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October 26, 2019

Philadelphia Inquirer provides detailed coverage of "The Probation Trap"

The local paper in the City of Brotherly Love has this important new series highlighting that the Keystone State is not very loving when it comes to how it treats people caught up in community supervision. The series is titled "The Probation Trap" and here is the subheading for the coverage: "Pennsylvania has one of the nation's highest rates of supervision, driven by unusual laws that leave judges unchecked.  But many people fail, ending up in jail or in a cycle of ever more probation." 

Here is some of the introduction explaining "The Problem with Probation":

In Pennsylvania, as across the country, crime rates have fallen to their lowest point in decades. But over that same time, the rate of incarceration in Pennsylvania state prisons and county jails nearly quadrupled, while the number on probation or parole also grew almost four times larger, to 290,000 people.

Counting jail, prison, probation, and parole, Pennsylvania now has the nation’s second-highest rate of people under correctional control. Probation and parole account for three-quarters of that — a phenomenon critics of mass incarceration call “mass supervision.”

Nationwide, one in 55 adults is on probation or parole. In Pennsylvania, that’s one in 35 adults. In Philadelphia: one in 23 adults.

African American adults in Philadelphia are disproportionately impacted. One in 14 is under supervision. Philadelphia’s county supervision rate is the highest of any big city — and 12 times the rate of New York City. ‍

What’s driving this? To find answers, we watched hundreds of hearings, interviewed scores of people, and analyzed 700,000 case dockets from 2012 to 2018.

What we found is a system virtually ungoverned by law or policy, resulting in wildly disparate versions of justice from one courtroom to the next.

We found a system that routinely punishes poverty, mental illness, and addiction. We met a woman who was jailed two months for failing to report to probation because she wasn’t permitted to bring her newborn child and couldn’t afford a babysitter. We met a man who was locked up because he didn’t have $227 to pay for a court-ordered drug evaluation.

As a result, some people remain under court control for years after being convicted of low-level crimes, resentenced two, three, four, or five times over for infractions including missing appointments, falling behind on payments, or testing positive for marijuana. Probation and parole violations are flooding the court system, filling city jails and driving up state prison populations.

Many other states, recognizing similar problems, have reformed their systems. Can Pennsylvania?

Here are the main articles in the series:

"Living in Fear:  Probation is meant to keep people out of jail. But intense monitoring leaves tens of thousands across the state at risk of incarceration."

"Judges Rule: When it comes to probation, Pennsylvania has left judges unchecked to impose wildly different versions of justice."

"Punishing Addiction: Courts recognize substance-use disorder is a disease. Yet some judges continue punishing relapse with ever-longer probation and even prison."

October 26, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Retroactive application of Oklahoma sentencing reforms sets up record-setting day for commutations

This recent article from Oklahoma, headlined "‘Largest single-day commutation in nation’s history’ expected to take place in Oklahoma next month," reports on a notable example of an interesting process being used to make a criminal justice reform initiative retroactive in the Sooner state.  Here are the basic details:

More than 400 Oklahoma prison inmates are expected to pass through an “expedited” commutation process on Nov. 1, a number believed to be the largest one-day total in United States history, Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board Executive Director Steve Bickley said.

The accelerated process is thanks to House Bill 1269, a bi-partisan bill which was passed this summer and made retroactive a number of criminal justice reforms that reclassified some drug and property crimes.

The new law goes into effect Nov. 1 and the Pardon and Parole Board is holding a special meeting that day where it will review nearly 900 inmates the law makes eligible for the expedited docket. “All the research I’ve done, this will be the largest single-day commutation in the nation’s history,” Bickley said....

The Nov. 1 hearing differs from the normal commutation process in a number of ways, Bickley said. Rather than the typical two-step process that often takes several months, the hearing is expected to take less than an hour. “It’s definitely going to be a much faster up-and-down process,” he said. Inmates who pass through the expedited process are expected to be released from prison in November.

Gov. Kevin Stitt, in a statement, offered praise for the entities preparing for the large number of commutations. “I applaud the hard work of the Pardon and Parole board and the staff as they prepare for this historic day. The board is wisely implementing a thorough process to ensure their actions on Nov. 1 reflect the intentions of Oklahomans who voted for State Question 780, while also prioritizing the safety of our communities. The Department of Corrections has also been a committed partner in putting people first in this process by hosting transition fairs inside state prisons to connect non-violent offenders with the resources they need to succeed when they re-enter society.”

When State Question 780 was made into law in 2016, it made possession of “personal use” amounts of most drugs a misdemeanor and upped the felony threshold for property crimes from $500 to $1,000.  But it wasn’t until the passage of HB 1269 earlier this year that those changes were made potentially retroactive for those still in prison for those crimes.

The new law mandates that, rather than strict retroactivity, the Pardon and Parole Board must decide which inmates affected by HB 1269 get an accelerated commutation and which inmates must go through the standard commutation process, Bickley said.

There are two dockets on Nov. 1, one for 793 inmates on the “drug possession” docket and one for 99 inmates on the “property crime” docket. Everyone on those two dockets is technically eligible for accelerated commutation, though the list will be whittled down extensively, Bickley said.

First, there are a number of inmates on the two lists who will not be recommended for accelerated commutation due to misconduct while in prison. Bickley said some inmates on the lists were involved in the events that led to the recent lockdowns at a number of state prisons, and those inmates would not receive recommendations. Additionally, district attorneys across the state can file challenges to specific commutations that may affect whether an inmate gets a recommendation, Bickley said, and as of Wednesday the Pardon and Parole Board had heard from only three of the more than 20 district attorneys across Oklahoma.

“And of course you could have some who receive recommendations and are signed off on by the governor, but they have additional sentences to serve or a detainer by another agency who will not be able to leave prison due to those factors,” Bickley said. Still, he expects “more than 400 and less than 500” inmates to be granted commutations by the end of the hearing, he said.

October 26, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 25, 2019

Prez Trump kicks off series of speeches on criminal justice reform by touting FIRST STEP Act

As noted in this prior post, Prez Donald Trump and all the leading Democratic Prez candidates are on the docket at 2019 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum taking place in South Carolina.  Pres Trump gave his speech today, and this AP article provides the highlights under the headline "President Trump takes victory lap on criminal justice reform."  Here are excerpts:

When President Donald Trump talks about how his policies are helping African Americans, he almost always mentions a new law that has allowed thousands of non-violent offenders to gain early release from federal prison.

He made the pitch again Friday at a criminal justice conference in South Carolina. And then he sought common ground with African Americans by saying he has had his own brush with a justice system that many say treats blacks and other people of color unfairly.  “I have my own experience. You know that,” Trump said at the gathering, held at historically black Benedict College....

“In America, you’re innocent until proven guilty and we don’t have investigations in search of that crime,” he said at Friday’s event sponsored by the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center. “Justice, fairness and due process are core tenets of our democracy.  These are timeless principles I will faithfully uphold as president.”

During the hour-long address, Trump called several people who had been released from prison under the First Step Act to the stage to offer testimonials.  Tanesha Bannister, a South Carolina native who was freed in May, told the president she would be serving five more years in prison if not for his work.  “I want to thank the president for giving me another lease on life,” she said.

Trump called the law, which he signed in December, the “most significant criminal justice reform in many generations.”  The measure was supported by an unlikely mix of conservative and liberal groups that argued that harsh sentences for drug crimes had filled the nation’s prisons with non-violent offenders who could benefit from support and training on the outside if released.

Many of Trump’s Democratic presidential rivals are scheduled to speak at the forum, which is continuing through the weekend, giving the candidates another opportunity to connect with black voters in a state that is among the first to hold its presidential primaries.

But Kamala Harris’ campaign said Friday the California senator would skip the forum.  She objected to the group’s decision to give Trump its Bipartisan Justice Award, and decried that only a handful of Benedict students were admitted.

The audience included mostly Trump supporters, which drew criticism from other Democrats, too.  “Let’s not sugarcoat it. The fact is, he is coming to this college today to create an appearance that people of color support his campaign,” said South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson.

Trump told the audience that Democratic policies have let down African Americans and taken them for granted.  He said part of his agenda is to lift up forgotten Americans. “My goal has been to give a voice to the voiceless,” Trump said.

A video of the full hour-long talk by Prez Trump is available at this link.

October 25, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Tipping the Scales: Challengers Take On the Old Boys' Club of Elected Prosecutors"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting short report from the Reflective Democracy Campaign. Here is how it gets started:

After someone gets arrested, a prosecutor holds the power over what happens next.  Charge the defendant, or release them?  Charge them with a felony, or a misdemeanor? Since the vast majority of cases don’t go to trial, it’s mostly prosecutors — not judges — who determine whether defendants go to prison and for how long.  In the words of Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, a prosecutor “has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America.”

In 2014, as a prosecutor in Ferguson failed to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown, we were conducting our historic study of the race and gender of prosecutors. What we found made headlines:  95% of prosecutors were white, and 79% were white men.  Perhaps most alarming, most prosecutors ran for office unopposed, leading to an entrenched status quo which is highly resistant to bipartisan calls for criminal justice reform.

With race and gender inequality baked into the criminal justice system, repairing the broken demographics of prosecutorial power is an urgent goal, and the data are clear:When voters have a choice, they reject the white male status quo.  Competitive elections for prosecutor can fix the demographic crisis and level the playing field for system reform.

Five years after our initial analysis of elected prosecutors, we returned to see how their demographics have — and haven’t— changed.  Here’s what we found:

White control of elected prosecutor positions has not changed: In 2015, prosecutors were 95% white. In 2019, they are still 95% white.

The gender (im)balance of elected prosecutors is changing: While nearly 75% of prosecutors are white men, women have increased at a rate of 34% since 2015, from 18% to 24% of prosecutors.

Change is possible — when there is competition: Prosecutors run unopposed 80% of the time, but in competitive races, the old boys' club starts to give away. White male over-representation is rampant, but not unsolvable.

When women of all races and men ofcolor run for prosecutor in competitive elections, they're more likely to win than white men: In competitive 2018 elections, white men were 69% of candidates, but only 59% of winners. Women and people of color were 31% of candidates and 41% of winners.

Despite overall low numbers, women of color are making notable gains: There are nearly 50% more women of color prosecutors today as in 2015.

October 25, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Despite Sixth Circuit approval of existing execution protocol, Ohio Gov Mike DeWine signals his plans to delay another scheduled execution

Despite having many execution dates scheduled, Ohio has not completed an execution in more than a year because of concerning about lethal injection problem that prompted outgoing Gov John Kasich and new Gov Mike DeWine to keep pushing back executions dates. But after a Sixth Circuit ruling blessed the state's reliance on the drug midazolam in its execution protocol (details here), I had thought the Buckeye state might seek to restart its machinery of death. But this new local article, headlined "Gov. Mike DeWine says Ohio’s next scheduled execution will ‘probably’ be delayed," suggests the state will not likely go forward with an execution planned for December. Here are the details:

Gov. Mike DeWine indicated Friday that he will delay yet another upcoming Ohio execution, citing — as he has with past postponements — problems with finding lethal-injection drugs.  DeWine told reporters Friday that it’s “highly unlikely” that the execution of murderer James Galen Hanna will proceed as planned on Dec. 11. “That’s probably not going to happen,” the Greene County Republican said.

DeWine noted the state’s ongoing issues with finding a pharmaceutical company willing to sell drugs for use in executions. The governor repeated his concern that if companies find that Ohio used its drugs to put people to death, they will refuse to sell any of its drugs (not just the ones used in executions) to the state.  That would endanger the ability of thousands of Ohioans — such as Medicaid recipients, state troopers, and prison inmates — to get drugs through state programs. “We are in a very difficult situation,” DeWine said Friday.

The governor didn’t say how long he might delay the execution date for Hanna, a Warren County resident who fatally stabbed a cellmate with a paintbrush handle in 1997.  If Hanna’s execution date is pushed back, the next death-row inmate set to die is Kareem M. Jackson on Jan. 16, 2020.  Jackson was initially scheduled to be put to death in July, but earlier this year DeWine moved back the execution dates for Jackson and two other condemned inmates.

Late last month, the governor moved back the execution date of murderer Cleveland Jackson from Nov. 13 to Jan. 13, 2021 after the Ohio Supreme Court’s disciplinary arm filed a complaint alleging that his lawyers abandoned him.

Since taking office in January, DeWine has moved back a number of scheduled executions amid a years-long struggle by Ohio officials to find new lethal-injection drugs as European pharmaceutical companies have cut off further sales of previously used drugs on moral and legal grounds.

After the controversial execution of killer Dennis McGuire in January 2014, Ohio imposed a three-year moratorium on executions as it worked to find a new lethal-injection protocol — and suppliers willing to sell the state the drugs.

Since the moratorium was lifted in 2017, Ohio has executed three people using the current three-drug cocktail — all without complications or unexpected problems with the drugs. (The execution of a fourth condemned inmate, Alva Campbell, was postponed after several unsuccessful attempts to insert an IV. Campbell died in his cell a few months later).

However, last January, federal magistrate Judge Michael Merz ruled that the three drugs Ohio has used since last year for executions — midazolam (as a sedative), a paralytic drug, and potassium chloride (to stop the heart) — likely violate the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment guarantee against “cruel and unusual punishment.”  While an appeals court later overruled Merz’s conclusion, the ruling led DeWine to order state prisons officials to look at other lethal-injection drugs.  The governor has even suggested that state lawmakers consider abandoning the lethal-injection process altogether and pick another method of execution.

This story has me thinking of the old phrase "Where there's a will, there's a way." In this context, though, the parallel force seems to be in play. I sense many Ohio official really do not have much of a will to move forward with executions, and thus it seems they keep struggling to find a way to do so.

A few (of many) prior recent related posts:

October 25, 2019 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

October 24, 2019

Julian Castro sets forth criminal justice agenda as "The First Chance Plan"

With this extended discussion on his campaign website, Julian Castro on Wednesday joined the sizeable group of prominent candidates for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination with a detailed agenda for criminal justice reform.  (Prior posts have links and highlights from Joe BidenCory BookerPete Buttigeig, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.)  Castro's plan is called "The First Chance Plan" and has three major sections: "1. Prevention Not Prison  2. Restorative Justice  3. Healing Wounds Of Incarceration."  Here is a paragraph from the plan's intor and a few of many parts of the plan that caught my eye:

At the core of the First Chance Plan is the principle that everyone deserves an effective first chance to succeed. For decades, communities of color have been disproportionately punished by the justice system while at the same time having the odds stacked against them from the beginning.  Many people never had a first chance and this plan will right that wrong. As a nation, we need to focus on preventing crime in the first place, not creating pipelines into prison.  We can build a system that advances real justice, not incarceration, to protect public safety and build stronger communities....

End the War on Drugs. Drug use and addiction is primarily a public health challenge.  In dealing with it primarily as a criminal issue, we have shattered communities, strengthened criminal groups, and locked up those who did not deserve it.  As president, I will bring our misguided War on Drugs to an end....

Plea Reform and Accountability. More than 95 percent of all federal and state cases that end in conviction involve a plea deal.  These decisions happen without a judge or a jury of one’s peers, and often involve prosecutors and police exerting immense pressure, such as pre-trial detention and the threat of excessive sentences on defendants to drive people to take a plea bargain. Under these circumstances, even innocent people have accepted plea deals that involve years in jail,prison, years of monitoring, and permanent records. This is a travesty of justice that must end.  As president, I will require open-file, pre-plea discovery for federal cases, requiring the prosecution to turn over evidence to the defense prior to a plea or trial, with appropriate safeguards to protect the safety of witnesses and individuals who may be at risk.  Additionally, I will require juries to be informed of plea offers as well as potential sentences so they can understand how much a case is truly worth to the state.

Eliminate Mandatory Minimums. Three strikes laws and mandatory minimums are a major driver of mass incarceration. In addition, these laws create steep disparities between the terms of a plea bargain and the likely sentence at trial that defendants face, causing many to abandon their trial rights regardless of the strength of the government’s case or even their own innocence.  As president, I would repeal the 1994 Crime Bill’s mandatory minimums and three strikes laws, and encourage State efforts to do the same.

Invest in Public Defenders. Every defendant deserves to have effective representation and a fair trial.  As president, I will give our nation’s under-resourced and overstretched public defenders the resources they need. We will reopen and expand the Obama-era Office for Access to Justice that President Trump shut down.  Second, we will ensure fair caseload limits and pay equality with prosecutors for public defenders at the federal level, and create a new $500 million federal grant program to achieve these standards at the state and local level. I will also pass legislation creating a new loan forgiveness program for public defenders, and will support ushering in a new wave of proggressive prosecutors.

Legalize Marijuana and Expunge the Records. In 2017, there were almost 700,000 marijuana-related arrests in the United States, with over 80 percent of them related to possession alone. As president, I will legalize marijuana and expunge the records of those convicted for non-violent marijuana offenses.  We will regulate the market and place a tax on all recreational sales, investing billions in revenue generated in the communities disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs.  Lastly, I will support equity in the legal marijuana industry, including by creating new grant programs that support minority-owned businesses and prioritize people directly affected by the war on drugs in receiving marijuana business licenses.

End Racial Sentencing Disparities. I will eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and order a federal review of all other sentencing guidelines to identify and eliminate other racial disparities....

Abolish the Death Penalty.  There is no moral justification for state-sanctioned killings. Even the worst criminals in our society do not deserve to be put to death. With the pernicious existence of racial bias, the high financial cost of executions, and the disturbing reality that the innocent may be among the condemned, there is simply no justification for continuing the death penalty.  As president, I would order an immediate halt to all federal executions and commute the sentences of those on federal death row’s to life in prison.  I support federal grants for States to end the death penalty and to re-investigate the cases of those sentenced to death by State courts with new technology and renewed attention, in an effort to end the death penalty once and for all in the United States.

End Solitary Confinement as Punishment. Long term isolation in solitary confinement is one of the most harmful policies that remains sadly common in our prisons, jails, and even juvenile justice institutions. It particularly harms those with disabilities and who require mental health treatment.  As president, I will support efforts to end our nation’s use of solitary confinement by banning its use for purposes of punishment.

A few of many prior recent related posts:

October 24, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Does It Matter Who Objects? Rethinking the Burden to Prevent Errors in Criminal Process"

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

Objection rules enforced by forfeiture penalties make the right to appeal contingent on whether the party injured by an opponent’s or judge’s error made a timely objection or motion in the trial court.  “No procedural principle is more familiar” than that a party who does not challenge an error at trial forfeits, partially or wholly, its entitlement to appellate review.  This policy of procedural default puts the duty to care to prevent errors on injured parties.  The rationale is instrumental: the threat of losing the right to correct errors will make parties take greater care to prevent errors at trial, which is immensely more efficient than correcting errors later, should minimize adjudication errors overall.

Yet in most applications, that ubiquitous logic fails on its own terms.  Placing the burden of care on injured parties generally is not the optimal approach to minimizing errors.  In most circumstances, the better policy is to place the duty of care to prevent errors on the party who commits the error or who benefits from the judge’s error.  The key is to recognize that, analytically, error prevention in adjudication is much like accident prevention in other contexts.  As in tort law, the goal is to minimize the cost of harms in bilateral activities — those in which two parties interact and either alone could prevent the harm.  Litigants’ error-prevention efforts are substitutes rather than complements; it is not necessary for both parties to exercise care.  For that reason, procedural law should place the duty of care — and the cost of harms — on the party who can most cheaply prevent the harm.

Courts and rule makers perpetuate suboptimal rules for preventing errors by ignoring this insight, and a related one: in bilateral settings, liability rules create incentives for both sides.  Putting the duty to prevent errors to one party encourages the other to commit errors.  This article develops this critique and offers an alternative: putting the duty on parties to prevent their own errors rather than their opponent’s.  It also explains why standard procedural default rules have prevailed for so long in light of their deficiencies. One key reason is that, despite an ostensible commitment to instrumental analysis focused on adjudicative efficiency, judicial reasoning is permeated with moralistic judgments about the unfairness of permitting appeals for unpreserved errors.  This normative view distorts courts’ instrumental analysis.

October 24, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Sentencing Project releases new fact sheet on "Private Prisons in the United States"

The Sentencing Project released this new fact sheet on "Private Prisons in the United States."  Here are excerpts from the text (and click through for notable charts and graphs):

Private prisons in the United States incarcerated 121,718 people in 2017, representing 8.2% of the total state and federal prison population.  Since 2000, the number of people housed in private prisons has increased 39%.  However, the private prison population reached its peak in 2012 with 137,220 people.  Declines in private prisons’ use make these latest overall population numbers the lowest since 2006 when the population was 113,791.

States show significant variation in their use of private correctional facilities.  Indeed, the New Mexico Department of Corrections reports that 53% of its prison population is housed in private facilities, while 22 states do not employ any for-profit prisons.  Data compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and interviews with corrections officials find that in 2017, 28 states and the federal government incarcerated people in private facilities run by corporations including GEO Group, Core Civic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), and Management and Training Corporation.

Eighteen states with private prison contracts incarcerate more than 500 people in for-profit prisons.  Texas, the first state to adopt private prisons in 1985, incarcerated the largest number of people under state jurisdiction, 12,728.

Since 2000, the number of people in private prisons has increased 39.3%, compared to an overall rise in the prison population of 7.8%.  In six states the private prison population has more than doubled during this time period: Arizona (479%), Indiana (310%), Ohio (277%), Florida (199%), Tennessee (117%), and Georgia (110%).

The Federal Bureau of Prisons maintains the nation’s highest number of people managed by private prison contractors.  Since 2000, its use increased 77%, and the number of people in private federal custody — which includes prisons, half-way houses and home confinement — totaled 27,569 in 2017.  While a significant historical increase, the population declined 15% since 2016, likely reflecting the continuing decline of the overall federal prison population.

Among the immigrant detention population, 26,249 people — 73% of the detained population — were confined in privately run facilities in 2017. The privately detained immigrant population grew 442% since 2002.

October 24, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Many Colorado sentences now uncertain after court ruling precluding imposition of imprisonment for certain offenses and probation for others

A helpful reader alerted me to this interesting story from the Denver Post headlined "Hundreds of prisoners can seek new trials, freedom after Colorado Supreme Court rules sentences illegal." Here are the details of a shock being sent through the state's criminal justice system:

The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled the sentences of hundreds — perhaps thousands — of criminal defendants serving time in Colorado prisons, some for violent sexual crimes, are illegal, giving many of them a renewed shot at freedom.

The court last month stunned the state’s judicial system when it ruled that defendants cannot be sentenced to both prison and probation for charges in the same case, deeming the sentences illegal and unenforceable.  The ruling applies to any defendant sentenced to prison followed by a probation term, and gives each the right to force prosecutors to start over.  Those already out of prison theoretically could request their plea deal be overturned, legal experts said.

“This is going to result in a ton of litigation,” defense attorney Scott Robinson said. “This appears clearly to go against what many defense lawyers and prosecutors have assumed to be true for years, that different types of sentences can be imposed on different charges in the same case.”

Prosecutors in at least four judicial jurisdictions, including Denver, have relied on the dual sentence as part of the plea agreement process, mostly for sex crimes where a defendant could be sentenced to an indeterminant number of years in prison and authorities wanted to ensure lifetime supervision should the defendant be released.

“My biggest concerns are that we can no longer do this and what do we do with those we’ve already done it to? What if they’re already in prison? Are they all released?” asked Mesa County District Attorney Daniel Rubinstein.  “If the sentence is invalidated, we could be back at square one, or worse.”

The high court’s decision is based on a 2014 Boulder County case in which a jury found Frederick Allman, 67, guilty of various theft and forgery crimes.  He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and a 10-year probation term that was to be concurrent with the parole he’d serve upon his release.  The Supreme Court, in a 7-0 decision, said the 2015 sentence by District Judge Andrew Macdonald was illegal.  [The decision is available at this link.]

“…The determination that probation is an appropriate sentence for a defendant necessarily requires a concordant determination that imprisonment is not appropriate,” Justice Brian Boatright wrote in the court’s opinion issued Sept. 23. “The probation statute gives courts guidance and discretion in choosing to grant probation.  However, it requires a choice between prison and probation. … The legislature intended to allow courts to choose only one or the other.  Probation is an alternative to prison.”

Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office has until Oct. 28 to file a petition for the court to re-hear the case.

The court’s decision primarily affects defendants who signed plea agreements, a number that could reach into the thousands as 95% of all criminal cases are settled with plea deals. Defendants convicted by a jury, as was Allman, would simply be resentenced since the jury verdict remains unchanged.

Prosecutors explain that a plea agreement would be handled differently than a guilty verdict because a defendant agreed to a specific outcome in exchange for the plea. Because the sentence is deemed illegal, defendants can rescind their original agreement. “If the sentence is invalidated, we would go back to reaffirm the plea agreement, or even start over,” Rubinstein said.

The Colorado District Attorney’s Council said a majority of the state’s 22 judicial districts won’t be affected, but at least four of them — 2nd (Denver), 18th (Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert, Lincoln), 20th (Boulder) and 21st (Mesa) — have used sentences that fit those under scrutiny.

Attorney Tom Carberry, who won an earlier appeal for a client with a similar illegal sentence, said he’s uncovered at least 56 other cases with illegal sentences, the majority of them sexual assaults.  Three others are drug cases and two involve economic crimes.  All are in Denver. “Each of these defendants has the right to a lawyer appointed at state expense,” Carberry said of the breath of the Supreme Court decision.  “That will run into the millions” of dollars.

Denver DA Beth McCann did not elaborate on the scope of the problem in her jurisdiction, but said she’d rather not have to find out.  “We are very supportive of the Colorado attorney general’s plan to ask the court to reconsider its decision,” McCann said in an emailed statement. “We are concerned that if the decision stands, it will significantly impact many cases that have already been resolved.”

Other prosecutors are also trying to determine what the decision will mean for them.  “This decision will have a significant impact, for offenders and victims,” Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty said in an emailed statement to The Post.  “A defendant could come back to court seeking a hearing to correct an illegal sentence, or file motions alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. For survivors of sexual assault, this decision will be particularly harmful because they thought the case was over and the outcome certain.”...

In the 18th Judicial District, hundreds of cases could be impacted, many of them involving children, some going back years, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Chris Gallo, who heads the special victims unit that handles about 500 cases a year.  “For several years now, we’ve been pursuing resolutions where there were prison and probation components, trying to balance a punishment aspect and a longer supervisory aspect to the sentence,” Gallo said.  “I can’t even fathom the ultimate outcome of this decision, how many could be released, or its impact.  But more than half of our cases would be affected.”

Mesa County’s Rubinstein said although only about a half-dozen cases in his jurisdiction are affected, they are significant.  “The pleas would be invalidated, and it could be that a new offer is rejected,” Rubinstein said, noting prosecutors cannot change the terms of the agreement without beginning the case anew. “How does that work for a guy with five years in prison already.”  

Judges could theoretically say they’re not bound by the plea agreement and a defendant could take his chances with a new sentence, Rubinstein said. “(A judge) might think there’s been substantial time (in prison) and a judge won’t want to load up with additional punishment,” he said, “and the defendants might say they’ll take their chances with the judge.”  A good defense attorney, however, could find exploitable cracks, he said.  “They’ll look to see if the case is, perhaps, worse,” Rubinstein said.  “Witnesses move, they die, they don’t wish to participate. The chances of a trial could be better from their viewpoint.”

October 24, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 23, 2019

Reviewing the sentencing dynamics as more parents get (minimal) prison time in "Operation Varsity Blues" college admissions scandal

This lengthy USA Today article provides a kind of mid-season review now that 19 parents out of 35 charged have pleaded guilty in "Operation Varsity Blues" college admissions scandal. The piece, which I recommend in full, is headlined "Parents cry desperate times in college admissions scandal.  A judge opts for prison anyway."  Here are excerpts:

One couple, Gregory and Marcia Abbott, told the judge they paid $125,000 to have someone fix their daughter's college entrance exams because she was suffering from chronic Lyme disease and needed a boost.

Attorneys for a father, Robert Flaxman, said he was desperate to help a troubled daughter remain in recovery — so he paid to cheat in hopes of getting her into a college where she would be safe.

Lawyers for another parent, Marjorie Klapper, said she was trying to help her epileptic son who'd suffered a brutal physical assault feel like a "regular" student.

The wealthy parents are among 10 sentenced in the last two months in the nation's college admissions scandal. Each insisted they didn't cheat for the status symbol of their child getting into an elite college or university. Instead they were driven by a feeling people endure regardless of economic class — desperation. They were families in crisis, the parents said, and the scheme's mastermind, the manipulative college consultant Rick Singer, found them at their most vulnerable and seized upon their weakness.

But their stories, each deeply personal with some details sealed from public court documents, have done little to sway the sentences handed down by U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani. Attorneys for the Abbotts, Flaxman and Klapper each asked for no incarceration but got prison anyway. Only one of the 10 sentenced parents has avoided prison altogether.

“Just because you’re a good person in tough circumstances doesn’t mean you can disregard what you know is right," Talwani said last week to Flaxman, a real estate developer from Laguna Beach, California, who specializes in luxury resorts. “Even good people who are doing things for people they love can’t be breaking the law."

Flaxman, who sobbed in court as he apologized to students who "work hard and don’t cheat no matter what,” received one month in prison for paying $75,000 to Singer to have someone change answers on his daughter's ACT exam to improve her score.

The ongoing round of parent sentencing continues today with Jane Buckingham, of Los Angeles, the founder of a marketing firm and author of a self-help book series called, "The Modern Girl's Guide to Life." She's admitted to paying Singer $50,000 to have someone take the ACT exam for her son.

Two more parents will be sentenced in the coming weeks by other Boston federal judges. Four additional parents pleaded guilty in court Monday, bringing the total to 19 parents out of 35 charged who have pleaded guilty in the case. The latest four won't be sentenced until 2020.

Parents sentenced to date pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud charges. Those citing personal crises tend to have paid into the test-cheating plot and are not part of the group who paid Singer significantly more to have their children tagged as college recruits to facilitate their admissions. Talwani, during a hearing last week, said a level of "elitism" was at play with the latter.

Daniel Medwed, professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern University School of Law, said a fallback defense strategy in any case is to develop "mitigation evidence" — often hardships — to demonstrate extenuating circumstances.  "With clients from impoverished or challenging backgrounds, the argument is to often cite those backgrounds — that this person never had a chance, they grew up without a roof," Medwed said.  "But when your defendants are white privileged folks you can't make a classic hardship argument.  So you have to come up with a different hardship."  Some of their arguments might not resonate with judge, he said, because it's difficult to "connect the dots between the hardships and the behavior."

The theme of this article seems to be that the defendants' various tales of woe are having little impact, that these deeply personal stories "have done little to sway the sentences handed down by U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani."  But, critically, federal prosecutors have generally advocated for longer prison terms for nearly all defendants than have been imposed by Judge Talwani, and it is generally unusual for any federal prison terms to be measured in weeks rather than in months and years.  So I am inclined to believe these arguments are resonating with the sentencing judge, but that she is still eager to impose (minimal) terms of imprisonment to send a message about misbehavior and equal justice.

Prior related Varsity Blues posts:

October 23, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Some recent fall classics from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Perhaps because I have been watching a whole lot of baseball this fall, I have not really done a whole lot of blogging over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, I have often found time to blog particularly on matters at the intersection of marijuana policy and criminal justice policy and so I figured a short round-up of recent posts of note might still be worthwhile:

October 23, 2019 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 22, 2019

"Beyond Compare? A Codefendant's Prison Sentence As a Mitigating Factor in Death Penalty Cases"

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

This Article addresses whether the U.S. Constitution requires courts to permit capital defendants to submit, during sentencing, the mitigating factor that a codefendant for the same murder was sentenced to prison instead of to death.  The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly stressed the importance of mitigating factors in capital cases.  For the most part, litigation since the reintroduction of capital punishment in the 1970s has clarified what circumstances are to be weighed as mitigating.  But the Court has not addressed the current divide among lower courts regarding whether the Eighth Amendment requires courts to allow juries to consider a codefendant’s sentence as mitigating evidence.

This Article begins with the Supreme Court decisions regarding mitigating factors and proportionality, noting how the Court has stressed the importance of fairness in death penalty cases.  This Article additionally examines how courts are currently split on the issue of whether a codefendant’s prison sentence should be weighed as a mitigating factor.  Several state courts have treated this factor as mitigating while others have not.  Although some U.S. courts of appeals have upheld lower court decisions rejecting this mitigating factor, most of those appellate court decisions were applying a deferential habeas corpus standard of review to uphold the lower court decision.  Thus, the issue itself remains unresolved. This Article concludes by explaining why logic and Supreme Court precedent dictate that courts should allow capital defendants to present this mitigating factor to juries.  Jurors should be able to weigh the evidence and use it to make a decision when they are choosing between a sentence of death and a sentence of life in prison.

October 22, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

The trial penalty on fine display as parents in college admissions scandal get hit with new federal bribery charges

As reported in this new Los Angeles Times article, headlined "New bribery charge leveled against Lori Loughlin and other parents in college admissions scandal," federal prosecutors are ramping up the potential consequences of refusing to plead guilty for some parents in the college admission scandal. Here are the details:

Already charged with fraud and money laundering, 11 of the 15 parents who have maintained their innocence in a federal investigation of college admissions fraud were indicted Tuesday on new bribery charges, the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston said.

The newly indicted parents — a group that includes actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, a fashion designer — were charged in an indictment returned by a grand jury in Boston, alleging they conspired to commit federal program bribery to secure their children’s fraudulent admissions to USC.

Prosecutors had warned parents last week they could face a bribery charge if they didn’t plead guilty by Monday to the fraud and money laundering conspiracy charges they already faced. Four parents — Douglas Hodge, the former chief executive of bond giant Pimco; Michelle Janavs, a Newport Coast philanthropist whose family invented the Hot Pocket; and Manuel Henriquez, a San Francisco Bay Area venture capitalist, and his wife, Elizabeth Henriquez — pleaded guilty Monday to conspiracy to commit fraud and money laundering, avoiding indictment on the bribery count.

The federal program bribery charge can be lodged against anyone accused of bribing an employee or agent of an organization that receives $10,000 or more in funding from the federal government, and who obtains something valued at $5,000 or more in exchange.

For parents charged with using an athletic recruitment scam offered by Newport Beach college consultant William “Rick” Singer, prosecutors have argued they conspired with Singer to bribe coaches into giving up admissions slots, which are property of the universities that employed them. Singer has admitted misrepresenting the children of his clients to elite universities as promising athletic recruits for sports they didn’t play competitively or at all.

Virtually every university, public or private, receives more than the $10,000 in federal funding needed to trigger the bribery statute in research grants or financial aid. Prosecutors will likely say that admission to the elite schools to which Singer peddled access — Stanford, Georgetown, USC and UCLA, among others — exceeded $5,000 in value.

The coaches or athletic officials charged in the scheme were also indicted Tuesday on new fraud conspiracy charges, the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston said. Three of them — Jorge Salcedo, the former UCLA men’s soccer coach, Donna Heinel, a former athletics administrator at USC and Gordon Ernst, the former tennis coach at Georgetown — were also charged with committing federal program bribery.

Also worth mentioning is the possibility of a higher (advisory) sentencing range under the federal sentencing guidelines if and when these parents are found guilty and subject to the bribery guideline.

October 22, 2019 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Author and veteran (and bank robber) gets out of federal prison a few months earlier thanks to FIRST STEP Act and sound view of "extraordinary and compelling reasons"

Cherry1Regular readers are likely tired of my many posts about the provision of the FIRST STEP Act that now allows federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  But I am not close to tired of telling all the interesting stories of federal prisoners that now come to light via this provision, and this local press article reports on the latest interesting defendant to secure relief thanks to the FIRST STEP Act through this means.  The article is headlined, "Imprisoned Cleveland-area author moved to halfway house while production commences for movie adaption directed by Russo brothers," and here are the basics:

A federal judge on Thursday ordered a Cleveland-area native who wrote an acclaimed novel while in prison for a rash of bank robberies moved to a halfway house.

Nico Walker, 34, was arrested in 2011 for a series of robberies in Cleveland and the eastern suburbs. An Army veteran who served as a combat medic in Iraq, Walker suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues that led to drug abuse and the robberies, records show.

Senior U.S. District Judge Donald Nugent sentenced Walker, who hails from Hunting Valley, to 11 years in federal prison. He has spent most of his time at a facility in Ashland, Kentucky.

With Walker nearing the end of his prison sentence because of good time, he asked the judge to allow him to move into a Mississippi halfway house. The judge agreed to do so following a hearing Thursday, moving Walker’s re-entry program start date up from Dec. 10.

Walker wrote the semi-autobiographical novel “Cherry” while he was in prison. The book details the life of an Army medic with post-traumatic stress disorder who robs banks to support his opioid addiction. The book, based in Cleveland, is being made into a movie directed by native sons and “Avengers” directors Anthony and Joe Russo. Tom Holland, who plays Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is set to star as the main character.

Because of this, Walker was given “an unusual and lucrative job opportunity” to work as an executive producer and assist in production of the movie being filmed in Cleveland, Nugent wrote in an order. However, Walker’s attorney Angelo Lonardo said his client turned down the job offer. Walker also has a contract to write a second book, Nugent wrote.

Nugent wrote that Walker also plans to care for his ailing mother, who is suffering from leukemia, Nugent wrote. The judge issued his order based on the First Step Act, a criminal justice bill President Donald Trump signed in December. Moving Walker to a halfway house and allowing him to occasionally travel to care for his mother “will address the extraordinary and compelling issues raised in his request” and ensure his re-entry will be successful and the community will be safe, the judge wrote.

Lonardo said his client had no disciplinary infractions while in prison. He said Walker taught reading and writing behind bars. “This is a big deal,” Lonardo said. “You want your guys to get out and to have a decent job, and this is an excellent opportunity for him.” He added that his client “has earned this.”

Judge Nugent's six page order is available at this link, and here I especially like how the opinion righly recognizes how a combination of factors can make the case for a sentence reduction:

Taking into consideration Mr. Walker?s history; the circumstances leading up to his crime; his acceptance of responsibility not just with regard to the conviction but as demonstrated through the meaningful use of his time in prison; the failing health of his mother; his extraordinary job opportunity and the good that would allow him to do for his family and his community; and, the minimum time left remaining on his sentence; the Court finds that Mr. Walker has provided sufficiently extraordinary and compelling reasons to justify an alteration of his current sentence.

Last but not least, anyone looking for more evidence of how extraordinary and compelling the story of Nico Walker is, consider checking out these recent press articles about his past and his book:

October 22, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 21, 2019

Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law seeking commentary submissions

I am honored to serve as one of the faculty editor for the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, and in that role I recently learned that OSJCL still has room for commentary submissions for its Spring 2020 issue.  As some readers may know, OSJCL publishes twice a year, and these issues primarily consist of a symposium of solicited articles on a current criminal law topic and stand-alone commentaries submitted throughout the year. 

For the commentary segment of the journal, OSJCL is often eager to publish pieces with an unusual perspective or even an eccentric aspect to them.  Commentaries from recent issues have included discussions of the Netflix show Daredevil exploring the legality of vigilante justice, reflections on the Serial podcast, and analysis of encounters between black Americans and police officers through the prism of Thomas Hobbes’ LeviathanOSJCL also publishes more traditional types of papers in its Commentary section, with recent pieces ranging from empirical work on how prosecutorial decisions vary in different jurisdictions to standard doctrinal pieces on how to punish attempts and analyses of recent Supreme Court decisions.

Commentaries are meant to be relatively short (no more than 10,000 words) and relatively lightly footnoted.  If you have a commentary-type piece that you would like to submit for the Spring 2020 issue, please submit it to crimlaw@osu.edu within the next few weeks.  

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

"Equal Protection Under Algorithms: A New Statistical and Legal Framework"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Crystal Yang and Will Dobbie now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

In this paper, we provide a new statistical and legal framework to understand the legality and fairness of predictive algorithms under the Equal Protection Clause.  We begin by reviewing the main legal concerns regarding the use of protected characteristics such as race and the correlates of protected characteristics such as criminal history.  The use of race and non-race correlates in predictive algorithms generates direct and proxy effects of race, respectively, that can lead to racial disparities that many view as unwarranted and discriminatory.  These effects have led to the mainstream legal consensus that the use of race and non-race correlates in predictive algorithms is both problematic and potentially unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause.  This mainstream position is also reflected in practice, with all commonly-used predictive algorithms excluding race and many excluding non-race correlates such as employment and education.

In the second part of the paper, we challenge the mainstream legal position that the use of a protected characteristic always violates the Equal Protection Clause.  We first develop a statistical framework that formalizes exactly how the direct and proxy effects of race can lead to algorithmic predictions that disadvantage minorities relative to non-minorities.  While an overly formalistic legal solution requires exclusion of race and all potential non-race correlates, we show that this type of algorithm is unlikely to work in practice because nearly all algorithmic inputs are correlated with race.  We then show that there are two simple statistical solutions that can eliminate the direct and proxy effects of race, and which are implementable even when all inputs are correlated with race.  We argue that our proposed algorithms uphold the principles of the Equal Protection doctrine because they ensure that individuals are not treated differently on the basis of membership in a protected class, in stark contrast to commonly-used algorithms that unfairly disadvantage minorities relative to non-minorities despite the exclusion of race.

We conclude by empirically testing our proposed algorithms in the context of the New York City pretrial system.  We show that nearly all commonly-used algorithms violate the spirit of the Equal Protection Clause by including variables that are correlated with race, generating substantial proxy effects that unfairly disadvantage blacks relative to whites. Both of our proposed algorithms substantially reduce the number of black defendants detained compared to these commonly-used algorithms by eliminating these proxy effects. These findings suggest a fundamental rethinking of the Equal Protection doctrine as it applies to predictive algorithms and the folly of relying on commonly-used algorithms.

October 21, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Rounding up various accountings of FIRST STEP Act implementation realities

Today marks exactly 10 months since President Trump signed the FIRST STEP Act into law.  As noted in posts here and here, last week brought the first oversight hearing on the law in Congress. Perhaps because of that hearing, I have recently seen a number of press pieces and commentary discussing FIRST STEP implementation, and here is a round up:

From Filter by Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard, "The Consequences of an Incompetent First Step Act Rollout"

From the Providence Journal, "He was released early from prison in February. Now hes wanted for a murder on Federal Hill"

From the Providence Journal, "Nephew of Providence murder victim: Don't blame First Step Act"

From The Hill by Arthur Rizer and Emily Mooney, "Don't give up on the First Step Act"

From the Washington Times by Brett Tolman, "First Step Act is working, but the criminal justice system is still broken"

From The Crime Report by Ted Gest, "White House Pledges Hard Work on First Step Act"

October 21, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (4)

October 20, 2019

Prez Trump and all the leading Democratic Prez candidates now slated to speak at 2019 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum

As reported in this CNN article, "President Donald Trump will attend a criminal justice forum in South Carolina ... along with several of his 2020 Democratic challengers, the White House confirmed to CNN." Here are the interesting details:

The 2019 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum is also expected to be attended by former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts -- all of whom have confirmed their attendance.

Trump will speak on Oct. 25, while the Democrats are slated to speak at various times throughout the day on Oct. 26 and 27, according to the event schedule [basics here].

The event which is billed as a "bipartisan forum of presidential candidates exclusively focused on criminal justice reform as it affects the Black community," will feature the first-ever "HBCU Straw Poll," according to the news release, in which "all students and alumni of the eight HBCUs in South Carolina will vote online for the presidential candidate that best addresses their concerns on all issues facing African-Americans, not solely limited to criminal justice reform."  The forum will be held at the historically black Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina.

Last month, Trump announced that his administration would lift a ban on federal funding for faith-based historically black colleges and universities, hailing his administration's work advancing HBCUs. At that time, the President said the "nation owes a profound and enduring debt of gratitude to its HBCUs," later adding, "You've seen this administration's commitment -- bigger and better and stronger than any previous administration by far."  Trump has also previously cast himself as the best leader for African Americans, despite securing only 8% of the black vote in 2016 and frequently stoking racial tensions.

The forum will give him the opportunity to discuss the First Step Act, bipartisan criminal justice legislation that was enacted into law last year and includes measures that have allowed thousands of federal inmates to leave prison earlier than they otherwise would have, eases some mandatory minimum sentences and gives judges more leeway in sentencing, among other things.

October 20, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)