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April 6, 2019

"Making Jail a Last Resort" or "If Prisons Don’t Work, What Will?"

The title of this post are the two somewhat different (bad) headlines I have seen for this great New York Times commentary authored by Emily Bazelon (whose great timely new book is titled "Charged: The New Movement to Transform Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration.")  I am much more partial to the first headline than the second, but neither comes close to capturing effectively the spirit and themes of the wide-ranging piece.  So, go read the full piece, and here are some extended excerpts:

The United States spends far too much money locking up far too many people for far too long. A few years ago, a politician had to be brave to say anything like that out loud. Now it’s a mainstream and bipartisan view....  It’s all pretty head-spinning after decades of elected officials competing to lock more people up and spotlight the scariest crimes. Now, with public opinion shifting far and fast and politicians hurrying to catch up, you could even argue that criminal justice reform has become the new marriage equality in terms of the turnaround in public attitudes.

That presents a major opportunity for Democratic presidential candidates.  But for all the energy behind reform, no presidential candidate has articulated a big, comprehensive vision for transformational change.  There’s a consensus that the system is broken, but no agreement on how to fix it.  The presidential candidate looking to distinguish herself might start by looking at a new wave of reform-minded district attorneys who are challenging conventional law-and-order approaches in red states and blue ones.

For the candidates, thematically, a starting point should be that wealth should not determine a person’s fate in court, and profit should not drive the system.  Bail bonds, privatized probation and corporate-run prisons are parasitic features of the justice system.  Ending cash bail should be at the top of every candidate’s criminal justice agenda.  So should getting rid of fines and fees that help fund local governments but trap people in cycles of debt....

To end mass incarceration, however, exempting nonviolent offenses from jail time isn’t enough.  People convicted of violent crimes make up more than half of the country’s state prison population. But the image of prisons overflowing with murderers and rapists is wrong.  In many states, “violent felonies” include offenses like breaking into an empty house or snatching a purse or iPhone on the street.  Reducing sentences for these offenses — and changing what counts as a violent felony to begin with — is a good way to start lowering this share of the prison population.

And that fits in with a second theme for candidates: People deserve a second chance, because many grow and change. They robbed to feed an addiction and then got sober. They assaulted someone because they were mentally ill and then got treatment and stabilized. They mature as they age beyond their teens and early 20s.  That’s why it makes sense to reconsider how long a person should stay in prison after doing some time....

Parole offers another opening for second chances. In Texas, says Scott Henson, an activist who blogs at the site Grits for Breakfast, “our parole rates have gone from 15 percent to the high 30s in the last decade,” He said the increase is “having more impact than any bill we’ve passed even through the legislature.” He thinks the reason for the rise is a humdrum logistical one: The state unofficially uses parole as a way to reduce prison overcrowding.

We should also focus on redefining the terms of the public safety debate.  Ending mass incarceration, and ensuring fairness throughout the criminal justice system, aren’t in tension with public safety.  They’re integral to it.  People tend to uphold the law when they believe it’s reasonable and applied evenly.  When people have that faith, they are more likely to help the police solve crimes....

Finally, incarceration should be the last resort, not the default.  In Brooklyn, District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has said this idea is central to his tenure.  His counterpart in Boston, Rachael Rollins, last month instructed prosecutors to ask for jail only “when any other recommendation would compromise” safety.  When no other option than jail or prison will do, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of people who go in also get out. Making sure they have the tools to lead productive lives when they emerge — like job training and access to decent housing — is a public good.

Presidents don’t actually control the key levers of the American punishment machine.  About 80 percent of the people who are locked up today are in state and local jails and prisons.  But presidents, and presidential campaigns, can raise the profile of an issue and set a tone.  The way they talk about repairing our broken criminal justice system speaks loudly to broader issues about racial and wealth inequality. Presidents can also shape the behavior of states and cities with funding and other incentives, like redirecting money to treatment and prevention programs.

Were I in charge of devising a headline for this piece, I might go with something like "How Prosecutors and Presidential Candidates Advance Criminal Justice Reform." But this is not the first, nor will it be the last, great newspaper piece without a headline to serve it well.  Of course, the piece itself leaves out some important stories like the achievement of the FIRST STEP Act and the need for clemency reform (points recently stressed by Senator and Prez canadide Amy Klobuchar).  But there is so much getting done and needing to be done in this space now, it is hard to fault any piece of writing for not covering everything.

April 6, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

US District Court declares unconstitutional Illinois host-site rules that has led to indefinite detention of hundreds of sex offenders

Via the always terrific Marshall Project, I came across a notable opinion by US District Judge Virginia Kendall finding constitutionally problematic a remarkable set of rules used to restrict the release of sex offenders from prison in Illinois.  This local press report on this ruling provides these basics:

A federal judge in Chicago has found the Illinois Department of Corrections is violating the constitutional rights of prisoners convicted of certain sex crimes by making the restrictions on where they can live so stringent that inmates are often locked up long beyond their sentences.

In a ruling issued Sunday, Judge Virginia Kendall wrote that hundreds of offenders in the state’s prison system successfully complete their entire court-ordered sentences yet remain behind bars indefinitely.  Kendall found the corrections department is depriving them of fundamental rights, and if they had money and support, they’d be able to leave and begin serving out what’s called “mandatory supervised release.”

Mark Weinberg, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the decision could mean relief for hundreds of people who have been in prison even though they’ve served their time.... Prisoners call the time they serve beyond their sentences — often many years — “dead time.”...

Will Mingus, executive director of the nonprofit Illinois Voice for Reform which advocates for more effective sex offender policies, says the state’s laws are counterproductive — they actually keep these prisoners from receiving the support that research shows will help them rehabilitate.  “The laws [the legislature is] creating are not solving the problem, they’re not creating safety, they’re creating the illusion of safety,” Mingus said. “Studies that have been done for years now you’ll see that having stable housing, having a job, having social support, those are the things that help people reintegrate into society and help reduce recidivism.”  Mingus said he understands it is difficult to have practical conversations around paroling and rehabilitating sex offenders, but he thinks the judge’s ruling is common sense.  “I think it’ll be a win for the people currently sitting in prison long past their out date because they simply cannot find a place to parole to,” Mingus said. 

Adele Nicholas, an attorney for the plaintiffs, says there are a couple of potential solutions the department of corrections could implement.  “One would be making available different forms of free housing that people who can’t afford a place to live could go to,” Nicholas said.  “Whether that’s allowing people to parole to homeless shelters, or making it so there are halfway houses people could live in, or work release.”  Currently, there are no halfway houses in Illinois that will accept someone convicted of a sex offense.

Kendall wasn’t clear on exactly what the solution will be to get the men released from prison quickly. She expects to hold a hearing April 22 to begin determining that, she wrote.

The full 61-page ruling in Murphy v. Raoul, No. 16 C 11471 (N.D. Ill. March 31, 2019), is available at this link.  Here is how it starts and ends:

The Paul Murphy is indigent and homeless.  He was convicted of possession of child pornography in 2012 and received a sentence of three years’ probation.  Five years after his release date, and nearly twice the number of years of his sentence, he remains incarcerated because the Department of Corrections cannot find an appropriate place for him live. 

Illinois, like many states, requires sentencing courts to follow a term of imprisonment with a term of mandatory supervised release.  Supervised release is a form of post-confinement monitoring intended to assist individuals in their transition from prison to liberty.  Most supervised release terms are determinate, but some — including those that apply to several sex offenses — are indeterminate, meaning they range from three years to natural life.  The clock on these terms does not start ticking until sex offenders are out of prison, but some never make it that far because they are indigent and the State demands that they first secure a qualifying host site before it will release them.  Many offenders successfully complete their entire court-ordered terms of incarceration yet remain detained indefinitely because they are unable find a residence due to indigence and lack of support.

The question presented is whether this practice violates the Constitution.  The plaintiffs are a class comprising the affected sex offenders and the defendants are the Attorney General of Illinois and the Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections.  Both parties moved for summary judgment.  The Court now grants the plaintiffs’ motion in part, denies it in part, and denies the defendants’ cross-motion in full.   At the very heart of the liberty secured by the separation of powers is freedom from indefinite imprisonment by executive decree.  The Attorney General and Director’s current application of the host site requirement results in the continued deprivation of the plaintiffs’ fundamental rights and therefore contravenes the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States....

Sex offenders are criminals, plain and simple.  Yet the “one enduring lesson in the long struggle to balance individual rights against society’s need to defend itself against lawlessness,” is that it “‘is easy to make light of insistence on scrupulous regard for the safeguards of civil liberties when invoked on behalf of the unworthy.  It is too easy. History bears testimony that by such disregard are the rights of liberty extinguished, heedlessly at first, then stealthily, and brazenly in the end.’” United States v. Montoya de Hernandez, 473 U.S. 531, 567 (1985) (quoting Davis v. United States, 328 U.S. 582, 597 (1946) (Frankfurter, J., dissenting)).

The Illinois Legislature thought it best to rehabilitate sex offenders by reintegrating them, like all other convicted felons, into the community after prison.  The Constitution thus entitles them to the same conditional liberty that all other releasees receive.  Because the defendants’ current application of the host-site requirement permits the indefinite detention of the plaintiffs, it breaches the promises enshrined in the Bill of Rights.  The Court accordingly grants the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment as to their equal protection (Count II) and Eighth Amendment claims (Count IV), denies it as to their substantive (Count I) and procedural (Count III) due process claims, and denies the defendants’ cross-motion in full.

Although the Court today decides liability, it reserves ruling on the proper remedy to afford the plaintiffs.  The Court sets a status hearing for 4/22/2019 at 9:00 a.m. to discuss a trial date for the procedural due process claim and the need for a remedial hearing to determine the scope of equitable relief.

April 6, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7)

April 5, 2019

Senator Klobuchar talking up "second step" criminal justice reforms with a focus on the clemency process

Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is running for President and who served as a local prosecutor for eight years, has this notable new commentary at CNN running under the headline "On criminal justice reform, it's time for a second step." Here are excerpts:

Our criminal justice system is broken. Today we know that our country has more than 20% of the world's incarcerated people, even though we have less than 5% of the world's population.  And we know racial disparities at every level of our system have removed millions of people of color from our society, destroying families and communities for generations.

Thanks to the work of countless reform advocates, we have finally started to acknowledge that there is racism in our criminal justice system and that we need to take action to fight it.  But the next president will have to do more than just talk about these issues.  She will have to take action.

Our criminal justice system cannot lose sight of the principles of fairness and compassion -- for victims, yes, but also for offenders.  Our Founding Fathers understood this point when they gave the president the power to grant clemency....

As president, I would create a clemency advisory board as well as a position in the White House -- outside of the Department of Justice -- that advises the president from a criminal justice reform perspective.  Law professors such as Rachel E. Barkow from New York University and Mark Osler from the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota have described what a better clemency system could look like.  Currently, the Department of Justice includes an Office of the Pardon Attorney, tasked with investigating and reviewing all requests for clemency for federal offenses and ultimately preparing a recommendation for the president.  Although the voices of our prosecutors and law enforcement officials are important and should continue to advise the president, there are additional voices that a president needs to hear.

A diverse, bipartisan clemency advisory board -- one that includes victim advocates as well as prison and sentencing reform advocates -- could look at this from a different perspective. And a criminal justice reform advocate in the White House will ensure that someone is advising the president on criminal justice reform.  That's why I'm committed to making these important changes during the first month of my presidency, should I be elected.

But we cannot solve the many problems associated with mass incarceration through better and smarter use of the presidential pardon alone.  Last year, we in Congress passed the First Step Act, which changed the overly harsh sentencing laws on nonviolent drug offenders and reformed our federal prisons.  But now it's time for the Second Step Act.

The reforms in the First Step Act only apply to those held in the federal system.  The new law doesn't help the nearly 90% of people incarcerated in state and local facilities.  One of my top priorities will be to create federal incentives so that states can restore some discretion from mandatory sentencing for nonviolent offenders and reform the unconscionable conditions in state prisons and local jails.

We have to do more to reduce inflexible mandatory minimums and add safety valves, building on the federal reforms we made last year.  True criminal justice reform includes the cash bail system, expanding funding for public defenders and eliminating obstacles to re-entering and participating fully in society.  That's why we also need better educational and job training programs that can help people both before and after they are released.

I'm also working to change the dialogue on drug and alcohol treatment and mental health services.  I did this in Minnesota as Hennepin County attorney, I've fought for expanded drug courts as a senator, and I'll make this a priority as president.

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear me praise the Senator's eagerness to change the clemency process. As long-time readers know, I started urging more clemency action from Prez Obama on the day he was elected and in 2010, I authored this law review article titled "Turning Hope-and-Change Talk Into Clemency Action for Nonviolent Drug Offenders," which closed with a recommendation that the president "seriously consider creating some form of a 'Clemency Commission'."   The advocacy in this commentary for the creation of a "diverse, bipartisan clemency advisory board" is truly music to my ears.

April 5, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Clemency and Pardons, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

In wake of gruesome DOJ report, Alabama Gov plans to build three large new prisons with taxpayer price tag of about a billion dollars

As detailed in this new piece, headlined "Torture, rape, murder: Details from investigation into Alabama’s prison crisis," a Justice Department report on Alabama's prisons released this week was truly brutal:

Sexually assaulted Alabama prison inmates fear reporting abuse, knowing they will be punished for what prison officials say is deliberately creating a safety hazard. Family members of inmates are extorted by other inmates who threaten their imprisoned loved ones -- unless the family pays a prisoner’s drug debt.

Understaffed prisons are overflowing with inmates who are armed with makeshift weapons and will kill officers over food and will kill fellow inmates for any number of reasons. Inmates are drugged, raped and tortured for days at a time, sometimes in retaliation for reporting sexual abuse.

These are the findings of a federal investigation of Alabama prisons, released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The full report is available at this link, and it highlights just some of the many harms of trying to do prison systems "on the cheap."  But, as this follow-up article highlights under the headline "Gov. Kay Ivey says new Alabama prisons part of fix for ‘major crisis’," the taxpayers in Alabama are probably going to now have to foot a big bill for a big prison population:

In the wake of a blistering report from the U.S. Department of Justice, Gov. Kay Ivey is moving ahead with her plan to build three large men’s prisons as a major part of her response to Alabama’s chronically crowded and understaffed correctional system.

The DOJ report released Wednesday acknowledged the “incredibly poor physical shape” of the state’s prisons but focused instead on the violence, sexual abuse, drug trade and extortion that led investigators to conclude that the prisons are so dangerous that there is reasonable cause to believe the state is in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The report said new prisons might solve some problems but said “new facilities alone will not resolve the contributing factors to the overall unconstitutional conditions.”

Ivey said today she is committed to working with the DOJ to address the problems.  The governor said she is proceeding with plans to build prisons, expected to cost about a billion dollars.  Ivey said she expects a request for companies to make proposals to build the prisons will be released sometime this spring.

Attorneys with two advocacy groups with a history of shedding light on abuses in Alabama prisons said the DOJ report demands that the state move with urgency to make the existing prisons safer. “We have an emergency and we have to act immediately to protect the lives of the people who are incarcerated,” Charlotte Morrison, senior attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative, said. “So, the priority has to be a short-term plan to bring about immediate reform.”....

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said today the DOJ report called for immediate action.  McCutcheon said the House and Senate are putting together an emergency task force to address the issues raised in the report and help craft the state’s response.  He said that work cannot be delayed....

Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the DOJ report makes it clear that Alabama cannot build its way out of the prison crisis. The SPLC represents inmates in the federal lawsuit over health care.

“DOJ’s letter makes clear that the simple but incredibly expensive solution of construction isn’t going to address its problems,” Graybill said....

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who has led prison and criminal justice reform initiatives in the Legislature, said prison construction is one of multiple components in a comprehensive solution.  Ward said the Legislature could also consider sentencing reforms, including changing the penalties for some property crimes.  Lawmakers passed a reform package in 2015 that has helped reduce the prison population, although it is still at 180 percent of capacity in the major prisons, the DOJ said.

Ward called the DOJ report “deeply humiliating” and said the findings are at odds with Alabama’s posture as a state steeped in Christian ideals.  Ward said the nature of politics is at the root of the crisis.  “No one wants to fund prisons,” Ward said. “They’d rather fund schools or stuff that gets them votes back home. Nobody gets a vote back home supporting what’s going on in prisons. But as the complaint pointed out, you’re treating people like you wouldn’t treat dogs. And for a country of laws and obviously we have pushed up on the Eighth Amendment here.”

April 5, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Split Sixth Circuit panel debates status of lawsuit over Tennessee judicial order that gave reduced jail time to inmates agreeing to sterilization

Regular readers may recall (but still may not believe) prior posts here and here a few years ago about the Tennessee judge who had a standing court order offering 30 days off a defendant's jail time for "voluntarily" agreeing to have a vasectomy or birth control implant.  A lawsuit over this order in federal court made it to the Sixth Circuit and resulted in a split decision yesterday in Sullivan v. Benningfield, No. 18-5643 (6th Cir. April 4, 2019) (available here).  Here is how the majority opinion gets started:

In May 2017, Judge Sam Benningfield issued an order offering a 30-day sentencing credit to inmates in White County, Tennessee.  There was one condition: to obtain the credit, inmates had to submit to sterilization.  After public outcry about the sterilization-for-sentencing-credits program, Judge Benningfield issued a second order declaring that inmates could no longer enroll in the program, followed by a third order clarifying which of the inmates who initially enrolled could still receive the sentencing credit.  Within months, the Tennessee Legislature passed Senate Bill 2133, which made it illegal for courts to make sentencing determinations based on a defendant’s willingness to consent to sterilization.

Christopher Sullivan, Nathan Haskell, and William Gentry — inmates who refused to submit to a vasectomy and were consequently denied the sentencing credit that was awarded to inmates who underwent sterilization — challenged Judge Benningfield’s orders under the Equal Protection Clause, arguing that the orders subjected inmates to differential treatment on the basis of their procreative rights and their sex.  The district court found that the claims were moot in light of the passage of Senate Bill 2133 and Judge Benningfield’s second and third orders.  Because none of those subsequent developments in the law ended the differential treatment that plaintiffs challenge, we reverse and remand for consideration of plaintiffs’ claims on the merits.

Here is the start of the dissenting opinion:

None of the Plaintiffs suffered any injury in this case.  Plaintiffs’ sentences were not increased; rather they served their sentences as originally ordered.  Being offered contraceptive services, even being encouraged to accept free contraceptive services, is not an injury in fact for purposes of standing.  Plaintiffs did not receive the vasectomies and their right to procreate has not been hindered in any way.  Cf. Harris v. McRae, 448 U.S. 297 (1980) (explaining that even when the government favors childbirth over abortion by subsidizing one decision over the other; such regulation does not impinge on the constitutional freedom to make those decisions because it imposed no restrictions on access to abortions); Maher v. Roe, 432 U.S. 464, 474 (1977) (“The State may have made childbirth a more attractive alternative, thereby influencing the woman’s decision, but it has imposed no restriction on access to abortions that was not already there.”).

Plaintiffs also did not suffer any “differential treatment.”  See Scarbrough v. Morgan Cty. Bd. of Educ., 470 F.3d 250, 260 (6th Cir. 2006) (“The threshold element of an equal protection claim is disparate treatment....”).  Every inmate was received the same offer.  The fact that two of the three Plaintiffs exercised their right to refuse the offer and preserve their right to procreate actually underscores the point.  Cf. Corbitt v. New Jersey, 439 U.S. 212 (1978) (criminal defendants who refused plea deals to protect their right to trial by jury thereby facing a mandatory life sentence if convicted, rather than pleading guilty in return for a lesser sentence, were not denied equal protection because “[a]ll ... defendants [were] given the same choice”).  For these reasons, I would affirm the district court’s conclusion that the Plaintiffs’ lacked standing.  I therefore respectfully dissent.

Prior related post:

April 5, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

April 4, 2019

"When 'Violent Offenders' Commit Nonviolent Crimes"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting recent Marshall Project piece. I recommend it in full, and here are excerpts:

[M]any of the “violent offenders” in U.S. prisons are there for crimes that not everyone would classify as violent.  According to a Marshall Project survey of all 50 states’ laws, you can get charged and convicted as a violent criminal in more than a dozen states if you enter a dwelling that’s not yours.  That might seem like a property crime, but it’s often deemed a violent one: burglary.  Similarly, purse snatching is considered a “violent” offense in several states. So are the manufacture of methamphetamines and theft of drugs.

Our survey of statutes yielded even more surprising examples.  In Kentucky, committing “Possession of Anhydrous Ammonia in an Unapproved Container with Intent to Manufacture Methamphetamine” a second time puts you in a “violent” category under the law — and you’ll face 20 to 50 years in prison. In Minnesota, aiding an attempted suicide is listed as violent, as is marijuana possession (depending on the amount).  In North Carolina, trafficking a stolen identity and selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or playground are both violent crimes, according to the state’s “habitual violent offender” statute.  And in New York, it’s deemed a violent felony to simply possess a loaded gun illegally — with “loaded” defined as simply being in possession of bullets....

Those classifications aren’t just semantics: When a crime is described as “violent,” there are all kinds of consequences for incarcerated people. Anyone convicted of such offenses can face longer mandatory-minimum sentences, the triggering of “three-strikes-you’re-out” and “habitual violent offender” penalties and, in immigration cases, are at risk of deportation.

They can also be disenfranchised at the ballot box: Some states let certain nonviolent ex-prisoners vote, but not violent ones. And they are often placed in different housing behind bars, according to their supposed violence level.

Rethinking whether these kinds of crimes should be considered violent would change the conversation about what must be done to cut the incarcerated population, some advocates of prison reform say.  Take two states — Minnesota and North Carolina — that classify several questionable crimes as violent.

In Minnesota, approximately 3,092 prisoners out of a total imprisoned population of 9,849 were locked up for “violent” crimes that, on second glance, might not seem all that violent, according to a Marshall Project analysis of July 2018 data. These include burglary—entering a building without consent and with the intent to commit a crime — and drug crimes.  In North Carolina, a significant portion of those behind bars — 7,532 of about 35,700 total prisoners — were incarcerated as of 2018 for crimes deemed violent according to the state’s habitual violent offender law.

These include “habitual breaking and entering,” trafficking in stolen identities, embezzlement of large amounts of money and obtaining property by false pretenses, as well as drug dealing.  If those convicted of such offenses ever get re-arrested, they could, at the bail hearing, be considered to have a violent criminal history — and therefore be sent to jail instead of getting released on bond or supervision.  If they are later released but fail a urine test, they could be returned to prison as a violent offender, even though testing positive for drugs is not a violent crime....

Phillip Kopp, an assistant professor of criminal justice at California State University, Fullerton, said that at the very least, rethinking whether the crime of burglary is “violent” would reframe our understanding of who exactly is in our prisons—and who should potentially be let out.  “Burglary just means entering a structure with the ‘intent’ to commit some kind of crime therein—even if you step right back out and nothing else happens,” he said. “It’s just going inside; anything you do additionally, like robbery, would be charged as an additional offense.”  We should ask ourselves why exactly that’s considered violent, he said.

Kopp acknowledges that some burglaries are categorized as violent because of the implied threat of force, or the potential of inflicting psychological violence upon a victim who comes home to see that his or her personal space has been invaded.  But in this country, he pointed out, only about 3 percent of the millions of burglaries that take place every year involve any actual violence against a human being.

Thinking about how better to punish such crimes — rather than just focusing on shoplifting and low-level drug possession — might be the next step for states that are serious about prison reform.

April 4, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Spotlighting how "politicians are catching up with American voters" on criminal justice reforms

Alex Busansky and Eli Lehrer have this notable new Hill commentary under the headline "Voters are driving justice reform."  Here are excerpts:

When crime rates soared between the 1970s and early 1990s, Democrats and Republicans alike did everything possible to avoid being labeled “soft on crime.”  As crime has dropped, however, reforms that ease punitive measures, reduce correctional populations from the current level of more than 2.2 million, and give people who are formerly incarcerated a fresh start have become a bipartisan cause.  Results from the 2018 midterms, particularly ballot measures backed by voters, should provide important advice for gearing up for the 2020 cycle.  Criminal justice reform has become a winning issue with voters and advocates should pay heed.

Polling data make it clear how voters feel nationally. In a recent article, pollster Celinda Lake says that by a two to one margin, voters believe that our country relies too much on incarcerating people.  A national poll last year by Public Opinion Strategies showed that 68 percent of Republicans, 78 percent of Independents, and 80 percent of Democrats support significant reform.  Places across the nation with very different politics have followed suit and moved towards significant justice system reforms....

This trend has lessons for what works at the state level and ought to give a significant tailwind to those looking to organize for the next cycle.  Efforts are already underway to make Nebraska and Mississippi the latest states to legalize medical marijuana.  This decriminalization of a drug that is now widely accepted is an important step because it reduces justice system involvement for many, particularly people of color, who are simply not dangerous to anyone.  Likewise, Los Angeles County recently approved a plan to close the downtown Men’s Central Jail, while killing a proposal to convert a detention facility into a women’s jail.  Next year, Los Angeles County voters will decide whether to pass a jail reform ballot measure.

Looking to 2020, citizens are already hearing justice reform touted by candidates of both parties. That is not surprising, and it is only going to increase.  Politicians are catching up with American voters, who have already realized that both easing some unnecessarily harsh measures and helping those who have made mistakes become productive members of society is not just a good and right idea, it is a winning campaign issue.

This piece gives some important (though necessarily incomplete) attention to the vole of ballot initiatives in the criminal justice reform movement. Especially in light of recent election cycles in which significant criminal justice reform has been enacted at the ballot in red states like Oklahoma and Florida, I think this is a story that cannot get too much attention and is worth of extended analysis.

April 4, 2019 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

April 3, 2019

Fourth Circuit panel rejects claim that Virginia Parole Board must consider age-related characteristics for juve lifer

A helpful reader alerted me to an interesting new Fourth Circuit panel ruling handed down yesterday in Bowling v. Director, Virginia Dep't of Corrections, No. 18-6170 (4th Cir. April 2, 2019) (available here).  The start of the Bowling opinion provide a flavor for the constitutional arguments framed by the defendant which did not strike a chord with the panel:

This appeal arises from the Virginia Parole Board’s (“the Parole Board”) repeated denial of parole to Thomas Franklin Bowling (“Appellant”).  Appellant was sentenced to life with parole when he was 17 years old.  He first became eligible for parole on April 26, 2005.  The Parole Board has considered his eligibility and denied him parole annually ever since. Appellant alleges that, because the Parole Board was not specifically required to consider age-related characteristics unique to juvenile offenders when it has processed his parole applications, the Parole Board’s repeated denial of his applications violated his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

On that ground, Appellant initiated this action against the Director of the Virginia Department of Corrections (“Appellee”).  Appellee moved to dismiss Appellant’s complaint, and the district court granted Appellee’s motion to dismiss.  Regarding Appellant’s Eighth Amendment claim, the district court held that juvenile-specific Eighth Amendment protections do not apply to Appellant because he was sentenced to life with parole.  Regarding Appellant’s Fourteenth Amendment claims, the district court held that the Parole Board procedures satisfy procedural due process requirements.  For the reasons stated below, we affirm the decision of the district court.

Here is a spare paragraph from the heart of the opinion:

Appellant asks this court to extend the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence to juvenile parole proceedings and find that it is cruel and unusual punishment for a parole board to deny juvenile offenders parole without specifically considering age-related mitigating characteristics as a separate factor in the decisionmaking process.  Granting that request would require us to extend the legacy of Roper, Graham, and Miller in two ways.  First, we would have to find that juvenile-specific Eighth Amendment protections extend to juvenile homicide offenders sentenced to life with parole.  And second, we would have to find that those protections extend beyond sentencing proceedings.  We decline to go so far.

April 3, 2019 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Limiting Identity in Criminal Law"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article recently posted to SSRN and authored by Mihailis Diamantis.  Here is its abstract:

People change with time. Their personalities, values, and preferences shift incrementally as they accrue life experience, discover new sources of meaning, and form/lose memories. Accumulated psychological changes eventually reshape not just how someone relates to the world about her, but also who she is as a person.  This transience of human identity has profound implications for criminal law.  Previous legal scholarship on personal identity has assumed that only abrupt tragedy and disease can change who we are. However, psychologists now know that the ordinary processes of growth, maturation, and decline alter us all in fundamental respects.  Many young adults find it hard to identify with their adolescent past. Senior citizens often reflect similarly on their middle years.  However tightly we hold on to the people we are today, at some tomorrow we inevitably find ourselves changed.

Criminal justice has not come to grips with this aspect of the human condition.  The law — by imposing lengthy sentences, allowing enduring consequences of conviction, and punishing long bygone violations — assumes that people’s identities remain fixed from birth to death.  If people do change with time, these policies must violate the criminal law’s most basic commitment to prosecute and punish present-day people only for crimes they (and not some different past person) committed.

Drawing on contemporary psychology and philosophy of personal identity, this Article concludes that criminal law punishes too often and too severely. Lengthy prison terms risk incarcerating people past the point at which their identity changes.  Elderly inmates who have languished on death row for decades should have a new claim for release — that they are now different people, innocent of the misdeeds of yesteryear.  One-time felons should recover lost civil rights sooner.  And defendants should benefit from juvenile process well into their twenties, when personal identity first begins to stabilize.  By confronting the challenges posed by the limits of personal identity, the criminal law can become more just and humane.

April 3, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Following SCOTUS ruling requiring equal access, Texas bans all religious officials from execution chamber

As reported in this local article, "Texas has banned all prison chaplains from its execution chamber, days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state was violating an inmate's rights by not allowing a Buddhist chaplain into the death chamber with him."  Here is more:

The high court last week halted the execution of Patrick Murphy, a member of the infamous "Texas Seven," because the department did not allow him to have a Buddhist chaplain in the room with him at the time of his scheduled death.  The state only allows prison employees in the death chamber, and only Christian and Muslim clerics are employed with the state. During executions, a chaplain will often stand at the feet of the prisoner and rest a hand on his leg mouthing silent prayers.

The court halted Murphy’s execution hours after it was scheduled to begin, and Justice Brett Kavanaugh issued an opinion declaring that the exclusion of a Buddhist adviser was religious discrimination.  The ruling came less than two months after the same court ruled against stopping the execution of a black prisoner in Alabama who requested a Muslim imam at his execution.  In his opinion, Kavanaugh proposed two alternatives for the Texas prison system: Don’t allow any chaplains into the execution chambers, or allow chaplains of all religions.

Texas has chosen the former option. New execution procedures signed Tuesday say that chaplains and ministers may "observe the execution only from the witness rooms." Currently, friends and family of the murder victims and prisoners, as well as media, are allowed to watch executions through a glass window in small rooms adjacent to the death chamber.

A spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said the policy change is effective immediately. "TDCJ Chaplain(s) will continue to be available to an offender until they are transferred to the execution chamber.  The chaplain will also be present in the viewing room if requested," said the spokesman, Jeremy Desel.  Under the policy, prisoners will still be able to meet with a TDCJ chaplain or a spiritual adviser “who has the appropriate credentials” on the day of execution.

Prior related post:

April 3, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Religion, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Effective accounting of FIRST STEP achievements and work still to do

Van Jones and Jessica Jackson have this effective new CNN piece under the headline "Why we're celebrating a three-month-old law."  I recommend the piece in full (and many of its links) for anyone seeking a quick primer not only on why the FIRST STEP Act is already an historic achievement and but also on the critical work ahead for those eager to see this legislation achieve all it is capable of achieving.  Here are excerpts to whet appetites for the full commentary:

By way of review, the First Step Act was the big bipartisan success story of 2018.  Liberals like Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and Sen. Dick Durbin joined with conservatives like Rep. Doug Collins and Sen. Chuck Grassley.  We both got personally involved as advocates through cut50.org, a bipartisan reform group that we co-founded during the Obama administration....  And in a move that surprised many, President Donald Trump endorsed the legislation and signed it into law.  In doing so, we witnessed a real evolution of the President's views on crime and punishment. The same President whose inaugural address included a line about stopping "American carnage" came to publicly decry harsh prison sentences.

While passing the First Step Act represented real progress, the true measure of any law should be its impact on people's lives. As the first quarter of the First Step Act comes to a close, there are at least five things we should be celebrating....  But there is still a long way to go before the First Step Act has been fully implemented and fulfilled its promise. This is what needs to happen now....

We named this legislation the First Step Act for a reason.  We know there is much more to be done, as our critics often point out.  However, there can be no second, third, or fourth step without a first.

We were in attendance at the Trump administration's 2019 Prison Reform Summit and First Step Act Celebration to both celebrate the good work that has been done and continue to push for more.  We were joined by lawmakers from across the country, faith leaders, business executives, cultural figures and the advocates who helped shape and pass the legislation.  We also brought with us a half-dozen people who have recently been released from federal prison because of this legislation and have traveled to Washington to share their stories.

They had much to be thankful for -- and the President gave them all an opportunity to speak.  Yvonne Fountain had 10 years remaining on her prison sentence when she heard from her lawyer that his motion for her immediate release had been granted.  April Johnson was ordered by a judge to be released from prison to return home and care for her terminally ill daughter and two young grandchildren.  Catherine Toney, Troy Powell, and Gregory Allen have all come home within the last 30 days hoping to contribute to society by being good employees and citizens.

They have all experienced significant challenges, too, and talked candidly about them with staffers on Capitol Hill and White House officials.  As more people hear their voices, see their faces and listen to their stories, more hearts will open and more progress will be possible.  After all, the stories and voices of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people have already pushed Trump to do much more than most people ever thought he would....

When the President signed the First Step Act into law just days before Christmas, he gave Topeka K. Sam and Shon Hopwood, who had both served time in federal prison, an opportunity to share their stories before cameras in the Oval Office.  At his 2019 State of the Union Address, President Trump, in front of millions of viewers and the bicameral assembly, highlighted Alice Johnson alongside another case of unjust incarceration, Matthew Charles.  Neither of us will forget the President during the 2019 State of the Union address, saying "Welcome home, Matthew."

This time last year, practically no one believed that a bipartisan breakthrough of this scale and magnitude was even possible.  For those of us who continue to believe and fight for a victory on what was once considered to be a lost cause, celebrating the First Step Act is something we experience with a great deal of pride.

A few prior related posts on FIRST STEP Act implementation:

April 3, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Ghastly Signs and Tokens: A Constitutional Challenge to Solitary Confinement"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Christopher Logel recently posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Since its popular reemergence in the 1980s, courts have not placed significant restrictions on the use of solitary confinement.  One small exception has appeared.  Lower courts have held that placing prisoners with preexisting severe mental illness in solitary confinement violates the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause.  Can this relatively limited rule be expanded to abolish solitary confinement altogether?

This Comment argues that it can.  A large body of diverse research demonstrates that prolonged solitary confinement causes severe mental illness in most prisoners, regardless of their medical history.  And because there is no principled basis — in law or in fact — for distinguishing between preexisting and confinement-induced mental illness, solitary confinement must end for all prisoners.

April 3, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

April 2, 2019

"The Next Step: Ending Excessive Punishment for Violent Crimes"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report written by Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Senior Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project.  Here is its executive summary:

While the First Step Act and other criminal justice reforms have limited the number of people imprisoned for drug crimes, they have yet to meaningfully reduce excessive penalties for violent crimes.  Nearly half of the U.S. prison population is now serving time for a violent offense, including assault and robbery.

Although the violent crime rate has plummeted to half of its early-1990s level, the number of people imprisoned for a violent offense grew until 2009, and has since declined by just 3%.  This trend stems from increased prison admissions and sentence lengths, despite evidence that excessive penalties are counterproductive.  Long sentences incapacitate older people who pose little public safety threat, produce limited deterrent effect since most people do not expect to be caught, and detract from more effective investments in public safety.

For those who seek to end mass incarceration, there are signs of hope.  In the past two decades, local, state, and federal lawmakers, governors, judges, and practitioners have rejected the death penalty, shortened excessive prison terms for violent convictions, scaled back collateral consequences, narrowed broad definitions of violence, and ended long term solitary confinement.  The 15 reforms featured in this report, implemented in over 19 states, represent more effective, fiscally sound, and morally just responses to violence.  While exceptions in a punitive era, these reforms serve as models for the future.  For example:

Rejecting torture in prison

In 2017, Colorado Department of Corrections’ executive director Rick Raemisch restricted solitary confinement to only serious violations in prisons and set a maximum duration of 15 days.

Using discretion to reduce extreme sentences

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner seeks to end the city’s heavy reliance on life without parole (LWOP) sentences.  He has made case-by-case evaluations when making resentencing offers to individuals convicted as juveniles, shown restraint in charging decisions and plea offers in homicide cases, and endorsed legislation to allow people serving LWOP to be evaluated for parole after 15 years of incarceration.

Legislators reducing excessive sentences

Mississippi legislators reformed the state’s truth-insentencing requirement for violent crimes in 2014, reducing the proportion of a sentence that individuals with certain violent convictions have to serve before becoming eligible for parole from 85% to 50%.

Recognizing the rehabilitative potential of youth and young adults

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that LWOP sentences were unconstitutional for non-homicide crimes committed by juveniles. The Court also later ruled that mandatory LWOP sentences for homicide failed to recognize young people’s “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.”  In 2018, California built on this precedent by directing individuals convicted under age 26 to “Youth Offender Parole Hearings.”

Scaling back collateral consequences

Floridians voted in 2018 to re-enfranchise people with felony convictions, including those convicted of most violent crimes.

The reforms identified in this report demonstrate that it is possible to undo excessive penalties for violent crimes while also promoting public safety. They are the next step of criminal justice reform and offer blueprints for policies that will better enable an end to mass incarceration within our lifetime.

April 2, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Unsurprisingly divided reactions to Supreme Court's latest divided ruling on lethal injection methods

The Supreme Court yesterday split 5-4 in favor of the state of Missouri in yesterday's execution protocol case, Bucklew v. Precythe, No. 17-8151 (S. Ct. April 1, 2019) (available here, basics here).  Capital cases have a way of not only revealing deep splits among the Justices, but also revealing how differently commentators for and against the death penalty view the Court's work.  Unsurprisingly, supporters of the death penalty have notable praise for the Court's work in Bucklew (with modest titles for their commentary):

From Paul Cassell, "The Supreme Court Recognizes Victims' Rights in Death Penalty Cases"

From Kent Scheidegger, "The Opinion of the Court in the Bucklew Case"

In contrast, opponents of the death penalty have notable criticism of the Court's work in Bucklew (with more extreme titles for their commentary):

From Scott Lemieux, "The Supreme Court ruled that 'cruel and unusual punishment' no longer preclude unusually cruel punishments"

From Ian Millhiser,"Gorsuch just handed down the most bloodthirsty and cruel death penalty opinion of the modern era"

From Elie Mystal, "Supreme Court Draws, Quarters The Eighth Amendment"

From Mark Joseph Sterm, "The Supreme Court’s Conservatives Just Legalized Torture"

I understand why abolitionists are troubled by Bucklew because it reveals that there are now five Justices who are eager to prevent lower court judges from heavily supervising and persistently tinkering with how state wish to operate their machineries of death.  But, practically speaking, it remains to be seen if Bucklew proves to be a big deal.  Impressively, despite the fact that the Supreme Court has never found any method of execution unconstitutional, and despite seemingly "big" wins for states in both Baze and Glossip, energized and effective defense counsel have kept litigating hard and kept succeeding in gets lots and lots of scheduled executions halted (Ohio provided the latest example of this on-the-ground reality this year).

Though I am always sympathetic to commentary that urges the Supreme Court to give more force to the Eighth Amendment's limit on punishment, I sincerely wish folks so troubled by Bucklew would spend a bit more time focused on all-too-common extreme prison sentences over ever-rarer death sentences and executions.  A few weeks ago, as noted in this post, the Supreme Court denied cert in an Eighth Amendment case involving a federal sentence of over 150 years for a first offender lured into a drug deal by government agents. The entire First Circuit issued a remarkable opinion urging the Justices to take up the case, but not a single Justice was even move to say a work about a seemingly toothless Eighth Amendment jurisprudence in an era of mass incarceration.  As I noted in my prior post, the legal press and criminal justice commentators have entirely ignored this case, confirming my fears that one needs to be a murderer on death row to have your case garner attention.  Sigh.

UPDATE: John Stinneford, whose article The Original Meaning of 'Unusual': The Eighth Amendment as a Bar to Cruel Innovation was cited in the Court's opinion, has this lengthy discussion of the ruling at The Volokh Conspiracy under the heading "What Bucklew Doesn’t Say." Here is a small snippet:

The majority opinion is explicitly originalist in its approach to the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, a rare (if not unprecedented) phenomenon in the modern history of the Court.  But in contrast to some prior originalist concurrences or dissents by Justices Scalia and Thomas, the Bucklew Court does not rush to make any comprehensive claims about the original meaning of the Clause.  Rather, it skirts around the edges of the Clause's original meaning, deciding only enough about that meaning to demonstrate (to its own satisfaction, anyway) that Missouri's lethal injection protocol is constitutional.  In this regard, Bucklew is an admirably modest opinion.

April 2, 2019 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

April 1, 2019

Encouraging news and inspiring notes as White House celebrates FIRST STEP Act

This Washington Examiner piece, headlined "Trump announces Second Step Act to help ex-prisoners find work," reviews some highlights from today's celebration of the FIRST STEP Act at the White House today. Here are excerpts:

President Trump announced plans Monday for a Second Step Act focused on easing employment barriers for formerly incarcerated people.  "We are proving we're a nation that believes in redemption," Trump said at a White House event celebrating people released under the First Step Act, which he signed in December.

Trump said the "second step" legislation will feature a $88 million funding request for prisoner social reentry programs. "Today, I'm announcing that the Second Step Act will be focused on successful reentry and reduced unemployment for Americans with past criminal records, and that's what we're starting right away," Trump said....

Some advocates had urged deeper sentencing reforms in a second major criminal justice reform bill.  Troy Powell, whose crack cocaine sentence was shortened by the First Step Act, spoke at the event Monday and called for more action to release inmates.  "There's more that can be done. I left so many people behind in prison doing 40, 50 years for nothing, I mean absolutely nothing," Powell said.  "I think there should be a second step."

Trump applauded Powell. "Could I have said it better than that?  His statement about so many people?  And that's true, so many people are there that really are serving 40 and 50 year sentences for things you wouldn't even believe, for things some people wouldn't even be going to prison for today," he said....

Trump said his administration would also "encourage employers to adopt second chance hiring practices," and gave rare applause to the media for favorable coverage of Alice Johnson, whose drug sentence he shortened last year using his executive clemency powers.  "Alice said, 'I also want to thank the media.' I bent over and said, 'Are you sure?' And I do too, I think that's fantastic," Trump said.

One speaker at the event, former prison inmate and Georgetown University law professor Shon Hopwood, was introduced by Trump as a current teacher of his daughter Tiffany Trump. "I think you're going to be rewarded in a way you cannot even imagine," Hopwood told Trump.

Via this twitter link, one can watch the full clip of Prez Trump speaking about criminal justice reform and hear the inspiring comments of a number of former federal prisoners who have been helped by the FIRST STEP Act.  Also, the White House released this "Fact Sheet" today titled "President Donald J. Trump Is Committed to Building on the Successes of the First Step Act."  The whole document is notable, and here are excerpts:

April 1, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Seeing deeply discouraging and engagingly encouraging prison realities in incarceration nation

Two very different perspective on two prisons were covered by major media outlets over the weekend.  Here are links and snippets from the pieces:

From the New York Times, "Inside America’s Black Box: A Rare Look at the Violence of Incarceration":

Prisons are the black boxes of our society. With their vast complexes and razor wire barriers, everyone knows where they are, but few know what goes on inside.  Prisoner communication is sharply curtailed — it is monitored, censored and costly. Visitation rules are strict.  Office inspections are often announced in advance.

So when prisoners go on hunger strikes or work strikes, or engage in deadly riots, the public rarely understands exactly why.  How could they?  Many people harbor a vague belief that whatever treatment prisoners get, they surely must deserve.  It is a view perpetuated by a lack of detail.

But some weeks ago, The New York Times received more than 2,000 photographs that evidence suggests were taken inside the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Alabama.  Some show inmates as they are being treated in a cramped, cluttered examination room.  Others are clinical: frontal portraits, close-ups of wounds.

It is hard to imagine a cache of images less suitable for publication — they are full of nudity, indignity and gore.  It is also hard to imagine photographs that cry out more insistently to be seen.  As I scrolled through them, shock rose from my gut to my sternum.  Was I looking at a prison, or a 19th-century battlefield?

From 60 Minutes, "German-style program at a Connecticut maximum security prison emphasizes rehab for inmates":

One of the more radical attempts at prison reform is taking place in a foreboding Connecticut prison nicknamed the Rock.  It's a two year old program based on therapy for 18-25 year old prisoners, whose brains, science shows, are still developing, and their behavior more likely to change.  The idea came from Germany where the main objective of prison is rehabilitation and where the recidivism rate is about half that of the U.S.  We were in Germany four years ago when then Connecticut Governor Daniel Malloy toured the prison system.  He returned home inspired and launched the small, German style program at the Rock.  It's too early to tell whether it will reduce recidivism but we wanted to see how the German approach is being tested in America.  So, we went to Connecticut by way of a slight detour to the northeast corner of Maine.

The University of Maine at Presque Isle is small in the world of college basketball. But for number 10, Shyquinn Dix, being a student-athlete here is the biggest shot of his life....  When we first met him a year ago, Presque Isle number 10 was inmate number 391175 serving a four-year sentence for felony check fraud at Cheshire Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in central Connecticut that houses about 1,300 prisoners....

Warden Erfe [following instructions from Malloy] closed down a solitary confinement wing and opened up a sanctuary for self-improvement for about 50 young inmates, whose crimes range from drugs to violent assault.  They have to apply to get into the program called T.R.U.E., for truthful, respectful, understanding and elevating to success....

For more than 100 years the rock has been a hard place.  The T.R.U.E. unit hopes to prove a softer touch can yield better results.  Officer James Vassar convinced coach Dan Kane at Presque Isle to take a shot on a prison inmate.  Now Shyquinn Dix is a big man on campus and the pride of the T.R.U.E. unit.  His jersey hangs on the wall.  A month after leaving, he was back at Cheshire.  Not as a repeat offender, but an inspiration.

April 1, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Miller v. Alabama and the Problem of Prediction"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Mary Marshall now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Beginning in 2010, the Supreme Court severely limited states’ ability to impose juvenile life without parole sentences. In a seminal case, Miller v. Alabama, the Court banned mandatory life without the possibility of parole sentences for juveniles and declared that only those juveniles that are “irreparable corrupt” should be made to spend the rest of their lives in prison.  While Miller has been the subject of much scholarly debate, there has yet to be any discussion of a core instability at the center of Miller’s mandate: By limiting life without parole sentences only to those juveniles who are “irreparably corrupt” the Court is asking sentencers to predict whether a juvenile will be a danger decades down the road and after a long prison sentence.  This Note uses legal and social science literature around the impossibility of long-term predictions about juvenile development to argue that the requirement of prediction in Miller prevents just application of the decision and argues that this instability should lead to a ban on juvenile life without parole sentences.

April 1, 2019 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Trump Celebrates Criminal Justice Overhaul, but His Budget Barely Funds It"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article in the New York Times.  Here are excerpts:

President Trump on Monday is expected to host about 300 guests, including convicted felons, at the White House for the “First Step Act Celebration,” a party intended to bring attention to a rare piece of bipartisan legislation he passed last year, and which he plans to highlight on the campaign trail.

The East Room fete will cap a day of events dedicated to overhauling the criminal justice system, an issue that agencies across the government have been asked to elevate. The labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, is expected to participate in a panel on work force development.  Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is to lead a session about prisoner re-entry.  Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, will weigh in on a session dealing with incarcerated women. Kim Kardashian, the reality star, was even invited to participate in the panels and the party, but couldn’t attend.

Months after the legislation passed, and amid foreign policy blunders and a defeat on funding a wall along the southern border, Mr. Trump’s administration is putting the issue front and center.

But some activists who helped work on the legislation — which would expand job training and early-release programs, and modify sentencing laws, including mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders — have expressed concern that Mr. Trump is more attuned to the political opportunities the law offers him, rather than with ensuring it is enacted effectively.

Despite the high-profile party and round tables — and the White House releasing a presidential proclamation declaring April “second chance month” — Mr. Trump’s budget, released last month, listed only $14 million to pay for the First Step Act’s programs.  The law passed in December specifically asked for $75 million a year for five years, beginning in 2019. The funding gap was first reported by The Marshall Project.

Advocates participating in the events at the White House on Monday said they were hoping that officials would publicly address questions about funding the program. “The answer is a resounding yes. We’re fully committed to doing that,” said Ja’Ron Smith, a White House adviser who has worked extensively on the First Step Act implementation, referring to the funding.

In a budget justification document, the Bureau of Prisons, which operates under the Justice Department, said that it had not concluded how much money would be required to put the First Step Act into effect. But it goes on to say that fulfilling the law is a “priority” and that the Bureau of Prisons’ budget for re-entry activities “will be prioritized to fully fund the requirements of the act.” The document also noted that the prison bureau plans to dedicate $147 million in the 2020 fiscal year to First Step Act-related activities, which includes the cost of expanding halfway housing, the cost to relocate people and $85 million for the Second Chance Act grant program, which aids states and nonprofits in reducing recidivism.

Despite the assurances that the changes remain a budget priority, questions about funding have advocates on the issue concerned. “The First Step Act cannot fulfill its promise of turning federal prisons toward rehabilitation and preparing men and women to come home job-ready if it is not fully funded,” said Jessica Jackson Sloan, national director of #Cut50, a prisoner advocacy group that worked closely with the White House to get the legislation passed. Ms. Sloan said the group has been meeting with appropriators and talking to White House officials for months “to ensure that the proper funding is requested and appropriated.”

Some activists have been more willing to give the Trump administration the benefit of the doubt, noting that the lower funding level for 2019 could be because First Step programs are not expected to be up and running until the end of August, less than two months before the end of the federal fiscal year....

At a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., last week, Mr. Trump described the First Step Act as legislation that politicians had been trying to do “for so many years.” He added a dig at his opposition: “While we are pushing and pursuing all of these common-sense policies to advance the common good for our citizens, Democrats are pushing a cynical and destructive agenda of radicalism, resistance and revenge.”

The kickoff party on Monday will also offer Mr. Trump an opportunity for a photo-op with convicted felons, many of whom are African-American, as his campaign advisers want him to expand his appeal beyond his hard-core base. Many Democratic lawmakers and prison advocacy groups were happy to work with the Trump administration on the legislation, despite early skepticism about Mr. Trump’s commitment to the issue.

After today's notable event at the White House, I may have a lot to say about how the politics and policy of federal sentencing reform are continuing to evolve in all sorts of interesting ways.

UPDATE: I just saw that NPR today had this segment, headlined "3 Months Into New Criminal Justice Law, Success For Some And Snafus For Others," which covers some similar ground.  Here is a small part of this piece:

Activists who backed passage of the law say that certain parts of the act are working as intended, but other parts seem to be facing delays and uncertainty. "It's been a mixed bag," said Mark Holden, general counsel to Koch Industries, which has been a big supporter of the statute....

Congress passed the law but has not appropriated funds for the initiative. And the president's budget released earlier this year did not clearly request the $75 million that is needed to support the new criminal justice overhaul.

Despite that, a senior administration official said Trump is committed to working with Congress to fully fund and implement the law. "We are hoping to get the independent review council in place as soon as possible," the official said.

The official blamed the 34-day government shutdown for contributing to delays but said there would not be a significant holdup.

Another official said the Justice Department is using resources it has on hand to work on the risk assessment tool internally, in the absence of the committee, and expects to meet the July deadline. But the official acknowledged that Congress will need to provide money or approve shifting funds around in order for the agency to move ahead with the panel and other aspects of the law.

Ensuring that the money is available will be crucial to the effectiveness of the First Step Act, said Nancy La Vigne, head of justice policy at the Urban Institute. "We always recognized that without proper funding, the First Step Act is really nothing more than window dressing," La Vigne said.

April 1, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Splitting 5-4 along traditional ideological lines, SCOTUS rejects Missouri inmate's challenge to lethal injection protocol

The Supreme Court this morning handed down its opinion in an execution protocol case, Bucklew v. Precythe, No. 17-8151 (S. Ct. April 1, 2019) (available here).  The Court split 5-4 in favor of the state of Missouri, and here is how Justice Gorsuch's opinion for the Court gets started:

Russell Bucklew concedes that the State of Missouri lawfully convicted him of murder and a variety of other crimes.  He acknowledges that the U.S. Constitution permits a sentence of execution for his crimes.  He accepts, too, that the State’s lethal injection protocol is constitutional in most applications.  But because of his unusual medical condition, he contends the protocol is unconstitutional as applied to him.  Mr. Bucklew raised this claim for the first time less than two weeks before his scheduled execution.  He received a stay of execution and five years to pursue the argument, but in the end neither the district court nor the Eighth Circuit found it supported by the law or evidence. Now, Mr. Bucklew asks us to overturn those judgments.  We can discern no lawful basis for doing so.

Justice Breyer penned the lead dissent, and it gets started this way:

The Court’s decision in this case raises three questions.  The first is primarily a factual question, namely, whether Bucklew has established genuine issues of material fact concerning whether executing him by lethal injection would cause him excessive suffering.  The second is primarily a legal question, namely, whether a prisoner like Bucklew with a rare medical condition must identify an alternative method by which the State may execute him.  And the third is a more general question, namely, how to minimize delays in executing offenders who have been condemned to death.

I disagree with the majority’s answers to all three questions. Bucklew cites evidence that executing him by lethal injection will cause the tumors that grow in his throat to rupture during his execution, causing him to sputter, choke, and suffocate on his own blood for up to several minutes before he dies.  That evidence establishes at this stage of the proceedings that executing Bucklew by lethal injection risks subjecting him to constitutionally impermissible suffering.  The majority holds that the State may execute him anyway.  In my view, that holding violates the clear command of the Eighth Amendment.

The decision includes short concurring opinions from Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh, and also a added dissenting opinion by Justice Sotomayor. I fear a busy day means I will not be able to analyze all that is being said in this case until late tonight.  But I suspect, as is always true with capital cases, lots of other folks will have lots to say about what various Justices are saying here.

April 1, 2019 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

SCOTUS grants cert on Fourth Amendment issue involving reasonable suspicion

The Supreme Court this morning via this order list granted certiorari in one criminal case, though sadly not one involving a sentencing issues.  Specifically, the new case (to be heard next Term) is Kansas v. Glover, No. 18-556, and here is a link to the SCOTUSblog page and here is its description of the issue:

Issue: Whether, for purposes of an investigative stop under the Fourth Amendment, it is reasonable for an officer to suspect that the registered owner of a vehicle is the one driving the vehicle absent any information to the contrary.

April 1, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

March 31, 2019

"Searching for A Kardashian: Kim helped get clemency for Alice Johnson, who will help me?"

The title of this post is the title of this notable commentary authored by Christopher Hunter and recently posted to Medium.  The piece is a poignant accounting of what it is like to be serving a lengthy federal prison term for a drug offense while there is on-going talk of clemency prospects.  I recommend the piece in full, and here is an excerpt:

In 2005, a federal judge sentenced me to 420 months in prison for selling cocaine.  That’s 35 years.  I never believed I would do all that time.  Call me crazy, but I think the Universe sets your body in the direction of your mind. So I constantly hoped that something would give.

Eventually, something did.  Between winning an appeal and a change in the sentencing laws, my time was reduced by 8 years.  But I still have too much time, and there’s no parole in federal prison.  In the 13 years I’ve spent in prison so far, I have always been searching for some way to reduce my time.

The last President understood that because of harsh mandatory minimums people received too much time in prison.  He granted around 1,700 federal commutations, specifically for non-violent drug offenses, through the Clemency Project.

I remember each month a list of his pardons would come out.  The President was like Willy Wonka, giving out “Golden Tickets.” 100 here, 89 there. I remember an older guy I worked with was turned down initially.  The Clemency Project suggested he file directly with the President.  Within a few weeks, he got a letter saying his petition was accepted. Some of the men who were pardoned left prison within week while others had to stay an complete a drug program.

At least five of the guys I worked with in the clerk’s office got out.  Everyone acted happy for them, but it was a strange feeling too.  I remember thinking, “How can they do this? How can the let some out and not others?  How?  We all deserve a second chance.  Where is the grace?” It hurt me to the bone.

I filed for clemency toward the end of Obama’s presidency, but I was not granted a “Golden Ticket.” I wasn’t denied one either.

The very first day the new president came into office, the pardon attorney contacted my counselor here and requested additional information. It was as if I was on deck. I thought, “Okay, here we go! It’s on! They are going to continue helping people.

It had been extremely difficult watching random guys with identical charges getting out and having to smile and congratulate them while being envious as hell on the inside. I told my counselor to keep me informed.  As I watched the news of Kim’s advocacy, I got the strangest feeling.  I felt as though I was already supposed to have been on top of this. Of course I didn’t know anything about what was going to happen.  It was just a weird feeling.

I realize I was day-dreaming, and routine kicks in, and I rush to my cell to put it in perfect order before making the 7:45 work call. That morning, the Kim K White House sit down was a hot topic. The general consensus of my coworkers is, “Man, Trump ain’t about to do nothing for nobody!”  Almost everyone agrees that because of Attorney General Sessions, “we ain’t got nothing coming.”

For some reason, even though I know I should agree, I just don’t. It’s that strange feeling again.  My pending pardon flashes in my mind. As I shake it off, I have to admit I didn’t think Alice Johnson was getting out anytime soon.  What happens the next day blows my mind. The news is reporting that Alice Johnson’s sentence was commuted and she was being released immediately....

The evening news flashed between Kim K’s side of the story and Alice Johnson’s reaction to being released. I felt a lump in my throat. I was genuinely happy for her. Willie Wonka gave her a “Golden Ticket.”

The next morning things seemed to get even better.  The news was reporting that the president would be doing dozens more commutations.  By the time we left work that day, everyone was tripping. The president had announced that he would be doing a lot more commutations, looking from a list of 3,000 cases similar to Ms. Johnson’s.  He also reached out to the NFL players telling them to bring him names of people who had been treated unfairly.

After hearing the news, I made up my mind that I was going to get my request for clemency in that list of 3,000.  I had to find a celebrity like Kim or an NFL player. I knew NFL players like Doug Baldwin, Malcolm Jenkins, and Anquan Boldin were standing up for prison reform.  I wondered how I could get in touch with someone or convince them that I was worthy of being helped.

I rushed to the law library, a place I know well.  The room is filled with the noise of people pecking desperately away on ancient typewriters hoping for good news.  I wrote the pardon attorney telling him of the additional programs I’ve completed since he had contacted my counselor.  I wrote the President and explained all I’ve done, and asked him for help.  I told him I don’t know any celebrities or football players, but I need help. M y pardon has been pending for two years.  I explained that I’ve been a model prisoner, how I’ve taken drug programs and many more. I explained that I work and I’ve become a part of the church. I explained I’ve been locked up 13 years on a non-violent drug charge, that I’m not a career offender, and never have had a violent charge. I wrote how I now understand that drugs poison our communities.

I asked for help from anyone.  I made 30 copies of each letter, and all the certificates I’ve accumulated. I was elated to be putting my energy into something positive. To be working and fighting.  I emailed a copy of the letter to several friends and asked them to begin emailing it to celebrities and NFL players, people like Kid Rock and Van Jones. I have a Facebook page and I’ve posted it on my wall. I got the address for as many attorneys and advocates as possible.

I remember perceiving that another inmate was skeptical of all I was doing.  I sensed him scoff at my work.  “Listen to me, bro, you never know what can happen,” I said. “Kim K didn’t get Alice Johnson out, her family who was fighting and tweeting for her did.”  I told him my pardon is right there at the top of that stack and it could be a pastor, athlete, broadway star, gas station worker, housewife, or anyone that does the one thing that propels my name forward.

If the universe sees you fight for freedom, the universe may just help you get it.  If the universe sees you’ve changed, then someone’s heart can be moved.  Without the slightest bit of doubt, I said a prayer and began mailing out my little SOS’s.

I am still waiting.

A few of many recent related posts: 

March 31, 2019 in Celebrity sentencings, Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Federal judge rules ADA requires Maine jail to provide woman with access to medication-assisted treatment during her 40-day term

As explained in this ACLU posting, a US District Court judge in Maine issued a notable ruling last week about prisoner rights and the ADA.  Here are the basics from the posting:

In a landmark decision, a federal judge has ordered the Aroostook County Jail to provide a Madawaska woman with access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for her opioid use disorder during her 40-day jail sentence, which is scheduled to begin on Monday.

The 28-page ruling comes in the case of Brenda Smith, who uses physician-prescribed buprenorphine to keep her opioid use disorder in remission. Lawyers for Smith argued that continuing this medication while in jail is essential to treating Smith’s medical condition, as well as preventing painful withdrawal symptoms and an increased chance of relapse, overdose and death upon release....

U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torresen of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine heard testimony from Smith as well as medical and corrections experts over the course of a week-long trial in February. In her ruling, Judge Torresen found that denial of MAT would cause serious and irreparable harm to Smith, and would violate the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, including against people in recovery for opioid use disorder....

Despite the medical consensus that MAT is safe and effective in combating substance use disorder, most Maine jails have policies explicitly prohibiting this treatment for incarcerated people. The Maine Department of Corrections had a similar ban until it was lifted by an Executive Order from Gov. Mills on February 6, 2019.

Noting the high risk of overdose and death for people who suffer from opioid use disorder, Judge Torresen wrote that, "[g]iven the well-documented risk of death associated with opioid use disorder, appropriate treatment is crucial. People who are engaged in treatment are three times less likely to die than those who remain untreated."

Additionally, Judge Torresen found that the Aroostook County Jail’s prior refusal to provide access to MAT was “consistent with the broader stigma against MAT observed by [plaintiff’s expert] Mr. Hayes, who noted that correctional staff often resist providing MAT because they equate MAT to giving addicts drugs rather than giving people treatment.”

The full ruling, which is available at this link, gets started this way:

Plaintiff Brenda Smith’s doctor has prescribed her a twice-daily dose of buprenorphine as part of a medication-assisted treatment (“MAT”) program for her opioid use disorder.  Ms. Smith brings this lawsuit against Defendant Aroostook County and against Defendant Shawn Gillen, in his official capacity as Sheriff of Aroostook County, alleging that the Defendants’ refusal to allow her to continue taking her medication during her impending 40-day term of incarceration at the Aroostook County Jail (the “Jail”) violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Eighth Amendment.  Before me is the Plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction requiring the Defendants to provide her with access to her prescribed medication.  Pl.’s Mot. for Prelim. Inj. (ECF No. 9).  For the reasons that follow I GRANT the Plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction.

Notably, the judge's ruling was based entirely on the ADA, and the judge expressly decided not to address the Eighth Amendment claim.  But the judge did drop this footnote suggesting where she might have been headed on that front:

The evidence presented in this action suggests that a scientific consensus is growing that refusing to provide individuals with their prescribed MAT is a medically, ethically, and constitutionally unsupportable denial of care.  E.g., Pl.’s Ex. 32.  Cognizant of the principle of judicial restraint and given my ruling that the Plaintiff is likely to succeed on her ADA claim, I sidestep the constitutional issue at this time. See Ashwander v. Tenn. Valley Auth., 297 U.S. 288, 347 (1936) (Brandeis, J., concurring) (“The Court will not pass upon a constitutional question although properly presented by the record, if there is also present some other ground upon which the case may be disposed of.”).

March 31, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)