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May 18, 2013

"Crackheaded Ruling by Sixth Circuit"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary by Ed Whelan at the National Review Online concerning yesterday's suprising split panel ruling by the Sixth Circuit in US v. Blewett, No. 12-5226 (6th Cir. May 17, 2013) (opinion here; my commentary here).  Here are excerpts from Whelan's take:

[I]n an opinion that will likely surprise all nine justices, a divided panel of the Sixth Circuit ruled (in United States v. Blewett) that the more lenient sentences of the Fair Sentencing Act apply to all crack-cocaine offenders, including those who were sentenced before the Act’s effective date. The justices will be much less surprised to discover that the opinion was authored by Gilbert S. Merritt Jr. and joined by Boyce F. Martin Jr., two Carter appointees who have plagued the Sixth Circuit for more than three decades. It’s notable that the thorough dissent comes not from a Republican appointee but from Clinton appointee Ronald Lee Gilman....

Under [the panel majority's] illogic, once it becomes known that a law has a (constitutionally permissible) racially disparate impact, the maintenance of that law would suddenly be transformed into intentional discrimination. As Judge Gilman observes, there is no support for such a proposition.

As Judge Gilman spells out, there is much more that is wrong with the majority opinion, from the fact that it rules on an “unbriefed and unargued issue” to its multiple violations of circuit precedent. Let’s see if the en banc Sixth Circuit will repair the damage or will instead leave it to the Supreme Court to do so.

Unsurprisingly, folks at the ACLU and FAMM have a much different perspective on the Sixth Circuit panel majority's work in Blewett.  Here are the titles and links to the press releases coming from these groups:

For legal, policy and practical reasons, it should be very intriguing to watch closely just where, when and how the Justice Department and others are going to argue that the majority in Blewett really blew it.

Related post:

May 18, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Lots of thoughts on how to save more innocent lives on highways

The Room for Debate on-line section of the New York Times has this new set of pieces discussing drunk driving and the law's responses thereto.  Here is the section's set up:

This week the National Transportation Safety Board recommended lowering the blood alcohol limit from 0.08 percent — the measurement now for 13 years — to 0.05 percent.

Is decreasing this number the best way to minimize traffic fatalities?

Here are the contribututions, with links via the commentary titles:

May 18, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

A (dynamically?) dormant death penalty in Dorothy's domicile

Kansas-state-flag-stampThe playfully alliterative headline for this post is spurred by this lengthy and effective local piece headlined "The Kansas death penalty has cobwebs." Here are excerpts:

It may be weeks before Kansans know if prosecutors will seek the death penalty for Kyle Flack, accused of killing four people in Franklin County this spring.   It will take far longer — 10 years or more — before anyone in the state is actually put to death for a crime.

And that time gap, advocates on both sides of the death penalty debate say, suggests the state remains deeply uneasy about the punishment — an ambivalence that muddies its value.  “When a law isn’t applied, it isn’t really a law,” said David Muhlhausen, a death penalty supporter and expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Capital punishment opponents aren’t eager to speed up executions, of course.  But they say the state’s lengthy death penalty procedure is costing taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees and other expenses without significantly improving public safety.  “Constituents have said to me, ‘We have a theoretical death penalty, but we don’t carry it out in practice,’” said Mary Sloan, executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty.  “So if we’re not going to carry it out in practice, why do we pay all that cost?”

No one has been put to death in Kansas since 1965.  “Kansas is 10 years and $20 million away from its first execution,” predicted lawyer and capital punishment opponent Sean O’Brien of Kansas City.

But death penalty supporters say the state’s ultimate sanction shouldn’t be judged solely by the number of times it’s actually used.  The mere threat of death — or decades locked in isolation, waiting for death — plays an important role, they say, in the state’s justice system.

Kansas lawmakers reinstated the state’s death penalty in 1994.  Since then, 13 men have been condemned to death for murder.  All remain alive.  Only nine sit on the state’s death row, according to the Kansas Department of Corrections’ website.  The others’ sentences were reduced after appeals and plea agreements, or have been vacated pending a new trial.

Since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court validated rewritten capital punishment laws, only two states with death penalty statutes — Kansas and New Hampshire — have not executed a single inmate.

The long gap between capital crime and capital punishment in Kansas is the result of several interlocking factors, experts say.  The state’s death penalty law is narrow, providing a way for even the most brutal killers to escape the punishment.  Some prosecutors use the death penalty more as a negotiating tool than a criminal sanction, and some politicians remain ambivalent about executions, as do many residents in the state.

And the courts play a critical role.  All death sentences in Kansas are automatically reviewed by the state’s Supreme Court.  It’s uniquely allowed to “scour the record” for trial and sentencing errors in capital cases, even those not raised by defense lawyers.  That further raises the chances for delays....

This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider Kansas death row inmate Scott Cheever’s case — he claims his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination was violated during his trial and sentencing for killing a sheriff....

In 2003, a legislative audit examined the state’s death penalty expenses in the previous decade.  Kansas, the audit found, had spent or would spend almost $20 million on its 14 death penalty cases, including cases where the death penalty was sought but not granted. By contrast, taxpayers spent $6.3 million on eight cases where the prosecutors did not ask for death in a murder case.

The most expensive death penalty case involved Johnson County’s John E. Robinson Sr., convicted on two capital murder counts.  Ten years ago, the state said Robinson’s case would cost taxpayers $2.4 million, a bill that has continued to grow.  “Nobody in his right mind defends the death penalty because it saves money, anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances,” O’Brien said.  “Because it doesn’t.”...

Gov. Sam Brownback said last week that his view on capital punishment has changed in recent years, putting him to the left of most in his Republican Party.  He now believes it should be reserved for inmates who pose a future threat to society, using Osama bin Laden as an example. “You’re always looking to protect life,” he said.  “That’s a very narrow definition of the use of the death penalty.”

Brownback’s views on capital punishment in Kansas, though, may be less important than they appear.  Even if he is re-elected in 2014, it’s unlikely he would still be in office when any death row clemency requests might be filed.  But they do suggest many Kansans, even some conservatives, remain uncomfortable with the ultimate sanction....

Some prosecutors and supporters, though, say keeping the death penalty on the Kansas books remains important.  Studies show the death penalty is still a deterrent, Heritage’s Muhlhausen said, although the effect drops in states that don’t actually carry it out.

Other experts dispute his conclusion. The Kansas murder rate is 3.5 per 100,000 people, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.  In Missouri, it’s 7 murders per 100,000.  Both have the death penalty, but only Missouri has carried it out in recent years. Iowa has no death penalty.  Its murder rate is 1.3 per 100,000 people.

But even the threat of capital punishment can focus a defendant’s attention on plea agreements that spare victims’ families from long trials, some lawyers say.  In most agreements, almost all future appeals are waived, ending the trauma of court appearances and media stories about the crime.  Additionally, death penalty defendants have more to worry about than death.

Paul Cramm represented Edwin Hall, now serving a sentence of life without parole after pleading guilty to murdering Kelsey Smith. Clients, Cramm said, are often as worried about the conditions of death row as they are about the execution chamber itself, which encourages plea deals. Death row inmates are kept in El Dorado, Kan., in isolation from almost all other prisoners. Most defendants realize “the likelihood of an acquittal or a finding of not guilty is not real high,” Cramm said. “The likelihood of being executed in your lifetime is not real high. So I guess what we’re negotiating for is, what sort of life do you want to have while you’re incarcerated?”...

Asked if the gap between sentence and execution in Kansas is too long, Brownback hesitated for several seconds. “I’ve been at the chambers in Lansing, where the death penalty would have to be administered,” he said. “That’s a very sobering place to see.

“But I think it’s kind of actually worked for the state,” he added. “Most Kansans would look at it as wanting this to be very, very, very sparingly used.”

May 18, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 17, 2013

"Two Rights to Counsel"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Josh Bowers now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This forthcoming essay argues that there is not one constitutionally recognized right to counsel, but two. There is a right to legal counsel and a right to extralegal counsel.  The right to legal counsel applies principally to the formal domain of the criminal trial; the right to extralegal counsel applies exclusively to the informal domains of the plea bargain and guilty plea. 

To understand the distinction, consider the Court’s recent decisions in Lafler v. Cooper and Missouri v. Frye.  An underappreciated feature of these rulings is the manner by which the Court has encouraged (and perhaps even constitutionally required) counsel to bargain “creatively” around substantive law.  Specifically, the Court has signaled that prosecutors and defense attorneys — not legislators — are the system’s real policy makers, and that, accordingly, effective assistance of counsel ought to be measured against their conception of the “sound administration of criminal justice.”  In the process, the Court has almost re-conceptualized the right to counsel as a constitutional entitlement to skirt legislative command — an entitlement that Justice Scalia derisively has termed a threat to the legality principle.

It does not follow, however, that the Court’s two-track jurisprudential approach is misguided.  Whereas the approach continues a troubling trend away from legislative and lay influence over criminal justice and toward professional executive control, it also may constitute the pragmatic (and even normatively compelled) best course in a second-best system of criminal justice that depends procedurally on horse trading and substantively on mandatory sentencing statutes that ill serve any defensible conception of proportionality or crime control.

May 17, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

On (wrong?) constitutional grounds, split Sixth Circuit panel gives full retroactive effect to new FSA crack sentences

With thanks to all the folks who alerted me while I was dealing with other matters, I am finally back on-line and able to report on a remarkable new split panel ruling by the Sixth Circuit today in US v. Blewett, No. 12-5226 (6th Cir. May 17, 2013) (available here). The start of the majority opinion (per Judge Merritt) will highlight for all federal sentencing fans why this ruling is a very big deal:

This is a crack cocaine case brought by two currently incarcerated defendants seeking retroactive relief from racially discriminatory mandatory minimum sentences imposed on them in 2005.  The Fair Sentencing Act was passed in August 2010 to “restore fairness to Federal cocaine sentencing” laws that had unfairly impacted blacks for almost 25 years.  The Fair Sentencing Act repealed portions of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that instituted a 100-to-1 ratio between crack and powder cocaine, treating one gram of crack as equivalent to 100 grams of powder cocaine for sentencing purposes.  The 100-to-1 ratio had long been acknowledged by many in the legal system to be unjustified and adopted without empirical support.  The Fair Sentencing Act lowered the ratio to a more lenient 18-to-1 ratio.  However, thousands of inmates, most black, languish in prison under the old, discredited ratio because the Fair Sentencing Act was not made explicitly retroactive by Congress.

In this case, we hold, inter alia, that the federal judicial perpetuation of the racially discriminatory mandatory minimum crack sentences for those defendants sentenced under the old crack sentencing law, as the government advocates, would violate the Equal Protection Clause, as incorporated into the Fifth Amendment by the doctrine of Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954) (Fifth Amendment forbids federal racial discrimination in the same way as the Fourteenth Amendment forbids state racial discrimination).  As Professor William J. Stuntz, the late Harvard criminal law professor, has observed, “persistent bias occurred with respect to the contemporary enforcement of drug laws where, in the 1990s and early 2000s, blacks constituted a minority of regular users of crack cocaine but more than 80 percent of crack defendants.”  The Collapse of American Criminal Justice 184 (2011).  He recommended that we “redress that discrimination” with “the underused concept of ‘equal protection of the laws.’” Id. at 297.

In this opinion, we will set out both the constitutional and statutory reasons the old, racially discriminatory crack sentencing law must now be set aside in favor of the new sentencing law enacted by Congress as the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.  The Act should apply to all defendants, including those sentenced prior to its passage.  We therefore reverse the judgment of the district court and remand for resentencing.

The start of the dissent (per Judge Gilman) will highlight for all federal sentencing fans why this ruling seems sure to get en banc and/or Supreme Court review:

I fear that my panel colleagues have sua sponte set sail into the constitutional sea of equal protection without any legal ballast to keep their analysis afloat.  To start with, they “readily acknowledge that no party challenges the constitutionality of denying retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act to people who were sentenced under the old regime.” Maj. Op. 6. Opining on this unbriefed and unargued issue is thus fraught with the likelihood of running aground on the shoals of uncharted territory.

As the title of my post hints, though I really like the effort, I am not sure a Fifth Amendment equal protection theory provides a strong constitutional foundation for giving the new crack sentences retroactive effect.  But I have long thought, in the wake of the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act and the USSC's implementation of its new 18-1 crack guidelines retroactively, that a proper application of the Eighth Amendment could and should provided a reasoned and reasonable basis to give full retroactive effect to all the provisions of the FSA.

If (dare I say, when) this notable Blewett ruling gets subject to further review, I hope to have a chance to fully explicate (perhaps via an amicus brief) my Eighth Amendment approach to reaching the conclusions reached by the majority here on distinct constitutional grounds. In the meantime, we have an interesting Friday ruling to debate through the weekend.

May 17, 2013 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

"Is Marijuana Booming Among Boomers?"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new Forbes article which gets started this way:

Like many of her peers, Zoe Helene, 48, smoked marijuana in her early 20s but gave it up as her career in the digital world took off in the 1990s.  Today the multidisciplinary artist and environmental activist lives in Amherst, Mass., and is building a global network of trailblazers called Cosmic Sister.  Since she married an ethnobotanist in 2007, she has returned to using cannabis occasionally — “as a tool for evolving and expanding my psyche.”

Helene is among a group of women that Marie Claire magazine has dubbed “Stiletto Stoners — card-carrying, type-A workaholics who just happen to prefer kicking back with a blunt instead of a bottle.”  She’s also one of a growing legion of boomers who are returning to marijuana now that the stigma and judgment (and laws) surrounding its use are becoming more lax.

Massachusetts, which decriminalized pot in 2008, became the 18th state to legalize medical marijuana, last year.  In the 2012 presidential election, which New York Times columnist Timothy Egan called America’s “cannabis spring,” Colorado and Washington voters legalized recreational use, launching weed into the national spotlight and spawning a flurry of marijuana initiatives.  Since then, decriminalization bills have been introduced in 10 additional states, and legalization is being considered in 11 states and Puerto Rico.

This trend, along with decriminalization in cities like Chicago, Boston, New York and Denver, has removed a major “barrier to entry” for law-abiding citizens who would use cannabis as medicine or a substitute for alcohol.  No longer worried about breaking the law or having their kids discovering their “dirty little secret,” many boomers are returning to a substance they once enjoyed.  Others, who never stopped smoking, are coming out of the closet (or the garage) about their use.

May 17, 2013 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

May 16, 2013

As notable new face joins Eighth Circuit, will court do better with SCOTUS on sentencing issues?

Jane KellyThanks to How Appealing,I just saw this interesting new AP profile of the interesting new judge on the Eighth Circuit.  The article is headlined "Jane Kelly's experience rare on US appeals court," and here are excerpts:

Jane Kelly will become a federal appeals court judge Friday with an unusual background that supporters say makes her a perfect fit for the job and a potential U.S. Supreme Court candidate someday.

The 48-year-old attorney has spent her career as a public defender representing low-income criminal defendants, a rarity in the ranks of appeals court judges who are often former prosecutors and trial judges. She'll become just the second woman in the 122-year history of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles cases in seven states from Arkansas to the Dakotas.

Kelly, who's worked at the federal public defender's office in Cedar Rapids since 1994, graduated from Harvard Law School in the same 1991 class as President Barack Obama. But her appointment was far from patronage. She had so much support that her confirmation received a 96-0 vote in the Senate less than three months after she was appointed, speedier than any other circuit judge nominated by Obama. She also is the survivor of a 2004 beating on a popular jogging trail that left her hospitalized for weeks and shook Cedar Rapids.

Associates say she is a smart legal thinker who has zealously defended the rights of even the most publicly despised clients, including a notorious mailbox bombing suspect and the biggest white-collar criminal in Iowa history. Even prosecutors who disagreed with her in court praise Kelly, who will take the oath of office privately.

"Her story is compelling all the way around," said Debra Fitzpatrick of the University of Minnesota-based Infinity Project, which advocates for more women on the 8th Circuit. "Her credentials and her background and her career sort of set her up to be the right candidate at the right time."

If a Supreme Court justice retires during Obama's second term, Kelly could get mentioned as a potential nominee. Her supporters say they expect her to shine on the circuit, which has 11 active judges and hears 3,500 appeals a year. The lifetime appointment pays $184,500 annually.

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, recommended Kelly to Obama to replace retiring Judge Michael Melloy after she rose above an "outstanding" pool. He said she would be the first career public defender on the circuit, bringing "a critically important perspective." Iowa's other senator, Republican Chuck Grassley, ranking member on the judiciary committee, helped convince colleagues to move Kelly's confirmation quickly. Grassley said he supported Kelly because she received a glowing endorsement from respected retired judge David Hansen of Iowa, appointed to the circuit by President George H.W. Bush.

Kelly, Hansen's clerk from 1992 to 1993, was a persuasive writer and debater who often argued opposing viewpoints to help him flesh out cases, Hansen said. "She's a delight to be around, and I predict a very bright future for her in the federal judiciary," Hansen said. "She isn't going to have any trouble intellectually with the work because she has a brilliant legal mind."

Kelly, who did not respond to an interview request, received friendly questions and praise at her confirmation hearing. She said her background gives her a "broader view" of the challenges facing defendants but that she'd need to get up to speed on civil matters. She introduced her partner, Tom Lidd, who has credited Kelly with helping inspire and edit his book about Iowa football legend Nile Kinnick.

A long-distance runner, Kelly's life almost ended when she went for a morning jog on the Cedar River Trail in June 2004. She was tackled and beaten by a male stranger, then dragged to a creek and left for dead. Passersby found Kelly in a pool of blood, in and out of consciousness and struggling to call for help. Speculation swirled that the attack was linked to Kelly's legal work, but no one ever was arrested.

Kelly quickly returned to representing criminal defendants after spending months in recovery. Her colleagues gave her the John Adams Award, which recognizes an Iowa lawyer's commitment to the constitutional right to criminal defense. And hundreds gathered one year later for a "Take Back the Trail" event, where Kelly jogged there again for the first time.

Kelly grew up in Newcastle, Ind., and graduated from Duke University in 1987. She earned a Fulbright scholarship to study in New Zealand before enrolling at Harvard, where she and Obama were acquaintances but not friends. She clerked for U.S. District Judge Donald Porter in South Dakota and then for Hansen.

She taught one year at University of Illinois law school before returning to Iowa as one of the first hires for the new public defender's office. She's been a fixture ever since, often representing "not the most popular person in the room," as she put it in her confirmation hearing, including drug dealers, pornographers and con artists.

As long-time readers and sentencing gurus likely know, many of the most notable modern SCOTUS sentencing rulings involved reversals of Eighth Circuit decisions.  In just last few years alone, the defendants in Pepper, Spears, Greenlaw, and Gall all lost on sentencing issues in the Eighth Circuit prior to reverals in the Supreme Court.  Indeed, I have long speculated that some Justices take an extra long look at some of the sentencing decisions that emerge from that circuit.  I suppose only time will tell if and how these federal sentencing law patterns, and the broader criminal justice jurisprudence of the Eighth Circuit, change at all in the months and years ahead now that a fresh new face with a fresh new perspective has joined that august court.

May 16, 2013 in Booker in the Circuits, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

"Can ‘Smart Gun’ Technology Change the Stalemate Over Gun Violence?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new piece of reporting over at The Crime Report, which echoes some ideas that I have been raising on this blog for a number of years and that I have given extra attention to following the Newtown massacre.  Here are excerpts:

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter issued a challenge to the gun industry yesterday, arguing that the application of “smart gun” technology, designed to program firearms so that only their owners can fire them, could not only save lives but neutralize the concerns of gun rights advocates.

"Why don't you at least try?” Nutter, who also serves as president of the U.S., Conference of Mayors, asked Joe Bartozzi, vice-president of the Connecticut-based firearms manufacturer O.F. Mossberg and Sons.  “Put one on the market and see what happens."

But Bartozzi, speaking at a roundtable for newsroom editors and columnists at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, insisted it wouldn’t work.  Bartozzi said Mossberg had already surveyed focus groups about some of the cutting-edge technology already available, such as personalized rings that could be digitally programmed to recognize the legitimate owner of a weapon.

The response, he said, was overwhelmingly negative.  Customers who wanted guns to protect themselves and their families considered such technology too unreliable, he said. "What if I have to hand the gun to my spouse in an emergency?”  Bartozzi recalled a focus group member asking.

"It’s hard to understand that it represents more than just a piece of steel or plastic.  It represents personal security; it represents security when the police aren't there.  It represents even food when there's no supermarket. It represents self-defense.  It represents liberty and freedom for a lot of people," Bartozzi said....

Nutter and fellow panelist Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak argued that finding technological solutions to the challenge of gun access represented a common sense approach to a problem both sides agreed was a key factor in reducing the kind of gun violence that has afflicted many U.S. cities: the easy access to guns — particularly those sold or trafficked on the black market — to youth gang members and others who otherwise could not get them legally....

The smart gun technology issue, ranging from biometrics to trigger locks, also reflects a wider challenge by gun safety advocates to treat guns as consumer products subject to national safety standards similar to seatbelts in cars or childproof medicine bottles.

Bartozzi, a member of the board of governors of the National Shooting Sports Foundation — the leading industry lobby group — insisted guns are unlike other consumer products subject to federal rules because they are protected by the Second Amendment.  “I think sometimes we confuse what our privileges and rights. Driving a car is a privilege.  You have the right to own a gun,” he said.

Rybak and other speakers at yesterday’s “Under the Gun” roundtable charged that leading gun rights lobbies such as the National rifle Association (NRA) and the NSSF made it harder to reach any compromise because of their objections to both technological solutions and efforts to modernize even the current system for tracking guns used during crimes.

Based in part on prior discussions on this blog (some of which are linked below), I understand fully the reservations that many gun owners and gun-rights activists have about using technology to try to prevent mis-use of firearms.  Nevertheless, I think the development of device that might at least enable one to eletronically disable a stolen or lost firearm could perhaps generate interest in the marketplace, especially if the federal government created tax incentives to encourage use of this kind of gun-safety technology.

More broadly, I think the development of a safer "smart gun" could and should be spurred by some kind of "Project X" private funding scheme through a university or think tank (see example here), especially now that it seems the private marketplace or governments are making much progress on this front.  I suspect just a few millions dollars as a "smart gun" prize (only a fraction of what is being poured into gun policy lobby shops and PACs) could go a very long way to moving forward and ultimately saving innocent lives.

A few recent and older related posts:

May 16, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

When can and how should sex offenders be responsible for harming property values?

The provocative question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent local article from Pennsylvania headlined "Judge: Sex offender not required to buy victim's property."   Here are excerpts:

A Lehigh County couple who say a neighbor who admitted molesting their child should be forced to buy their property apparently won't get their wish.

County Judge Michele A. Varricchio has shot down the Upper Milford Township couple's unusual request that sex offender Oliver Larry Beck be required to purchase their $235,000 property, according to court records. Varricchio issued the order last week, explaining that forcing a sex offender to buy the home of a victim living in his neighborhood would "open the proverbial floodgates."

"This court finds it against public policy to require a defendant to purchase a plaintiff's property in a nuisance case," Varricchio wrote. The judge added that ordering the home purchase would "impose almost limitless liability on a property owner by every other neighbor who claims difficulty selling his or her property, regardless of the proximity to the alleged nuisance."

Varricchio was ruling on preliminary objections in a lawsuit filed against Beck, along with Beck's wife and mother. The couple whose daughter was molested by Beck filed the suit in December asking a judge to order Beck to buy their home and pay for the child's pain and suffering and for other damages. They claim the property is virtually unmarketable....

They still are eligible to seek damages for their child's suffering and for the loss in value of their property, although Varricchio said they are not entitled to be paid for the total value of the property. Varricchio's order says that that the victim's family should amend the lawsuit to provide details and proof of the loss in the value of their property.

"There is no doubt that the parents have a right to enjoy their own residence and property without the invasion and interference caused by [Beck]," Varricchio wrote. "Property rights are protected by the United States Constitution, but the equal protection clause affords both plaintiffs and defendants that protection."...

There is some scientific evidence that sex offenders lower property values. Two economics professors at Columbia Business School in 2008 studied the effect, finding that the value of homes within one-tenth of a mile of a sex offender dropped by an average of 4 percent.

The suit accuses Beck of sexual assault, infliction of emotional distress, fraud and negligence, among other claims. It also names as defendants Beck's wife and mother, claiming both knew or should have known of Beck's attraction to young children.

Beck, now 65, pleaded guilty in 2011 to indecent assault of a child under 13 and served time in prison. He is out of prison, but under Megan's Law must register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. Investigators said that in February 2011, Beck lured the victim, then 7 years old, into his house by saying he wanted to show her a bear's head mounted in his basement. After telling the girl to feel the bear, Beck told her to take off her shirt and pants and then assaulted her, according to court records.

Beck's attorney, Robert J. Magee of Allentown, wrote in a court brief that the demand for the home purchase was "not appropriate or authorized under a legal or equitable theory." He added that the victim's family is still able to use and enjoy the property. He added, "This is just a type of injury that allows for no recourse, an injury without a remedy."

Varricchio also dismissed the couple's request that Beck pay their attorneys' fees. In addition, she dismissed a claim against Beck's wife that she be held partly liable for their property value loss.

May 16, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (41) | TrackBack

"Capital Prejudice"

The title of this post is the title of this new article on SSRN authored by J. Richard Broughton.  Here is the abstract:

This paper, published as part of a symposium devoted to cultural competency and the death penalty, considers the law of prejudice pursuant to Strickland v. Washington, with a focus on its application in capital cases.  It offers a rarity in the academic literature on Strickland’s prejudice prong: a modest defense of it.  Although this paper concedes the plausibility of an alternative to the existing standard, it argues that some form of harm analysis ought to remain part of basic ineffective assistance jurisprudence and that even the best articulated alternative suffers from some deficiencies that render the existing standard equally desirable.  Indeed, this paper acknowledges that the existing prejudice standard is unlikely to be replaced and therefore must be properly understood and applied. 

The paper gives special attention to the standard as applied in capital cases involving ineffective assistance claims after Strickland, as those cases have tended to dominate the Court’s attention in this area of constitutional criminal procedure.  It then argues that the prejudice standard must account not simply for the strength of the state’s case but also, in the special context of a Strickland challenge arising from the capital sentencing phase, for the unique capital sentencing procedures in place in the relevant jurisdiction and be understood as intersecting with the Eighth Amendment law of aggravation and mitigation law as applied during the jury’s selection decision.

The Court’s opinions in Terry Williams, Wiggins, and Rompilla, in particular, all represented an effort to give greater bite to the Strickland standard and demonstrate that the state need not necessarily prevail on ineffective assistance claims.  But, unlike others in the academic community, I argue that the Court wrongly decided each of those cases. It gave too much attention to the deficiency prong and inadequate attention to proper application of the prejudice prong, particularly in light of the nature of the crimes, the strength of aggravation, and the highly deferential portions of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) that generally govern claims on federal habeas review.  The Court, however, has moved in a corrective direction, especially after its recent decision in Cullen v. Pinholster, which will likely have significant consequences for the litigation of ineffective assistance claims on collateral review.

May 16, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 15, 2013

Could marijuana use help combat type-2 diabetes and even obesity?

The question in the title of post is prompted by this press release discussing new research findings published now in The American Journal of Medicine.  Here are excerpts from the press release:

Regular marijuana use is associated with favorable indices related to diabetic control, say investigators.  They found that current marijuana users had significantly lower fasting insulin and were less likely to be insulin resistant, even after excluding patients with a diagnosis of diabetes mellitus. Their findings are reported in the current issue of The American Journal of Medicine....

A multicenter research team analyzed data obtained during the National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES) between 2005 and 2010.  They studied data from 4,657 patients who completed a drug use questionnaire.  Of these, 579 were current marijuana users, 1,975 had used marijuana in the past but were not current users, and 2,103 had never inhaled or ingested marijuana.  Fasting insulin and glucose were measured via blood samples following a nine hour fast, and homeostasis model assessment of insulin resistance (HOMA-IR) was calculated to evaluate insulin resistance.

Participants who reported using marijuana in the past month had lower levels of fasting insulin and HOMA-IR and higher levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C). These associations were weaker among those who reported using marijuana at least once, but not in the past thirty days, suggesting that the impact of marijuana use on insulin and insulin resistance exists during periods of recent use.  Current users had 16% lower fasting insulin levels than participants who reported never having used marijuana in their lifetimes.

Large waist circumference is linked to diabetes risk.  In the current study there were also significant associations between marijuana use and smaller waist circumferences.

“Previous epidemiologic studies have found lower prevalence rates of obesity and diabetes mellitus in marijuana users compared to people who have never used marijuana, suggesting a relationship between cannabinoids and peripheral metabolic processes, but ours is the first study to investigate the relationship between marijuana use and fasting insulin, glucose, and insulin resistance,” says lead investigator Murray A. Mittleman, MD, DrPH, of the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Research Unit at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston....

Although people who smoke marijuana have higher average caloric intake levels than non-users, marijuana use has been associated with lower body-mass index (BMI) in two previous surveys.  “The mechanisms underlying this paradox have not been determined and the impact of regular marijuana use on insulin resistance and cardiometabolic risk factors remains unknown,” says coauthor Hannah Buettner.

The investigators acknowledge that data on marijuana use were self-reported and may be subject to underestimation or denial of illicit drug use.  However, they point out, underestimation of drug use would likely yield results biased toward observing no association.

Editor-in-Chief Joseph S. Alpert, MD, Professor of Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Tucson, comments, “These are indeed remarkable observations that are supported, as the authors note, by basic science experiments that came to similar conclusions.

“We desperately need a great deal more basic and clinical research into the short- and long-term effects of marijuana in a variety of clinical settings such as cancer, diabetes, and frailty of the elderly,” continues Alpert.  “I would like to call on the NIH and the DEA to collaborate in developing policies to implement solid scientific investigations that would lead to information assisting physicians in the proper use and prescription of THC in its synthetic or herbal form.”

I guess this research could mean a whole bunch of fat guys might be now able to reasonably claim a medical need for marijuana.  (And given that New Jersey is one of the states which has legalized medical marijuana, I wonder if Gov Chris Christie now wishes he had heard of this research before he had his recent lap-band surgery.)

May 15, 2013 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Arizona jurors quickly make finding for Jodi Arias to be formally death eligible

As detailed in this new AP report, the "same jury that convicted Jodi Arias of murder one week ago took about three hours Wednesday to determine that the former waitress is eligible for the death penalty in the stabbing and shooting death of her one-time lover in his bathroom five years ago." Here is more about today's jury finding and what now follows in this high-profile capital case:

The decision came after a day of testimony in the "aggravation" phase of the trial, during which prosecutor Juan Martinez hoped to prove the June 2008 killing was committed in an especially cruel and heinous manner.

Family members of victim Travis Alexander sobbed in the front row as Martinez took the jury through the killing one more time. He described how blood gushed from Alexander's chest, hands and throat as the motivational speaker and businessman stood at the sink in his master bathroom and looked into the mirror with Arias behind him....

The trial now moves into the final phase, in which prosecutors will call Alexander's family and other witnesses in an effort to convince the panel Arias should face the ultimate punishment. Arias' attorneys also will call witnesses, likely members of her family, in an attempt to gain sympathy from jurors so they give her life in prison. That phase is scheduled to start Thursday morning.

The aggravation phase played out in quick fashion, with only one prosecution witness and none for the defense. The most dramatic moments occurred when Martinez displayed photos of the bloody crime scene for the jury and paused in silence for two minutes to describe how long he said it took for Alexander to die at Arias' hands on June 4, 2008....

Martinez told jurors Wednesday that Alexander "suffered immensely" at Arias' hands. "She made sure she killed him by stabbing him over and over and over again," he said.

The defense didn't have much of a case given how many times Alexander was stabbed, the defensive wounds on his hands, the length of the attack, and the sheer amount of blood found at the scene. Defense lawyers said Alexander would have had so much adrenaline rushing through his body that he might not have felt much pain.

The only witness was the medical examiner who performed the autopsy and explained to jurors how Alexander did not die calmly and fought for his life as evidenced by the numerous defensive wounds on his body.

Recent related posts:

May 15, 2013 in Celebrity sentencings, Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

US Judicial Conference seeks emergency funding due to "an unprecedented financial crisis that could seriously compromise [its] Constitutional mission"

As reported in this new post at The BLT, the US Judicial Conference yesterday "asked the White House for emergency funding, saying the judiciary does not have the budget flexibility to absorb the large mandatory budget cuts that have caused furloughs in the nation's federal public defender and court offices."  Here is more:

In a letter sent Tuesday to the White House Office of Management and Budget [available here], the U.S. Judicial Conference said the courts need an emergency appropriation of $73 million — $41 million for federal public defenders and $32 million for court operations. The money would save 550 jobs in public defender and clerk offices, and prevent 24,000 furlough days for 5,000 employees, the letter states.

The judicial conference request also connected the emergency funding to the Boston Marathon bombing, saying $5 million for projected representation costs "for high-threat trials, including high-threat cases in New York and Boston" that federal public defenders would have been able to absorb had the sequester not happened.

The courts want to replace part of the $350 million overall cut to the federal courts budget as part of sequestration earlier this year, according to the letter from U.S. Circuit Judge Julia Gibbons, the chair of the judicial conference, and U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Hogan, director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

"The judiciary is confronting an unprecedented financial crisis that could seriously compromise the Constitutional mission of the United States courts," the letter states. "We believe our supplemental request meets the threshold for receiving an emergency designation."

The federal courts, the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies have been sounding the alarm about the impact of sequestration cuts since last year. Since the cuts went into effect, federal public defenders offices and clerk of courts have announced furloughs for employees.

Congress has so far restored funding cuts that affected air travel, and allowed the Justice Department to transfer funds to avoid furloughs for the prison officers, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, prosecutors and other officials. So far, the courts have gotten no such consideration. "Unlike some executive branch entities, the judiciary has little flexibility to move funds between appropriation accounts to lessen the effect of sequestration," the letter states.

The judicial conference says $13 million of the funding would go directly to restoring public safety, because it will bring back half of the sequestration cuts for drug testing, substance abuse and mental health treatment of federal defendants and offenders. The request includes $28 million to avoid deferring for three weeks payments to private attorneys representing indigent defendants.

Recent related posts:

May 15, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (31) | TrackBack

"Colorado corrections alerting judges of hundreds of sentencing flaws"

The title of this post is the headline of this Denver Post article, which gets started this way:

Corrections officials are alerting judges throughout Colorado that errors appear to have resulted in early, improper release dates from prison for hundreds of prisoners they sentenced.

The judges are reviewing the case files so they can decide which of those already released from incarceration should be returned to prison to serve out the longer sentences required by state law. Other cases involve prisoners who are on the verge of release who may now see their sentences extended.

These are the early results of an audit still underway by the Colorado Department of Corrections.  Gov. John Hickenlooper ordered the department to conduct the audit after it was disclosed that a parolee believed to have murdered corrections chief Tom Clements was released from prison early because of a clerical error.

The audit, so far, has found "serious questions" in the sentences of 349 individuals either already released from prison or scheduled for release, corrections officials said.  Of those, judges have amended sentences in 56 cases.

The errors occurred for a variety of reasons.  In some cases, judicial clerks may have given incorrect sentences to the corrections department.  In others, corrections officials may have interpreted sentences incorrectly.  A full breakdown is not yet available on how the errors occurred.

The audit still is in the preliminary stages and is not expected to be finished until July. The state has identified 8,415 individuals whose sentences need reviews, with at least 2,500 warranting a more intensive look.  About a fifth of the intensive reviews have been completed. If the current error rate continues, "serious" sentencing flaws could be detected in the cases of more than 1,000 individuals.

I guess this story brings new meaning to the label "Department of Corrections."

May 15, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Judge Kopf weighs in on Rep. Sensenbrenner (and on comments to his comment)

I am pleased to see that Senior United States District Judge Richard Kopf has now discussed, through two recent posts on his blog "Hercules and The Umpire", some of the recent discussion generated by my post concerning Representative James Sensenbrenner's statement about "judge-shopping" and the need for mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  Here are the titles of the two posts by Judge Kopf, along with the heart of Judge Kopf's additional commentary in these posts:

Memo to Doug Berman: The answer is “yes.” (This is a direct answer to this post's title query: "Isn't it stunningly idiotic for GOP Rep. Sensenbrenner to defend mandatory minimums because of "judge-shopping'?"):

I once had an audience with then Chairman Sensenbrenner in his Washington office. It was disconcerting for a variety of reasons.  Prime among the reasons for my disquiet was the fact that the Congressman sat very near to a portrait of himself that was so large and so lifelike that I could not figure out whether I was speaking to the portrait or the real guy. As it turned out, nothing I said to the portrait or the man made any difference.

More on Sensenbrenner:

Everyone who knows anything about the federal district courts understand that it is virtually impossible to judge-shop in the manner suggested by the Bucky Badger doppelgänger.  Everyone who knows anything about federal sentencing policy -- from the Sentencing Commission on down -- also knows that almost all mandatory minimum sentences radically distort and frustrate reasoned sentencing practices.  The current effort to address statutory minimums in Congress is really important and Doug’s effort to stimulate serious discussion on the subject was cheapened by the responses he received.

Good and smart people ought to act good and smart.  We have the Sensenbrenners of the world to provide us with the nasty and dumb.

May 15, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Abortion doc cuts post-conviction deal to get formal LWOP rather than face (symbolic) death penalty

As reported in this ABC News story, "Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell agreed ... to serve two life sentences and waive his right to an appeal in order to avoid the possibility of being condemned to death." Here is more about the case and the deal cut:

Gosnell was convicted of first degree murder on Monday in the deaths of three babies who were born live and then killed by severing their spinal chords with scissors.

As part of the deal, Gosnell, 72, will serve two life sentences without the possibility of parole or the opportunity to appeal.  Prosecutors had sought the death penalty against Gosnell, but because of his advanced age it was deemed unlikely that he would live long enough for death penalty appeals which can last decades.

Gosnell is expected to be sentenced Wednesday.  He will also be sentenced on a conviction of involuntary manslaughter in the death of a female patient who was given a lethal dose of sedatives and pain killers in 2009.

The guilty verdicts came on Monday, the jury's 10th day of deliberations.  Gosnell was accused of performing late-term abortions on four babies who were born alive, but were then allegedly killed by Gosnell.  He was cleared in the death of one of the infants.

For two months, the jury heard often grisly testimony, including from members of Gosnell's staff.  Eight staffers have pleaded guilty to several crimes. Prosecutors said none of the staff were licensed nurses or doctors.

While there are many justifiable complaints about the high costs associated with the administration of the death penalty, this outcome provide a prime example of the cost savings that the death penalty can sometimes help generate.  Only the prospect of the death penalty made this post-conviction deal possible, and the cost to the Pennsylvania court systems from direct and collateral appeals could have been considerable absent this deal.

Recent related post:

May 15, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

"Incentivizing Lawfulness Through Post-Sentencing Appellate Waivers"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now up on SSRN by Kevin Bennardo. Here is the abstract:

A sentencing appellate waiver is a promise by a criminal defendant not to appeal her sentence.  These provisions routinely appear in federal defendants’ plea agreements.  With a few narrow exceptions, a knowing and voluntary sentencing appellate waiver bars a defendant from appealing all issues within the scope of the waiver.  Using previous models of judicial behavior and available empirical data, this article argues that the inclusion of sentencing appellate waivers in plea agreements creates bargaining inefficiencies and removes important incentives from the sentencing process.  As a solution, the article proposes that sentencing appellate waivers should take the form of separate post-sentencing agreements.

First, during the plea bargaining stage, both parties suffer from incomplete information about the true value of the defendant’s appellate rights because neither the procedure nor the outcome of the sentencing hearing is yet known.  With that information deficiency, the parties’ default valuation of the defendant’s sentencing appellate rights are often unaligned — the defendant overvalues her appellate rights out of fear of an unjust sentence and the government undervalues the same rights based on past experiences. This disparity is magnified by the disproportionate significance that a defendant places on an unfavorable sentencing outcome relative to an unfavorable outcome’s significance to the government.  As a result, the parties inefficiently bargain over sentencing appellate waivers at the pre-plea stage.

Second, the foreknowledge that a sentence is virtually unreviewable removes important incentives from the sentencing judge.  Past research and behavioral modeling have demonstrated that the “ordinary” district court judge labors under an aversion to reversal and that this reversal aversion influences sentencing outcomes and procedures.  By signaling to the court that the prospect of appellate review has been removed, the current system of including sentencing appellate waivers in plea agreements reduces the likelihood that district courts will adhere to statutorily-required sentencing practices.

Third, the inclusion of sentencing appellate waivers in plea agreements creates difficulties in imposing meaningful consequences on defendants for breach of the agreement.  Under the current system, a breaching defendant who notes an appeal in violation of her appellate waiver suffers the consequence of having her appeal dismissed.  In general, neither the government nor the court is willing to unravel the entire plea agreement as a result of the breach.  Thus, the defendant’s breach renders her no worse off than if she had adhered to her promise not to appeal.  The government’s impotence to impose meaningful additional sanctions beyond the prospect of dismissal fails to effectively deter defendants from breaching their sentencing appellate waivers.

This article proposes a post-sentencing appellate waiver system whereby the defendant and the government may bargain for a separate sentencing appellate waiver agreement after the completion of the sentencing hearing.  During this post-sentencing bargaining, both parties will be fully informed about the sentencing hearing’s procedure and outcome, and thus will be able to appropriately value the defendant’s appellate rights and bargain efficiently.  Because a sentencing appellate waiver will not be consummated (if at all) until after the sentencing hearing is complete, the sentencing judge will be incentivized to conduct a hearing that complies with all applicable sentencing law.  And, because the government can withdraw the incremental benefit bartered in exchange for the defendant’s promise not to appeal, defendants will be disincentivized from breaching their sentencing appellate waiver agreements.

May 15, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

May 14, 2013

In praise of NTSB seeking to save more innocent lives with tougher DUI laws

I was very pleased to see the news today, like this report from CNN, concerning a new recommendation to lower the level at which a driver is to be considered over the limit.  Here are the details:

A common benchmark in the United States for determining when a driver is legally drunk is not doing enough to prevent alcohol-related crashes that kill about 10,000 people each year and should be made more restrictive, transportation safety investigators say.

The National Transportation Safety Board recommended on Tuesday that all 50 states adopt a blood-alcohol content (BAC) cutoff of 0.05 compared to the 0.08 standard on the books today and used by law enforcement and the courts to prosecute drunk driving....

The idea for a tighter standard is part of a safety board initiative outlined in a staff report and approved by the panel to eventually eliminate drunk driving, which accounts for about a third of all road deaths in the United States.

Hersman said progress has been made over the years to reduce drunk driving, including a range of federal and state policies, tougher law enforcement, and stronger advocacy.  But she said too many people are still dying on America's roads.  The board acknowledged that there was "no silver bullet," but that more action is needed at the federal and state levels.

"In the last 30 years, more than 440,000 people have perished in this country due to alcohol-impaired driving. What will be our legacy 30 years from now?"  Hersman asked. "If we don't tackle alcohol-impaired driving now, when will we find the will to do so?"

Lowering the rate to 0.05 would save about 500 to 800 lives annually, the safety board said....

The NTSB investigates transportation accidents and advocates on safety issues.  It cannot impose its will through regulation and can only recommend changes to federal and state agencies or legislatures, including Congress.  But the independent agency is influential on matters of public safety and its decisions can spur action from like-minded legislators and transportation agencies nationwide.  States set their own BAC standards.

The board also recommended on Tuesday that states vastly expand laws allowing police to swiftly confiscate licenses from drivers who exceed the blood alcohol limits.  And it is pushing for laws requiring all first-time offenders to have ignition locking devices that prevent cars from starting until breath samples are analyzed.

In the early 1980s, when grass-roots safety groups brought attention to drunk driving, many states required a 0.15 BAC rate to demonstrated intoxication.  But over the next 24 years, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other groups pushed states to adopt the 0.08 BAC standard, the last state falling in line in 2004.

The number of alcohol-related highway fatalities, meanwhile, dropped from 20,000 in 1980 to 9,878 in 2011, the NTSB said. In recent years, about 31 percent of all fatal highway accidents were attributed to alcohol impairment, the NTSB said....

The NTSB cited research that showed most drivers experience a decline in both cognitive and visual functions with a BAC of 0.05.  Currently, more than 100 countries on six continents have BAC limits set at 0.05 or lower, the safety board said.  The NTSB has asked all 50 states to do the same.

A restaurant trade association, the American Beverage Institute, attacked the main recommendation, saying the average woman reaches 0.05 percent BAC after consuming one drink....  A beer industry trade group said it would examine NTSB's recommendation for lowering the blood-alcohol threshold. "However, we strongly encourage policymakers to direct their efforts where we know we can get results: by focusing on repeat offenders and increasing penalties on those with BAC of (0.15) or more," said Joe McClain, president of the Beer Institute....

The NTSB recommended last December that states require ignition interlocks for all DUI offenders and said states should improve interlock compliance.

I concur with the recommendation coming from the Beer Institute that states get tougher ASAP on repeat drunk drivers and those caught driving with high BACs.  But I think that should be done in addition to defining the legal limt for BAC lower, coupled with technological sanctions for first offenders.  Specifically, as I have often noted in prior posts, states that require ignition locks for convicted drunk drivers have seen a marked decline in highway fatalities. Unless and until someone can prove to me that tipsy driving is more valuable than innocent human lives, I will praise any and all efforts by NTSB and others to do everything reasonable to reduce the harms of drinking and driving.

Some related posts on sentencing drunk drivers and advocacy for ignition locks:

May 14, 2013 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

A potent response to a prosecutor's perspective on Lafler, Frye and the future of plea bargaining

Via this post last month, I noted this interesting commentary appearing in the Houston Law Review’s online edition by Graham Polando, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney in Indiana, concerning the Lafler ruling and the future of plea bargaining. Today I received an e-mail from Darryl Brown telling me that this blog post with Polando's Lafler criticism compelled him "to crank out a four-page response on why he's wrong in every way, including the sentencing angle."  This response is available here at SSRN, and Darryl reports it is forthcoming in the same e-journal.  Darryl also says his piece includes a "key un-scholarly innovation": an offer to donate $100 to prosecutors if any one of them proves Darryl wrong. 

This piece is titled "Lafler's Remedial Uncertainty: Why Prosecutors Can Rest Easy," and here is its abstract:  

Some prosecutors are dismayed by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Lafler v. Cooper. This very brief (2,000 words) comment responds to a recent version of that concern. Lafler held that a defendant who declined a plea bargain offer due to his attorney's incompetent advice, and was later convicted at trial, must be reoffered the original bargain as the first step in a remedy for denial of his right to effective counsel. Some prosecutors worry that defendants will exploit Lafler to take a shot at trial while still keeping the plea bargain in reserve.  In four pages, I explain why they should not worry.

Lafler does not guarantee defendants a sentence based on the bargain, only a chance to present that bargain to a trial court that now knows (from the intervening trial) a great deal more about a defendant's case, and which has clear authority, after Lafler, not to vacate the post-trial conviction and sentence. Further, few defendants will find it as easy as Mr. Cooper did to prove that his lawyer provided ineffective representation. And in any case defendants will have to wait years, in prison, after a trial conviction to win a Lafler claim (usually in habeas litigation) and a chance to convince a judge to resentence on the bargain's terms.

May 14, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Isn't it stunningly idiotic for GOP Rep. Sensenbrenner to defend mandatory minimums because of "judge-shopping"?

SensenbrennerThis recent new article in CQ Weekly was especially notable, as I noted in this post, because it highlighted how many Republican members of Congress are now leading serious discussions of review and possible reform of the federal criminal justice system and severe federal sentencing laws.  But I needed to do this separate post to spotlight what seems to be a stunningly stupid comment from Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner in his explanation for why he still supports federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Here is the passage from the CQ Weekly article that almost made my head explode:

While the dialogue may be changing, passing legislation, as always, is another story.  Even the idea of studying the criminal justice system proved too controversial in the Senate in 2011, when a national commission proposed by former Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia fell to partisan fighting.

The House task force might agree to weed out relatively minor crimes such as possession of a migratory bird — the kind of regulations Republicans tend to view as government overreach — but it may be less inclined to rethink the mandatory minimum sentences that many Democrats abhor.

Sensenbrenner said as much in an interview, arguing that without such sentences, prosecutors and defense attorneys would “shop” for judges based on their reputations for handing out tough or lenient penalties.  “If there isn’t a better way to stop judge-shopping, then I think we’re stuck with mandatory minimums,” he says.

Perhaps Sensenbrenner knows something magical about the operation of the federal criminal justice system that I do not know, but I am pretty sure there are no existing mechanisms for either prosecutors or defense attorneys to somehow "shop" for judges based on their sentencing reputations.  If there were, I am confident federal prosecutors would do their very darnedest to make sure they never had any sentencing cases before district judges like Jack Weinstein (who has a well-deserved reputation for abhorring any sentencing rules demanding long setences) and defense attorneys would do their very darnedest to make sure they never had any sentencing cases before district judges like Linda Reade (who has a well-deserved reputation for being eager to give long within-guideline sentences).

As regular readers should know, I think there are a few valid — but ultimately unconvincing — arguments to be made in support of some existing federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  And I heartily welcome supporters of existing federal mandatory minimum laws to make their very best arguments in support of the status quo, especially as Rand Paul and other notable new congressional voices urge statutory reforms.  But gosh, is it too much to ask that powerful members of Congress at least have the most basic understanding of how our existing sentencing laws and procedures actually work before they assert that we have to be "stuck with mandatory minimums"?

In my perfect sentencing law and policy world, a comment this idoitic from someone who has long played a central role in passage and reform of federal sentencing laws would be grounds for impeachment.  But, as my work on this blog so often highlights, we are very far — and, I fear, will always be very far — from my perfect sentencing law and policy world.

Some recent and older related posts:

May 14, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (37) | TrackBack

Gov Brown bringing California prison fight back to SCOTUS

As reported in this local article, headlined "Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday followed through with his vow to turn to the U.S. Supreme Court in a bid to end years of judicial control over California's overcrowded prison system." Here is more about the latest legal development in a seemingly never-ending California corrections saga:

In a three-page filing, the governor and his top prison officials notified a three-judge panel the state is appealing an April order requiring California to shed at least 10,000 more inmates by the end of December.  The attorney general's office now has 60 days to file its full legal arguments with the Supreme Court....

In the recent order, the federal judges found that California prisons remain over capacity, and that the state has various ways to improve medical care and release inmates without jeopardizing public safety.

The governor responded to that order with a plan that would remove about 7,000 inmates by the end of this year, still thousands short of the judges' demands.  But state officials do not want to take those measures, arguing a reduction of more than 25,000 inmates over the past few years has solved the overcrowding issue.

Lawyers for the inmates contend the state must do more to end the legal battle.  The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, upheld the 2009 orders to reduce prison overcrowding.  The justices would likely decide next fall whether to review the issue again.

May 14, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

May 13, 2013

After three PA murder convictions, which form of LWOP will abortion doctor get?

The question in the title of this post is my reaction to the notable state criminal trial verdicts in a high-profile case reported in this new New York Times article.  Here are the conviction and sentencing basics:

Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a West Philadelphia doctor known for performing late-term abortions, was found guilty on Monday on three of four counts of first-degree murder.

The verdict came after a five-week trial in which the prosecution and the defense battled over whether the fetuses Dr. Gosnell was charged with killing were alive when they were removed from their mothers.  Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty when the trial moves into the sentencing phase on May 21....

The jury of eight women and four men acquitted Dr. Gosnell of one first-degree murder charge involving an aborted fetus.  He was also acquitted of third-degree murder in the death of a 41-year-old patient but was found guilty of a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter in that case.

The gruesome nature of the crimes that Dr. Gosnell was accused of and the squalid conditions in his clinic had fueled arguments on both sides of the abortion debate. Anti-abortion campaigners used the case to reinforce their argument that the practice is immoral, while abortion rights advocates warned that it underlined the need to ensure the availability of properly regulated abortions....

Prosecutors had argued that Dr. Gosnell murdered seven late-term infants who would have survived if he or his assistants had not given them a drug designed to cause “fetal demise” and then plunged scissors into their necks to ensure that they were dead. But the prosecution suffered a setback last month when Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart threw out three of the seven first-degree murder charges without giving a reason.  That left Dr. Gosnell facing four charges of first-degree murder, as well as one charge of third-degree murder in connection with the death of the patient.

In defense arguments, Mr. McMahon argued that there was no evidence that any of the fetuses were born alive and that his client was therefore not guilty on any of the murder counts.  He also told jurors that the death of the patient, a refugee from Bhutan, was due to existing medical problems and not to an overdose of an anesthetic administered by Dr. Gosnell’s unlicensed assistants, as prosecutors had said....

Mr. McMahon declined to say whether he would appeal or how he intends to keep his client off death row....

Clinic workers who appeared as witnesses for the prosecution said some of the fetuses appeared to move or make noises.  One, known as Baby D, was delivered into a toilet and appeared to make swimming motions before one of Dr. Gosnell’s assistants cut its neck, according to a worker cited during closing arguments by Edward Cameron, an assistant district attorney.

Mr. Cameron and another assistant district attorney, Joanne Pescatore, also told the jury that Dr. Gosnell kept the severed feet of aborted fetuses in dozens of jars around his clinic, the Women’s Medical Society in West Philadelphia.

According to a January 2011 grand jury report, Dr. Gosnell’s patients were covered with bloodstained blankets, treated with unsterilized instruments and surrounded by cats that were allowed to defecate in the building.  To bolster their argument that Dr. Gosnell subjected his patients to filthy and dangerous conditions, prosecutors presented the jury with a dirty procedure table and a stained ultrasound probe.

The question in the title of this post reflects the current reality that all death sentences in Pennsylvania are functional LWOP sentences in the modern era. Through there are over 200 murderers now on Pennsylvania's death row, the state over the last 40+ years the state has only executed three defendants who waived all of their appeals.

Because Gosnell is already 72 years old, it seems very unlikely that all Gosnell's appeals of any death sentence would be completed and the PA execution back-log cleared before Gosnell dies in prison of "natural causes." (Indeed, even if Pennsylvania started ASAP to execute 10 condemned prisoners each year, it would take until 2034 to carry out just existing death sentences.)

So, whether formally or functionally, Gosnell is all but certain now to serve an LWOP sentence.  Still, apparently seeking a symbolic victory, PA prosecutors apparently plan to invest a lot of money and energy trying to ensure Gosnell serves this sentence on death row rather than elsewhere.

May 13, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Noting some new GOP sentencing reform voices inside the Beltway

Cap hillThis notable new article, amusingly headlined "An End to the Jailhouse Blues?", authored by By John Gramlich and appearing in CQ Weekly discusses what I am inclined to call the "new right on criminal justice reform" on the Hill.  Here are excerpts:

Congressional Democrats have argued for years that too many low-level drug offenders are locked away in federal prisons and that mandatory-sentencing laws disproportionately harm minorities and tie judges’ hands.  Lately, they have been joined in those criticisms by Sen. Rand Paul, a tea-party-backed Republican with White House aspirations.  “I think the Republican Party could grow more if we had a little bit more of a compassionate outlook,” the Kentuckian says.

Paul is emblematic of a quiet but unmistakable shift among conservatives in Congress when it comes to criminal justice.  Not only are Republicans engaging in a serious debate about relaxing federal criminal penalties — an idea that was once anathema to lawmakers who worried that their next campaign opponent would label them “soft on crime” — they are leading the discussion.

The House Judiciary Committee, which has poured cold water on Democratic priorities since Republicans regained control of the chamber in 2010, last week created a bipartisan, 10-member task force that will conduct a six-month analysis of the estimated 4,500 crimes on the federal books.

The task force will examine “overcriminalization” in the federal justice system and evaluate what Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte calls an “ever-increasing labyrinth” of criminal penalties, some of them for relatively minor crimes in which perpetrators may not have realized they were breaking the law. The Virginia Republican cited the example of an 11-year-old girl who “saved a baby woodpecker from the family cat” but received a $535 fine because of a federal law banning the possession of a migratory bird.

The panel will be led by law-and-order Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner and Virginia Democrat Robert C. Scott, an outspoken critic of more-contentious criminal policies such as mandatory minimum sentencing, which the task force will also evaluate. A diverse range of groups endorses the effort, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Heritage Foundation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

At the same time, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees federal prison spending, Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, plans to work with his Democratic ranking member, Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, to create a separate task force to review all aspects of the rapidly growing federal correctional system. Wolf is outraged that federal prisoners are not provided more opportunities to gain work experience and believes the Bureau of Prisons is holding too many people, including ill older inmates who no longer pose a threat to society. A report by the Justice Department’s inspector general recently came to the same conclusion.

“If you’re 68 years old and you’re dying of cancer and your life expectancy is seven months, why do we want to keep you in prison?” Wolf says.

Then there is Paul, who perhaps more than any other Senate Republican aligns with Democrats on sentencing issues. Paul is co-sponsoring a bill with Democratic Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont that would allow federal judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences under certain conditions — a so-called “safety valve” that effectively would do away with congressionally mandated punishments in many cases. Similar House legislation is co-sponsored by Scott and another Kentucky Republican, Thomas Massie. “Some of the sentencing has been disproportionately unfair to African-Americans, and so I am for getting rid of the mandatory minimums or letting judges override them,” Paul says.

He argues that young drug offenders, in particular, are vulnerable to overly harsh punishments and points out that each of the past three presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — was “accused of doing drugs as a kid.... Had they been caught, none of them would have ever been president,” he says. “Just by luck of not being caught, they did fine. But a lot of kids don’t.”...

If Republicans sound kinder and gentler on criminal justice today than they did two decades ago, their perspective has been guided by cold, hard numbers.

Goodlatte last week cited statistics showing that Congress has added an average of 500 new crimes to the law books in each of the past three decades. Those federal crimes overlap with scores of existing penalties for the same crimes enacted by the states, which handle the vast majority of the nation’s criminal trials.

The creation of hundreds of new federal crimes, combined with mandatory minimum sentencing laws and the 1984 elimination of parole for federal offenders, has resulted in a steady and costly uptick in the federal prison population. The federal corrections system is now the largest in the country, much larger than state systems in Texas and California.

In fiscal 2006, the Bureau of Prisons had 192,584 inmates. Five years later, the number had grown 14 percent to 218,936, according to a November report by the Justice Department inspector general.

Massie, formerly the top elected official in Lewis County, Ky., says his perspective has been shaped by his experience managing a local budget, where he says his “biggest line item” was incarceration. The first-term lawmaker backs a bipartisan corrections overhaul that Kentucky enacted in 2011 and said Republicans on the federal level should embrace similar changes because mass incarceration runs counter to established GOP principles on government spending. “I call it socialism with constrained mobility,” Massie says. “You’re paying for all their medical costs. You’re paying for all their food, all their housing. You’ve got to have air conditioning. Jails are not cheap.”

While the dialogue may be changing, passing legislation, as always, is another story. Even the idea of studying the criminal justice system proved too controversial in the Senate in 2011, when a national commission proposed by former Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia fell to partisan fighting.

The House task force might agree to weed out relatively minor crimes such as possession of a migratory bird — the kind of regulations Republicans tend to view as government overreach — but it may be less inclined to rethink the mandatory minimum sentences that many Democrats abhor....

While the challenges are clear, those who support the GOP-led discussion surrounding criminal justice say it is encouraging that the debate is happening at all. It’s a significant step forward that a bipartisan group of legislators is really for the first time looking in a very serious way at ways to try to get their arms around this behemoth,” says John G. Malcolm, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Some recent and older related posts:

May 13, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

"Lawyers worry new measure of mental retardation could prompt more executions"

The title of this article is the headline of this new Reuters article, which provides an interesting death penalty angle on a high-profile non-death-penalty story.  Here are excerpts:

A new standard from the country's leading psychiatric association to diagnose mental retardation could allow courts to execute convicted criminals with IQ scores below 70 more easily, say death penalty lawyers.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), is the standard guidebook of psychiatric disorders and is used by clinicians to identify and diagnose psychiatric illnesses.

Each new edition is scrutinized by mental healthcare providers and the pharmaceutical industry for changes in definitions as well as new categories of illnesses.  Such shifts can have enormous economic, social and legal implications and often are the subject of controversy.

The fifth edition of the book since it was first published in 1952, or DSM-V, is due to be released May 22.  Already it has prompted concern from death penalty lawyers because of the change in the way the manual defines mental illness, or intellectual disability, the new name given in DSM-V.

Earlier editions of the DSM defined mental retardation as an IQ score below 70 accompanied by an inability to meet certain developmental norms, such as bathing regularly or maintaining work.  Based on that IQ benchmark, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002 that it is illegal to execute a mentally handicapped person.

But the editors of DSM-V have dropped the 70 IQ score as an indicator of mental retardation and instead recommend that clinicians consider IQ scores while analyzing an individual's behavior to determine if he or she meets the developmental standards.

Making the definition of mental retardation more subjective could prompt more courts to subvert Atkins, said David Dow, a death penalty lawyer in Houston whose client Marvin Wilson was executed in Texas last summer despite his IQ score of 61.

"There are a lot of courts that are hostile to the basic legal doctrine the Atkins case established," Dow said. "When you replace a test that is one part objective, one part subjective with a solely subjective test, it becomes easier for courts that are hostile to the constitutional principle of Atkins to evade that criterion."...

From 2002 to 2012, only a quarter of the death row inmates who claimed to have mental retardation were granted stays of execution, according to research by John Blume, director of Cornell University Law School's Death Penalty Project. This included cases that had exhausted all appeals from the time of the Atkins decision to the end of 2012.

"Judges and jurors have stereotypes of what it means to be mentally retarded," Blume said. "There is a problem with people who have lower than 70 IQ scores getting executed in spite of the Atkins ruling, and under the new DSM guidance, that problem is only going to get worse."

According to Darrel Regier, vice chairman of the task force that produced the DSM-V revisions, the DSM is developed to provide guidelines for diagnosing mental illnesses for clinicians, not to provide treatment or judicial guidelines, and the test scores are only useful when interpreted by a clinical expert.

The DSM-IV's reliance on an IQ score led, in some cases, to jurors sentencing people with IQ scores of 71 or 72 to death, in spite of the test's five-point margin of error, Regier said. "A single IQ point on a test can have profound implications for life and death without (clinical) interpretation," he said.

James Harris, the founding director of the Developmental Neuropsychiatry Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a member of the DSM-V work group, said the criteria focus on three areas of adaptive functioning: academic, social and practical.... "We believe that we are providing the courts with a more fine-grained means to consider adaptive functioning more comprehensively and more meaningfully," Harris said.

There are many clear realities, as well as many opaque stories, concerning death penalty administration and adjudication lurking in this story.  For starters, Atkins was decided by the Supreme Court more than a decade ago, and I find it both troublesome and telling that we have not gotten anywhere close to figuring out the final practical "cash out" of Atkins during this period despite the reality that there should be only a few hundred capital cases in which a murder defendants status as mentally retarded could be reasonably disputed.

Second, while defense lawyers seem quick to suggest that the new change in the DSM will make it easier for some lower courts to "evade Atkins," it seems to me that the new DSM will also make it easier for some lower courts to perhaps expand Atkins to offenders with IQ measures of 75 or higher.  Indeed, I have seen more than a few courts quickly reject Atkins claims based on an IQ score in the 70s, and then news DSM would seem to preclude too-ready reliance on a single number to resolve these claims.

Third, if and whenever there is reason to fear lower courts in some states are regularly seeking to evade Atkins, the best solution would be to urge a legislature to codify a particular statutory approach to Atkins issues and/or to convince the Supreme Court to (finally) take up an "applying Atkins" case.  Indeed, I find uniquely worrisome the notion that DSM revisions on any issue ought to be shaped by how the DSM might be applied or misapplied in a few capital cases each years.

A few related posts (mostly pretty old):

May 13, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

In Chicago for symposium on "Gun Violence and the Second Amendment"

As detailed on this webpage, I am on a panel this morning at the Union League Club of Chicago to help kick off a "symposium on the issue of gun violence and the Second Amendment, co-sponsored by ULCC Public Affairs and the Chicago Bar Association." Here are the details:

ULCC Public Affairs and its Subcommittee on the Administration of Justice, in partnership with the Chicago Bar Association's Human Rights Committee, presents a half-day (8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.) symposium with expert panelists focusing on efforts to curtail gun violence and the parameters of the Second Amendment....

The event begins with continental breakfast at 8:30 a.m. and a panel discussion on the scope and impact of the Second Amendment on the issue of gun violence prevention, moderated by Professor Ann Lousin of the John Marshall Law School.  Panelists for this segment include David G. Sigale (plaintiff's attorney in McDonald, et al v. City of Chicago), Professor Geoffrey R. Stone (former provost of The University of Chicago and dean of its law school), and Professor Douglas Berman (Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University Law School).

The mid-morning panel, titled "Public Policy Initiatives Related to Gun Control and Gun Violence," will review state and federal legislative responses to gun violence as well as social concerns correlated with gun violence, such as poverty and lack of educational and employment opportunities.  The discussion will be moderated by J. Timothy Eaton of Shefsky & Froelich and will feature panelists Professor Jens Ludwig, University of Chicago; Juliet Leftwich, Legal Director, Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and John Tillman, CEO of the Illinois Policy Institute.

As reported in this SCOTUSblog post, the Supreme Court is slated to release orders and opinions at the exact time of my panel discussion.  Based on the blogging variation on Murphy's Law, I am predicting this means that SCOTUS will hand down this morning some of the big sentencing decisions I have been eagerly awaiting, and in turn that I will need a lot more time than usual to report and assses whatever happens.  (Of course, the very fact that I am making this prediction could mean that SCOTUS decides today only some more boring civil rulings that I and other sentencing fans can just ignore.)

May 13, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

"Why Might the Cleveland Kidnapper Get Charged With Murder?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new piece in the National Journal on a topic that has already garnered considerable discussion on this blog.  Here are excerpts:

The government is wading into the murky waters of what constitutes a human life. The prosecutor in the Cleveland kidnappings case said on Thursday that he plans to pursue murder charges against Ariel Castro — the now-infamous abductor of at least three women — “for each act of aggravated murder he committed by terminating pregnancies,” according to reports. Implicit in the charges is a question central to the abortion debate: Do fetuses count as persons?....

To abortion opponents, [this case] may represent an opportunity to underscore their belief that fetuses are living and abortion is murder whether it's at the hands of Castro or a physician.  Supporters of abortion rights may feel the need to preempt such attacks, underscoring the differences between a medical procedure done at the behest of the mother and an assault on their pregnancy done without their consent....

In fact, there’s some precedent: at least 38 states have laws — some like Ohio’s — against fetal homicide, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.  In 2011, two proposed bills in Mississippi and Georgia threatened to ensnare women who miscarried, too.  But proponents of personhood, the movement to classify fetuses as living, say such claims are specious and most such bills are aimed at intentionally killing fetuses — through abortion or drug use in some cases.

The Ohio case may provide fodder in the debate, but as far as the legality goes, it's unlikely to set any new precedents.

Recent related post:

May 13, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

May 12, 2013

Ohio prosecutor upset public unwilling to pay higher taxes to make his job easier

The title of this post is my proposed alternative headline for this local article discussing recent sentencing law reforms in Ohio (made by a Republican legislature and signed in law by GOP Governor John Kasich).  The actual headline from the local paper is "Prosecutor: Sentencing changes damaging judicial system," and here are excerpts (with the prosecutor's telling comments highlighted by me):

In light of a recent trial in which a Springfield man was convicted in Athens County Common Pleas Court of three counts of trafficking in cocaine, Prosecutor Keller Blackburn discussed how the man will face a lesser sentence thanks to House Bill 86 and said the legislation changes in sentencing is hurting the state’s judicial system.

Michael Turner, 29, sat through a four-day trial before a jury found him guilty of two third-degree felony counts of trafficking in cocaine and one second-degree count of trafficking in cocaine.  When he was indicted in August of 2011, the charges he faced carried a maximum prison sentence of 18 years with at least eight years being mandatory. However, after House Bill 86 passed through legislation, the maximum he can now be sentenced is only nine years.  A sentencing date has yet to be set.

Blackburn explained that House Bill 86 not only made a distinction between cocaine and crack cocaine and the weights of the drugs, but it also significantly changed the prison sentences associated with lower level felony crimes.  Prior to the changes, fifth-degree and fourth-degree felonies carried the real possibility of prison time.  Now, probation or jail time is more likely for first-time offenders.  Third-degree felony crimes carried a maximum of five years in prison but now only three can be ordered....

“It’s balancing the budget on the backs of local taxpayers on felony cases,” he added. “There’s a reason things are felonies and others are misdemeanors.  Local communities are supposed to pay for misdemeanors and the state is supposed to pay for felonies.  Now felony fives, fours and some threes are paid for by the counties.” 

While Blackburn does not believe the sentencing changes affects the criminal mind much, he does point out the differences it makes after the fact.  “When you change the numbers, then negotiations get more difficult.  If someone is only risking six additional months by not taking a deal, they’ll go to trial.  It harms negotiations and pass costs to local communities,” Blackburn said.

According to Blackburn, there are around 600 cases that come across his desk in a year. He said it’s not possible for the prosecution and defense to try that many cases, nor is it possible for the courts to handle such a load and taxpayers cannot afford that many cases. He said there is also additional stress placed on the probation department.

“The principles and purposes of sentencing used to be to punish the offender and protect the public.  It’s now to punish the offender and protect the public in the most economical manner.  That’s not what’s supposed to be happening but that’s what legislation has decided,” Blackburn said....

You start taking tools out of the toolbox.  Maybe the person with 24 balloons of heroin does need an intensive treatment program but maybe we know they just sold twice and we just missed them,” the prosecutor said.  “Maybe they are one of the major spokes in the wheel and all I can do is put them on probation when the probation department is underfunded.”

The problem is money and they don’t want to put any more money into prisons so they’re not willing to make many changes,” said Blackburn.

Based on the prosecutor's comments here, it does not seem at all accurate to say, as does this article's headline, that a new sentencing law is "damaging [Ohio's] judicial system" in any way.  Rather, by enabling more defendants to go to trial and by making sure communities cover certain costs, it would appear the new sentencing law may actually be strengthening the judicial system in the Buckeye State.

Rather, what really seems to be bothering Prosecutor Keller Blackburn is that Ohio's new sentencing laws make plea negotiations "more difficult" and may lead to more defendants exercising their constitutional right to a jury trial.  Pulling back the curtain as to what prosecutors really care about, Backburn laments that he is losing one of the tools he wants in his toolbox so he can determine the fate of a defendant's future without the complications or challenges of proving to a jury or judge why this fate is appropriate or cost effective.  And dang those voters and legislators, concludes Blackburn, they are unwilling to put more of their hard-earned money into making his job as a prosecutor easier.

May 12, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

"Sentencing Bill Could Cost Taxpayers $760 Million Over 10 Years"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent report concerning the projected price tag for a sentencing proposal being discussed as an approach to dealing with Chicago's gun violence.  Here are the details:

A bill designed to reduce gun violence by increasing gun-crime sentences could end up costing Illinois taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, according to an investigation by NBC Chicago and The Chicago Reporter.

State Representative Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside) has proposed a bill to increase Illinois’ minimum mandatory prison sentence for gun violators from one year to three years. "We have to make sure individuals are afraid, frankly, of the law, and afraid of the consequences," Zalewski said. "I think three years sets a high bar that if you’re found guilty of the offense, you’re going to face serious consequences. You’re not going to be right back out on the street."

But critics say the bill is nothing more than "political theatre." What’s more, it’s prohibitively expensive, according to opponents like John Maki, Executive Director of the John Howard Association, a local prison-watchdog group. "It’s going to add about 4,000 inmates in about three years," Make explained. "It’s going to explode the budget."

The results of a study done by NBC Chicagos partner, The Chicago Reporter, would seem to support that view. The Reporter analyzed all criminal cases in Cook County Criminal Court from 2000 through 2011, and estimated that it cost taxpayers more than $5.3 billion to imprison Chicago criminals during that period. If those sentencing costs were extrapolated to include the increased prison time resulting from Zalewski’s gun-sentencing bill, The Reporter estimates the bill to taxpayers would have increased by an additional $760 million during that same time period....

As for the potential added expense of these expanded prison sentences, Zalewski is part of a separate discussion in Springfield, aimed at freeing up space in Illinois’ overcrowded prisons. The discussion centers around reducing the number of non-violent offenders — people convicted of such offenses as prostitution or drugs, for example — to make room for these more violent gun offenders.

Discussing this idea and similar gun sentencing proposals making the rounds in other states, Daniel Denvir has this recent commentary in The New Republic.  Its headline captures its themes: "The Worst Gun Control Idea Has Bipartisan Support: Why states should not pass new mandatory minimums for firearm possession."

May 12, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Illinois Lieutenant Governor announces support for state medical marijuana bill

As reported in this AP article from Illinois, "Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon said she is in favor of a bill allowing the medical use of marijuana, explaining Sunday that testimony from seriously ill veterans and other patients helped change her mind."  Here is more:

"As a former prosecutor my first reaction was, 'I'm not interesting in changing our laws on medical marijuana,'" she told The Associated Press in an interview Sunday. But she said that after hearing from patients and reading up on the bill, she's convinced the regulations are strict enough.

Backers of the measure, which has cleared the Illinois House and awaits a Senate vote, have said the same thing. The plan, touted as the strictest in the nation among states that have legalized medical marijuana, would authorize physicians to prescribe marijuana to patients with whom they have an existing relationship and who are living with at least one of more than 30 medical conditions, including cancer.

The proposal creates a framework for a pilot program that includes requiring patients and caregivers to undergo background checks. It also sets a 2.5-ounce limit per patient per purchase and sets out state-regulated dispensaries.

Supporters say marijuana can relieve continual pain without the detrimental side effects of prescription drugs. But opponents say the program could encourage recreational use, especially among teenagers.

The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and the Illinois Sheriffs' Association are opposed to the measure, saying there's no sure way to figure out whether a motorist is driving under the influence of marijuana.

But Simon told the AP the bill is strict enough to prevent misuse. "It does a good job of both getting medical marijuana to people who need and keeping it away from those who don't," she said.

Simon is weighing a run for another statewide office instead of seeking another term as lieutenant governor. The Carbondale Democrat declined Sunday to say which office she will run for, saying she will wait to see how other shape up.

Simon is likely choosing between Illinois' attorney general, comptroller or treasurer. In recent months, Simon has played up her law-related background and accomplishments including as a pro bono lawyer and prosecutor.

I find this story notable not merely because it likely increases the chances of Illinois becoming the 20th state to legalize medical marijuana, but also because it suggests that a shrewd and successful state politician apparently sees support for marijuana reform as a potential political selling point rather than a liability.

Recent related post:

May 12, 2013 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack