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May 24, 2019

Is Prez Trump gearing up for a big Memorial Day clemency push for servicemembers?

The question in this post is prompted by lots of new news reports, such as this lengthy one from Fox News headlined "Trump weighs pardons for servicemembers accused of war crimes, as families await decision." Here are excerpts:

President Trump is considering potential pardons for military members and contractors accused of war crimes as Memorial Day approaches -- deliberations that have prompted warnings from critics that the move could undermine the rule of law but also raised the hopes of their families who say the servicemembers were wrongly prosecuted.

Jessica Slatten, in an interview Thursday, told Fox News she's praying for Trump to pardon her brother, Nicholas Slatten, one of several Blackwater contractors charged in the shooting deaths of Iraqi civilians in September 2007. "Nick is innocent and our family is terrified that he will die in prison for a killing that someone else confessed to multiple times," she said. The

Blackwater case, and the 2007 massacre at the heart of it, is one of the more controversial portfolios before the president. The New York Times first reported that Trump was weighing possible pardon decisions on an expedited basis going into the holiday weekend.

Speaking to reporters Friday, Trump confirmed he’s looking at a handful of cases, while indicating he could still wait to make his decision. “We teach them how to be great fighters, and then when they fight, sometimes they get really treated very unfairly, so we’re going to take a look at it,” he said. “[The cases are] a little bit controversial. It’s very possible that I’ll let the trials go on, and I’ll make my decision after the trial.”

The review spurred harsh criticism from Democratic lawmakers as well as former top military officials, especially since not all of the accused have faced trial yet. "Obviously, the president can pardon whoever he thinks it's appropriate to pardon, but ... you have to be careful as a senior commander about unduly influencing the process before the investigation has been adjudicated," said retired Navy Adm. William McRaven, former head of Joint Special Operations Command.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement: "If he follows through, President Trump would undermine American treaty obligations and our military justice system, damage relations with foreign partners and give our enemies one more propaganda tool."

The lawyers and family members of the accused, however, insist these cases are not as clear-cut as they've been portrayed -- and, to the contrary, have been marred by legal problems. The cases include those of former Green Beret Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who admitted to killing a suspected Taliban bomb maker; Navy SEALS Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, whose own SEALS turned him in for allegedly shooting unarmed civilians and killing a 15-year-old ISIS suspect in his custody with a knife; four Marine snipers who were caught on video urinating on the corpses of suspected Taliban members; and Slatten.

Slatten is one whose case did go to trial. In fact, he faced three of them. The first ended in a conviction, but it was later thrown out -- as federal judges said he should have been tried separately from three other co-defendants, one of whom said he, and not Slatten, fired the first shots.

The second ended in a mistrial, and the third resulted in a guilty verdict. He faces a mandatory life sentence without parole, but his legal team is fighting to set him free. "Prosecuting veterans for split-second decisions in war zone incidents is wrong," Slatten's attorney said in a letter to the White House counsel's office obtained by Fox News. "Prosecuting ones for killings they did not commit is doubly so."...

Three of the other Blackwater contractors involved in the incident -- Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard -- were convicted of manslaughter, but the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that their mandatory 30-year sentence was a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

The sentences had been so severe due to a charge related to the use of machine guns. The court noted that the charge was based on a statute meant to combat gang violence, not contractors in a war zone using government-issue weapons. Their cases were sent back down to a lower court, and they are awaiting new sentences.

It is unclear if Slough, Liberty or Heard are among those Trump is considering for pardons, but Slough's wife Christin is hoping for the best. "I think that we're cautiously optimistic," she told Fox News. She said that her husband is "more than well deserving" of a pardon and is hoping that Trump will come through where other administrations have not....

Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned of the consequences that pardons could bring. "Absent evidence of innocence of injustice the wholesale pardon of US servicemembers accused of warcrimes signals our troops and allies that we don't take the Law of Armed Conflicts seriously," Dempsey tweeted Tuesday. "Bad message. Bad precedent. Abdication of moral responsibility. Risk to us."

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg also expressed concern. In a Washington Post interview, the Afghanistan War veteran described the potential pardons as "so dangerous and so insulting to people who've served."

Trump's decision could come in time for the Memorial Day holiday, though he indicated Friday he might take longer. Despite warnings that a pardon might not be appropriate for cases that have not concluded, Christin Slough noted Trump is not a "traditional president." She said he is "more interested in what's right," than how things are normally done.

May 24, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Florida completes execution of killer of 10 women in 1984

As detailed in this AP article, a "serial killer who terrorized Florida with a murderous spree that claimed 10 women in 1984 was put to death Thursday, his execution witnessed by a woman who survived one of his attacks and aided in his capture."  Here is more:

Bobby Joe Long, 65, was pronounced dead at 6:55 p.m. Thursday following a lethal injection at Florida State Prison.  Long had no last words, simply closing his eyes as the procedure began, witnesses said.

The killer terrified the Tampa Bay area for eight months in 1984 as women began showing up dead, their bodies often left in gruesome poses.  Most were strangled, some had their throats slit, and others were bludgeoned.  Law enforcement had few clues until the case of Lisa Noland, who survived one of Long's attacks.  She witnessed Thursday's execution from the front row.

Just 17 in 1984, Noland was abducted by Long outside a church that year.  He raped her but ultimately let her go free.  She left evidence of his crimes on the scene and gave police details leading to his capture.  Long confessed to the crimes, receiving 28 life sentences and one death sentence for the murder of 22-year-old Michelle Simms. 

Noland positioned herself in the witness room where she hoped Long would see her.  "I wanted to look him in the eye. I wanted to be the first person he saw.  Unfortunately, he didn't open his eyes," she said.  "It was comforting to know this was actually happening."  She said she began to cry after she left the room once it was over.  “The peace that came over me is a remarkable feeling,” she said.

Another witness wore a polo shirt with a photo of one victim on the front and the words "Gone But Not Forgotten."  On the back were photos of all 10 slaying victims and the words, "The Ones That Matter."...

Investigators were baffled by the trail of bodies Long left around Tampa Bay.  Artiss Ann Wick was the first killed, in March 1984.  Nine others followed.  Law enforcement had few clues until Noland told her story. 

Noland said beforehand that she knew what she would have said if she could have addressed Long. Said Noland: "I would say 'Thank you for choosing me and not another 17-year-old girl.'"...

The execution was the first under Gov. Ron DeSantis, who took office in January.

May 24, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

May 23, 2019

"Equal justice depends on properly funding public defenders"

The title of this post is the the headline of this notable new Hill commentary authored by Pamela Metzger. Here are excerpts:

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) recently introduced the Equal Defense Act, which would boost resources for public defenders across the country.  It offers a $250 million grant program on top of case limits for public defenders.

A longtime prosecutor, Harris understands that a fully functional and adequately funded public defender’s office is essential to the pursuit of justice and for ensuring safer communities and families.  The promise of Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1963 Supreme Court decision guaranteeing everyone a right to counsel, is meaningless without an adequately staffed office of dedicated attorneys to keep that promise.

Right now, New Orleans faces a public defense crisis.... The Orleans Public Defenders Office (OPD) handles 85 percent of criminal cases and is responsible for thousands of municipal and traffic court cases each year.  Yet OPD receives just one-fifth of the local appropriation provided to the district attorney.  This year, the OPD anticipates a $1.1 million deficit. The chief public defender already is cutting back on hiring outside counsel.  Firings and salary reductions could be next.

In 2012, the OPD laid off attorneys because of a budget shortfall. In 2015 and 2016, budget shortfalls led public defenders to withdraw from cases — including that of a defendant charged with murder who has been waiting in jail for five years to go to trial and has had six different defense lawyers.  His case is still pending.  This is what happens when state and local governments do not adequately fund criminal defense....

Elsewhere, public defense is also funded by criminal and civil fines and fees with no coverage for overhead expenses and a financial disincentive to put in extra time or hire experts....  Sen. Harris is correct that public defenders need equal funding to ensure justice is complete.  In an adversarial system, we cannot expect justice when one side has both hands tied.  We know that public defenders work.  It’s an easy investment to make.

Equal justice depends on adequate, equitable resources for public defenders.  The representation of individuals charged with a crime is a serious matter that concerns everyone — communities, families, courts, prosecutors, judges and law enforcement.

May 23, 2019 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Making the case, now a quarter century after the 1994 Crime Bill, for the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act

Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Inimai Chettiar, who helped draft of the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act back in 2015 (first discussed here), have this new New York Daily News commentary making the case for this approach to prison reform under the headline "Joe Biden, Cory Booker, the 1994 Crime Bill and the future: How to unwind American mass incarceration."  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

As the 2020 field of candidates gets more crowded, Democrats have started weaponizing one of the most influential pieces of criminal justice legislation in the last 50 years — the 1994 Crime Bill.  Joe Biden, a key author of the bill when he served in the Senate, has doubled down, while his primary opponents correctly point to how it helped contribute to mass incarceration.

The debate is important, but an exclusive focus on the past underplays a crucial question: Moving forward, how will the country end mass incarceration that decades of federal funding helped create?  And what are presidential candidates’ plans to reverse failed policies?

The size of the U.S. prison system is unparalleled.  If each state were its own country, 23 states would have the highest incarceration rates in the world.  People of color are vastly overrepresented. African Americans make up 13% of the country’s population but almost 40% of the nation’s prisoners.

In response, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), along with Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-CA), have just reintroduced the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act.  The bill, which they first introduced last Congress, provides financial incentives to states (which house 88% of America’s prison population) to reduce imprisonment rates.  It starts to unwind the web of perverse incentives set in motion by the Crime Bill and other laws.

To receive federal funding awards under the Act, states must reduce the imprisonment rate by 7% every three years and keep crime at current record lows.  States can choose their own path to achieve those goals, since the legislation sets targets instead of dictating policy....

The federal government has a long history of using federal funds to shape the criminal justice landscape.  For example, a bill passed in 1968 — amid concerns over rising crime rates — set up grant programs that allocated money to states to be used for any purpose associated with reducing crime.  Over two years, it authorized $400 million (roughly $2.7 billion in today’s dollars) in grants.  Two decades later, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 played a central role in government policy in the War on Drugs by reinstating mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession, establishing $230 million (nearly $500 million today) in grants to fund drug enforcement while not permitting funding of drug prevention programs.

The 1994 Crime Bill extended that trend. It promised $8 billion ($13 billion in today’s dollars) to states if they adopted “truth-in-sentencing” laws, which required incarcerated individuals to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.  A study by the Urban Institute found that between 1995 and 1999, nine states adopted truth-in-sentencing laws for the first time, and 15 states reported the Crime Bill was a key or partial factor in changing their truth-in-sentencing laws.  By 1999, a total of 42 states had such laws on the books....

Over the past decade, states have taken steps to move away from harsh sentencing laws. And Congress has made reforms to sentencing at the federal level, including the FIRST STEP Act, passed last year.

Certainly, one piece of federal legislation alone will not end mass incarceration, just as the 1994 Crime Bill was not solely responsible for causing it. Innovative changes at the local level must continue....  But the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act is one of the strongest steps the federal government can take to end mass incarceration.  By providing financial incentives to help power important changes at the local level, it’s a national bill that would help set a tone across the country.  It will encourage states to orient criminal justice strategies across the country toward more just and fair outcomes.

A few prior related posts:

May 23, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

May 22, 2019

"The Second Step Act should give white-collar criminals a chance after release"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable recent Washington Examiner commentary authored by Cassie Monaco.  Here are excerpts:

I will also never forget the day I found out that my husband had been charged with a nonviolent criminal offense.  The emotions that I felt and the pain that I had at that very moment are indescribable, not to mention the feelings of utter shock, knowing that your life will never be the same again.  Today, my husband is serving six and a half years at a federal prison in Colorado.

As the wife of an incarcerated individual, I had two choices: Do I indulge in self-pity, or do I channel my energy and emotions into something more productive? I chose the latter. And so I got involved with national advocacy efforts on criminal justice reform, and I created an organization called A Day Closer, with the sole mission of reducing recidivism by keeping families intact while a loved one is incarcerated.

The First Step Act is providing much needed relief and assistance to many of those incarcerated and their families.  It is also restoring dignity back into our very broken criminal justice system.  However, the act still leaves behind a group that oftentimes gets over looked: individuals convicted of white-collar crimes.

I can understand the lack of sympathy out there for many white-collar criminals, but not all of them are bad people.  In addition to admitting their crimes and apologizing to the victims, they are left financially destroyed, with their professional and personal lives ruined forever....

The First Step Act understandably focuses on relief for drug offenders.  But oftentimes, those offenders do not have the burden of restitution once they are out.  The white-collar group, although they are less likely to fall victim to recidivism, will however be saddled with a life sentence in the form of extraordinary restitution.  They will never be completely free, even after time served. This needs to change.

As the national conversation shifts to the Second Step, lawmakers should sponsor and support legislation that provides some relief with regards to restitution amounts. Meanwhile, by executive order, Trump should return the Office of the Pardon Attorney to its former place under the Executive Office of the President.  Finally, Trump should create an independent commission that advises the president on matters related to Executive Clemency.

The goal is simple: give those that have committed white-collar crimes, admitted to their mistakes, and served their time a real chance to start over and rebuild their lives, without being saddled with the burden that excessive restitution creates.

May 22, 2019 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Reentry and community supervision, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (13)

Spotlighting racial divides in perceptions of crime and punishment

Just about every serious study of US criminal justice systems shows a different form of justice applies to black and white Americans.  And John Gramlich at Pew Research Center has this interesting new piece spotlighting many of the different perceptions of justice among black and white Americans.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts with a sentencing emphasis  (and with links from the original):

Black Americans are far more likely than whites to say the nation’s criminal justice system is racially biased and that its treatment of minorities is a serious national problem.  In a recent Pew Research Center survey, around nine-in-ten black adults (87%) said blacks are generally treated less fairly by the criminal justice system than whites, a view shared by a much smaller majority of white adults (61%).  And in a survey shortly before last year’s midterm elections, 79% of blacks — compared with 32% of whites — said the way racial and ethnic minorities are treated by the criminal justice system is a very big problem in the United States today.

Racial differences in views of the criminal justice system are not limited to the perceived fairness of the system as a whole.  Black and white adults also differ across a range of other criminal justice-related questions asked by the Center in recent years, on subjects ranging from crime and policing to the use of computer algorithms in parole decisions....

A narrow majority of Americans (54%) support the death penalty for people convicted of murder, according to a spring 2018 survey.  But only around a third of blacks (36%) support capital punishment for this crime, compared with nearly six-in-ten whites (59%).  Racial divisions extend to other questions related to the use of capital punishment.  In a 2015 survey, 77% of blacks said minorities are more likely than whites to be sentenced to death for committing similar crimes.  Whites were divided on this question: 46% said minorities are disproportionately sentenced to death, while the same percentage saw no racial disparities.

Blacks were also more likely than whites to say capital punishment is not a crime deterrent (75% vs. 60%) and were less likely to say the death penalty is morally justified (46% vs. 69%).  However, about seven-in-ten in both groups said they saw some risk in putting an innocent person to death (74% of blacks vs. 70% of whites)....

Some states now use criminal risk assessments to assist with parole decisions. These assessments involve collecting data about people who are up for parole, comparing that data with data about other people who have been convicted of crimes, and then assigning inmates a score to help decide whether they should be released from prison or not.  A 2018 survey asked Americans whether they felt the use of criminal risk assessments in parole decisions was an acceptable use of algorithmic decision-making. A 61% majority of black adults said using these assessments is unfair to people in parole hearings, compared with 49% of white adults.

May 22, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (5)

May 21, 2019

Two notable new publications on how criminal justice contacts impact schooling and employment realities

I just recent came across two new interesting publications from the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment concerning the intersection of criminal justice realities and labor, schooling and employment realities.  Here are titles, links and overview/abstracts from the papers:

"Finding Employment After Contact with the Carceral System" by Lisa McCorkell and Sara Hinkley

High rates of unemployment among the formerly incarcerated serve to extend punishment long after time has been served.  Much of the difficulty in finding a job comes from institutional exclusion, but the search methods jobseekers employ also pose obstacles to their success.  UC Berkeley sociologist Sandra Susan Smith has found that the system-involved are less likely to search for jobs, and those who do use less effective search methods.  Policies that might improve these outcomes include creating resource guides on best practices for employment as well as expanding post-release employment programs.  Expanding expungement, Ban the Box/Fair Chance legislation, and employer hiring incentives can also help overcome institutional barriers to employment for those exiting the carceral system.

"Does Locked Up Mean Locked Out? The Effects of the Anti-Drug Act of 1986 on Black Male Students’ College Enrollment" by Tolani Britton

This paper explores one reason for the educational gaps experienced by Black men.  Using variation in state marijuana possession and distribution laws, this paper examines whether the Anti-Drug Act of 1986, which increased the disproportionate incarceration of Black males, also led to differences in college enrollment rates.  The results suggest that Black males had a 2.2% point decrease in the relative probability of college enrollment after the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.  There is some evidence that laws around crack cocaine, and not marijuana, led to this decrease in the probability of enrollment.

May 21, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Shouldn't it now constitutional problematic for extreme LWOP sentences to be preserved after legislative changes to three-strikes laws?

The question in the title of this post might be directed to some important federal cases in the wake of the FIRST STEP Act.  But this morning the question comes to mind due to this new AP article discussing state sentencing changes not made retroactive in Washington.  The article is headlined "‘3 strikes’ sentencing reform leaves out Washington inmates," and here are the disconcerting details:

A small group of inmates, disproportionately black, are set to stay in Washington state prisons for life — left out of the latest in a multi-year wave of reforms easing tough-on-crime “three strikes” laws around the U.S.

At least 24 states including Washington passed such laws during the 1990s, embracing tough-on-crime rhetoric. But nearly half have since scaled them back amid concern that habitual but less-violent offenders were being stuck behind bars for life with hardcore felons.

Washington’s 1993 three-strikes law was among the first and stands out as among the nation’s strictest. But lawmakers targeted it for reform this year with legislation removing second-degree robbery — generally defined as a robbery without a deadly weapon or significant injury — from the list of crimes qualifying for cumulative life sentences.

But while the original reform included a retroactive clause, making inmates sentenced under the old law eligible for resentencing, an amendment pushed by a prosecutors’ group cut out retroactivity. Washington governor and Democratic presidential contender Jay Inslee signed the changes into law April 29.

That means about 62 inmates convicted of second-degree robbery will be left serving life sentences, according to state records, even after judges stop “striking out” new offenders convicted of the same crimes. About half are black, despite African Americans making up only 4% of Washington’s population.

Under the original bill, the inmates with a robbery “strike” would have had the opportunity to have their life sentences re-examined by judges — but now they won’t. Supporters of the amendment have said even less-serious robberies can leave emotional scars, and that prosecutors might have set aside more serious charges because they knew second-degree robbery convictions would mean life in prison for those offenders.

But inmates among the 62 described frustration that offenders with similar records may face drastically shorter sentences going forward. “It’s just wrong on its face, to make people rot in prison for the rest of their life on a sentence that doesn’t even exist anymore,” said John Letellier, 67, whose 1999 fast food restaurant robbery earned him his third strike.

The push to take out the reform’s retroactivity clause emerged from the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, a group that represents prosecutors. Russell Brown, the group’s director, said he reviewed most of the cases listing second-degree robbery as the third strike, and believed that prosecutors in many probably refrained from seeking more serious charges because of the guarantee the charge — known in legal circles as “Rob 2” — would count as a third strike. But he acknowledged that he never confirmed his suspicions with any of the prosecutors who handled the cases....

In Washington, second-degree robbery has one of the lowest seriousness levels of any crime on the three-strikes list, hypothetically encompassing anything from demanding money from a clerk to snatching a purse. At least 11 states including Washington have eased their three strikes laws since 2009, often removing property crimes from “strike” lists or restoring discretion to judges over previously mandatory life sentences.

But lawmakers have also often been reluctant to make the three-strikes reforms retroactive: Out of the 11 only California has included such a clause...

In phone and email interviews, inmates among the 62 in Washington described how the reform raised their hopes — and the amendment dashed them. Among them is Devon Laird, age 54 and serving life on a robbery third strike. Convicted of snatching a wallet from an elderly man outside a drugstore in 2007, Laird’s court records include convictions for violent crimes in his early 20s, but also testimony portraying him as attempting to escape a past that included being stabbed at 14 and shot twice before age 21. “When they said it wasn’t retroactive, it really set in on me that, man, I got life,” said Laird.

Cheryl Lidel, 60, is also serving life for a 2010 robbery after being convicted of other robberies and theft. She described her crimes as driven by substance abuse that began shortly after she was sexually assaulted as a young girl. In charging documents for her third-strike robbery, prosecutors said Lidel was going through heroin withdrawal when she robbed a Subway blocks from a police station, sticking her hand in her pocket to imitate a gun. She then asked a taxi to take her to an area known for drug dealing. “The first time I came here I was 23 years old, and in March of this year I turned 60,” Lidel said.

While it’s hard to say exactly how much time any of the 62 would have faced without their robbery charges counting as strikes, few would have faced life.... According to state guidelines, the maximum for second-degree robbery, given to the highest-level offenders, is less than seven years....

Some of the 62 might not have received shorter sentences because of other serious crimes on their record, including at least eight with early robbery convictions but a final strike for murder. But nearly half the inmates on the list received a third strike only for some form of robbery.

The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Jeannie Darneille, said before the state’s legislative session ended that she did not want to change her bill with the amendment killing retroactivity but that it would have been at risk of failing without support from law enforcement or prosecutors because lawmakers would have feared being labeled soft on crime.

The particulars of this story are all too familiar, and long-time readers know that I have long argued that the standard presumption in favor of finality for criminal judgments need not and should not be elevated over other critical criminal justice interests when a defendant seeks only to modify an ongoing prison sentence based on new legal developments.  (My full perspectives on "sentence finality" and retroactivity appear in a law review article, "Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences", and in some prior posts reprinted below).   

Moreover, as the question in the title of this post highlights, I think these issues have constitutional implications when extreme sentences are in play.  Notably, many state courts have ruled that it would be unconstitutional to carry out a death sentence for a person long ago sentenced for murder after a state legislature prospectively abolished the death penalty.  Given that the Supreme Court has in the last decade applied my capital Eighth Amendment precedents to the application of LWOP sentences, it seems reasonable to argue that state courts should find it unconstitutional to not reconsider an extreme LWOP sentence for a person long ago sentenced to LWOP on a basis that a state legislature has prospectively abolished.

(Significantly, and in response to the concerns so often raised by prosecutors in this retroactivity setting, a narrow version of the constitutional claim here might be just that a past LWOP sentence needs to be reexamined, not automatically changed.  Under such an approach, prosecutors would be able to argue against a sentence change by bringing forward evidence that the defendant could and would have gotten an LWOP sentence on grounds other than those changed by the legislature.  But at the very least, I think the constitutional norm should be reexamination of now-changed sentences, rather than their harsh preservation. )

Some (of many) prior posts on sentencing finality:

May 21, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

May 20, 2019

Guest post on the Fourth Circuit's reaction to district judge's rejection of plea bargains

6a00d83451574769e2022ad3762ba2200c-320wiIn prior posts here and here I noted the quite notable opinions by US District Judge Joseph Goodwin explaining why he was rejecting plea bargaining in fairly routine cases.  Professor Suja A. Thomas, Peer and Sarah Pedersen Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law, who is a leading scholar on juries and has written the leading book on the topic, was kind enough to put together this guest post about the Fourth Circuit's recent opinion in one of these cases:

By rejecting plea bargains, Judge Joseph Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia has been challenging the prevalent use of plea-bargaining in the federal courts.  Judge Goodwin began to do so in 2017 in United States v. Walker when he issued an opinion rejecting a plea bargain in a case involving heroin-dealing (discussed here).  He said he would continue to reject plea deals as long as the plea bargain wasn’t in the public’s interest.  True to his word he has rejected pleas in other cases including United States v. Stevenson and United States v. Wilmore.  Late last month in US v. Walker, No. 18-4110 (4th Cir. April 29, 2019), the Fourth Circuit issued its first opinion addressing Judge Goodwin’s rejection of pleas.

The facts of Walker are significant.  The government presented a deal for a plea to a single count of possession with intent to distribute heroin.  It recommended 24 to 30 months. The court rejected the plea deal and ultimately as a result of pleading guilty to three distribution counts plus a jury conviction on a gun count, the defendant received four times as much — 120 months in prison.

In Walker, Judge Goodwin described four considerations in whether a plea bargain agreement should be accepted: “(1) ‘the cultural context surrounding the subject criminal conduct’; (2) ‘the public’s interest in participating in the adjudication of the criminal conduct’; (3) the possibility of ‘community catharsis’ absent the transparency of a jury trial; and (4) whether, in light of the [presentence report], it appeared that the ‘motivation’ for the plea agreement was ‘to advance justice’ or to ‘expediently avoid trial.’” 922 F.3d 239, 245 (4th Cir. 2019).  In rejecting the plea bargain there, the judge discussed how West Virginia had been “deeply wounded by ... heroin and opioid addiction,” explained the public’s significant interest in this issue, described the importance of the jury’s determination of this matter, and concluded that the plea agreement had been improperly motivated by convenience.  Id. at 245-46.

While the Fourth Circuit addressed Judge Goodwin’s rejection of plea bargaining, the opinion is disappointing.  In upholding his decision, it focused on only Judge Goodwin’s analysis of the defendant’s criminal history and violence.  And it suggested that Judge Goodwin’s broader considerations such as the cultural context of the offenses were irrelevant.  Similarly, in concurrence, Judge Niemeyer stated that the court would have abused its discretion if it had rejected plea bargaining based on the government’s frequent use for the reason of convenience. Id. at 254.

The Fourth Circuit missed an opportunity.  It could have addressed some of the problems tagged by Judge Goodwin — that constitutionally-enshrined juries decide few cases and that the courts accept plea bargaining as necessary for efficiency — despite no constitutional backing for this proposition.

With that said, I recognize that Judge Goodwin’s actions resulted in a black defendant being sent to prison for much more time than the prosecution wanted — continuing to contribute to the problem of mass incarceration.  Additionally, a jury had some role but did not decide all counts.  Though one can argue that the Judge’s action in rejecting plea bargains is far from a perfect solution, whether you agree with the Judge or not, he has taken a bold, very courageous step of questioning our continued reliance on the system of plea bargaining.

And I share some views with Judge Goodwin.  I value the role that the jury was to play in the criminal justice system under the Constitution.  Plea coercion, as I like call it, occurs in approximately 97% of federal cases.  Most of the time the defendant is given a false choice — receive a discount for pleading guilty or receive a penalty for going to trial.  The obvious result is the system that we have now.  No one takes a jury trial; the penalty is too great.  In a book and elsewhere, I have argued that this system is unconstitutional.  Historically a penalty was not attached to a jury trial.  A defendant received the same sentence if he pled guilty or if he was convicted before a jury.

The Harvard Law Review summarized and critiqued Judge Goodwin’s opinion in Walker. 131 Harv. L. Rev. 2073 (2018).  Although an interesting analysis including a discussion of the significant impact on the defendant, the authors missed the mark when they simply stated plea bargaining is “a systemic problem that cannot be convincingly addressed by the actions of a single judge.” Id. at 2078.  They did not recognize that systemic change often begins with a single person challenging the status quo.  The judge has already sparked national media coverage and other significant discussions about plea bargaining.

With that said, what will the government do in the future in Judge Goodwin’s courtroom?  It seems like the defendant and the government will get around Judge Goodwin’s rejection of the plea deal by privately agreeing in advance to the plea.  Hopefully, the needed attention to the problems with plea-bargaining will not end there.

Prior related posts:

May 20, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Exciting agenda for "Rewriting the Sentence Summit on Alternatives to Incarceration"

In this post a few weeks ago, I flagged this great event, titled ""Rewriting the Sentence Summit on Alternatives to Incarceration," taking place next month in New York City hosted by Columbia University and The Aleph Institute at Columbia Law School.  In my prior post, I spotlighted the many great speakers scheduled to be at the event (as detailed at this link), and noted that the event website provides this overview

I now see that this link provides the detailed schedule for all the panels, and I think sentencing fans will find interesting and important every one of the planned panels.  Here are just a few panel titles from the detailed agenda to whet appetites (click through to see all the big names under each panel title):

A New Wave of Prosecutorial Thinking: Views of Recently Elected District Attorneys

A Federal Legislative Look: The First Step Act, and the Next Steps

Risk Assessment: A Feature or a Bug? Perspectives on A Complex Debate

Sentencing Second Chances: Addressing Excessive Sentencing With Escape Valves

The Role of Mercy and Dignity in Criminal Justice: From Restoration to Clemency

May 20, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Waiting for Godot ... Gundy

Waiting-for-godot1-740x1024With apologies to Samuel Beckett, the following script came to mind t capture how I am feeling after another morning of SCOTUS rulings without a decision in one interesting criminal case argued way back in early October:

ESTRAGON: Charming spot. (He refreshes SCOTUSblog.) Inspiring prospects. (He turns to Vladimir.) Let's do some other work.

VLADIMIR: We can't.

ESTRAGON: Why not?

VLADIMIR: We're waiting for Gundy.

ESTRAGON: (despairingly). Ah! (Pause.) You're sure it won't be DIGed?

VLADIMIR: What?

ESTRAGON: That we might wait and wait and not get a ruling.

VLADIMIR: They said by June. (They look at the calendar.) Do you see any others cases taking this long?

ESTRAGON: What others?

VLADIMIR: I don't know. A civil case.

ESTRAGON: What about all the capital cases?

VLADIMIR:  What are you insinuating? That we've come to the wrong place?

ESTRAGON: It should be here by now.

VLADIMIR: Then didn't say for sure it'd come.

ESTRAGON: And if it doesn't come?

VLADIMIR: We'll come back next decision day.

ESTRAGON: And then the decision day after that.

VLADIMIR: Possibly.

ESTRAGON: And so on.

VLADIMIR: The point is—

ESTRAGON: Until Gundy comes.

May 20, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Has anyone kept track of total ACCA case GVRs through the years (or estimated total time spent on ACCA churn)?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the one notable criminal justice element of the Supreme Court's order list this morning. At the very end of a relatively short order list, Justice Alito (joined by Justice Thomas) dissents from the Court's decision to GVR a case back to the Eleventh Circuit (which is what the US Solicitor General urged the Court to do).  Here is the full dissent:

The Court grants, vacates, and remands in this case, apparently because it harbors doubt that petitioner’s 1987 conviction under Florida law for battery on a law enforcement officer qualifies as a “violent felony” as defined by the Armed Career Criminal Act’s elements clause, which covers a felony offense that “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.”  18 U. S. C. §924(e)(2)(B)(i).  I share no such doubt: As the case comes to us, it is undisputed that petitioner was convicted of battery on a law enforcement officer after he “‘struck [an] officer in the face using a closed fist.’”  App. to Pet. for Cert. A–1, p. 11. See Fla. Stat. §784.03(1)(a) (2018) (a person commits battery when he “[a]ctually and intentionally touches or strikes another person against the will of the other,” among other things).  Because the record makes “perfectly clear” that petitioner “was convicted of battery on a law enforcement officer by striking, which involves the use of physical force against the person of another,” App. to Pet. for Cert. A–1, at 11, I would count the conviction as a “violent felony” under the elements clause and would therefore deny the petition.  Mathis v. United States, 579 U. S. ___, ___ (2016) (ALITO, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 6).

Last year in this post, I expressed my ACCA exhaustion by asking "At just what level of Dante's Inferno does modern ACCA jurisprudence reside?".  And if I was much more clever and had endless time, I might this year try to come up with some account of ACCA jurisprudence that uses an elaborate array of Game of Thrones references (e.g., the now-long-dead residual clause could be cast as evil Joffrey and other clauses could be other Lannisters and other characters could be key SCOTUS rulings assailing or defending clauses).   

I make the GoT reference in part because I know I can find on the Internet somewhere a detailed accounting of characters killed in that long-running fictional series.  In turn, I wonder if I can find on the Internet somewhere any accounting of cases sent back by SCOTUS in the long-running (and likely never-ending) drama that is modern ACCA jurisprudence.

May 20, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 19, 2019

Spotlighting eagerness to elect state judges as well as prosecutors committed to criminal justice reform

This new Atlantic article, headlined "The Search for Progressive Judges," highlights how activists who have sought to elect a new wave of progressive prosecutors are now turning attention to judicial elections. Here are excerpts:

It used to be unheard of for Philadelphia judges to reject a negotiated sentence in these resentencings — until Larry Krasner, arguably the most progressive prosecutor in the country, took over the city’s district attorney’s office in January 2018 and started delivering on a promise to minimize incarceration.  In response, several Philadelphia judges have shut down his attempts to keep people out of prison or release them earlier.... Recently, some judges reportedly declined to consider an initiative, developed by Krasner, to seek shorter probation sentences.

After watching these developments with growing dismay, Rick Krajewski, an organizer for a leftist political group called Reclaim Philadelphia, convened about 30 Philadelphia activists in January at the offices of a prisoner-advocacy organization to float a radical proposal.  Many of them had been instrumental in getting Krasner elected.  But clearly, electing a progressive prosecutor hadn’t been enough.  This time, Krajewski wanted to persuade them to spearhead a rare grassroots campaign for the typically sleepy judicial race....

Krasner, elected in 2017, came to office during a nationwide wave of reform-minded prosecutors: In Houston, Chicago, Brooklyn, and other left-leaning cities, prosecutors have been winning races on platforms to end mass incarceration.  A prosecutor has tremendous sway when, for example, suggesting bail, negotiating plea agreements, and recommending sanctions for parole and probation violations.  But judges and magistrates have the final say — and their decisions have been thrown into relief in jurisdictions that have elected reformist prosecutors.  “What we are seeing is that the judges are deciding to take it upon themselves to be the obstacle for a progressive district attorney,” says Robert “Saleem” Holbrook, a former juvenile lifer who now works as a policy adviser at Amistad Law Project, a prisoner-rights advocacy organization.

Recently, justice-reform advocates in a couple of other places have also turned their eye to judges.  In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, voters swept out the old guard to completely flip all 59 contested seats in civil, criminal, family, juvenile, and probate courts from Republican to Democrat; the new judges are preparing to stop detaining people accused of low-level crimes who aren’t able to post cash bail.  Organizers in Texas are starting to scout for judicial candidates in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, and in Dallas County, who support scaling back the use of cash bail.

In theory, judges should be impartial arbiters of justice, motivated by the law rather than politics.  Since the birth of America, legal scholars and politicians have debated the best method to create an independent judiciary: Should it be elected, or appointed by other elected officials?  That question has yet to be resolved, and currently each state institutes its own system for choosing local judges.  However, the majority — 87 percent as of 2015 — of state-court judges are elected officials.  “I think that the overwhelming majority of judges are trying to do their jobs in good faith,” says Alicia Bannon, the deputy director for program management of the Democracy Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, “but those political pressures are real.”

Historically, that pressure has been applied by advocates for a more punitive justice system.  The authors of a 2015 Brennan Center study analyzed television ads for judicial candidates nationwide and found that an increasing number of ads focused on how harshly the candidate would punish bad actors: In 2013 and 2014, a record 56 percent of campaign ads lauded tough-on-crime records or lambasted opponents for being soft.  In the past, advocates on the left have lamented how these political pressures have influenced judges.

Now, the progressive activists in the Philadelphia election, and the ones in Texas, are unapologetically supporting judges whose politics align with their own.  The primary election on May 21, rather than the actual election in the fall, will essentially determine who will win the judgeships, since the city’s electorate votes overwhelmingly for Democrats, leaving Republican candidates with little chance of victory.  The primaries are technically partisan, but only one Republican is running.  “The reality is no matter how you pick judges, they are going to be political,” says Jed Shugerman, a Fordham law professor who wrote The People’s Courts: Pursuing Judicial Independence in America. In today’s political climate, he says, progressive groups can have significant influence in left-leaning cities.

May 19, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Two great new policy briefs from Right on Crime discussing best practices for parole and probation

Marc Levin, who serves as Vice President for Right on Crime, has two great new "Policy Perspective" briefs on parole and probation systems. Below are the titles, links and "Key Points" from the start of both great documents:

Ten Tips for Policymakers for Parole

Key Points

• The criteria for deciding who is paroled should be objective and focused on reducing risks to public safety going forward.

• Parole boards should possess a diverse range of relevant areas of expertise and provide opportunities for meaningful participation by parole candidates and others with an interest in the outcome.

• Parole supervision and reentry should emphasize removing barriers to employment, incentives for performance, quality interactions between parole officers and those they supervise, and avenues for community-based organizations to assist people coming out of prison.

Ten Tips for Policymakers for Improving Probation

Key Points

• Probation can be an alternative or gateway to incarceration.

• Probation should be right-sized to serve only those individuals who require supervision for only the limited time period that their assessment and conduct indicate a continued need for supervision.

• Incentives should drive probation policy, both for agencies and those they supervise.

May 19, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Student SCOTUS preview part four: more vote predicting after oral argument in US v. Haymond

6a00d83451574769e201b7c9134b4d970b-320wiI noted here back in 2017 an interesting opinion in US v. Haymond where a Tenth Circuit panel declared unconstitutional the procedures used for revocation of a sex offender's supervised release.  The Supreme Court also found the case interesting because, as reported here, the Justices in 2018 accepted the petition for certiorari filed by the feds.  The SCOTUSblog page on Haymond has links to all the briefing.

As reported in this prior post, I have a great student, Jim McGibbon, who has been drafting a series of posts on the Haymond case.  Oral argument took place back in February, and Jim was there for all the action.  Following up on his introductory post, and his second post inspired by the briefing in the case, he has now a pair of posts on the Justices' likely votes informed by the argument.  The start of his efforts (covering six likely or possible votes for the defendants) can be found in this post, and here is his analysis of likely votes for the government:

While we anxiously await the written decision in United States v. Haymond, here is an accounting of the Justices that seem most likely to vote for the government as it seeks to defend the constitutionality of the procedures used to revoke Haymond's supervised release under 18 U.S.C. § 3583(k).

Chief Justice Roberts

The Chief Justice may see himself as an umpire, but at oral argument he was a pitcher throwing both the government and the defendant curve balls. He stated to the government that “simply because the jury’s sentence includes [the sentence authorized by 3583(e)] doesn’t mean that everything that follows is necessarily constitutional.”  But he also questioned the defense’s arguments that 3583(k) is unconstitutional because their claims could undermine the workability of the entire statute and the supervised release/revocation system.

Based on his statements at oral argument, it is difficult to predict the Chief Justice's vote.  But the Chief Justice authored a dissent in Alleyne v. United States, a case which held that any fact increasing a mandatory minimum sentence must be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Chief Justice disagreed with the majority’s broad reading of the Sixth Amendment in Alleyne based on his view that a sentencing factor that increases an applicable minimum sentence (but not the maximum) is not an element of the crime that needed to be submitted to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Chief Justice may similarly resist a broad reading of the Sixth Amendment for Haymond, perhaps deciding a revocation finding under 3583(k) is not part of a “criminal prosecution,” but just part of a postconviction hearing, and thus not within the ambit of proceedings the Framers envisioned for Sixth Amendment protection.

Justice Alito

Justice Alito at oral argument was the MVP for the  government (as Justice Sotomayor was for the defendant).  During oral argument, Justice Alito declared that the remedy proposed by the defendant may “bring down the entire system of supervised release.”  He also expressed his “trouble” with the “whether we should overrule an enormous amount of precedent and wipe out probation and parole or decide this novel question [of whether a reimprisonment term can exceed the period of conditional liberty in a supervised release term].”  Perhaps, Justice Alito thinks the solution in Haymond is to heavily rely on Morrissey v. Brewer, which ruled parole revocation proceedings do not require elaborate procedures, without addressing broader questions about the operation of supervised release and its revocation. 

Notably, Justice Alito's dissent in Alleyne not only admonished the majority’s willingness to eschew stare decisis, but also expressed disapproval with Apprendi v. New Jersey, the landmark case expanding defendants' Fifth and Sixth Amendment procedural rights concerning findings with sentencing impact.  Alleyne and Apprendi are critical cases for Haymond for both his due process and jury trial claims, and Justice Alito seems unlikely to find either kind of claim persuasive.  Justice Alito, whether seen as a textualist or an originalist, clearly resists legal change in the favor of criminal defendants.  

Justice Breyer

Justice Breyer will probably vote for the government, although it is not a foregone conclusion given his history with cases like Apprendi and Alleyne.  Justice Breyer was initially vexed with the procedural rights that the Supreme Court set forth in Apprendi, calling that decision “impractical.”  Back in 2000, he questioned why the majority  blessed a “sentencing system in which judges have discretion to find sentencing-related factors,” but then viewed for constitutional purposes “sentencing statutes” that increased the maximum sentence “differently.”  In Apprendi, Justice Breyer expressed concern with the possibility of “special postverdict sentencing juries” describing them as “not worth their administrative costs,” and a ruling for the defendant in Haymond could encourage the use of such a procedure.  

Thirteen years after Apprendi, however, Justice Breyer pulled a volte-face when providing a key fifth vote in Alleyne for extending the rights set forth in Apprendi.  This may mean that Justice Breyer now sees that extending jury trial rights can be sometimes justified; indeed, at the Haymond oral argument, Justice Breyer called himself a “good follower of Apprendi.”  As with any uncertain Justice, the Haymond case may boil down to whether supervised release is viewed as just a variation on parole.  If Justice Breyer believes that parole is sufficiently similar to supervised release, then Haymond is not entitled to the “full panoply of rights,” according to Morrissey v. Brewer

Prior related posts:

May 19, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)