when she did something similar in the Senate chamber three years earlier: She paid a $50 fine and was released a few hours later.

Such is the differing nature of punishment for nonviolent protesters during official proceedings in Washington, with the Supreme Court, which has its own police department, viewed as being tougher than the Capitol Police, which has jurisdiction over the Capitol and its surrounding campus, which borders the Supreme Court building.

It’s a sore point for Mark Goldstone, a lawyer who regularly represents Washington protesters. Supreme Court protesters are treated “more harshly” in a couple of different ways, he said, referring only to those participating in nonviolent protests and not violent attacks like the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. On Capitol grounds, the police “process you and release you,” Goldstone said, while at the Supreme Court, “you are going to spend the night in jail" and likely face prosecution....

Those familiar with Washington protests point to some possible reasons protesters are treated differently.  One is that the Capitol Police has a lot more protesters to deal with, sometimes needing to process hundreds of people quickly.  In contrast, although protests outside the Supreme Court building are common, it is relatively unusual for people to disrupt court proceedings inside the courtroom.

There are also inherent differences between the two institutions.  Congress is where democratically elected representatives meet and a place where members of the public have a right to express their views.  The high court, meanwhile, is not directly accountable to the people and likes to see itself as nonpolitical.  As such, there may be a desire to crack down on protesters to help maintain that image.  The respective police departments have different legal powers too, which could affect how they resolve cases.

As I see it, protesters who disrupt SCOTUS oral arguments are generally likely to be a lot more disruptive to the functioning of SCOTUS, and be more harmful and disrepectful to the lawyers who have prepared for months for 30 minutes of time to represent their clients before the Justice, than protesters in Congress.  Of course, as the events of January 6, 2021 should remind us, some protesters can be very disruptive of the work on Congress.  But the practicalities of the functioning of different branches, not some notion of political "image," seems to me to make the disparity here more warranted than unwarranted.  But perhaps others have distinct views.

January 22, 2023 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, January 20, 2023

Citing prior "attempt to flee the country," feds urging that Elizabeth Holmes start her prison sentence in April

If producers are thinking about developing Season 2 of The Dropout, a legal filing today by federal prosecutors provide some dramatic materials.  This CNN article, headlined "Elizabeth Holmes made an ‘attempt to flee the country’ after her conviction, prosecutors say," provides these details:

Elizabeth Holmes made an “attempt to flee the country” by booking a one-way ticket to Mexico departing in January 2022, shortly after the Theranos founder was convicted of fraud, prosecutors alleged in a new court filing Friday.

Holmes was convicted last January of defrauding investors while running the failed blood testing startup Theranos. In November, she was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison. She has appealed her conviction and does not start her prison sentence until this spring, a waiting period that prosecutors described as “generous” and due to her being pregnant.

The claim that she tried to leave the country last year surfaced as part of a new filing from prosecutors arguing that Holmes should begin serving her prison sentence rather than living on an estate reported to have $13,000 in monthly expenses for upkeep.

In the filing, prosecutors argue Holmes has not shown convincing evidence that she is not a flight risk, as her lawyers have stated, and used the alleged 2022 incident to support their concerns that she could pose such a risk. “The government became aware on January 23, 2022, that Defendant Holmes booked an international flight to Mexico departing on January 26, 2022, without a scheduled return trip,” the court filing states. “Only after the government raised this unauthorized flight with defense counsel was the trip canceled.”

The filing adds that prosecutors anticipate Holmes will “reply that she did not in fact leave the country as scheduled” but said “it is difficult to know with certainty” what she would have done “had the government not intervened.” Now, in the wake of her sentencing, prosecutors say “the incentive to flee has never been higher” and Holmes “has the means to act on that incentive.”...

The court filing includes an email from one of Holmes’ attorneys to the prosecution, claiming that the travel reservation was made before the verdict. In the email, Holmes’ attorney claims the former Theranos CEO hoped the verdict would be different and that she would be able to make this trip to attend the wedding of friends in Mexico.

In an earlier court filing, Holmes’ attorneys argued for her release from custody pending appeal, saying she was not a flight risk or a threat to the community. Holmes has been ordered to turn herself into custody on April 27, 2023, at which point her prison sentence will begin.

“There are not two systems of justice – one for the wealthy and one for the poor – there is one criminal justice system in this country,” prosecutors stated in the filing. They argue that “under that system, the time has come” for Holmes to answer for her crimes.

Some prior related posts:

January 20, 2023 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (70)

Rounding up some recent notable reads

A busy week has left me behind on both my reading and blogging on various sentencing and punishment law and policy topics.  So I will try to do a bit of catch up through this round up:

From ABC News, "Alabama extends time for executions, ends automatic review"

From the AP, "Explainer: Biden inaction, mixed signals on death penalty"

From CNN, "Oklahoma’s attorney general says ‘the current pace of executions is unsustainable’ and wants to space them out"

From the FAMM Foundation, "Proposed BOP Rule Will Hurt Struggling Families"

From The Guardian, "Texas prisoners continue hunger strike in protest against solitary confinement"

From the Marshall Project, "How an Illicit Cell Phone Helped Me Take College Courses from Prison"

From Nonprofit Quarterly, "What the US’ Mass Incarceration Regime Costs Black Women"

From Reason, "Sentencing Commission Proposes Restricting Judges' Use of Acquitted Conduct"

From Rick Nevin, "Update: Continuing trend toward zero youth incarceration"

From Spectrum News NY1, "Path to Power: Hakeem Jeffries' push to reform the criminal justice system"

As always, I welcome reader comments on which of these stories or others may merit additional blog time.  It has been fun to see a more active comment space lately, and I hope that always will include readers highlighting new stories or worthwhile reading. 

January 20, 2023 in Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, January 19, 2023

"The Problem with Capital Pleas"

The title of this post is the title of this recent paper authored by William W. Berry III available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

In United States v. Jackson, the Supreme Court recognized the importance of protecting an individual's jury trial rights in capital plea bargaining.  With the subsequent Brady trilogy, however, the Court’s plea bargaining doctrine migrated away from Jackson and accepted pleas in capital cases as long as the defendant had counsel.

Over the past twenty years, the capital punishment landscape has significantly narrowed, with only twenty new death sentences a year, most coming from the few counties that have the economic resources to pursue the death penalty. The decreased likelihood of receiving a death sentence could, in theory, convince more capital defendants to go to trial as opposed to entering plea deals, especially as juries, even in Texas, are increasingly disinclined to impose death sentences.  But the risk of execution remains too heavy a thumb on the scale.  The effect of this dynamic is that prosecutors essentially have the power to impose mandatory LWOP sentences in homicide cases, simply by threatening to pursue the death penalty.

As such, this essay makes the case that, taken together, the values of the Fifth (right not to plead guilty), Sixth (trial by jury, right of confrontation, right to present witnesses), and Eighth Amendments (right to heightened scrutiny in capital cases) should lead the Court, legislatures, or prosecutors themselves to eliminate plea agreements in capital cases, particularly those that result in LWOP sentences.  Such bargained sentences almost certainly reflect the coercion of the prosecutor in an unequal bargaining dynamic rather than a voluntary acceptance of a proportional punishment for one’s crime.

January 19, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Encouraging big-city homicide trends to close 2022 and start 2023

In this post at mid-year 2022, I flagged this AH Datalytics webpage's "YTD Murder Comparison" Dashboard that collects homicide data from police reports in nearly 100 big cities.  I noted in that post that, after significant increases in homicides throughout the US in 2020 and 2021, it was encouraging that the dashboard then showed that nearly two-thirds of big cities were reporting  homicide declines in 2022 relative to 2021 and that nationwide murders in large cities were down overall more than 2% at mid-year 2022.  Fast-forward six months, and there is more encouraging homicide data coming from big cities.

Specifically, with nearly all police data for 2022 collected, this dashboard as of this evening indicates that nearly two-thirds of all big cities reported that homicides wre down in 2022 relative to 2021 and that the total nationwide murders in large cities were down overall nearly 5% at by year end 2022.  Of course, these reported homicide declines for 2022 follow notably high homicide rates in many locales in 2021, and we still have a long way to go to get back to pre-pandemic homicide levels.

Still, these data are encouraging, and the downward trends in homicides in our nation's largest cities for all of 2022 may be carrying over to the start of 2023.  Specifically, based on the dashboard data and (linked) police reports, we see:

Chicago homicides down 13% in 2022 and down another 17% in first two weeks of 2023

Los Angeles homicides down 5% in 2022 and down another 39% in first two weeks of 2023

New York City homicides down 11% in 2022 and down another 12% in first two weeks of 2023

Philadelphia homicides down 9% in 2022 and down another 43% in first two weeks of 2023

Of course, these four very big cities are not fully representative of what may be going on with homicides nationwide as 2023 gets started, and homicide trends in the first two weeks of January could change in many ways in the weeks and months ahead.  Still,  these encouraging data reinforce my hope that surging homicides in 2020 and 2021 were mostly a pandemic era phenomenon and that lower homicide rates may soon be more common. 

January 18, 2023 in National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (22)

En banc Eleventh Circuit limits reach of career offenders under USSG based on plain text of guideline for drug offenses

Last month, as noted in this post, the en banc Eleventh Circuit gave federal drug defendants a big sentencing win by giving a broad reading to the FIRST-STEP-amended mandatory-minimum safety valve provision.  A helpful reader alerted me to the fact that today the en banc Eleventh Circuit issued another ruling that helps some drug defendants at sentencing in US v. Dupree, No. 19-13776 (11th Cir. Jan.18, 2023) (available here).  This matter is another case with a Kisor role shifting guidleine interpretation (background here), and here is how the opinion of the Court begins:

This appeal requires us to consider whether an inchoate offense qualifies as a “controlled substance offense” for purposes of the career offender sentencing enhancement under the United States Sentencing Guidelines. U.S. Sent’g Guidelines Manual § 4B1.2(b) (U.S. Sent’g Comm’n 2018). In this case, the district court sentenced Brandon Dupree as a career offender based partly on his conviction for conspiring to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846.  Dupree appealed his sentence, arguing that his § 846 conspiracy conviction could not serve as a predicate for his career offender enhancement because the Guidelines’ definition of “controlled substance offense” omitted conspiracy and other inchoate crimes.

A panel of this Court affirmed Dupree’s sentence, concluding that our decisions in United States v. Weir, 51 F.3d 1031 (11th Cir. 1995), and United States v. Smith, 54 F.3d 690 (11th Cir. 1995), foreclosed his argument.  United States v. Dupree, 849 F. App’x 911 (11th Cir. 2021) (unpublished), reh’g en banc granted, opinion vacated 25 F.4th 1341 (11th Cir. 2022). We granted Dupree’s petition to rehear the case en banc.  After careful consideration, and with the benefit of oral argument, we hold that the definition of “controlled substance offense” in § 4B1.2(b) does not include inchoate offenses.  We therefore vacate Dupree’s sentence and remand to the district court for resentencing.

Here is a choice paragraph from the start of the dissent by Judge Luck:

I respectfully dissent for two reasons.  First, despite what the majority opinion says it is doing, it is not really applying Kisor’s clarification to Stinson.  Under the majority opinion’s approach, the Kisor clarification applies to Stinson the same way a magnifying glass applies to an ant on a sunny day — total annihilation.  The majority opinion is actually applying Kisor to overrule Stinson.  But the Supreme Court didn’t overrule Stinson and we can’t overrule a Supreme Court opinion on our own.  Only the Supreme Court can do that.  Second, even if the majority opinion isn’t overruling Stinson, the Kisor clarification doesn’t apply to Stinson.

January 18, 2023 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

The look of a federal capital moratorium(?): prosecutors not seeking death penalty for El Paso Walmart shooter

As detailed in this Wall Street Journal piece, the "Justice Department won’t seek the death penalty for the man accused of killing 23 people in 2019 at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, federal prosecutors said in a Tuesday court filing."  Here is more:

Patrick Crusius faces 90 federal charges for his alleged role in one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.  Of those charges, 45 have been deemed hate crimes, or crimes motivated by racial, religious, national-origin, sexual, gender or disability bias. Mr. Crusius, 21 years old at the time, is accused of traveling to the Texas border city to target Latinos in the attack. Nearly two dozen people were injured in the shooting.

Jury selection is expected to begin in his federal case in January 2024.  Mr. Crusius, now 24, was also indicted on state charges of capital murder and could face the death penalty if convicted. The state case would proceed after the federal case is done....

Months after taking office in 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered a nationwide halt to federal executions while he reviewed policies and protocols put in place by the Trump administration that led to the highest rate of federal executions in more than a century.  President Biden has said he would work to end federal executions.

The Justice Department last year chose to continue the pursuit of the death penalty against an alleged terrorist charged with killing eight people in New York City in 2017.  The Trump administration initially sought the death penalty against Sayfullo Saipov, who prosecutors said was inspired by Islamic State to carry out the Manhattan attack. Mr. Saipov’s attorneys asked Mr. Garland to withdraw the death penalty from the case but were turned down.

Justin Underwood, an attorney representing the family of Walmart shooting victim Alexander Hoffman, said they were disappointed by the Justice Department’s decision. “They’re disappointed the U.S. government won’t seek the death penalty on a mass murderer who drove 10 hours to seek out and kill Hispanic and Mexican people,” Mr. Underwood said. “If this guy doesn’t qualify for the death penalty, why on earth do we even have a federal death penalty statute?”

Mr. Underwood questioned why the federal government continued to pursue the death penalty in Mr. Saipov’s case in New York, but not in the Walmart shooting.  Mr. Hoffman’s widow and his two sons are now looking to the state’s case for justice, Mr. Underwood said.  “This might not be the Christian thing for me to say, but some people need to be killed and he certainly qualifies,” Mr. Underwood said. “I just put my faith in the state of Texas to seek justice in this case.”

Intriguingly, this Reuters article about this prosecutorial charging decision makes mention of a fact not noted by the WSJ that might be part of the story: "When he was taken into police custody minutes after the shooting, Crusius was in a psychotic state and treated with anti-psychotic medication, according to mental health professionals employed by the jail, a court filing said."  Mental health issues might well have influenced federal prosecutors here; Crusius's defense attorneys hoped it would accourding to this 2020 AP piece:

Lawyers for a man charged with shooting scores of people in a racist attack at a Texas Walmart say their client has diagnosed mental disabilities that should be a “red flag” for federal prosecutors considering whether to seek the death penalty.

Patrick Crusius “has been diagnosed with severe, lifelong neurological and mental disabilities” and was treated with antipsychotic medication following his arrest moments after the massacre in El Paso, his attorneys wrote in a court filing.

January 18, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (34)

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

California working to clear condemned inmates from death row

This recent NPR piece, headlined "California says it will dismantle death row. The move brings cheers and anger," provides an interesting overview of the state of California's death penalty as it seeks  to clear the nation's largest (and largely dormant) death row.  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

California this week pushed ahead with controversial efforts to dismantle the largest death row system in America.

Under Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state is moving to make the transfer of condemned inmates permanent and mandatory after what the state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) calls a successful pilot program that voluntarily moved 101 inmates off death row into general population prisons across the state....

After a 45-day public comment period and a public hearing in March, the state hopes to start moving all 671 death row inmates – 650 men and 21 women — into several other prisons across the state with high-security units. Some prisoners will be able to get jobs or cellmates if they are mainstreamed into the general prison population.

The CDCR says the move allows the state "to phase out the practice of segregating people on death row based solely on their sentence." No inmates will be re-sentenced and no death row commutations offered, officials say.

Technically, the death penalty still exists in California. Prosecutors can still seek it. But no one has been put to death in the state in 17 years. And in 2019, Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions and he closed the death chamber at San Quentin, the decrepit and still heavily used 19th century prison overlooking San Francisco Bay.

Those who get prison jobs — as clerks, laundry or kitchen helpers – will see 70 percent of their pay go to victims' families, as required under Proposition 66. That 2016 voter-passed initiative amended California's Penal Code to require death-sentenced inmates to work and pay restitution....

But death penalty proponents and victims' rights advocates are frustrated and angry. "To hear this news is devastating," says Sandra Friend. She described feeling victimized all over again. Her 8-year-old son Michael Lyons was making his way home from school in Yuba City, Calif., in 1996 when he was abducted and sodomized by serial killer Robert Boyd Rhoades, who dumped the child's body in a riverbed....

In part, California's death penalty reforms grew out of 2016's Prop. 66, which promised to speed up the time between a death sentence and an execution. The successful ballot measure also required condemned prisoners to work and pay restitution. Now death penalty proponents accuse Newsom of exploiting a lesser-known section of Prop. 66 for his own ideological and political purposes.

"The governor has taken loopholes and nuances in the law and used them to give criminals — the worst criminals — a break," says Michael Rushford, president of the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. "To start mainstreaming people like Tiequon Cox, who killed an entire family in Los Angeles after going to the wrong address to do a gang hit, is an abandonment of justice. Injecting politics into criminal justice and public safety is insane. It's unjust, unfair and it's stupid."...

In California, Sandra Friend says it's outrageous that killers like Rhoades may "get rewarded," as she puts it, with expanded work options, even a cellmate. "For him to be able to leave death row and go into a cushier prison, having maybe possibly a cellie, having a job, is terrifying because he is the worst of the worst. He is a monster," she says.

State officials underscore that inmate transfers and their housing will depend on the specific facts of each inmate. "Their housing would depend on their individual case factors, and it's what the multidisciplinary teams will be evaluating," says CDCR spokeswoman Vicky Waters.... The state hopes to permanently empty California's death row by this fall, a CDCR official says.

Friend vows to fight the effort. A public hearing on the issue is scheduled in Sacramento for March 8. "I'm definitely going to make Michael's voice heard," she says, "because he's the one that is getting lost in all of this."

January 17, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

DC Council overrides DC mayor's veto of significant criminal justice reform bill

As reported in this new Washington Post piece, the "D.C. Council on Tuesday voted to override Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) veto of a major overhaul of the city’s criminal code, which city lawmakers had unanimously approved in November despite concerns from court and law enforcement leaders." Here is more from the press report:

Lawmakers voted 12-1 to override Bowser’s veto of the bill, with Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) breaking from the rest of the council.  Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chaired the public safety committee when the legislation passed, said lawmakers “stand at the finish line of a 16-year process that would make significant improvements and modernize an outdated criminal code from another era.”...

The bill would, among other things, eliminate most mandatory minimum sentences, allow for jury trials in almost all misdemeanor cases, and reduce the maximum penalties for offenses such as burglaries, carjackings and robberies.  Law enforcement leaders had expressed concern that it could burden an already stretched court system and would send the wrong message to residents at a time when the city is struggling with gun violence.

“This bill does not make us safer,” Bowser wrote in a letter to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), announcing her veto. Lawmakers shot back Tuesday that the bill was a necessary reform of the city’s outdated criminal code, and they took direct aim at the mayor’s criticism, which they said could be used as fodder for members of Congress who can block city legislation.  Republicans in the House have already threatened to target the measure. But resolutions disapproving D.C. legislation must pass both chambers and be signed by the president.  Democrats have a narrow majority in the Senate....

Allen, who chaired the public safety committee when the bill was passed, and Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), the new public safety chair, said in a joint statement beforehand that the criminal code was “more equitable and just” but that they were open to consideration of further amendments before it was fully implemented.  Officials who support the code revisions have stressed the law would not take effect for three years to give police, courts and other groups time to prepare.  “There is simply too much good in this bill to abandon all of that work, and without any backup plan from the mayor,” Pinto said Tuesday.

Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D- Ward 1) called the mayor’s veto a “distraction,” given that the council would override it.  “This is political theater to create a perpetual scapegoat whenever there are issues in the future,” Nadeau said. “Do not believe the hype.  The council is not tying the hands of our law enforcement officials or making crime worse.”...

Bowser wrote in her letter to Mendelson that while there was “consensus agreement” on 95 percent of the bill, she opposed particular provisions lowering maximum sentences and allowing for more jury trials.  She said the bill would weaken “already lenient sentencing for gun possession” by reducing the maximum penalties for carrying a pistol without a license and being a felon in possession of a gun.

Gregg Pemberton, chairman of the D.C. Police Union, said in a statement that the law, once enacted, would lead to “violent crime rates exploding more than they already have.” “Every resident should be outraged that the Council has weakened the criminal justice system in a way that makes every neighborhood less safe,” Pemberton said.  “Their actions today are shameful.”

Supporters of the bill have countered the reduction in maximum penalties are in line with what judges are actually imposing.  “This isn’t some huge, mass decarceration measure,” said Patrice Sulton, founder and executive director of the D.C. Justice Lab. “It’s making the code clear, consistent, and constitutionally sound.”

January 17, 2023 in State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

US Supreme Court relists latest cases seeking review of acquitted conduct sentencing

Regular readers surely recall some prior posts about the McClinton case before the US Supreme Court raising issues about the use of acquitted conduct at sentencing.  As detailed before (and linked below), I had the pleasure last year of working with great lawyers at Squire Patton Boggs to file an amicus brief on the acquitted conduct issue in support of petitioner Dayonta McClinton.  (I blogged here about McClinton's case after the Seventh Circuit affirmed his 19-year sentence that was based heavily on the judge's determination that McClinton was to be held responsible for a murder even after a jury had acquitted him of that killing.  As detailed in this SCOTUS docket sheet, a number of notable interest groups have also filed amicus briefs in support of cert in this case.)

After various delays and more delays, the McClinton case (as well as a number of others raising acquitted conduct issues) was finally considered at last Friday's SCOTUS conference.  I was a bit worried when last week's SCOTUS cert grant list did not include the case, but I was hopeful that we would learn today that the McClinton case was relisted and the docket sheet now reflects that reality.  I am pretty sure that all the other acquitted conduct cases considered in the last SCOTUS conference were also relisted.

More often than not, relisting is a precursor to a later denial of cert, perhaps with a dissent or separate statement being authored by one or more Justices giving their take on the Court's decision not to grant review.  But relisting is also sometimes a precursor to a later granting of cert.  So, as I have said before, I am hopeful, thought still more than a bit pessimistic, about the possibility of 2023 being the year for SCOTUS to take up acquitted conduct sentencing. 

A few recent of many, many prior related posts:

UPDATE:  John Elwood at SCOTUSblog has this new post noting the acquitted conduct relists, "Acquitted-conduct sentencing and 'offended observer' standing."

January 17, 2023 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (85)