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September 21, 2019

Honoring the second annual "National Expungement Week"

NEW2019_Flyer_No_Citiesv1_Square1080Today begins, as detailed here, the second annual "National Expungement Week" running until September 28.  I have been excited and proud to play a small role in these important activities by helping identify law students to participate in a local record sealing clinic.  (Applicable law in Ohio allows for only a very few types of criminal convictions to be expunged, but a much larger number of convictions are subject to sealing.) 

Notably, Columbus is not shown among the more than two dozen localities listed here as having expungement week events; I suspect and sincerely hope  there may be many other places with expungement-related activities taking place this week.  This Forbes article, headlined "Second Annual National Expungement Week (N.E.W.) Helps People Clear Criminal Records," provides these additional details:

A coalition of more than three dozen organizations working at the intersection of the cannabis industry, racial equity, and reparative justice, led by Equity First Alliance and Cage-Free Repair, conceived the week to highlight the need to fully integrate those disenfranchised by the war on drugs within their respective communities.

Events to be featured throughout the week include free clinics to help remove, seal, or reclassify eligible convictions from criminal records (depending on local legislation), as well as provide expungement education workshops and complimentary services.

N.E.W. events have inspired teams of attorneys, organizers, and activists nationwide to continue to increase expungement opportunities where possible, with over 40 events scheduled to take place throughout the week.

Cities featuring participating events have nearly doubled from 16 in 2018 to 30, including major hubs such as Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, DC.

And this Rolling Stone article, headlined "Seth Rogen Details How to Clear Your Criminal Record in New PSA," highlights a notable celebrity contributing to the effort.

Long-time readers should recall my old article, titled "Leveraging Marijuana Reform to Enhance Expungement Practices," which includes discussion of various legal and practical barriers that can often unduly limit the ability of individuals to break away from the collateral consequences of long-ago minor criminal convictions.  I call this article "old" because, though published less than 18 months ago, there has been dramatic improvement in the efforts of marijuana reform states to foster the erasure of past marijuana convictions.

That said, my old article still includes a new and novel proposal: the creation of new criminal justice institution, a Commission on Justice Restoration, to be funded by the taxes, fees and other revenues generated by marijuana reforms and to be tasked with proactively working on policies and practices designed to minimize and ameliorate undue collateral consequences for people with criminal convictions.  Special private-actor programming in the form of "National Expungement Week" can do great things, but the undue burdens of a criminal convictions are fundamentally a public problem in need of a public institutional solution.

September 21, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Some weekend reads on all sorts of topics from all sorts of places

At the end of the a busy week, I often have collected a number of links to articles and commentaries of interest that I realize I will not have time to blog fully. Ergo, a wrap-up post like this one allows me to cover all sorts of topics from all sorts of places:

"Alabama Sex Offender Registry Is Cruel and Unusual Punishment for Teenagers, Lawsuit Argues"

"Back to School: A Common-Sense Strategy to Lower Recidivism"

"Executing the intellectually disabled serves little purpose"

"Guilty until proven innocent: The cash grab of civil asset forfeiture"

"Non-violent drug offenders need help, not felony records"

"Victim advocates concerned after Nevada top court gives jury trial right to accused domestic batterers"

"What Democratic candidates need to admit about criminal justice reform"

September 21, 2019 in Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Jury Sentencing in the United States: The Antithesis of the Rule of Law"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by MaryAnn Grover now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The well-documented randomness and arbitrariness that plagues capital sentencing stems from the wide discretion granted to sentencing actors, namely jurors.  However, this wide discretion exists in the non-capital sentencing context as well.  Accordingly, arbitrary sentences are not confined to the capital sentencing context. Instead these arbitrary sentences result from structural choices designed to insulate jurors from the impact of their decisions.

This article explores how the statutory jury sentencing schemes used in the six states that retain jury sentencing contribute significantly to the arbitrary nature of sentences imposed.  This article further provides practical ways in which jurors could be made to feel responsible for the sentences they impose, leading them to impose less arbitrary sentences.

September 21, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 20, 2019

Kentucky Supreme Court hears arguments to preclude death penalty for defendants under age 21

As reported in this local article, the Kentucky Supreme Court heard a notable death penalty case yesterday.  Here are the details:

Kentucky could become the first death penalty state to put additional age restrictions on capital punishment.  Currently, 18 is the legal age allowed in the United States.  However, the Supreme Court of Kentucky could ban the death penalty for defendants who committed a crime between the ages of 18 and 21.

On Thursday, the Court heard the arguments surrounding two high profile murders out of Lexington.

In the first case, Efrain Diaz Jr. and Justin Smith are charged with the death of UK student Jonathan Krueger. Police say Krueger and a friend were walking home on East Maxwell St. in 2015 when Diaz, Smith, and Roman Gonzalez approached them.  Police say the three were armed and one of them shot and killed Krueger.  Gonzalez was 17-years-old at the time, so the death penalty cannot be applied to him. However, Diaz was 20-years-old at the time and Smith was 18.

In the second case, Travis Bredhold is accused of allegedly robbing and killing gas station attendant Mukeshbhai Patel in 2013.  Bredhold was 18-years-old at the time.

If things stand as they currently do, Bredhold, Diaz, and Smith will not face the death penalty. In Fayette County Circuit Court, Judge Ernesto Scorsone ruled the death penalty is unconstitutional for people in that age range because new science shows their brains are still developing and they lack the maturity to assess risks and control their impulses.

The defendants' lawyer, who wants the Supreme Court of Kentucky to uphold Scorsone's ruling, used the science argument in court today.  "In 2005, we thought the problem with juvenile misbehavior was simply that the brakes were defective," said defense lawyer Timothy Arnold.  "Now, we know they have their foot on the gas and they are flooring it between the ages of 18 and 20."

The Attorney General's Office argued against that, hoping to convince the Court to overturn the Scorsone's ruling. "Judge Ernesto Scorsone of the Fayette Circuit Court abused his power when he decided that 18 to 20 year olds were exempt from the death penalty," said assistant state attorney general Matthew Krygiel.

The Attorney General's Office argued that the Supreme Court of the United States set the age for capital punishment at 18 and that should be followed.  Krygiel reiterated that 18 is the legal age of an adult in the United States. "Being 18 years old, you can enlist in the Army," said Krygiel. "They give you an assault rifle and send you halfway across the world, and after some basic training on the rules of engagement, you're going to decide whether or not to pull a trigger and shoot somebody."

However, the defense lawyer believes the Kentucky Supreme Court has the power to revisit the age limit. Arnold argued that given the new science available, 18 to 21 year olds should not have capital punishment as a penalty option. "To be clear, nobody's proposing throwing a parade for anybody," said Arnold.  "What we are saying is simply that they're not eligible for the death penalty.  They'll still be eligible for life without parole or any other penalty that would be applicable to somebody who committed a serious crime. The death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst, and science shows that they're not that."

Prior related post:

September 20, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

September 19, 2019

"Timbs v. Indiana: Toward the Regulation of Mercenary Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this new article forthcoming in the Federal Sentencing Reporter authored by Wayne Logan and now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

In Timbs v. Indiana, the Supreme Court unanimously held that the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause is an incorporated protection under the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore regulates state and local governments.  The unanimous result, wedding liberal and conservative Justices alike, was backed by an ideologically diverse group of amici, including the ACLU, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Cato Institute.  The government practice giving rise to the litigation — civil asset forfeiture — has been subject to widespread criticism, fueled by troubling accounts of what has come to be known as “policing for profit.”  Reaction to Timbs ran the gamut from regarding it as “huge” to being a decision having little impact.  As I discuss in this symposium contribution, Timbs is important both because it provides a new federal constitutional basis to regulate government targeting of criminal defendants for revenue generation and signals the Court’s broader recognition of the problematic nature of the widespread practice.

September 19, 2019 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Prez candidate Beto O'Rourke proposes "Drug War Justice Grants" funding by marijuana tax revenues

As reported in this Hill piece,"President hopeful Beto O'Rourke on Thursday unveiled a plan to legalize marijuana and end the war on drugs." Here are the basics:

The former Texas congressman would grant clemency to those currently serving sentences for marijuana possession, establish a model for marijuana legalization and give grants to those affected by the war on drugs to help them benefit from the new industry.

The “Drug War Justice Grants” would be given to those formerly incarcerated for nonviolent marijuana offenses in state and federal prison. Licenses to produce, distribute, or sell marijuana would be funneled to minority-owned businesses and fees would be waived for low-income individuals who had previously been convicted of related offenses.

“We need to not only end the prohibition on marijuana, but also repair the damage done to the communities of color disproportionately locked up in our criminal justice system or locked out of opportunity because of the War on Drugs,” O'Rourke said in a statement.

This page on the O'Rourke campaign website provides some background and details, and here are excerpts focused on criminal justice matters:

In January 2009, Beto O’Rourke, one of the youngest members of the El Paso City Council, introduced a longshot resolution calling for an “honest, open national debate” on ending the prohibition of marijuana.... To Beto’s surprise, the resolution passed unanimously. But the mayor vetoed the resolution later that day....

In 2011, Beto published the book Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico: An Argument for Ending the Prohibition of Marijuana. Long before the legalization of marijuana was overwhelmingly popular with the American public, Beto laid out his case for ending the decades-long prohibition on marijuana and repairing the damage done to the communities of color that are disproportionately impacted....

The War on Drugs has been catastrophic for communities of color, and our policy toward marijuana has been particularly egregious. Despite similar rates of use, African-Americans are almost 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. Yet, a 2017 survey of marijuana business owners in states allowing them found that only 19% identified as non-white. These statistics tell the story of marijuana laws in our country, where certain communities have been subjected to over-policing and criminalization while others are being presented lucrative business opportunities. Beto is committed to rewriting this story and rectifying the harm caused by decades of unjust marijuana policy.

As President, Beto will:

Legalize Marijuana...

Use clemency power to release those currently serving sentences for marijuana possession and establish a review board to determine whether others currently serving sentences related to marijuana should be released;

Expunge the records of those who have been convicted for possession and prevent the conviction from precluding these individuals from accessing housing, employment, education, and federal benefits, or from having their driver’s licenses suspended;...

Remove cannabis-related charges as grounds for deportation or denial of citizenship. The Trump Administration has explicitly targeted those with marijuana possession convictions for deportation, even though marijuana has been legalized in 11 states and the District of Columbia.

Invest revenue from the marijuana industry in communities impacted by the War on Drugs through “Drug War Justice Grants” and Equitable Licensing Programs....

To guarantee that opportunities to profit from a regulated marijuana market are made available to communities disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs, Beto will:

Call for a federal tax on the marijuana industry, revenue from which will be used to:

Provide a monthly “Drug War Justice Grant” to those formerly incarcerated for nonviolent marijuana offenses in state and federal prison for a period based on time served. The grants will be funded completely by the tax on the marijuana industry.

Fund substance use treatment programs.

Support re-entry services for those who have been incarcerated for possession.

Invest in communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana arrests, including investments in housing and employment support, substance use and mental health treatment, peer and recovery support services, life skills training, victims’ services.

Support those disproportionately impacted by marijuana arrests, including those who have been convicted of marijuana possession themselves in participating in the marijuana businesses by providing technical assistance, industry-specific training, access to interest free/low-interest loans, and access to investment financing and legal services.

Ensure those most impacted by the War on Drugs are the ones benefiting from the economic activity related to marijuna.

As President, Beto will tie federal funding for criminal justice systems to requirements that states or local governments:

Waive licensing fees for producing, distributing, or selling marijuana for low-income individuals who have been convicted of marijuana offenses.

September 19, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 18, 2019

Without discussion of 3553(a) factors, Eleventh Circuit needs just one sentence to declare 120 years (LWOP) imprisonment for child porn offenses reasonable

Earlier this month in this post, I flagged the Sixth Circuit panel ruling in US v. Boucher, No. 18-5683 (6th Cir. Sept. 9, 2019) (available here), which concluded that a month-long sentence was unreasonably short after an intricate multi-page analysis of § 3553(a) factors.  The detailed circuit analysis especially faulted the district court's consideration of personal factors and the failure "to address the risk of sentence disparities."  In my post about the Boucher ruling, I noted that I favor reviewing courts conducting robust and searching forms of reasonableness review, but I  lamented the fact that circuit courts often seem much more interested in seriously questioning 30-day sentences when federal prosecutors appeal than in questioning 30-year sentences when federal defendants appeal.  

Interestingly, today I was alerted to a new Eleventh Circuit panel ruling in which it is not a 30-year sentences, but actually a 120-year sentence(!), that gets short shrift in the reasonableness review process.  Specifically, in US v. Kirby, No. 18-11253 (11th Cir. Sept. 17, 2019) (available here), the defendant was convicted after trial of three counts of producing child pornography and two counts of possessing child porn.   As described by the Eleventh Circuit panel, the defendant had a large (but not enormous) number of child porn images and he created (but did not distribute) many images of his "thirteen-year-old stepdaughter, either captured by hidden cameras in bathrooms or taken while Kirby was assisting his stepdaughter with stretches due to a sports injury [and also had one] pornographic image of a friend of [his] stepdaughter."  This is serious criminal behavior, but the district court responded (based it seems on a maxed-out guideline range of life) by maxing out all the counts to the statutory maximum and running the terms consecutively to arrive at sentence of 1440 months (120 years) of imprisonment.

In addition to making a technical challenge to how the guideline range of life was used by the district court, the defendant here contended that his sentence was substantively unreasonable.  After discussing the technical issues for a number of pages, here is the full substance of the Kirby panel's response to the reasonableness claim:

As an initial matter, Kirby’s argument is largely predicated on the erroneous conclusion that the district court imposed an above-guidelines sentence.  Regardless, the sentence was not unreasonable.  Before imposing the longest sentence that it could, the district court thoroughly discussed Kirby’s particularly heinous conduct and direct participation in the creation of child pornography, his breach of public trust as a police officer, and his total failure to take responsibility for his actions.

Without seeing the full factual record or the parties' briefs, I am disinclined to assert that the substantive judgment of reasonableness here was obviously wrong.  But where is the circuit concern in this case for the district court's consideration of personal factors and the failure to address the risk of sentence disparities?   And what does strike me as obviously wrong is the obvious fact that there is such a contrast in the amount of attention and deliberation given to the reasonableness claims in cases like Boucher and Kirby.  As long as reviewing courts (and so many others) are so much more likely to worry so much more about undue leniency than about undue severity, over-incarceration will still define our criminal justice systems.

September 18, 2019 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"How many people in your state go to local jails every year?"

The question in the title of this post is the heading of this new posting at the Prison Policy Initiative building off the the group's recent big report Arrest, Release, Repeat.  Here is part of the set up to the latest state-by-state data analysis (which requires a click through to see in detail):

County and city jails have been called “mass incarceration’s front door,” but campaigns to reform or close jails often don’t receive the attention they deserve. Why? Because the traditional way we measure the impact of jails — the average daily population — significantly understates the number of people directly affected by these local facilities.

Because people typically stay in jail for only a few days, weeks or months, the daily population represents a small fraction of the people who are admitted over the course of a year. But the statistic that better reflects a jail’s impact on a community — the number of people who go to jail — is rarely accessible to the public.

Thankfully, we can now get close to closing this gap in the data and making the impact of jails clearer.  Building on our new national report Arrest, Release, Repeat, we’re able to estimate the number of people in every state who go to local jails each year.

September 18, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

US Sentencing Commission releases FY 2018 third-quarter sentencing data showing continued growth of immigration cases

US Sentencing Commission has this week published here its "3rd Quarter ... Preliminary Fiscal Year 2019 Data."  As previously noted in this post when the USSC released data on offenders sentenced during the first half of fiscal year 2018, the Commission has recently tinkered with how it accounts and reports sentencing data.  This new data run notes some additional tweaking, though the very first chart about federal offenders by type is quite straight-forward and always notable. 

What strikes me as especially notable is that, through the first three quarters on FY19 (which runs through June 30, 2019), a full 37.4% of all federal cases sentences involved immigration offenses.  In FY18, "only" 34.4% of the sentenced case caseload involved immigration offenses, and in FY17 only 30.5% of the sentences cases were immigration cases.  Among other consequences, the fact that so much of the federal sentencing docket is now comprised of immigration cases necessarily impact lots of other sentencing statistics (e.g., the race an nationality of offenders).

As always, many stories might be mined from the latest USSC data, and I welcome reader thoughts on which stories might be the most interesting or important these days.

September 18, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 17, 2019

"Tinkering With the Machinery of Death: Lessons From a Failure of Judicial Activism"

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

The Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on capital sentencing is a mess.  That may be the only proposition that draws a consensus in this sharply divisive area.  Critics and supporters of capital punishment agree that the system created by the Court fails to achieve its goals, although for different reasons.  The entire body of case law is an exercise in judicial activism.  That is, it consists of the decisions by the Supreme Court creating rules that shifting majorities believed were good policy at the time, unsupported by any demonstrable connection to the original understanding of the Eighth Amendment. 

I contend that the worst aspect of this body of case law — both in constitutional illegitimacy and in harmful effects — is the rule of Lockett v. Ohio that the defendant must be allowed to introduce and have considered virtually unlimited evidence in mitigation. The Court’s inability to agree with itself from one year to the next on what this rule means has caused many wrongful reversals of well-deserved sentences.  The unlimited potential it creates for attacking the competence of defense counsel continues to cause massive delay and expense, and all for evidence of limited probative value.  This is a massive failure of judicial activism. I propose that the Court prune back the rule to only the circumstances of the crime, youth, and lack of a criminal record and return the question of the admissibility of all other mitigation to the people and the democratic process.

September 17, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

"U.S. Prison Population Trends: Massive Buildup and Modest Decline"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new briefing paper authored by Nazgol Ghandnoosh who is a Senior Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project. The short paper is full of great charts and data, and here is the start of the text:

By yearend 2017, 1.4 million people were imprisoned in the United States, a decline of 7% since the prison population reached its peak level in 2009.  This follows a nearly 700% growth in the prison population between 1972 and 2009.

The overall pace of decarceration has varied considerably across states, but has been modest overall. Thirty-nine states and the federal government had downsized their prisons by 2017.  Five states — Alaska, New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut, and New York — reduced their prison populations by over 30% since reaching their peak levels.  But among the 39 states that reduced levels of imprisonment, 14 states downsized their prisons by less than 5%. Eleven states, led by Arkansas, had their highest ever prison populations in 2017.

If states and the federal government maintain this pace of decarceration, it will take 72 years — until 2091 — to cut the U.S. prison population in half.

The United States has made only modest progress in ending mass incarceration despite a dramatic decline in crime rates.  Reported crime rates have plummeted to half of their 1990s levels — as they have in many other countries that did not increase imprisonment levels.  Expediting the end of mass incarceration will require accelerating the end of the Drug War and scaling back sentences for all crimes, including violent offenses for which half of people in prison are serving time.

September 17, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

September 16, 2019

Noting efforts to apply reduced sentencing rules under New York's new Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act

This press release from May 2019 reports on the signing of New York's Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act and describes the law this way:

The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act ... codifies more meaningful sentence reductions for domestic abuse survivors in the criminal justice system and a key initiative in the Governor's 2019 Women's Justice Agenda.  Current law allows judges to administer indeterminate sentences for domestic violence survivors who have committed a crime only in relation to their abuser under certain circumstances.  The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act will build upon this law by adding offenses committed due to coercion by an abuser, as well as offenses committed against or at the behest of an abuser who does not share a household or family with the survivor — preventing further victimization of individuals who have endured domestic and sexual violence at the hands of their abusers.

But this New York Post piece, headlined "Mom found guilty of murdering boyfriend seeks lighter sentence under new law," reports on some of the challenges this law has presented in application:

In a matter of weeks, Poughkeepsie mom Nikki Addimando could become the first person in New York state to receive a lighter murder sentence under a new law that shields survivors of domestic abuse. In April, a jury found Addimando guilty of second-degree murder of 29-year-old Christopher Grover — her live-in boyfriend and the father of her two children.

She admitted shooting and killing Grover in September 2017, but said it was in self-defense after years of physical and sexual abuse. In her testimony, Addimando, 30, said Grover would use a hot metal spoon to burn her. Images of burns, lacerations and bruises on her body and face, some taken by medical staffers, were shown during the trial.

Addimando shot Grover in the head 24 hours after Child Protective Services visited their apartment, tipped off that Addimando had bruises on her body. The night of the shooting, Grover took out his gun and threatened to shoot her, telling her “he could kill me in my sleep,” she testified....

Under the new Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act — signed by Gov. Cuomo on May 14 — Addimando, who currently faces a maximum of 25 years to life in prison, could have her sentenced reduced to five to 15 years.

A three-day hearing to convince state Supreme Court Justice Edward McLoughlin that she was a domestic violence victim concluded Wednesday.  Addimando’s friends have created a We Stand With Nikki website which calls excessive punishment “unjust.”...

The judge will render a decision in November.  “In that decision, he will advise us whether he is sentencing under the act or if he deems a conventional sentence would not be unduly harsh,” said Addimando’s lawyer Benjamin Ostrer.  “Which is ultimately within the judge’s discretion.”

The new law looks at “the extent of the abuse, the degree of the abuse and you have to be able to establish that the abuse led to whatever act that was committed,” according to defense attorney Anthony Cillis, who has handled domestic violence cases.  According to Ostrer, “There’s very little guidance in the act to instruct either the litigants or the court concerning the burden of proof.”

The first defendant to attempt to use the new law failed.  Taylor Partlow, a 26-year-old Buffalo resident who was convicted of stabbing her boyfriend in the chest in 2018, sought a sentence reduction.

The judge decided that Partlow, despite witnesses who saw her boyfriend beating her and dragging her across the floor by her hair, did not qualify.  “The abuse, No. 1, was not substantial abuse and not a significant contributing factor to your behavior,” said state Supreme Court Justice Russell Buscaglia said at a Sept. 8 hearing.  “But I do agree there was domestic abuse.”

There are many interesting substantive elements to this New York DVSJA law providing for lower sentences for domestic violence survivors convicted of offenses related to their abuse.  But I am also intrigued by how the law procedurally seems to require (without any clear proof burden) that a judge must make certain findings in order to have authority to reduce a sentence.  Structured this way, this law seems to set out a structured mitigation sentence-reduction rule that evade the jury finding and proof requirement that Apprendi jurisprudence creates for aggravating sentence-enhnancing laws.

September 16, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Just some (of many) perspectives on Felicity Huffman's sentencing

Lots of folks have lots of views on what we should make of the the sentencing of Felicity Huffman late last week to 14 days in incarceration in the college bribery scandal. Here are just a sampling of some of the pieces that caught my eye:

From CNN, "John Legend says prison is not always the answer after Felicity Huffman's sentence"

From Walter Palvo at Forbes, "Felicity Huffman And America's Failing Criminal Justice System"

From Fox News, "Felicity Huffman's 14 day prison sentence in college admissions scam sparks outrage on social media"

From Fox News, "Felicity Huffman's prison sentence 'more of a burden on the jail system' than on the actress: expert"

From David Oscar Marcus at The Hill, "Felicity Huffman's 14-Day Sentence is Unjust — Because It's Too High"

From Ellen Podgor at White Collar Crime Prof Blog, "More Varsity Blues — Privilege and Perspective"

To add my two cents, I will just say that I continue to be disappointed at our system's and our society's general failure to treat and view any sentencing terms other than imprisonment as "real punishment." Of course, most persons subject to any form of criminal investigation and prosecution will report that the process itself is very often a significant punishment and so too can be any period of supervision and the array of collateral consequences (both formal and informal and often lifetime) that always accompany a criminal conviction. But, problematically, the perception persists that anything other than prison, and often anything less than a lengthy period in prison, is but a trifle.

Prior related posts:

September 16, 2019 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7)

The impact of the FIRST STEP Act as told through one (all-too-typical) case

Jesse Wegman has this notable new New York Times piece headlined fully "‘All You Can Do Is Take Care of Your End’: For one inmate serving a life sentence, a new federal law gave hope where there had been none." I highly recommend the piece in full, and here are some extended excerpts:

Imagine that at the age of 28, you’re told you are going to spend the rest of your life in prison with no chance of release. What would you do with all that time?

There’s no shame in admitting you’d want to throw in the towel.  It’s a rational reaction to a hopeless situation: Why bother working to improve yourself, learning something new or making amends if nothing you do will ever make a difference?

Gary Rhines, now 46, had every reason to choose that route, after receiving a mandatory sentence of life without parole in 2004 for being a repeat drug offender.  As a lifer, Mr. Rhines was last in line for all prison programming; no one cared whether he participated or not.  But that didn’t stop him.  He earned his high school equivalency diploma.  He enrolled in drug-treatment and anger-management programs, learned industrial painting and how to operate a forklift.  He received a certificate in a culinary-arts program and worked in the prison chapel.

“All you can do is take care of your end,” Mr. Rhines told me recently in a telephone interview. “I had a list of things that were very important to my success.” If he didn’t do them, he said, “it was me giving up on myself.”

This summer, all those years of work paid off. At a hearing on July 24 in a Harrisburg, Pa., Federal District Court, Judge John E. Jones III resentenced Mr. Rhines to time served — in his case, 18 years, which includes nearly three years of pretrial detention.

The judge was able to impose that sentence thanks to the First Step Act, a new federal law that alleviates some of the most draconian punishments handed down under a string of federal criminal laws and sentencing guidelines passed in the 1980s and 1990s....

The crime that landed Mr. Rhines in prison for life was relatively minor — he was charged with participating in the sale, in Pennsylvania, of 66 grams of crack cocaine, a little more than the weight of a pack of M&Ms.  The crime involved no weapon and no violence. One of his co-defendants received a sentence of nine to 23 months.  But Mr. Rhines had been convicted of selling small amounts of drugs twice before, and that made all the difference: Under the sentencing laws, a third drug conviction involving more than 50 grams of crack meant a mandatory sentence of life without parole....

In requiring stunningly long sentences, the crime bills took power away from judges to make decisions based on a defendant’s unique circumstances — that is, to judge — at the moment such discretion was most needed.  Mr. Rhines’s judge might have taken into account not only the nonviolent nature of his crime, but also that by the age of 7, he was watching his mother use heroin and get physically abused by multiple boyfriends.  Or that because of her drug addiction, he and his brothers and sisters went for stretches without food, heat, electricity or hot water.  Or that he stopped going to school at 11 to provide for his siblings by working as a bag boy at a grocery store.  Or that at age 12, he was forced to sell drugs in local crack houses to pay off his mother’s drug debts and was warned that she would be beaten if he didn’t. In other words, from the time he was a little boy, Gary Rhines never stood a chance....

Congress finally began to reel in some of its longest and most unjust sentences in 2010, when it passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced a glaring disparity in punishments for crimes involving crack and powder cocaine. That should have been good news for inmates like Mr. Rhines, because under the new law, the amount of crack he was convicted of selling no longer triggered a mandatory life sentence. The problem was that the 2010 law applied only to future cases, not past ones.

This is where the First Step Act comes in.  Signed last December by President Trump, it slashed the length of drug sentences — for example, the top mandatory-minimum punishment for a third-strike drug offense is now 25 years rather than life. The law also gave judges more power to reduce individual sentences and authorized $75 million in annual funding for prison programs that will help prepare inmates for release.  Most important, it made the 2010 sentencing law retroactive, which helps the thousands of inmates, like Mr. Rhines, who have been serving absurdly long sentences under a law that Congress itself said was unjust nearly a decade ago.

At Mr. Rhines’s resentencing hearing in July, where he recounted his brutal childhood, Judge Jones noted the painfully slow evolution of America’s criminal-justice system. “It’s taken essentially a quarter century for policymakers to figure out the fundamental unfairness” of those harsh 1980s and 1990s drug laws, the judge said.  He also noted that the trial judge in Mr. Rhines’s case, James McClure, had been frustrated at having his hands tied by the law. “That deprived Mr. Rhines of the determination of a very fair jurist,” Judge Jones said, “who carefully evaluated every case that came before him.” (Judge McClure died in 2010.)

Finally, Judge Jones took note of Mr. Rhines’s self-rehabilitation in an indifferent environment. “Without any hope,” the judge said, “you participated in a number of these programs, which is very impressive to me.”...

The prosecutor on the case requested that the judge resentence Mr. Rhines to 30 years, which was the term recommended under federal sentencing guidelines. Judge Jones declined. “I just don’t know rationally how anybody can contend with the circumstances of this case, including Mr. Rhines’s personal circumstances,” the judge said, and conclude “that they warrant a 30-year sentence for 66.6 grams of cocaine. That defies credulity and logic, in my view.” In an email further explaining his decision, Judge Jones told me that he considered Mr. Rhines to be “the very face of the First Step Act” and said it was “unjust, and in fact ludicrous, to have this model inmate spend additional time in federal prison.”

As of August, nearly 1,700 people, 91 percent of them black like Mr. Rhines, have gotten new, shorter sentences under the First Step Act, according to a report by the United States Sentencing Commission. The average reduction is nearly six years, bringing the average sentence of these inmates down from about 20 years to 15 — hardly flinging open the prison gates. But it is part of the larger shift toward a more humane criminal-justice system that has swept the country over the past decade and helped shrink the federal prison population to about 180,000 today, from a high of 220,000 in 2013.

This is real progress, and it is why the First Step Act has been praised as a rare bipartisan success story — one all the more remarkable for the political delicacy of its subject matter.  Mr. Trump himself called the older drug sentences “very unfair,” particularly to black inmates like Mr. Rhines.

Still, the law comes up short in important ways. The biggest is that its new reductions of sentences for drug crimes do not apply to past cases. That’s an especially glaring omission given that the First Step Act fixed the identical problem in the 2010 law. In other words, Congress failed to heed its own lesson: If a sentence is determined to be unjust, isn’t it unjust in all situations? Why should it matter when a prisoner was convicted?

This well-told story helps put some more names and faces to what the FIRST STEP Act has helped achieved.  But the piece also highlights just how far we still have to go to truly achieve new attitudes and new approaches to crime and punishment.  I cannot help but still see dark facts in this often bright story: the dark fact that federal prosecutors in 2019 still urged an additional dozen years in federal prison for the sale of less than 2.5 ounces of crack, the dark fact that Congress could not bring itself to include at least modest measure of retroactivity with its modest reforms of extreme mandatory minimums in the FIRST STEP Act, and the dark fact that there are so many human variations on Mr. Rhimes among the tens of thousands of federal prisoners whose stories will not get so well told.

September 16, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

September 15, 2019

Federal officials reportedly considered using fentanyl for executions when restating machinery of death

As reported in this post from July, federal officials have scheduled as series of executions starting in December of this year and have announced the creation of a new "Federal Execution Protocol Addendum, which ... replaces the three-drug procedure previously used in federal executions with a single drug — pentobarbital."  But according to this new Reuters report, another notable drug was considered by federal officials as they worked to restart the federal machinery of death:

The U.S. Department of Justice examined using fentanyl in lethal injections as it prepared last year to resume executing condemned prisoners, a then untested use of the powerful, addictive opioid that has helped fuel a national crisis of overdose deaths.

The department revealed it had contemplated using the drug in a court filing last month, which has not been previously reported. In the end, it decided against adopting the drug for executions.  Attorney General William Barr announced in July his department instead would use pentobarbital, a barbiturate, when it resumes federal executions later this year, ending a de facto moratorium on the punishment put in place by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.

But the special consideration given to the possibilities of fentanyl, even as federal agents were focused on seizing illegal imports of the synthetic opioid, show how much has changed since the federal government last carried out an execution nearly 20 years ago.  Many pharmaceutical companies have since put tight controls on their distribution channels to stop their drugs being used in executions.

As old supply chains vanished, many states, and the federal government in turn, have been forced to tinker with their lethal recipes.  They have experimented with different drugs, in some cases leading to grisly “botched” executions in which the condemned prisoners have visibly suffered prolonged, excruciating deaths, viewed by some as a breach of the constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual” punishments.

In 2017, Nebraska and Nevada announced they would use fentanyl, which is 100 times more powerful than morphine, in new multi-drug execution protocols.

By 2018, the U.S. Justice Department was also examining the “use of fentanyl as part of a lethal injection protocol,” according to a three-page internal memorandum from March 2018 by the director of the department’s Bureau of Prisons.

The Justice Department revealed the memo’s existence in an August court filing after a federal judge ordered it to produce a complete “administrative record” showing how it arrived at the new pentobarbital execution protocol announced in July.

The full contents of the memo are not public. It is not known why the department decided to examine fentanyl, what supply channels were considered or why it ultimately rejected fentanyl as a protocol.  The government’s court filing shows the only other named drug examined as the subject of a department memo was pentobarbital, the drug it now says it wants to use in December and January to kill five of the 61 prisoners awaiting execution on federal death row....

Doctors can prescribe fentanyl for treating severe pain.  In recent years, illegal fentanyl has become a common additive in bootleg pain pills and other street drugs, contributing to the tens of thousands of opioid overdose deaths in the country each year.  Even tiny quantities can slow or stop a person’s breathing.

Earlier this year, an Ohio lawmaker proposed using some of the illegal fentanyl seized from drug traffickers to execute condemned inmates....

In August 2018, Carey Dean Moore became the first person in the United States to be executed using a protocol that included fentanyl.  Nebraska prison officials injected him with fentanyl and three other drugs. Moore took 23 minutes to die. Witnesses said that before succumbing, Moore breathed heavily and coughed and that his face turned red, then purple.

Prior recent related posts:

September 15, 2019 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

California Gov Newsom commutes 21 sentences to make offenders eligible for parole

In his first year in office, California Gov Newsom has not been afraid to use his clemency power in various ways. This local article highlights his latest work in this arena, starting this way: "Gov. Gavin Newsom is commuting the sentences of 21 violent offenders incarcerated in California prisons, including four men who have convictions related to homicides in Sacramento County, the governor’s office announced Friday." Here is more:

Jacoby Felix, Crystal Jones, Andrew Crater and Luis Alberto Velez were convicted of separate murders in the 1990s. All four, now granted commutations by Newsom, were convicted in Sacramento County and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The clemency action was announced Friday in a statement from the governor’s office, which describes the crimes committed by those four men and 17 other state prisoners, and explains the reasoning for commuting their sentences.

“The Governor carefully reviewed each application and considered a number of factors, including the circumstances of the crime and the sentence imposed, the applicant’s conduct while in prison and the applicant’s self-development efforts since the offense, including whether they have made use of available rehabilitative programs and addressed treatment needs,” a statement from Newsom’s office said.

Youth offender status was another important factor considered, with 15 of the 21 total commutations involving inmates convicted before the age of 26. The four Sacramento County grantees were all between ages 18 and 26 at the time of their crimes....

Newsom’s commutations would make each offender eligible for suitability hearings with the state Board of Parole Hearings.

The commutations can be upheld or rejected by the California Supreme Court. The court blocked 10 clemency actions by former Gov. Jerry Brown in his final weeks in office, marking the first time since 1930 that a California governor’s commutation requests had been denied.

But Velez and Jones’ cases have already been reviewed and recommended by both the Board of Parole Hearings and the California Supreme Court, according to Friday’s news release. Those advance reviews are required by law for any commutation case involving an applicant with multiple felony convictions.

Velez, Felix and Crater would be eligible for parole suitability hearings in 2020. Jones would be eligible in approximately 2023 after serving 25 years of his life sentence.

Also included in Newsom’s commutations are Marcus McJimpson, who has served 31 years of two life terms for a 1988 Fresno County double murder, and 80-year-old Doris Roldan, who has been imprisoned since 1981 for the first-degree murder of her husband. Roldan of Los Angeles County – who now uses a wheelchair, as noted in the governor’s statement – was recommended for clemency by her warden.

The Gov's office has this overview statement about all the commutations and detailed discussions of each case appears in gubernatorial clemency certificates available here.

Prior related post about Gov Newsom's clemency work:

September 15, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)