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November 24, 2018

What might the Founders have to say about modern federal sentencing debates?

HamiltonI had the great fortune last night to (finally!) get to see the musical Hamilton (in Chicago).  Reflecting on the play and the history of the founding of the United States, I could not resist wondering aloud here about how the historic figures of Founding era might have viewed the federal sentencing controversies today.

Because I am not a constitutional historian, I cannot provide a definitive account of what all the Framers said about crime and punishment.  But I can highlight the work here of Professor John Bessler highlighting the impact and import of Italian thinker Cesare Beccaria's book On Crimes and Punishments on their thinking:

Beccaria’s book shaped American history.  George Washington bought a copy in 1769 and, during the Revolutionary War, wrote Congress that death sentences were too frequent, lamenting “the want of a proper gradation of punishments.”  At the Boston Massacre trial in 1770, John Adams forcefully quoted Beccaria’s words in defending British soldiers accused of murder, with his son John Quincy Adams later noting the “electrical effect” of those words.   And in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sought to curtail capital offenses by pushing for the adoption of “A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments in Cases Heretofore Capital.”

One way in which Beccaria influenced America’s Founding Fathers is by shaping their views on cruelty, the concept embedded in the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.  James Wilson — a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution — regularly cited Beccaria’s work and called “cruel” punishments “dastardly and contemptible.” And in the 1820s, Madison spoke of his attraction to “penitentiary discipline” as a substitute for “the cruel inflictions so disgraceful to penal codes.”  After receiving an anti-death penalty pamphlet that quoted Beccaria, Madison wrote to a Kentucky physician: “I should not regret a fair and full trial of the entire abolition of capital punishments by any State willing to make it.”...

One of Beccaria’s core principles — embraced by American revolutionaries such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Wilson and William Bradford — was that any punishment which is not “absolutely necessary” is “cruel” and “tyrannical.”

I can also here note a few classics directly from the pen of Framers, such as Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 74 defending a broad and unfettered pardon power vested in the President:

Humanity and good policy conspire to dictate, that the benign prerogative of pardoning should be as little as possible fettered or embarrassed.  The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.  As the sense of responsibility is always strongest, in proportion as it is undivided, it may be inferred that a single man would be most ready to attend to the force of those motives which might plead for a mitigation of the rigor of the law, and least apt to yield to considerations which were calculated to shelter a fit object of its vengeance.

And Thomas Jefferson starts his "Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments" with an accounting of the need and value of properly proportioned punishments:

Whereas it frequently happens that wicked and dissolute men resigning themselves to the dominion of inordinate passions, commit violations on the lives, liberties and property of others, and, the secure enjoyment of these having principally induced men to enter into society, government would be defective in it's principal purpose were it not to restrain such criminal acts, by inflicting due punishments on those who perpetrate them; but it appears at the same time equally deducible from the purposes of society that a member thereof, committing an inferior injury, does not wholy forfiet the protection of his fellow citizens, but, after suffering a punishment in proportion to his offence is entitled to their protection from all greater pain, so that it becomes a duty in the legislature to arrange in a proper scale the crimes which it may be necessary for them to repress, and to adjust thereto a corresponding gradation of punishments.

And whereas the reformation of offenders, tho' an object worthy the attention of the laws, is not effected at all by capital punishments, which exterminate instead of reforming, and should be the last melancholy resource against those whose existence is become inconsistent with the safety of their fellow citizens, which also weaken the state by cutting off so many who, if reformed, might be restored sound members to society, who, even under a course of correction, might be rendered useful in various labors for the public, and would be living and long continued spectacles to deter others from committing the like offences.

And forasmuch the experience of all ages and countries hath shewn that cruel and sanguinary laws defeat their own purpose by engaging the benevolence of mankind to withold prosecutions, to smother testimony, or to listen to it with bias, when, if the punishment were only proportioned to the injury, men would feel it their inclination as well as their duty to see the laws observed.

I am inclined to read all these sources and resources as evidence that the Founders would have been quite supportive of the FIRST STEP Act and of modern US Presidents using their clemency powers often and on behalf of a lot more than turkeys.

November 24, 2018 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

November 23, 2018

Noticing California Gov Jerry Brown's recent robust approach to clemency

The Marshall Project earlier this week had this notable account of the outgoing California Gov's clemency history under the headline "The Jerry Brown Way of Pardoning."  Here is an excerpt from this piece:

Unlike President Donald Trump, who has focused attention on cases brought to him by fellow celebrities and on political allies, Brown’s clemency decisions focus on people facing what the governor seems to view as systemic injustices.  They are often timed to coincide with Catholic holidays, a reflection of his faith.

“It’s a recognition that people can, and do, change — even after committing terrible crimes,” Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Brown, said in a statement.  “It’s also a recognition of the radical and unprecedented sentencing increases and prison building boom of the 80s and beyond as well as the diminished role of parole as a vital ingredient in California’s system of sentencing and rehabilitative process.”

Among the people who have received clemency recently: Southeast Asian immigrants who came to the United States as children and who face deportation unless granted a pardon; non-citizen military veterans who were deported for crimes committed after their service; and prisoners serving life without parole, who were given hope of release....

During his first two terms in office, from 1975-83, Brown oversaw a dramatic shift in sentencing policy that led to a surge in the state’s prison population and coincided with a number of tough-on-crime bills.  In those years, he handed down only one commutation and about 400 pardons.... By contrast, since returning to the governor’s office in 2011, Brown has issued 82 commutations and more than 1,100 pardons, far more than any California governor since at least the early 1940s.

The previous governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, issued only 10 commutations and 15 pardons during his two terms. His predecessor, Gray Davis, issued none.

A few days after this piece was published, Gov Brown issued another batch of clemencies as reported in this AP article headlined "California governor pardons former state lawmaker, refugees."  Here is how this piece starts:

A former state senator convicted of lying about his residence and three refugees from Vietnam who could face deportation are among 38 people pardoned Wednesday by Gov. Jerry Brown ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.  Brown's pardons also include a man who just lost his Paradise home in a wildfire.

The Democratic governor also commuted the sentences of 70 people still serving time, including Walter "Earlonne" Woods, who co-hosts a podcast called "Ear Hustle" from inside San Quinton state prison.

November 23, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

November 22, 2018

So very thankful this year that so very many voices on the political right are actively advocating for criminal justice reforms

As regular readers know, I have long thought and advocated that all sorts of conservatives could and should robustly embrace all sorts of criminal justice reform given avowed commitments to personal liberty, small government, human dignity and the rule of law.  Almost exactly a decade ago in this 2008 Harvard Law & Policy Online article, published right after Prez Obama was elected to his first term, I urged progressives to start "aggressively reaching out to modern conservatives and libertarians in order to forge new coalitions to attack the many political and social forces that contribute to mass incarceration."  I further suggested:

Progressives, rather than categorically resisting calls for smaller government, should encourage modern conservatives and libertarians to turn their concerns and energies toward improving America’s criminal justice systems.  Areas where harsh criminal laws appear to be driven by government efforts to hyper-regulate often intangible harms, such as extreme mandatory sentencing statutes related to drug crimes and gun possession, seem especially likely settings for a convergence of views and new alliances for advocacy efforts.  Specific, issue-based advocacy may allow progressives to forge coalitions with unexpected allies in order to work against some of the most unjust modern sentencing laws and policies.

The kinds of coalitions I was hoping to see started to emerge (albeit too slowly for my taste) during the Obama Administration, and now they appear to be on full display as discussion of federal reforms finds expression in the debate over the FIRST STEP Act.  And so today I find myself especially thankful that it is now so much easier to find right-leaning organization and voices calling for the passage of federal reforms rather than resisting such reform.  Here, for example, is just a quick round up of just some recent voices on the political right actively advocating for the FIRST STEP Act:

From Politico, "Religious right to start pressure campaign around criminal justice reform"

From ALEC Action, "Members of the U.S. Senate: Please Support the FIRST STEP Act (S.3649)"

From John-Michael Seibler & Joe Luppino-Esposito at The Heritage Foundation, "How This Criminal Justice Reform Bill Could Make Our Neighborhoods Safer"

Via local NPR, "Kelley Paul Presses McConnell To Move Criminal Justice Reform Forward"

From Michelle Malkin in the National Review, "It’s Time to Pass the First Step Act: It's pro-cop, pro-borders, and tough on injustice."

From Pastor Paula White-Cain in the Washington Examiner, "Prison reform bill represents what’s beautiful about America"

Relatedly, Senator Charles Grassley has this notable new posting titled "Diverse Group of Organizations Endorse Bipartisan First Step Act" that highlights "a letter to Majority and Minority leaders in both the Senate and House of Representatives, [in which] 42 organizations, including faith-based groups and conservative think tanks, called on Congress to pass the comprehensive criminal justice reform package before the end of the year."

November 22, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

November 21, 2018

Investigation of BOP treatment of mental health issues highlights challenge of reforming federal prisons

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this new Marshall Project report headlined "Treatment Denied: The Mental Health Crisis in Federal Prisons." Among other important messages, this story highlights that formal prison reforms in legislation like the FIRST STEP Act have to be followed by functional work by prison officials in order to be fully efficacious.  Here are excerpts from this story:

In 2014, amid mounting criticism and legal pressure, the Federal Bureau of Prisons imposed a new policy promising better care and oversight for inmates with mental-health issues. But data obtained by The Marshall Project through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that instead of expanding treatment, the bureau has lowered the number of inmates designated for higher care levels by more than 35 percent.  Increasingly, prison staff are determining that prisoners — some with long histories of psychiatric problems — don’t require any routine care at all.

As of February, the Bureau of Prisons classified just 3 percent of inmates as having a mental illness serious enough to require regular treatment.  By comparison, more than 30 percent of those incarcerated in California state prisons receive care for a “serious mental disorder.”  In New York, 21 percent of inmates are on the mental-health caseload. Texas prisons provide treatment for roughly 20 percent.

A review of court documents and inmates’ medical records, along with interviews of former prison psychologists, revealed that although the Bureau of Prisons changed its rules, officials did not add the resources needed to implement them, creating an incentive for employees to downgrade inmates to lower care levels.

In an email, the bureau confirmed that mental-health staffing has not increased since the policy took effect.  The bureau responded to questions from a public information office email account and declined to identify any spokesperson for this article.  “You doubled the workload and kept the resources the same. You don’t have to be Einstein to see how that’s going to work,” said a former Bureau of Prisons psychologist who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of a pending lawsuit regarding his time at the agency.

The bureau said it is “developing a strategy” to analyze this drop in mental-health care, consistent with a Justice Department inspector general’s recommendation last year. Although only a small fraction of federal inmates are deemed ill enough to merit regular therapy, officials acknowledged that 23 percent have been diagnosed with some mental illness....

Data analyzed by The Marshall Project shows that the average monthly rate of assault across all federal prisons increased 16 percent from 2015 to 2016, the last full year available. Most of those incidents were not classified as serious assaults — defined by the bureau as likely to cause death or serious injury — which have declined in recent years, even before the mental-health policy change in 2014. In several recent in-prison homicides, records suggest that either the alleged attacker or victim wasn’t getting needed treatment....

At the high-security Hazelton penitentiary, which saw one of the largest drops in mental-health care, the average monthly rate of assault rose from 29 per 5,000 inmates in 2015 to 40 in 2016.  The increase in the rate of serious assault was particularly dramatic, more than quadrupling in that time period. The head of the correctional officers union there has attributed the increase in the rate of assault to guard understaffing.  Violence at Hazelton made headlines this fall when infamous mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger was killed soon after being transferred to the facility.

A reader made this astute observation when flagging this article for me via email: "This article could be useful in an appropriate federal sentencing to argue for mental health treatment outside of BOP, or as mitigation in a BOP homicide case."

November 21, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Notable account of Acting AG Matt Whitaker's sentencing work as US Attorney in Iowa

The Washington Post has this interesting new piece about the current Acting US Attorney General's sentencing record as a chief federal prosecutor in Iowa. The lengthy piece is headlined, "As U.S. attorney, Whitaker imposed longer-than-usual drug sentences," and merits a full read. Here are snippets:

Raeanna Woody’s crimes hardly seemed like they would add up to a life sentence in prison. She had two nonviolent drug convictions, for possessing marijuana and delivering 12 grams of methamphetamine. But when she was arrested in a third drug case, she said, the office of U.S. Attorney Matthew G. Whitaker decided to make an example of her.

Under Whitaker, who is now acting attorney general, Woody was given a choice: spend the rest of her life in jail, or accept a plea bargain sentence of 21 to 27 years, according to court records. She took the deal.

Federal Judge Robert W. Pratt in the Southern District of Iowa later accused prosecutors of having “misused” their authority in her nonviolent case. He urged President Barack Obama to commute her sentence — and Obama did shorten her term , after she had served 11 years.

Woody’s case highlights one of the most controversial if little-known aspects of Whitaker’s career: his efforts to obtain unusually stiff sentences for people accused of drug crimes. Whitaker spent nearly five years as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa. His office was more likely than all but one other district in the United States to use its authority to impose the harshest sentences on drug offenders, according to a finding by a different Iowa federal judge, Mark W. Bennett, who it called a “deeply troubling disparity.”

“If the president can look at my case and he can see that what I had done wasn’t severe enough to warrant that many years, then why was I given that many years to begin with, why was that much of my life taken from me?” Woody, a 57-year-old mother of five, said in an interview. “I blame Whitaker’s office and everybody underneath him.”...

The rate at which Whitaker’s office and another one in Iowa imposed the harshest possible sentence was a “jaw-dropping and deeply troubling disparity compared to the vast majority of federal courts in the nation,” Bennett said in a statement to The Washington Post. Whitaker never appeared before him, and he declined to comment about Whitaker’s term as U.S. attorney.

Whitaker’s Southern District of Iowa used enhanced sentences in 84 percent of relevant cases, compared with 26 percent nationwide, Bennett’s finding said. Bennett concluded that a defendant in the Northern District of Iowa — which had a rate of filings similar to Whitaker’s district — was 2,532 percent more likely to be subjected to an enhanced sentence compared with someone convicted of a similar offense in a Nebraska district. “I found their harshness in filing 851 notices inexplicable,” Bennett said....

In Raeanna Woody’s case, the filing was used as leverage by Whitaker’s office. Woody, whose last name at the time was Paxton, appeared before Judge Pratt in the Southern District on July 10, 2008. Her previous drug convictions resulted in little or no jail time. Her third offense occurred when authorities determined that she drove a car in which another individual was pursuing a drug deal.

Woody said a prosecutor from Whitaker’s office, Jason T. Griess, had informed her that, as a third-time offender, her sentence could be “enhanced” to mandatory life in prison under an 851 filing. She said she had no choice but to make a plea bargain that resulted in the sentence of 21 to 27 years. “I remember them saying through Jason that he wouldn’t budge, and ‘me and my office are going to make an example out of you.’ ”...

Pratt [later] then wrote a letter to Obama’s pardon attorney expressing his displeasure with how the case had been handled by Whitaker’s office. Pratt wrote in the May 13, 2016, letter that he was forced to impose a sentence that “was entirely disproportionate” to her crime.

The “most compelling reason” that the president should grant clemency, Pratt wrote, was that Whitaker’s office “misused” its power by threatening Woody with a life sentence by using the 851 filing, “effectively removing my discretion” to give Woody “a fair sentence.” Pratt stressed that Woody “was and is a nonviolent offender. She was not a significant player in the overall ‘conspiracy’ in this case. . . . This was not a conspiracy that involved ‘drug kingpins.’ It was a situation where methamphetamine-addicted individuals resorted to selling the drug to support their own addictions.”

For me, this story is not as much about the work of a particular US Attorney as it is yet another tale about the need to reform federal sentencing laws to reduce the sentencing powers now given to federal prosecutors rather than to federal judges.

November 21, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

November 20, 2018

"Behind the Curtain: Secrecy and the Death Penalty in the United States"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by The Death Penalty Information Center.  Here is part of its executive summary:  

During the past seven years, states have begun conducting executions with drugs and drug combinations that have never been tried before.  They have done so behind an expanding veil of secrecy laws that shield the execution process from public scrutiny.

As pharmaceutical companies have taken action to prevent states from using their medicines to execute prisoners, states have responded by procuring whatever drugs seem available and obtaining them secretly through questionable means.

Since January 2011, legislatures in thirteen states have enacted new secrecy statutes that conceal vital information about the execution process.  Of the seventeen states that have carried out 246 lethal-injection executions between January 1, 2011 and August 31, 2018, all withheld at least some information about the about the execution process.  All but one withheld information about the source of their execution drugs. Fourteen states prevented witnesses from seeing at least some part of the execution.  Fifteen prevented witnesses from hearing what was happening inside the execution chamber. None of the seventeen allowed witnesses to know when each of the drugs was administered.

This retreat into secrecy has occurred at the same time that states have conducted some of the most problematic executions in American history.  Lethal injection was supposed to be a more humane method of execution than hanging, the firing squad, or the electric chair, but there have been frequent reports of prisoners who were still awake and apparently experiencing suffocation and excruciating pain after they were supposed to be insensate.  These problems have intensified with the use of new drug formulas, often including midazolam.  In 2017, more than 60% of the executions carried out with midazolam produced eyewitness reports of an execution gone amiss, with problems ranging from labored breathing to gasping, heaving, writhing, and clenched fists. In several of these cases, state officials denied that the execution was problematic, asserting that all had proceeded according to protocol. But without access to information about drugs and the execution process, there is no way the public can judge for itself....

This report documents the laws and policies that states have adopted to make information about executions inaccessible to the public, to pharmaceutical companies, and to condemned prisoners.  It describes the dubious methods states have used to obtain drugs, the inadequate qualifications of members of the execution team, and the significant restrictions on witnesses’ ability to observe how executions are carried out.  It summarizes the various drug combinations that have been used, with particular focus on the problems with the drug midazolam, and provides a state-by-state record of problems in recent executions. It explains how government policies that lack transparency and accountability permit states to violate the law and disregard fundamental principles of a democratic government while carrying out the harshest punishment the law allows.

November 20, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

"The process to pardon turkeys is more rational than the one used for humans"

Regular readers know I am ever eager this time of year to complain about the contrast between the annual predictable turkey pardons and unpredictable White House clemency efforts.  Helpfully, my colleague and clemency guru Mark Osler has this matter well covered in this new CNN commentary with a headline that I have used as the title for this post.  Here are excerpts:

This week, we will once again be treated to the awkward spectacle of the President pardoning a turkey while confused-looking children look on.  Of late, that ceremony has been accompanied by a raft of opinion pieces suggesting the President should consider granting clemency to some humans, as well.  I've written a few of those myself.

After years of fruitlessly making that same argument, a more worthwhile observation might be this: The process used to choose which turkey might be pardoned is far more rational, efficient and effective than the one used to evaluate clemency for humans.  In particular, the turkey-choosing process features four attributes sorely missing from the human one.

First, it occurs regularly.  Turkeys are pardoned every year, not just in the waning days of an administration.  Second, decisions are made by objective specialists with the current chairman of the National Turkey Federation, or NTF, responsible for managing a thorough selection process. Typically, the NTF head will familiarize dozens of birds with human contact and saturate them with loud music before making a final choice.  Third, there are defined criteria.  The finalists are selected based on their willingness to be handled, their health and their natural good looks.  Fourth, attention is paid to making sure they thrive after their grant of clemency.  After the ceremony, they are sent to Virginia Tech's "Gobbler's Rest" exhibit, where they are well cared for.

This contrasts sharply with the process of giving clemency to humans.  For the past seven years I have worked with my students to prepare and file petitions on behalf of deserving clients, and have found that the procedure through which clemency is granted is irregular, run largely by biased generalists, devoid of consistent, meaningful criteria, and it does little to ensure success of individuals after their release....

What's missing is all the things that make the turkey process work.  It's irregular, as inattention by any one of the numerous sequential evaluators stops the whole thing.  And instead of objective specialists, we have decisions being made by the deputy attorney general, who is neither objective nor a specialist.  The criteria are poorly articulated and currently issued by the stiflingly conflicted DOJ.  And finally, there is little to no connection between the process and what comes after, as prison gives way to freedom.

Is there a better way?  Sure.  Just take the process out of the DOJ and put it in the hands of a board, as most states do, and then have that board make regular recommendations pursuant to consistent criteria while monitoring outcomes.  If we did that, the clemency process would finally be at least as functional as the one that informs a silly holiday tradition.  There is a place for circuses, but we also need to regularly bake the bread of mercy that is promised in the Constitution.

November 20, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

November 19, 2018

Wondering about plea deals and departure authority in Washington after sentencing in awful rape and manslaughter case

Debates about federal sentencing and judicial discretion have long included district judges lamenting having to impose unduly severe sentences under federal statutory mandatory minimums (or under the federal sentencing guidelines before Booker made them advisory).  But this stunning story out of Washington, headlined "Man who raped dying Everett teen gets less than 3 years," reports on a state sentencing judge lamenting having to impose what seems like an unduly lenient sentence under state sentencing guidelines. Here are the details:

Alyssa Noceda was still growing up when she died. The young man who watched her overdose, Brian Varela, will serve less than three years in prison for giving her drugs, raping her and joking about her lifeless body over texts with friends.

Superior Court Judge Linda Krese said Thursday she was bound by law to sentence Varela to 2 years and 10 months.  It’s the most time allowed under state guidelines for second-degree manslaughter, third-degree rape and unlawful disposal of human remains, for someone with no prior record.

Krese was “surprised, even outraged,” by the inadequacy of the sentence. She has seen auto theft cases with more serious penalties.  “I’m not sure the Legislature really contemplated something like this,” Krese said.

Noceda had just turned 18.... Varela, 20, told detectives Noceda came to a party in February at a mobile home near Martha Lake. In Varela’s room, she snorted crushed pills and he offered her a dab of concentrated THC.  She collapsed within a minute of mixing the two, according to Varela’s story. He told police the pills were Percocet.  Tests later showed she’d taken a fatal mix of fentanyl and alprazolam, a generic name for Xanax.  Varela did not call for help.  Instead he texted pictures of Noceda’s partly nude body to coworkers, with comments like, “LOL.”

“Bro you killed her,” one friend said. “But not joking she od bruh,” Varela wrote.  He didn’t care, he added, because he was sexually assaulting her “to pass the time.”...

Varela played an online game until he fell asleep, according to charging papers. He woke up the next morning, he told police, to find Noceda’s lips blue.  She was cold to the touch.  Again, he didn’t call for help.

He went to work at Dairy Queen.  Once he returned, he stuffed the body in a plastic crate. He kept her hidden for days.  He used the thumbprint of Noceda’s hand to hack into her iPhone, to make a post on Snapchat suggesting that she ran away.  He washed her body to try to destroy evidence.  He told friends he planned to bury her near Marysville, then flee to Mexico.  One coworker called police....

Deputy prosecutor Toni Montgomery reached a plea agreement in September. “His complete disregard for the value in her life, and the way he treated her body and what he did with it — 34 months is really the only sentence that would be appropriate, given the current sentencing structure,” Montgomery said in court.

Noceda’s mother [Gina Pierson] and aunt cried when they learned the likely sentence....  In a packed courtroom Thursday, friends and family wore matching black hoodies with Justice-4-Alyssa printed across the back.  The front showed Noceda, with angel wings sprouting from her shoulders.  One by one for about a half-hour, Noceda’s loved ones stood in front of the judge and called Varela a monster and a murderer.

When it was Varela’s turn in court, he spoke two sentences. “I’m sorry for my foolish actions,” he said. “Whatever I get is what I deserve.”

In an interview before the hearing, Pierson said state laws need to change so other families don’t suffer like hers.  She struggled to explain her feelings toward the defendant. She has tried to forgive him, she said.

I can fully understand why the mother of the victim here thinks "state laws need to change," but I do not understand why existing Washington law could not have allowed for a more serious sanction in this horrible case.  For starters, the facts as presented here would arguably fit a charge of Rape in the Second Degree under Washington law ("victim is incapable of consent by reason of being physically helpless"), which is a much more serious offense likely to carry a much more serious sanction. 

Even without a conviction of a higher charge, the manslaughter and rape charges here carry statutory maximum sentences of 10 and 5 years.  For a first offender, it seems, the applicable sentencing guidelines provide for a much lower maximum sentence, but Washington law provides a lengthy list of aggravating circumstances that can allow for a departure above the standard sentencing range.  Any number of possible aggravating circumstances seem readily provable here: e.g., the first two listed are "defendant's conduct during the commission of the current offense manifested deliberate cruelty to the victim" and "defendant knew or should have known that the victim of the current offense was particularly vulnerable or incapable of resistance" and other potential aggravators include the "offense involved an invasion of the victim's privacy" and the "defendant demonstrated or displayed an egregious lack of remorse."

Because a number of aggravating circumstances seem to fir this case, I am not sure the sentencing judge here was correct when saying "I’m not sure the Legislature really contemplated something like this."  Rather, as I see it, the Washington legislature expressly provided a means for judges to go above the applicable sentencing range if and when prosecutors pursue and prove one of these aggravating factors  Perhaps someone who know the work-a-day realities of Washington sentencing law and practice can help me better understand what seems to have gone wrong here.

November 19, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Another round of news and notes from the front lines of the debate over the FIRST STEP Act

I am not sure I will need to do regular round-ups of stories and commentary surrounding the prospects of the FIRST STEP Act. But I am sure that there have been lots of notable developments and discussion since I did this last round-up of stories just a few days ago. So, from various sources and various authors (including Jared Kushner):

November 19, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Sotomayor, dissents from denial of cert in Confrontation Clause case from Alabama

Because the Confrontation Clause has been deemed inapplicable at sentencing (which has always seemed problematic to me), I tend not always pay a lot of attention to the Supreme Court's modern Confrontation Clause jurisprudence.  But I do always pay a lot of attention to any indication that a new Justice is particularly concerned about the rights of criminal defendants, and so it is now interesting and notable to see Justice Gorsuch (joined by Justice Sotomayor) penning a dissent from the Supreme Court's denial of cert this morning in Stuart v. Alabama.  Here are key paragraphs from the start and end of the dissent:

More and more, forensic evidence plays a decisive role in criminal trials today.  But it is hardly “immune from the risk of manipulation.”  Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 557 U.S. 305, 318 (2009).  A forensic analyst “may feel pressure — or have an incentive — to alter the evidence in a manner favorable to the prosecution.”  Ibid.  Even the most well-meaning analyst may lack essential training, contaminate a sample, or err during the testing process.  See ibid.; see also Bullcoming v. New Mexico, 564 U.S. 647, 654, n.1 (2011) (documenting laboratory problems).  To guard against such mischief and mistake and the risk of false convictions they invite, our criminal justice system depends on adversarial testing and cross-examination.  Because cross-examination may be “the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth,” California v. Green, 399 U.S. 149, 158 (1970) (internal quotation marks omitted), the Constitution promises every person accused of a crime the right to confront his accusers. Amdt. 6.

That promise was broken here.  To prove Vanessa Stuart was driving under the influence, the State of Alabama introduced in evidence the results of a blood-alcohol test conducted hours after her arrest.  But the State refused to bring to the stand the analyst who performed the test.  Instead, the State called a different analyst.  Using the results of the test after her arrest and the rate at which alcohol is metabolized, this analyst sought to estimate for the jury Ms. Stuart’s blood-alcohol level hours earlier when she was driving.  Through these steps, the State effectively denied Ms. Stuart the chance to confront the witness who supplied a foundational piece of evidence in her conviction.  The engine of cross-examination was left unengaged, and the Sixth Amendment was violated....

Respectfully, I believe we owe lower courts struggling to abide our holdings more clarity than we have afforded them in this area.  Williams imposes on courts with crowded dockets the job of trying to distill holdings on two separate and important issues from four competing opinions.  The errors here may be manifest, but they are understandable and they affect courts across the country in cases that regularly recur.  I would grant review.

November 19, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Drug-Induced Homicide Defense Toolkit"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new document now available via SSRN and authored by Valena Beety, Alex Kreit, Jeremiah Goulka and Leo Beletsky.  Here is its abstract:

In response to the growing opioid crisis, many prosecutors are treating overdose deaths as homicides.  Since 2010, drug-induced homicide prosecutions have increased at least threefold.  Criminal defense attorneys and defendants' families have asked for help in understanding these cases and how to defend them.  This Toolkit is an effort to provide that help.

And here is an introductory paragraph from the first part of the document:

This Toolkit is intended to serve as an informational guide for defense counsel and other interested parties working to mount a defense for individuals charged with drug-induced homicide or similar crimes resulting from overdoses.  The creation of this toolkit was spurred by two related trends: (1) information from parents, news reports, and other sources about pervasively inadequate defense being provided to many individuals charged with these crimes, and (2) widespread efforts by prosecutors to disseminate information and tools that aid other prosecutors and law enforcement in investigating and bringing drug-induced homicide and related charges, including presentations at conferences, continuing legal education modules, webinars, and the like.

November 19, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

November 18, 2018

Four changes to the FIRST STEP Act sought by Senator Tom Cotton

As regular readers know, Senator Tom Cotton has been the leading vocal advocate against significant statutory federal criminal justice reform in recent years (see, e.g., Cotton commentary covered here in 2016 regarding the SRCA and more recently here and here on the FIRST STEP front.)  I have recently been informed by knowledgeable authority that Senator Cotton's office made the following offer to the bill's proponents concerning modifications to the House-passed version of the FIRST STEP Act that would lead Senator Cotton to be supportive or neutral rather than in opposition to the bill.  It is my understanding that these suggested modifications were generally rejected (though I think #1 may have been partially adopted in the latest version of the bill now being discussed in the Senate).

1.  Add an exclusion from the early-release credits for heroin and fentanyl traffickers.  The rationale is that there are already 57 exclusions based on the severity of the crime or the likelihood that the offender could engage in that conduct from home, and trafficking those particular drugs fits both those criteria.  It's consistent with what the President has called for.  These offenders would still be eligible for expanded good time credits, and for an expanded home confinement allowance under other sections of the bill (which TC doesn't like, but he's moderated his ask.)

2.  For changing the good-time credits from 47 days per year to 54 days per year: make that change prospective, instead of retroactive. It's not a huge difference in time — likely a few weeks or a couple months — but if the change is prospective, then we would avoid releasing ~4,000 offenders the day the bill is passed before they have gone through any of the anti-recidivism training.

3.  Add Senator Cotton, Graham, and Kennedy's bill to adjust the weight for applying section 841 punishments to fentanyl trafficking to reflect fentanyl's potency.  Right now, the weights are grossly skewed and do not treat fentanyl with the same level of harshness as heroin (proportionately), even though fentanyl is far more deadly.  The President endorsed this bill when we introduced it, or he at least spoke favorably about it.

4.  Add Senator Cotton & Hatch's fix to the Armed Career Criminal Act.  This fix would impact about 300 three-time + repeat offenders per year; it would revert back to the status quo when the ACCA passed unanimously, after being [supported] by Ron Wyden; and [a fix has] been called for by even Elena Kagan [recently] at SCOTUS.  It's also a huge priority for federal prosecutors because dealing with Johnson's fallout has been a massive time-suck to their ability to do their jobs.

He has other concerns with the bill, but recognizes that he can't get everything he wants.... To give you a sense of how modest #3 and #4 are, 267 traffickers were charged with fentanyl trafficking in FY 2017, and #4 would likely affect about 300 offenders per year.

That's 567 of the most dangerous and repeat offenders who could face harsher sentences under this compromise, while the vast majority of other federal offenders and the ~180,000 federal prisoners would be newly eligible for at least some relief.

We think this would be better policy, better politics, and could pass easily without forcing Republican Senators to choose between supporting the criminal justice bill or supporting law enforcement and their voters who do not favor a criminal justice bill that solely reduces punishments.

As regular readers know, I already think the FIRST STEP Act falls far short of needed reforms to the federal criminal justice system, and so I am not especially keen on additional carve outs.  But if additional carve outs are needed to get a bill to the desk of the President, I am so very eager to see a deal get done.  There has been significant talk of significant bipartisan support for reform now for the better part of a decade, and yet no consequential statutory reform has made its way through Congress.  it seems we are really close, but it has seemed that way before, too.  And if Prez Trump really wants to see this get done, and if he is really the great deal-maker he claims to be, there surely has to be a viable path forward to legislation completion (or so I want to believe). 

November 18, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Spotlighting the still-challenging politics that surround the intersection of marijuana reform, criminal justice reform and racial inequities

Today's must-read for both marijuana reform and criminal justice reform fans is this lengthy new Politico article fully headlined "Racial Justice and Legal Pot Are Colliding in Congress: The latest fight over criminal justice reform is over allowing felons access to newly legal aspects of the cannabis industry. Lawmakers are getting woke — slowly." I recommend this piece is full, and here are some extended excerpts:

Thanks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the [Farm] bill includes an amendment that would permanently remove hemp from the list of federally banned drugs like heroin and cocaine, freeing hemp from the crippling legal stigma that has made it economically unviable for the past four decades.  But that amendment also includes a little-noticed ban on people convicted of drug felonies from participating in the soon-to-be-federally-legal hemp industry.

Added late in the process, apparently to placate a stakeholder close to McConnell, the exception has angered a broad and bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, hemp industry insiders and religious groups who see it as a continuing punishment of minorities who were targeted disproportionately during the War on Drugs and now are being denied the chance to profit economically from a product that promises to make millions of dollars for mostly white investors on Wall Street....

[L]awmakers like McConnell, who have discovered the economic benefits of relaxing prohibitions on products such as hemp, have nevertheless quietly found ways, like the Farm Bill felon ban, to satisfy the demands of their anti-legalization constituents, to the chagrin of pro-cannabis lawmakers and activists. After POLITICO Magazine reported on the drug-crime felon ban in August, three senators — Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) — wrote to Senate leadership demanding the removal of the ban, citing its “disparate impact on minorities,” among other concerns.

“I think there’s a growing recognition of the hypocrisy and unfairness of our nation’s drug laws, when hundreds of thousands of Americans are behind bars for something that is now legal in nine states and something that two of the last three Presidents have admitted to doing,” Booker told POLITICO Magazine. “If we truly want to be a just and fair nation, marijuana legalization must be accompanied by record expungement and a focus on restorative justice.”...

[The] once-radical notion that felons ought to gain priority for entry into a newly legal industry — instead of being shut out — has quietly gained bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, albeit not among Republican leadership.  In the House, this mounting opposition to the continuing punishment of felons first cropped up in September when the Judiciary Committee passed its first pro-marijuana bill.  It would expand access to scientific study of the cannabis plant, a notion agreed-upon by marijuana’s supporters and detractors alike.  However, Democrats almost killed the bill because it included language that barred felons (and even people convicted of misdemeanors) from receiving licenses to produce the marijuana.

Felon bans are commonplace in legal marijuana programs.  Every state has some version of it, but most of them have a five- or 10-year limit.  But the felon bans in both the Senate’s Farm Bill and the House’s marijuana research bill are lifetime bans, and the House bill includes misdemeanors, too. “Any restriction on misdemeanors goes in the exact contrary direction of the Second Chance Act,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-New York), who will become chairman of the Judiciary Committee in January.  His criticism was echoed by Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee), who sought to have the misdemeanor language struck from the bill until its sponsor, Matt Gaetz (R-Florida), promised to address that language when it comes to the House floor.

In the Senate, the movement to protect the legal marijuana trade has taken the form of the proposed bipartisan Gardner-Warren STATES Act, which would maintain the status quo of federal non-interference of state-legal programs that was upended when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions repealed the Cole Memo, an Obama-era document that outlined a hands-off approach to state-legal programs.  Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act would adopt California-style principles and apply them federally, going far beyond the STATES Act, removing marijuana from Schedule I (defined as having no medical value and a high risk of abuse) and eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana.  But unlike other pro-marijuana bills, it would also deny federal law-enforcement grants to states that don’t legalize marijuana; direct federal courts to expunge marijuana convictions; and establish a grant-making fund through the Department of Housing and Urban Development for communities most affected by the War on Drugs.

Booker’s bill has become popular among Senate Democrats.  Ron Wyden, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Jeff Merkley and Elizabeth Warren have signed on as co-sponsors — a list that looks a lot like a lineup of presumed candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.  “For too long, the federal government has propped up failed and outdated drug policies that destroy lives,” Wyden told POLITICO Magazine.  “The War on Drugs is deeply rooted in racism.  We desperately need to not only correct course, but to also ensure equal justice for those who have been disproportionately impacted. People across America understand and want change. Now, Congress must act.”

Recent polling shows that Americans agree with Wyden — to a point.  There is a widespread acceptance of legalizing marijuana.  Gallup has been tracking this number since 1969, when only 12 percent of Americans believed in legalizing it; in October, Gallup put the number at 64 percent, the highest ever number recorded.  Pew says it is 62 percent, also its highest number ever. 

But there is far less acceptance of the idea that the War on Drugs has had an adverse impact on poorer, minority communities, or that there should be some form of compensation in terms of prioritized access to the new industry. A  poll conducted by Lake Research Partners, a progressive DC-based polling firm, earlier this year on the “Politics of Marijuana Legalization in 2018 Battleground Districts” found that 62 percent of the 800 likely voters surveyed agreed with the idea “we need legalization to repair the financial and moral damage of the failed War on Drugs.”  However, when the pollsters added a racial component to this message — whether the respondents felt that the marijuana prohibition “unfairly target[s] and destroy[s] minority communities” — only 40 percent found that message to be “very convincing.”...

[M]any members of the Congressional Black Caucus have been slow to support marijuana legalization. But the CBC finally made its position on this issue clear in June when its 48-member caucus voted in an “overwhelming majority” to support policies beyond mere decriminalization: “Some of the same folks who told African Americans ‘three strikes and you’re out’ when it came to marijuana use and distribution, are now in support of decriminalizing the drug and making a profit off of it,” CBC Chairman Cedric L. Richmond, Democrat from Louisiana said at the time. “The Congressional Black Caucus supports decriminalizing marijuana and investing in communities that were destroyed by the War on Drugs…” 

Arguments for legalizing marijuana haven’t been entirely persuasive to sway many in the conservative black community, but re-framing it in the context of civil rights has brought many around to this new way of thinking. “What is moving conservative black and brown folks is this idea that we’re on the horizon of marijuana legalization,” according to Queen Adesuyi of the Drug Policy Alliance. “So the idea is in order to do this in a way that is equitable and fair, you have to start on the front end of alleviating racially biased consequences of prohibition while we’re legalizing — and that means expungement, re-sentencing, community re-investment, and looking at where marijuana tax revenue can go, and getting rid of barriers to the industry.”

Now that Democrats have won control of the House, co-founder of the Cannabis Caucus, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon), is poised to implement his blueprint for how the House under Democratic leadership would legalize marijuana at the federal level.  Racial justice is front-and-center in that plan.  The memo he sent to Democratic leadership reads in part, “committees should start marking up bills in their jurisdiction that would responsibly narrow the marijuana policy gap — the gap between federal and state marijuana laws — before the end of the year. These policy issues… should include: Restorative justice measures that address the racial injustices that resulted from the unequal application of federal marijuana laws.”

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

November 18, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)