Friday, December 3, 2021

"Moral Panic and the War on Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this new article now available at SSRN authored by Phil Lord.  Here is its abstract:

This Article analyzes the War on Drugs as a social phenomenon. It argues that such an analysis, which rejects the assumption that collective, institutionalized behavior is generally rational, can help us understand key aspects of why we continue to marginalize disadvantaged individuals.  If the War on Drugs is a war and wars are won or lost, there is no question we lost.  Whatever drug-related evil that war sought to eradicate, whether drug consumption, trafficking, or addiction, the data clearly shows that “drugs won.”

Along the way, we nonetheless persisted — and largely still do. We filled prisons, lost lives, and shattered hopes and dreams.  Those we hurt the most were already marginalized.  To state that we lost is unhelpful and insufficient.  Of course, we did.  And we can draw obvious lessons that medicine and psychology work better than carceral institutions and that no one benefits from marginalizing already marginalized and often sick individuals. 

If the War on Drugs never worked, more salient questions are to be asked about why we fought it. This Article posits that the War on Drugs is not about drugs, crime, or addiction: it is about us.  It is about why we cede to fear, anxiety, and irrationality. It is about why we stigmatize and hurt the most vulnerable. Like other irrational and counterproductive policies, the War on Drugs is not an anomaly.  It bears close resemblance to other wars we fought (and fight) against the disempowered: witches, gays, Muslims, and others.

December 3, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Split Florida Supreme Court upholds imposition of maximum sentence based in part on defendant's claim of innocence

Via a lengthy divided ruling, the Florida Supreme Court handed down some interesting opinion today in Davis v. Florida, No. SC19-716 (Fla. Dec. 2, 2021) (available here).  Because the various judges fight over how to characterize the case and the ruling, I will just reprint the words of the leading opinions.  First the majority, via Chief Justice Canady:

We accepted jurisdiction to answer the certified question, but because the district court did not pass upon the entirety of the question as framed, we first rephrase it based on the specific circumstances presented by this case: 

DOES A TRIAL COURT, WHEN IMPOSING A SENTENCE ON A DEFENDANT WHO HAS VOLUNTARILY CHOSEN TO ALLOCUTE AND MAINTAIN HIS INNOCENCE AT THE SENTENCING HEARING, VIOLATE THE DEFENDANT’S DUE PROCESS RIGHTS BY CONSIDERING THE DEFENDANT’S FAILURE TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR HIS ACTIONS?...

We hold that when a defendant voluntarily chooses to allocute at a sentencing hearing, the sentencing court is permitted to consider the defendant’s freely offered statements, including those indicating a failure to accept responsibility. Thus, we answer the rephrased question in the negative and approve the result in the decision on review.

Now the chief dissent via Justice Polson:

I dissent from the majority’s decision holding that a trial court can punish a defendant for his lack of remorse during a sentencing proceeding.  This result is inconsistent with our precedent interpreting article I, section 9 of the Florida Constitution, the consensus among the district courts of appeal, and has no basis in our statutory sentencing scheme. Showing remorse is admitting you did something wrong — an admission of guilt.  And increasing a defendant’s sentence based on the failure to show remorse is punishing a defendant for failing to admit guilt.  Punishing someone unless they confess guilt of a crime is a violation of due process and the right against self-incrimination.  Accordingly, I would hold that a trial court violates a defendant’s constitutional right to due process and right against self-incrimination where it penalizes a defendant for the failure to admit guilt.

Notably, more two decades ago, the US Supreme Court held Mitchell v. US, 526 U.S. 314 (1999), that it was unconstitutional to use "petitioner’s silence against her in determining the facts of the offense at the sentencing hearing."  Presumably that ruling in part explains why the majority hear makes much of the defendant voluntarily choosing to allocute and assert innocence.  

December 2, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

What might be crime and punishment echoes if Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade?

The big news of the law world yesterday was the Supreme Court hearing oral argument in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the abortion case out of Mississippi which is viewed as a vehicle for the Justices to reconsider and potentially overrule abortion rights precedents like Roe and Casey.  Based on press reports, as collected here at How Appealing, it sure sounds like a majority of the Justices are prepared to overrule Roe.  Recalling some headlines revealing how abortion laws and debates can implicate crime and punishment issues, I thought it might be useful to flag some press articles of relatively recent vintage which highlight how the overruling of Roe could become of considerable interest for those who focus on criminal justice matters. 

Interestingly, the law at issue in the Dobbs case, Mississippi's Gestational Age Act, appears to only have "Professional sanctions and civil penalties" as the enforcement tools for seeking "to restrict the practice of nontherapeutic or elective abortion to the period up to the fifteenth week of gestation."  However, as highlighted by this cursory and abridged review of some press pieces, criminal law and even extreme punishments can be part of an abortion restriction discourse and may become very dynamic if Supreme Court actually does overturn Roe v. Wade:

From Chicago Tribune from April 2018, "Who would be punished for abortion in a post-Roe America?"

From CNN in May 2019, "Alabama doctors who perform abortions could face up to 99 years in prison -- the same as rapists and murderers"

From Texas Tribune in March 2021, "Another Texas GOP lawmaker is attempting to make abortion punishable by the death penalty"

From Slate in September 2021, "Caught in the Net: Interrogated, examined, blackmailed: how law enforcement treated abortion-seeking women before Roe."

From The Guardian in November 2021, "What will US’s future look like if abortion becomes a crime again?

December 2, 2021 in Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

New Senate bill to add defender ex officio position to US Sentencing Commission

As detailed in this press release from earlier this week, "U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) [have] introduced the Sentencing Commission Improvements Act, legislation that would for the first time add an ex officio member with a public defender background to the U.S. Sentencing Commission."  Here is a link to the short bill, and here is more from the press release:

Currently, the Commission consists of seven members from both political parties appointed by the President and two ex officio, nonvoting members, the Attorney General or a designee and the U.S. Parole Commission chair. However, unlike the majority of state sentencing commissions, the federal Commission lacks a representative from a public defender background who would provide an essential perspective on the criminal justice system. 

“The federal Sentencing Commission was created to be fair, impartial, and capable of providing evidence-driven improvements to our sentencing system, which is fraught with disparities,” said Senator Booker. “Adding a statutory member to the Commission with a public defender background will ensure that the Commission’s ranks include this distinct and essential perspective on our criminal justice system and, thus, bring us one step closer to a more balanced and just system.”

“The U.S. Sentencing Commission is tasked with establishing practices and policies to promote transparency and reduce sentencing disparities, but the Commission is missing a crucial perspective from the federal public defender system. If we hope to improve sentencing policies in America, we must balance the Commission’s membership by adding a nonvoting federal defender,” said Senator Durbin. “The Sentencing Commission Improvements Act will remedy the Commission’s blind spot and move us toward a fairer sentencing process.”

This new Law360 article, headlined "'No-Brainer' Bill Would Add Fed. Defender To Sentencing Body," provides some more background and details.  Here is an excerpt:

A Senate proposal Tuesday would create a new seat on the U.S. Sentencing Commission for former federal defenders, a move experts say would counterbalance the outsize influence that current and former prosecutors have over the currently dormant panel....

New York University professor and former U.S. Sentencing Commission member Rachel Barkow cheered the proposal. "The Department of Justice has a seat at the table — literally — with a DOJ rep attending all the Commission's meetings," she told Law360 in a statement Wednesday. "It would be helpful to have a defender there as well to offer that perspective.  The Commission has always had plenty of people serving as commissioners who were former prosecutors, and public defense experience is equally valuable."

Brian Jacobs, a former New York federal prosecutor who now specializes in white collar defense with Morvillo Abramowitz Grand Iason & Anello PC, called the proposed move a "no-brainer."  "Speaking as a defender — but even wearing my former prosecutor hat — it makes sense to want to have that sort of balanced input," he told Law360....

Without a quorum last year, the commission missed the chance to shape sentencing policy in response to the coronavirus pandemic — something public defenders are particularly equipped to weigh in on, according to Jacobs. "There's no reason there shouldn't be language in the guidelines addressing how much more difficult time in custody is right now," he said, referring to viral outbreaks, remote court snafus, and restrictive prison policies limiting defendants' ability to meet with counsel. "If the sentencing commission were more nimble, you can imagine there would have been a statement in the guidelines themselves."

December 2, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The effects of language on the stigmatization and exclusion of returning citizens: Results from a survey experiment"

The title of this post is the title of this new research by Hilary Jackl just published online via the journal Punishment & Society. Here is its abstract;

Although the use of person-centered language has increased in recent years, its usage remains limited within the field of criminal justice, wherein terms such as ex-offender are frequently used to describe formerly incarcerated individuals.  Research suggests that person-centered language matters for public opinion, but prior work has not examined the effect of language on support for the social reintegration of returning citizens.  The present research experimentally manipulates the effects of the language used to describe individuals released from incarceration and the race of a hypothetical returning citizen on the following outcomes: negative stereotype endorsement, attitudinal social distance, and support for reintegrative initiatives.  I find that person-centered language significantly reduces stigmatization of returning citizens, which ultimately increases support for reintegrative services.  These findings suggest that humanizing changes to criminal justice discourse may have the capacity to shift public opinion and create a social context more conducive to reintegration after incarceration.

December 2, 2021 in Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

US Sentencing Commission issues new report on "Recidivism of Federal Firearms Offenders Released in 2010"

Cover_recidivism-firearms-2021The US Sentencing Commission has this week published some new findings from its big eight-year recidivism study of 32,000+ offenders released in 2010.  This new 98-page report is titled "Recidivism of Federal Firearms Offenders Released in 2010," and this USSC webpage provides this overview with key findings:

Overview

(Published November 30, 2021) This report is the second in a series continuing the Commission’s research of the recidivism of federal offenders. It provides an overview of the recidivism of federal firearms offenders released from incarceration or sentenced to a term of probation in 2010, combining data regularly collected by the Commission with data compiled from criminal history records from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). This report provides an overview of recidivism for these offenders and information on key offender and offense characteristics related to recidivism. This report also compares recidivism outcomes for federal firearms offenders released in 2010 to firearms offenders released in 2005. In the future, the Commission will release additional publications discussing specific topics concerning recidivism of federal offenders.

The final study group of 5,659 firearms offenders satisfied the following criteria:

  • United States citizens
  • Re-entered the community during 2010 after discharging their sentence of incarceration or by commencing a term of probation in 2010
  • Not reported dead, escaped, or detained
  • Have valid FBI numbers that could be located in criminal history repositories (in at least one state, the District of Columbia, or federal records)
  • Sentenced under §2K2.1, sentenced as armed career criminals or career offenders, or convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)

Key Findings

  • This study observed substantial consistency in the recidivism of firearms offenders across the two time periods, 2005 and 2010, despite two intervening major developments in the federal criminal justice system: the Supreme Court’s decision in Booker and increased use of evidence-based practices in federal supervision.
  • Firearms offenders recidivated at a higher rate than all other offenders.  Over two-thirds (69.0%) of firearms offenders were rearrested for a new crime during the eight-year follow-up period compared to less than half of all other offenders (45.1%).
  • Firearms offenders and all other offenders who recidivated were rearrested for similar crimes. Of the firearms offenders who recidivated, assault was the most serious new charge for 25.9 percent of offenders followed by drug trafficking (11.0%). Similarly, of the all other offenders who recidivated, assault was the most common new charge (19.0%) followed by drug trafficking (11.4%).
  • Firearms offenders have higher recidivism rates than all other offenders in every Criminal History Category (CHC). Within most CHCs, this difference was about ten percentage points.
    • In CHC I, 39.7 percent of firearms offenders recidivated compared to 29.6 percent of all other offenders.
    • In CHC VI, 82.8 percent of firearms offenders recidivated compared to 72.9 percent of all other offenders.
  • Firearms offenders recidivated at a higher rate than all other offenders in every age-at-release grouping. Firearms offenders recidivated at over twice the rate of all other offenders among those released after age 59 (31.1% compared to 14.5%).
  • The recidivism rates for firearms and all other offenders were highly similar for both the 2010 release cohort in this report and the 2005 release cohort previously studied. In the 2005 release cohort, 68.1 percent of firearms offenders recidivated compared to 46.3 percent of all other offenders. Similarly, 69.0 percent of firearms offenders in the 2010 release cohort recidivated compared to 45.1 percent of all other offenders.

December 1, 2021 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)

Calling out SCOTUS for failing to take up circuit splits over the federal sentencing guidelines

In this post last month, I noted this notable new paper by Dawinder Sidhu titled "Sentencing Guidelines Abstention," which astutely assails the US Supreme Court for its "refusal to review [circuit] splits involving federal sentencing policy."  I am now pleased to see Dawinder putting forward his important points in this new HIll commentary headlined "The Supreme Court's criminal justice blind spot."  I recommend the full piece and here are excerpts:

A primary role of the Supreme Court is to resolve differences among the federal appeals courts when those courts reach different conclusions on the same questions of law.  But for 30 years, the Supreme Court has refused to perform this essential role when the disagreements concern federal sentencing guidelines.  The court’s inaction has allowed uncertainty and disparities to fester in this critical area of criminal justice....

In [a] 1991 opinion, the court ... added extraneous language [in an early case address a conflict over a guideline that the US Sentencing Commission was in the process of amending], writing that because the commission possessed authority to amend the guidelines in response to interpretive conflicts, the court should be “more restrained and circumspect in … resolving such conflicts.”

Because this language was unnecessary to the disposition of the case, it should have no precedential weight.   At most, this case supports the unremarkable proposition that, when the commission’s amendment process is under way regarding a guideline that triggers a judicial conflict, the court should exercise restraint and allow the commission to complete its amendment process.  The court regularly abstains from interfering with parallel administrative or state proceedings.  Deferring to the commission during the course of a simultaneous amendment process would be consistent with this respect for alternative decisional bodies.

The problem, however, is that the court has refused to hear all guideline conflicts, not just those the commission is actively addressing.  In adopting this broad position, the court has ceded its role of ironing out judicial conflicts to the commission.  As then-Judge Samuel Alito recognized [in this FSR article], “No other federal agency — in any branch — has ever performed a role anything like it.”  Indeed, the court does not forgo consideration of a case when Congress or an administrative agency may one day amend a statute or regulation producing a conflict.

This anomaly has real-life consequences.  This year, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor believed that the court should not hear a sentencing guidelines case, notwithstanding the fact that it raised an “important and longstanding split” among the federal appeals courts. They reasoned that the commission should “address the issue in the first instance.”  But the justices conceded that until the commission resolves the split, “similarly situated defendants may receive substantially different sentences depending on the jurisdiction in which they are sentenced,” with the disparities ranging by a factor of “years” and spanning from a “fixed-term” to a “life sentence.”

This knowingly perpetuated uncertainty and disparity in the federal courts.  To make matters worse, the court did so knowing that the commission has been without a quorum for almost three years. As such, the court punted a conflict to an agency incapable of amending the guidelines or resolving conflicts.  This isn’t the first time the commission has lacked a quorum for a significant period.  Even when the commission is fully functional, it only has the capacity to take on some of the conflicts that exist.  This is not to disparage the commission but to call into question the Supreme Court’s hoisting the responsibility of addressing guideline conflicts onto the shoulders of a regularly shorthanded commission.

Anyone interested in coherence and consistency in criminal justice should be troubled by the court’s refusal to review conflicts involving the federal sentencing guidelines.  It is one thing to be discerning in case selection; it is another to step aside altogether from guideline cases that implicate the fair and uniform administration of justice.

December 1, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

ACLU sues Biden Administration for data on CARES home confinement cohort

This ACLU press release reports on a notable new lawsuit: "The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of the District of Columbia today filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice and the federal Bureau of Prisons under the Freedom of Information Act, seeking information about the federal government’s potential plan to force people placed on home confinement under the CARES Act back to prison after the pandemic subsides, even if they have followed all requirements of home confinement, been reunited with their families, and successfully reintegrated into society."  Here is more:  

Recognizing the dangers of COVID spread in federal prisons, Congress provided, as part of the March 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) could place incarcerated people in home confinement as a way of reducing the population of crowded prisons and mitigating the virus’ spread.  As a result, BOP has placed more than 34,000 people — including many elderly or medically vulnerable — on home confinement since March 2020.  BOP evaluated every single person and determined that none of them would pose a threat to public safety while on home confinement. While most have now completed their sentences, 7,769 are on home confinement currently. Many have found gainful employment and have reunited with spouses, children, and other loved ones.

In June 2020, the BOP director and medical director testified in the Senate that people released under the CARES Act would be on home confinement “for service of the remainder of their sentences.”  But in the last days of the Trump administration, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) issued a memorandum saying that when the pandemic ends, people on home confinement must be ordered back to prison unless they are in the final months of their sentences, even if they have been completely law-abiding.  Such an order would disrupt their lives and the lives of their loved ones and would destroy the successful efforts they have made to reintegrate into society.

The BOP has not disclosed how many of the 7,769 people currently on home confinement may be forced back to prison. Although the Biden administration has said that the president will consider granting clemency to a subset of this group so that they will not be sent back to prison, he has not yet granted any such petitions.  The ACLU has repeatedly called on President Biden to grant clemency to everyone who is on home confinement under CARES and following the rules.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU requested records providing information about people BOP moved to home confinement under the CARES Act. The ACLU also asked for any final DOJ and BOP policies implementing the OLC memorandum.  The government failed to provide the materials by the deadline.  Our lawsuit, filed today in federal court in the District of Columbia by the ACLU and the ACLU of the District of Columbia, asks the court to enforce the law against the Justice Department and the BOP and order them to immediately produce the requested records.

The full complaint is available here

November 30, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

El Chapo's wife sentenced to three years in federal prison (guidelines be damned)

This Vice article provides a thorough accounting of a notable federal sentencing with this rousing start: "Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera became infamous for daring jailbreaks in Mexico only to end up serving life in prison in the United States. Now his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, has managed to avoid a similar fate."  Here is more from the piece: 

The 32-year-old Coronel was sentenced Tuesday to just three years in prison after pleading guilty earlier this year to charges that she helped her husband run his drug trafficking empire, facilitated one of his prison escapes in Mexico, and violated U.S. sanctions by spending his illicit fortune. She also paid nearly $1.5 million to the U.S. government.

It could have ended much worse for Coronel, who faced up to 14 years for her crimes under federal sentencing guidelines.  Federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., asked her judge for leniency, calling for her to serve just four years behind bars and fueling speculation that she’d struck a deal to cooperate.

Coronel’s attorneys and federal prosecutors made the case to sentencing Judge Rudolph Contreras that she only played a minimal role in the cartel and that her crimes were committed simply because she was married to El Chapo. “The defendant was not an organizer, leader, boss, or other type of manager,” prosecutor Anthony Nardozzi said. “Rather, she was a cog in a very large wheel of a criminal organization.”

A soft-spoken Coronel addressed the court in Spanish before the judge handed down the sentence, asking for forgiveness and making a plea for leniency so that she could be free to raise her 10-year-old twin daughters, who were fathered by El Chapo....

The light sentence has raised eyebrows among ex-prosecutors who handled similar cases against high-level drug traffickers and their associates.  “Downward departure,” or a sentence below the range called for by federal guidelines, is typically reserved for individuals who agree to assist the government in some capacity, David Weinstein, a former assistant U.S. Attorney in Miami, told VICE News.  “They’re treating her like a cooperator,” said Weinstein, who now works as a defense attorney.  “These are the types of circumstances where people are involved in large-scale drug trafficking conspiracies and are benefiting the kingpin and helping the kingpin. You usually don’t get downward departure unless you’re providing substantial assistance.”

Coronel, who holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Mexico, was taken into custody by FBI agents on Feb. 22 after arriving at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.  While federal authorities announced that Coronel had been “arrested,” sources familiar with her case told VICE News she was aware of pending charges against her and came to turn herself in.

Coronel has been held since February at a jail in Alexandria, Virginia, and is now expected to be transferred into the federal prison system to serve out her sentence. She will receive credit for time served and could be released in just over two years.

If prosecutors truly believed Coronel had only played a minimal role and was merely El Chapo’s wife, it's unclear why she was even charged in the first place because her prosecution would be a waste of time and resources, according to Bonnie Klapper, a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York.  Klapper, now in private practice, said Coronel’s sentence “is a very clear demonstration of how prosecutors can manipulate the sentencing guidelines to either punish or reward a defendant.”...

In sentencing Coronel, Judge Contreras noted that putting her behind bars for a long time would do little to dissuade anyone else from joining the Sinaloa Cartel. In fact, he said, there was little indication that prosecuting El Chapo had any impact on the cartel’s operations.  “One can make a plausible argument that even the removal of Guzmán from the conspiracy has not resulted in a reduction of harm to the public,” the judge said. “There appears to be no shortage of replacements to fill the defendant’s slot in the organization.”

Contreras noted Coronel’s “impoverished” upbringing and the involvement of her family members in the drug trade, and indicated that he believed that she was a victim of her circumstances who was very young and impressionable when she married El Chapo. “I hope you raise your twins in a different environment than you’ve experienced to date,” Contreras said in his parting words to Coronel. “Good luck.”

This article is astute to note how this case highlights "manipulation" of the federal sentencing guidelines and sentencing outcomes. Indeed, the Government's sentencing memo in the case showcases how the guidelines can function more like a parlor game than as a steady guide to sensible sentencing.  According to that memo, Coronel's PSR initially "concluded that the Defendant’s applicable Guidelines range in this case was 135 months to 168 months ... [and] neither the Government nor the Defendant objected to this Guidelines calculation."  But, sometime thereafter, the Government decided "that Defendant’s applicable Guidelines range is 57 to 71 months in prison ... [and] Defendant and the Probation Office concur."

In other words, everyone in this case first determined that the guidelines recommended 11+ to 14 years in prison, but then later everyone decided the guidelines recommended less than half that length of time.  And then, guidelines be damned, the government decided to recommend a sentence of 48 months (nine months below the low end of the lower guideline range).  And then Judge Contreras decided that 36 months was a sufficient sentence. 

Of course, one might reasonably expect the guidelines to be a poor "fit" for this kind of unique case with its many unique elements.  But, then again, a quarter century ago in Koon v. US, 518 U.S. 81 (1996), the Supreme Court rightly made this closing observation: "It has been uniform and constant in the federal judicial tradition for the sentencing judge to consider every convicted person as an individual and every case as a unique study in the human failings that sometimes mitigate, sometimes magnify, the crime and the punishment to ensue."

November 30, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Prosecutorial Discretion, Justice, and Compassion: Reestablishing Balance in our Legal System"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Anna D. Vaynman and Mark Robert Fondacaro now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The criminal justice system, wherein nearly all cases are resolved through a guilty plea, is tenuously balanced on prosecutorial discretion in the context of the plea-bargaining process.  This shift in the balance of power away from judges and juries is particularly troubling given the lack of formal legal safeguards afforded to defendants engaging in plea bargaining rather than going to trial.  The main issue is not prosecutorial discretion per se or even overzealous prosecutors, but the lack of oversight of the plea-bargaining process and the imbalance of power itself, which threatens the legitimacy and stability of the criminal justice system. 

This article argues for the importance of prosecutorial discretion as a potentially valuable tool, analyzes how and why it creates potential for abuse, and provides suggestions for recreating a balance of power.  Overall, the analysis shifts away from blaming the personal characteristics of overzealous prosecutors for the imbalance and focuses on systemic, forward looking administrative and legislative solutions aimed at taking plea bargaining out of the shadows.  The article concludes with specific suggestions for recreating a balance of power, by addressing issues arising from unequal access to information throughout the plea-bargaining process and recentering a defendant’s constitutional rights within the justice system.

November 30, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, November 29, 2021

Could a SCOTUS Second Amendment ruling undercut onerous and disparate criminal enforcement of gun prohibitions?

I noted in this post back in August, as part of a preview of the major pending SCOTUS Second Amendment case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Corlett, the considerable racial disparities in modern criminal enforcement of gun prohibitions.  Helping me to detail how actual gun control laws are actually enforced in federal and state criminal justice systems was this interesting amicus brief filed by the Black Attorneys of Legal Aid caucus and lots of NY public defender offices.  Notably, some of the themes of this amicus brief have been carried forward by its authors and others via an array of interesting commentary this fall (listed here in chronological order):

Via SCOTUSblog, "We are public defenders. New York’s gun laws eviscerate our clients’ Second Amendment rights."

Via Inquest, "Second Class: For public defenders in New York, representing clients unjustly criminalized for gun possession is a matter of principle.  Now, they have the Supreme Court’s attention."

Via The Nation, "There’s No Second Amendment on the South Side of Chicago: Why public defenders are standing with the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association in the Supreme Court."

Via Slate, "A Criminal Justice Reformer’s Case for Looser Gun Laws: Public defenders have found common cause with the NRA at the Supreme Court."

I recommend all these pieces, which have too many interesting elements to highlight in a single blog post.  I will just here flag a few quotes from the new Slate piece, which is an interview with Sharone Mitchell Jr., the public defender from Chicago who authored the piece in The Nation.  

Our offense is called UUW, unlawful use of a weapon.  And there are different types of UUWs.  But the lowest-level felony, the Class 4 felony, 33 percent of the charges statewide come from 11 communities in Chicago, 11 communities in the entire state.   You look at the UUW numbers, you look at how it’s used in Chicago and how it’s used outside of Chicago — and you would think that guns only exist in Chicago.  And you would think guns only exist in a small number of communities.  And that’s not correct.  In other areas of the state, that’s just not the way they approach that situation....

We have this assumption that making things a felony disallows people from performing that act.  And I just haven’t been convinced of that.  At this point in Chicago, folks are not waiting for the government to tell them that they can carry.  And I think too often we overestimate the power of the criminal justice system to solve problems or fix the things that we need.  I think people are living under the assumption that because you’ve got this very complicated scheme for getting licensed, that means people aren’t going to carry. I think what it means is that people aren’t going to carry legally....

If you look at the population of Illinois prisons, there are more people in prison for weapons possession than there are for robbery.  There are more people in prison for weapon possession than there is for kidnapping, more than arson or burglary or DUI or forgery or vehicle hijacking or retail theft.  This is really becoming kind of the new war on drugs, where there’s a real problem, but our solution to the problem doesn’t actually fix the problem.  In fact, it creates way more problems.

A few prior related posts:

November 29, 2021 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (11)

"The population prevalence of solitary confinement"

Th title of this post is the title of this notable new research article in the new issue of the journal Science Advances and authored by Hannah Pullen-Blasnik, Jessica T. Simes and Bruce Western.  Here is its abstract:

Solitary confinement is a severe form of incarceration closely associated with long-lasting psychological harm and poor post-release outcomes.  Estimating the population prevalence, we find that 11% of all black men in Pennsylvania, born 1986 to 1989, were incarcerated in solitary confinement by age 32.  Reflecting large racial disparities, the population prevalence is only 3.4% for Latinos and 1.4% for white men.  About 9% of black men in the state cohort were held in solitary for more than 15 consecutive days, violating the United Nations standards for minimum treatment of incarcerated people.  Nearly 1 in 100 black men experienced solitary for a year or longer by age 32.  Racial disparities are similar for women, but rates are lower.  A decomposition shows that black men’s high risk of solitary confinement stems primarily from their high imprisonment rate.  Findings suggest that harsh conditions of U.S. incarceration have population-level effects on black men’s well-being.

November 29, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Notable accounting of the "utter failure" of Massachusetts new expungement law

The Boston Globe has this great lengthy new piece about Massachusetts expungement practices headlined "‘An utter failure’: Law meant to clear old convictions, including for marijuana possession, helps few." I recommend the full piece, and here is how it starts:

When state legislators passed a criminal justice reform bill in 2018, Massachusetts residents won the ability to clear away certain criminal records — including convictions for marijuana possession and other now-legal activities — that can make it difficult to land a job, rent an apartment, and otherwise move on with life.

But three years later, only a fraction of those who are likely eligible for relief have had their records expunged. Massachusetts Probation Service data suggest that people who were previously arrested for, charged with, or convicted of a crime submitted just 2,186 petitions to expunge their records between January 2019 and July, of which 352 were eventually approved by state judges, or about 16 percent.  And of those 352, probation officials could definitively identify only 17 related to marijuana, a statistic they first began tracking (partially) in January.

While the state could not say exactly how many people are potentially eligible for expungements, advocates insist the pool runs into the tens of thousands.  For example, there were about 68,800 civil or criminal violations for marijuana possession issued in Massachusetts from 2000 through 2013, and 8,000-plus arrests for selling or possessing marijuana each year from 1995 to 2008, according to a Cannabis Control Commission research report and an ACLU analysis.  And cannabis charges are only one of a number of past incidents that can be wiped clean under the law after enough time has passed.

Critics attribute the low numbers of expungements to restrictive eligibility criteria, a lack of outreach to former defendants, disorganized state records, and a lengthy application process that ultimately gives judges wide latitude to reject even seemingly qualified requests with little explanation.

“Our expungement statute has been an utter failure,” said Katy Naples-Mitchell, an attorney at Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice who specializes in criminal justice policies.  “We could be helping people on a much grander scale, but instead we’re seeing this paltry, piecemeal effort — and even that has been almost totally frustrated, in part by a bench that is often a lot less progressive than the legislation it’s charged with carrying out.”

The 2018 law bars the expungement of violent or sexual crimes, and practically any offense committed after the age of 21.  And, importantly, it prohibits anyone with more than one entry on their record from obtaining an expungement, unless the other offenses are motor vehicle violations that resulted in a fine of less than $50.  The only exceptions are special circumstances such as mistaken identity or conduct that is no longer illegal, as with marijuana, which together accounted for just 298 attempted petitions.

It also makes former defendants responsible for learning of the expungement program, determining their eligibility, tracking down the relevant records within the state’s patchwork of police and court filing systems, and submitting them along with a petition to the state probation department.  Probation officials reject the vast majority of expungement petitions they receive (around 79 percent) as ineligible under the law, suggesting there is widespread confusion among applicants about which charges can be cleared.

If an application is cleared by the probation department to go before a judge, the office of the district attorney who originally brought the charges is then given a chance to object.  And even when prosecutors endorse a petition, judges can still reject an expungement request on the grounds it would not be in the “best interests of justice.” Attorneys for former defendants say judges have used that clause to block dozens of otherwise eligible requests.

November 28, 2021 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

New issue of Contexts explores transforming the criminal justice system

The Fall 2021 issue of the journal Contexts includes a collections of article resulting from a conference examining how different elements of the American criminal justice system might be transformed.  Here is a selection from the editors' introduction along with links to a few pieces that might be of particular interest to sentencing fans:

One of the most striking developments in modern American history is the rise of mass incarceration. While more and more people have been put behind bars worldwide, sadly, America leads the way.  In this issue, we contribute to the ongoing discussion on mass incarceration and its impacts with a series of articles drawn from a recent conference jointly held by the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute.  This collection of articles will address different elements of the American criminal justice system and ask, is there a way forward?...

The articles from this conference ask a wide range of questions that demand good answers. First, how can we disentangle policing from other social services and public safety more broadly?  Second, how can we help imprisoned people transition from jails to the broader society?  Third, how can we use recent Alisha Kirchoff research on desistance, for example, to understand how people can safely become part of the wider community?

Features

Reimagining Pretrial & Sentencing by Pamela K. Lattimore, Cassia Spohn, Matthew Demichele

Changing Prisons to Help People Change by Christy Visher, John M. Eason

Fostering Desistance by Shawn Bushway, Christopher Uggen

Rethinking Prisoner Reentry by Annelies Goger, David J. Harding, Howard Henderson

November 28, 2021 in Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 26, 2021

"A New Generation of Prosecutors Is Leading the Charge to Reimagine Public Safety"

The title of this post is the title of this notable recent report from Data for Progress authored by Prerna Jagadeesh, Isa Alomran, Lew Blank and Gustavo Sanchez. Here is part of its introductions:

Local prosecutors possess unparalleled power within criminal legal systems across the country.  Also commonly referred to as District Attorneys, State’s Attorneys, Commonwealth Attorneys and County Attorneys, local prosecutors are responsible for the vast majority of criminal cases brought in the United States.  They have nearly unlimited discretion in deciding who to charge, the type of crimes to charge, and the severity of punishment at sentencing.  They are also primarily responsible for determining who stays in jail and who can be released back to their communities while awaiting trial, and they wield unmatched influence in determining the kind of criminal laws and penalties enacted by state legislatures.

Over the past five decades, prosecutors have deployed their power to charge and sentence even more people, relying heavily on incarceration or correctional supervision to control and punish people convicted of crimes.  While public safety was the purported justification for this approach, a growing body of research is finding that incarceration is ineffective at deterring crime and fails to prevent violent crime in the long-term.  Meanwhile, it has generated devastating consequences for many communities — particularly communities of color — in both direct and indirect ways. Mass incarceration has destabilized communities, worsened outcomes for children with incarcerated parents, increased morbidity and mortality, perpetuated generational wealth gaps, exacerbated mental illness among those incarcerated, and increased homelessness, alongside many other collateral consequences. ...

Notably, the prosecute-and-convict approach has also neglected the interests of those who have experienced and survived crime.  According to a groundbreaking survey of crime survivors conducted by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, the vast majority of victims –– who are more likely to be low-income, young, people of color –– prefer solutions that focus on alternatives to incarceration, such as job creation, crime prevention, rehabilitation, drug use and mental health treatment, among others.  In particular, seven out of ten would rather see prosecutors invest in solving neighborhood problems through rehabilitation, not prosecution and incarceration.

As a result, a growing number of prosecutors have begun to reimagine public safety in ways that reduce the use of prosecution and incarceration, create more effective and less destructive accountability strategies, end racial disparities, and address the drivers of criminal behavior as well as the needs of those most impacted by crime....

In the summer of 2021, Data for Progress surveyed 19 of these reform-minded prosecutors to identify their approaches to community safety, key policy changes, goals for the future, and obstacles impeding their efforts to achieve transformational change.  Their responses are detailed more fully below.

November 26, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Pervis Payne has death sentences set aside (based on intellectual disability) three decades after SCOTUS affirmed them (with focus on victim impact evidence)

This local article reports on a notable development in a capital case that caught my attention because it involves a defendant who was involved in a major development in Supreme Court capital jurisprudence more than 30 years ago.  The press piece is headlined "Pervis Payne death penalty set aside, judge will decide if life sentences are concurrent or consecutive," and here are excerpts:

Rolanda Holman remembers being 13 years old, listening to the judge sentence her brother, Pervis Payne, to death by the electric chair. The judge said, “May God have mercy on his soul," Holman recalled.

Thirty-four years later, Holman and her family know that Payne won't be dying by the death penalty after Judge Paula Skahan signed an order Tuesday vacating his capital sentence....

Skahan's action came after the Shelby County District Attorney's office announced Thursday that it was dropping its pursuit of the death penalty against Payne after a state expert examined Payne and records "and could not say that Payne's intellectual functioning is outside the range for intellectual disability," according to a news release.

Both the U.S. and Tennessee supreme courts have ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute someone with an intellectual disability. In April, Tennessee legislators created a law allowing death row inmates like Payne to appeal their sentences on intellectual disability grounds. Since the court finds that Payne is a person with intellectual disability, his capital sentence must be vacated, Skahan wrote in her order....

Payne will serve two life sentences in prison for the murders of Charisse and Lacie Christopher. However, whether those sentences will be concurrent or consecutive is currently being debated.

Steve Jones, assistant district attorney, argued Tuesday that a transcript of the original sentencing 34 years ago shows the judge saying that Payne's sentences ought to be served consecutively.

That, [attorney Kelley] Henry said, would make Payne ineligible for parole until he is 85. Henry argued, however, that precedent shows the court has the discretion to rule his sentences should be carried out at the same time, which would make him eligible for parole in about six years. “Consecutive sentencing would be an effective life without parole for Mr. Payne and we suggest that would not be justice for him and his family," Henry said. "Elder Carl Payne deserves a chance to hug his son as a free man. And we will continue our fight to exonerate Mr. Payne.”

A hearing will be held Dec. 13 to determine whether the life sentences should be held consecutively or concurrently.

Payne, who is being held in Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, is convicted of the 1987 deaths of Millington woman Charisse Christopher, 28, and her 2-year-old daughter, Lacie. Christopher’s 3-year-old son, Nicholas, survived multiple stab wounds in the brutal attack that took place in Christopher’s apartment.

Payne has maintained his innocence. In his 1988 trial, Payne said that he discovered the gruesome crime scene after hearing calls for help through the open door of the apartment. He said he bent down to try to help, getting blood on his clothes and pulling at the knife still lodged in Christopher's throat. When a white police officer arrived, Payne, who is Black, said he panicked and ran, fearing he would be seen as the prime suspect.

It is quite remarkable that it took newly 20 years for Payne to be moved off death row after the US Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), that the Eighth Amendment precluded the execution of the intellectually disabled.  But it is perhaps even more remarkable that this is the same defendant whose case made it all the way to the Supreme Court more than 30 years ago. In Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808 (1991), the Supreme Court reversed prior precedents limiting victim impact evidence and held "that, if the State chooses to permit the admission of victim impact evidence and prosecutorial argument on that subject, the Eighth Amendment erects no per se bar."  Is this a fitting time for the aphorism "what goes around comes around," especially if it is a capital case?

November 26, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Sentencing basics for defendants convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery

This afternoon brought a jury verdict in the closely watched case involving three men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery.  This AP story provides the context and the sentencing possibilities and other particulars now to follow:

A nine-count indictment charged all three men with one count of malice murder, four counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, one count of false imprisonment and one count of criminal attempt to commit a felony, in this case false imprisonment.

Travis McMichael was convicted of all nine charges. Greg McMichael was convicted of all charges except malice murder.  [William] Bryan was convicted of two counts of felony murder, one count of aggravated assault, one count of false imprisonment and one count of criminal attempt to commit a felony.

Malice and felony murder convictions both carry a minimum penalty of life in prison. The judge decides whether that comes with or without the possibility of parole.  Even if the possibility of parole is granted, a person convicted of murder must serve 30 years before becoming eligible. Multiple murder convictions are merged for the purposes of sentencing.

Murder can also be punishable by death in Georgia if the killing meets certain criteria and the prosecutor chooses to seek the death penalty.  Prosecutors in this case did not.

Each count of aggravated assault carries a prison term of at least one year but not more than 20 years. False imprisonment is punishable by a sentence of one to 10 years in prison....

The McMichaels and Bryan still face federal charges. Months before the three stood trial on state murder charges, a federal grand jury in April indicted them on hate crimes charges.  It’s an entirely separate case that’s not affected by the state trial’s outcome.

U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood has scheduled jury selection in the federal trial to start Feb. 7.  All three men are charged with one count of interference with civil rights and attempted kidnapping.  The McMichaels were also charged with using, carrying and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence.  The federal indictment says the men targeted Arbery because he was Black.

November 24, 2021 in Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (14)

Notable new news reports about declining prison populations in two "New" states

I was intrigued to see two new local new reports about significant prison population declines in two states.  Here are headlined, links and excerpts (with links from the originals):

"NJ Cut Its Prison Population By 40% During 11 Months Of the Pandemic":

As the coronavirus swept through New Jersey’s prison system last year, killing inmates at the highest rate in the nation for months, state leaders took an unprecedented step: They slashed the prison population by 40%.

“No other state has been able to accomplish what New Jersey has accomplished,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, “making it the nation's leading de-carcerator and I think that's a badge that we should wear with honor.”

In October 2020, Governor Phil Murphy signed a law that allowed those within a year of release to get out up to eight months early. The first-in-the-nation measure ultimately freed nearly 5,300 adults and juveniles from state custody over the last 11 months.

“New Jersey's prison population plummeted under the law, reaching a level that it had not been in for decades and creating a much more manageable … population for the correction system,” said Todd Clear, a university professor at Rutgers who specializes in criminal justice.   He said the prison census dropped to numbers not seen since the 1980s. “New Jersey was the most aggressive [state] and it was the most expansive across the largest proportion of the population,” Clear said.

"Why is New Mexico’s prison population on the decline?"

There’s been a “dramatic” decline in the state’s prison population from summer of 2020 to summer of 2021, according to the New Mexico Sentencing Commission (NMSC). In early November, the commission, which evaluates policies related to the criminal justice system, told state legislators that the recent declines in part are likely due to ongoing criminal justice reform, increased prison diversion programs, and changes in how criminals are sentenced.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also thought to have played a role, as jury trials were suspended and the Department of Corrections worked to find elderly and at-risk prisoners who were eligible for early release, according to the NMSC. However, the decline in prison population began even before the pandemic.

For the first time in the last 10 years, the peak male prison population — the maximum number in prison in a fiscal year — has dropped below 6,000 prisoners. And the peak female prison population has dropped by a total of 24% over the last two fiscal years to 607 prisoners in 2021, according to data from the NMSC.

“Some of the decline may be attributable to a decrease in prosecutions during the pandemic,” Linda Freeman, the executive director at NMSC, told the legislature. As a result, the NMSC predicts a slight increase in prison populations in the coming years, as the effects of COVID-19 wane.

November 24, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Bureau of Justice Statistics releases "Federal Prisoner Statistics Collected under the First Step Act, 2021"

I was excited to receive new of this new Bureau of Justice Statistics' publication with lots of rich new data about the federal prisoner population.  This website provides this overview and a few key findings from "Federal Prisoner Statistics Collected under the First Step Act, 2021":

Description

This is the third report as required under the First Step Act of 2018 (FSA; P.L. 115-391). It includes data on federal prisoners provided to BJS by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for calendar year 2020. Under the FSA, BJS is required to report on selected characteristics of persons in prison, including marital, veteran, citizenship, and English-speaking status; education levels; medical conditions; and participation in treatment programs. Also, BJS is required to report facility-level statistics, such as the number of assaults on staff by prisoners, prisoners’ violations of rules that resulted in time credit reductions, and selected facility characteristics related to accreditation, on-site health care, remote learning, video conferencing, and costs of prisoners’ phone calls.

Highlights

  • The federal prison population decreased 13%, from 174,391 at yearend 2019 to 151,283 at yearend 2020.
  • In 2020, a total of 91 pregnant females were held in BOP-operated prison facilities, which was half the number held in 2019 (180).
  • In 2020, a total of 14,791 persons held in federal prison participated in a nonresidential drug abuse program, 10,868 in a residential drug abuse program, and 1,268 in a treatment challenge program for a substance use disorder.
  • In 2020, a total of 418 federal prisoners received medication-assisted treatment (approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) to treat a substance use disorder.

The full document has a lot more interesting highlights, including these notable data points about the work of the federal risk assessment tool used by BOP known as PATTERN:

November 23, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Lots of timely new content and commentary at The Crime Report

I am hopeful (though nor especially optimistic) that I will get a chance to catch up on some reading during the coming holiday weekend.  To that end, I just realized I am behind on flagging a lot of great new content at The Crime Report, and here is just a sample of what is worth catching up on at that site: 

"The Danger of a Return to Crime Alarmism" by James Austin, Todd Clear, Richard Rosenfeld, and Joel Wallman

"Can We Build an ‘Infrastructure’ for Violence Prevention?" by Greg Berman

"America Can Afford Decent Corrections Systems. Why Aren’t We Getting Them?" by Rory Fleming

"Rethinking the ‘Sex Offender’ Label" by Derek Logue

"North Carolina’s ‘Geriatric Death Row’" by TCR Staff

November 23, 2021 in Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)