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November 27, 2019

Deputy AG Rosen continues his hypocritical attacks on local prosecutors for "nonenforcement of the law"

In this post a few weeks ago, I noted and criticized this speech delivered by Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen at the Wake Forest School of Law.  In my post, I noted that the speech emphasizes making the reduction of violent crime a priority and then assailed local DAs for giving less attention to non-violent crimes.  The speech also complained about DAs adopting non-prosecution strategies for certain low-level offenses without addressing the fact that the federal government for a full decade has formally or functionally adopted non-prosecution strategies with respect to state-compliant federal marijuana offenses.  

Well, DAG Rosen is at it again, this time with this new Washington Post piece run under the headline "'Social justice reform' is no justice at all."  Here are excerpts:

Unfortunately, a trend is emerging that could threaten the hard-fought progress in public safety. A small but troubling number of state and local prosecutors are vowing that they will not enforce entire categories of core criminal offenses as part of a misguided experiment in “social justice reform.”

A prosecutor has a vital role: to enforce the law fairly and keep the public safe. These purportedly progressive district attorneys, however, are shirking that duty in favor of unfounded decriminalization policies that they claim are necessary to fix a “broken” system.

The Philadelphia district attorney, for instance, has in effect decriminalized thefts of up to $500.  Boston’s district attorney actually campaigned, before her election last year, with a list of crimes her office would not prosecute — including drug distribution, “larceny under $250,” receiving stolen property, trespassing, malicious destruction of property and resisting arrest.

In San Francisco, the new DA has vowed not to prosecute “quality of life” crimes such as public urination and prostitution. And the new DA in Fairfax County said during his campaign that he wouldn’t prosecute as a felony any larceny below $1,500 (ignoring the state threshold of $500), would not seek cash bail for felonies and would charge unlawful immigrants more leniently than U.S. citizens for the same crimes in order to circumvent the immigration consequences of the crimes.

While the Trump administration is dedicated to enforcing federal criminal law, as shown by the record number of violent crime prosecutions during the past two years, not every state crime is prosecutable as a federal offense. Contrary to the belief that inspires these so-called social justice policies, the “system” is not broken. Just as violent crime rates are near historic lows, national incarceration rates have also fallen 13 percent over the past decade, hitting a 20-year low, according to a 2019 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Those who still believe that certain criminal laws hinder “social justice” should vote for a legislature, not a prosecutor, to address their concerns.  Outright nonenforcement of the law is an affront to the separation of powers.  The legislative branch writes the law. The judicial branch interprets the law. And the executive branch — of which these prosecutors are a part — enforces the law.

Prosecutors have discretion to decide what individual cases to bring and how best to resolve them.  But the categorical refusal to enforce basic laws geared toward public safety goes far beyond prosecutorial discretion, violates the duty to enforce the laws as passed by the legislature and flies in the face of the fundamental concept that no one part of government exercises total control.

Prosecutorial policies that disregard core criminal laws — and the inflammatory rhetoric that often accompanies those practices — also erode respect for the rule of law.  These prosecutors risk demeaning the very institutions they are appointed to lead and fueling mistrust by promoting false narratives about the criminal-justice system and law enforcement.  The prosecutors are essentially flipping the script, casting criminals as victims and police as villains.  This distortion is not only demoralizing to law enforcement but also emboldens hostility toward both the rule of law and those entrusted with enforcing it.

As a general matter, I continue to be intrigued and troubled by an unelected federal prosecutor making proclamations about how elected local prosecutors ought to apply state laws.  Notably, the Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco DAs all clearly articulated their planned prosecutorial policies during their campaigns and they will continue to be directly accountable to local voters.  But DAG Rosen was not elected by anyone and is not really directly accountable to anyone, and his appointed responsibility concerns only the application and enforcement of federal law.

And speaking of federal law, DAG Rosen ought to explain his own work in his own backyard before attacking state and local prosecutors.  Beyond the fact that the federal government has been formally or functionally engaging in "outright nonenforcement" of (state-compliant) federal marijuana offenses, in just Washington DC alone a simple Google search reveals dozens of marijuana offenders advertising in plain sight.  Of course, DAG Rosen is seemingly okay with "categorical refusal to enforce" federal marijuana law in these settings because there are very sound political and practical reasons for federal prosecutors to allocate its limited resources elsewhere.  But, as I commented in the prior post, apparently in the view of DAG Rosen, what is good for the (unelected) federal prosecutors in terms marijuana non-enforcement is no good for the (locally elected) state prosecutors.

Prior related post:

November 27, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"The Politics of Decarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this new Yale Law Journal article by Rebecca Goldstein which reviews Rachel Barkow's book, "Prisoners of Politics: Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration." Here is the article's abstract:

In Prisoners of Politics, Rachel Barkow convincingly argues that the criminal-justice system is deeply broken: the United States’s incarceration rate is the highest in the world, and there is little evidence that this system, with all its devastating human and monetary costs, is contributing to improved public safety.  Prisoners of Politics argues that at the root of this broken system is electoral politics, and that elected officials (legislators, prosecutors, and judges) will tend toward punitiveness.  The book proposes a range of reforms, most notably the use of expert criminal-justice policymakers who would be insulated from the electoral process and devoted to ensuring that the system promotes public safety and avoids arbitrariness.  The introduction of expertise can certainly help make the criminal-justice system less punitive, and policymakers should heed the book’s detailed policy recommendations.

However, this Review argues that electoral politics are more likely than the book suggests to help bring about criminal-justice reform.  There is nothing inherent about electoral participation’s punitive influence.  To the contrary, we might be at the dawn of a new era of electorally motivated criminal-justice reform.  In the past decade, reform has become orthodoxy in the Democratic Party and has been embraced by significant parts of the Republican Party.  Recent grassroots mobilization and subnational elections provide hope that criminal-justice reformers can achieve significant gains through the electoral process.  Additionally, original public-opinion analysis shows that younger Americans are less punitive than their older counterparts, and evidence suggests that tomorrow’s electorate might be less punitive than the electorate of the late twentieth century.  For those reasons, this Review argues that electoral politics can offer a path forward for those who seek to end mass incarceration.

November 27, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

November 26, 2019

Making the case that "progressive prosecutors" are acting "downright conservative" (and should be embraced conservatives)

Lars Trautman has this notable new Washington Examiner commentary under the headline "The criminal justice reforms pushed by ‘progressive prosecutors' are surprisingly conservative." I recommend the piece in full, and here are some excerpts:

The term “progressive prosecutor” has catapulted into the national consciousness and has dominated discussions about prosecutorial reform that it has become nearly synonymous with the idea of reform itself....  But strip away the “progressive” branding of the policies and the left-leaning personalities advocating on their behalf, and most of these initiatives are not intrinsically left-wing. Indeed, some even look downright conservative.

One of the reforms instituted by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, the poster child of the "progressive prosecutor" movement, provides one particularly emblematic example.  In 2018, Krasner ordered his prosecutors to consider the costs of incarceration associated with each sentencing recommendation. With its potential to deter unnecessarily lengthy sentences, the policy was a natural fit within Krasner’s larger push to fight mass incarceration.  Yet if you remove that description and Krasner’s name, the proposal, framed as an innovative way to extend consideration of taxpayer dollars to government decision-making, looks like something straight out of a fiscal conservative’s playbook.

Nor does it take much imagination to envision even more dramatic “progressive” reforms as part of a conservative prosecutorial platform.

Take, for instance, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s decision to make alternatives to prosecution the default disposition for a host of low-level misdemeanors. This charging policy has appealed to the activist Left as a step toward a fairer, more restrained criminal justice system.  Yet with its redirection of scarce government enforcement resources to the pursuit of more serious offenses, a prosecutor could just as easily promote the policy as an effort to enhance government efficiency and improve public safety, two hallmarks of traditional conservatism.

Although no national movement or label as powerful as that of the “progressive prosecutor” has coalesced on the political Right, the handful of Republicans bucking aspects of the traditional prosecutorial paradigm shows that the potential for other conservatives to do so is not purely theoretical.

In Florida, for example, State Attorney Melissa Nelson ousted an incumbent in part by stressing the need for reforms geared toward smarter, fairer prosecutions, many of which she has since delivered — including Florida’s first conviction integrity unit.  Likewise, District Attorney Constance Filley Johnson won election in Texas while associating herself with the conservative criminal justice reform movement.  Barry Johnson, another Texas district attorney, explicitly rejected the label “reform” yet nevertheless dismissed hundreds of misdemeanor cases in order to reduce the jail population and save taxpayer money.

Conservatives shouldn't allow these right-leaning reformers to remain somewhat rare examples.  Voters across the ideological spectrum continue to support criminal justice reform by wide margins, and, as the high-profile actions of "progressive prosecutors" show, district attorneys are in a position to deliver real change.  Ceding prosecutorial reform to liberals would put conservatives on the wrong side of an electorate hungry for a break in the status quo.

And while that fate may seem politically attractive to Democrats, they should resist the urge to encourage it.  Attempting to make the liberal vision of prosecutorial reform its only possible manifestation is a recipe for ensuring that it never reaches millions of Americans.  Vast swathes of the country have no interest in anything remotely associated with the phrase “progressive.”  Thus, prosecutorial reform will only reach at least half the country if it has a more conservative cast and bent.  Many of the same policies that reduce mass incarceration also make us safer and save taxpayer money.  Undermining a conservative district attorney because he or she emphasizes the latter is self-limiting to the movement.

November 26, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Pushed Out and Locked In: The Catch-22 for New York’s Disabled, Homeless, Sex-Offender Registrants"

The title of this post is the title of this new Yale Law Journal Forum piece authored by Allison Frankel. Here is its abstract:

Across New York, people are incarcerated for weeks, months, and even years after their prison release dates.  These individuals are not confined for violating prison disciplinary rules or committing new crimes. New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) detains them, instead, because they are homeless.  DOCCS refuses to release prisoners to community supervision without an approved address.  But for prisoners required to register as “sex offenders,” finding housing means navigating a web of restrictions that are levied exclusively on people convicted of sex crimes and that dramatically constrain housing options, particularly in densely populated New York City. These restrictions amount to effective banishment for registrants with disabilities, who face added obstacles to finding medically appropriate housing and are barred even from New York City’s homeless-shelter system.

As this Essay explores, the State of New York, and particularly New York City, pushes its poor, disabled sex-offender registrants into homelessness, and then prolongs registrants’ detention because of their homeless status.  This detention regime continues unabated, despite studies showing that sex-offender recidivism rates are actually relatively low and that residency restrictions do not demonstrably prevent sex offenses.  Rather, such laws consign registrants to homelessness, joblessness, and social isolation.  It does not have to be this way. This Essay suggests litigation strategies to challenge the prolonged detention of homeless registrants on statutory and constitutional grounds.  The Essay also offers policy solutions to improve New York City registrants’ access to housing and to untether an individual’s housing status from their access to liberty.  New York simply cannot and should not continue both to restrict registrants’ housing options and to detain individuals because they are homeless.

November 26, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Rounding up lots of notable stories and commentary from prison nation

I have been doing this blog for a very long time, and for many years it seemed like there were not very many pieces about prisons and prisoners given that the US has long be the world's leader in incarceration populations. But as interest has increased in criminal justice reform, so too has interest in giving ink to this world.  Consequently, amidst busy weeks, I have to cover a lot of notable stories with a round-up link this:

November 26, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

November 25, 2019

"Americans Now Support Life in Prison Over Death Penalty"

0yzatku5k0ulnkgz9tmofaThe title of this post is the headline of this new report from the polling organization Gallup.  Here is some of its text:

For the first time in Gallup's 34-year trend, a majority of Americans say that life imprisonment with no possibility of parole is a better punishment for murder than the death penalty is.

The 60% to 36% advantage for life imprisonment marks a shift from the past two decades, when Americans were mostly divided in their views of the better punishment for murder.  During the 1980s and 1990s, consistent majorities thought the death penalty was the better option for convicted murderers.

The Oct. 14-31 survey was conducted before a Texas state court halted the scheduled execution of Rodney Reed in mid-November. A number of prominent politicians and celebrities joined legal activist groups in lobbying Texas officials to spare Reed amid new evidence that could exonerate him.

Even as Americans have shifted to viewing life imprisonment without parole as preferable to execution, a majority still favor use of the death penalty, according to Gallup's long-term death penalty trend question, which was updated in an Oct. 1-13 poll.  That question, first asked in 1936, simply asks Americans if they are "in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder," without providing an alternative option. Currently, 56% of U.S. adults say they are in favor of the death penalty for convicted murderers in response to this question.

Support for the death penalty, as measured by the historical Gallup question, has been steady over the past three years.  However, it is down seven percentage points from 2014, the last time Gallup asked the life imprisonment versus death penalty question.  The percentage in favor of using the death penalty has been lower than it is now, most notably during the mid-1960s through early 1970s.  A 1966 survey found 42% of Americans in favor and 47% opposed to the death penalty, the only time more have expressed opposition than support....

Since 2014, when Gallup last asked Americans to choose between life imprisonment with no parole and the death penalty, all key subgroups show increased preferences for life imprisonment.  This includes increases of 19 points among Democrats, 16 points among independents, and 10 points among Republicans.

Five years ago, most Democrats already favored life imprisonment to the death penalty, but now nearly eight in 10 do.  Independents' preferences have flipped, from being slightly pro-death penalty in 2014 to favoring life imprisonment now.  Republicans remain in favor of the death penalty, but to a lesser degree.

Republicans are one of the rare groups in society to indicate a preference for the death penalty over life imprisonment.  Political conservatives (51%) are another.  Democrats and political liberals (77%) are two of the subgroups most likely to believe life imprisonment is a better punishment for murder than the death penalty.  Postgraduates (73%), nonwhites (72%) and young adults (70% of those aged 18-29) are other groups who widely believe life imprisonment is preferable to execution.

Two-thirds of women, versus 53% of men, advocate punishing convicted murderers by means of life imprisonment rather than the death penalty.

Americans' opinions of the death penalty, which have shown many shifts over the past 80 years, continue to evolve.  The percentage of Americans who are in favor of the death penalty, generally, has fallen to 45-year lows.  And when given an explicit alternative, for the first time in at least 30 years, more say life imprisonment with no possibility of parole is a better punishment for murder than the death penalty.

As public opinion has changed on the death penalty, so has state law.  Five states have abolished the death penalty this decade, leaving 29 where it is legal.  Several states where the death penalty is legal have instituted moratoriums on its use or are considering abolishing it. Many recent cases that have cast doubt on death penalty convictions in light of new evidence may be helping to move public opinion away from it.

November 25, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

An early review of an eventful first year for the FIRST STEP Act

Though the official one-year anniversary of the passage of the FIRST STEP Act is still four weeks away, I suppose it is not too early for some review and reflection on the eventful year that was.  Here is a new NBC News piece in this spirit which has this lengthy full headline: "The First Step Act promised widespread reform.  What has the criminal justice overhaul achieved so far?  The law's effects are real almost a year later, experts say.  But some are concerned whether the bipartisan alliance that produced it can hold together."  I recommend this lengthy piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Nearly a year after the First Step Act's passage, NBC News spoke to over a dozen people, including former and current elected officials, liberal and conservative advocates, and formerly incarcerated individuals, among others, who championed the reforms. They all agreed that the law's effects are tangible, and many believe the bipartisan coalition that produced it appears durable.

“I think the biggest win is that this is now a safe issue after years and years and years of the two parties trying to use criminal justice as a way to tear each other down,” said Jessica Jackson, co-founder of #cut50, a bipartisan criminal justice reform nonprofit.

However, some are skeptical the alliance can hold. Many of the next steps advocates have underscored as necessary to bring about true change, like reexamining lengthy sentences for violent offenses and restructuring policing practices, may be a tougher sell. "As some people might say, it's easier to kind of agree on some of the low-hanging fruits, but the higher you reach, the more difficult consensus is going to be,” said Tim Head, the executive director for the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a conservative nonprofit that supports the act as well as other criminal justice reform efforts.

More than 3,000 inmates have been released and another roughly 1,700 people convicted of crack cocaine offenses have seen their sentences reduced thanks to the First Step Act, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Sentencing Commission....

But the effects of the act's other major provision — the relaxing of the notorious "three strikes" rule to mean a 25-year sentence, rather than life in prison, for three or more convictions — are so far difficult to measure. A year in, little data has been collected around how many people had been sentenced under the new guidelines.

The act also a required the development of a new risk assessment tool that aims to determine which inmates are most likely to re-offend if released and to identify ways to assist those who are released. It was completed in July. Meanwhile, roughly 16,000 federal prisoners have enrolled in drug treatment programs created by the act, according to the Justice Department.

The success — or limitations — of the tool and the new programs still remain to be seen, but advocates say the overall represent a major shift in thinking. "It's part of wider system transformation from one that was based on gut instinct and anecdotes and headlines to decisions that are made based on evidence and research," said Adam Gelb, the founder of the Council on Criminal Justice, a bipartisan criminal justice nonprofit.

However, he added, the nuances of implementation matter. "We're talking about human behavior and it's never going to be a perfect assessment of someone's readiness for release nor a perfect judgment about the length of time they deserve to spend behind bars for the purposes punishment," he said.

Head, the executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said the act's changes, which also include mandating BOP train its 31,000 employees on de-escalation techniques and mental health awareness, intended to shift "the culture of our federal system from pure punishment, to one of at least considering rehabilitation in a much more meaningful way."...

Advocates for the First Step Act, particularly left-leaning ones, described its reforms as historic but modest. True change will require looking to the heart of the system — police interactions and what happens inside courtrooms, experts said. Right now, black Americans are more likely to be arrested for the same activities as white Americans, and more likely to be prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to longer jail terms....

To make a more significant dent in the nation’s prison population, attention must shift toward the roots of mass incarceration, said Tony J. Payton Jr., a Democrat and former Pennsylvania state lawmaker who championed state-level criminal justice reforms. “We’ve got to basically dismantle that entire system,” said Payton, who is now affiliated with the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center, a national and bipartisan coalition of black criminal justice reformers.

Payton's list of targets, however, points to some of the remaining contentious matters in criminal justice reform that could threaten the bipartisanship needed to implement them, such as sentencing reform for both non-violent and violent offenders, eliminating mandatory minimums, reforming police departments and eliminating prosecutorial immunity.

November 25, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Maryland Gov grants parole to juve LWOPers, marking first such parole in state in nearly a quarter century

I am pleased to report on this Baltimore Sun article headlined "Larry Hogan grants parole to juvenile lifers, the first time a Maryland governor has done so in decades." Here are details:

For the first time in 24 years, individuals sentenced to life in a correctional facility for crimes they committed before turning 18 are being paroled by a Maryland governor.  The action by Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, hasn’t been exercised since the administration of William Donald Schaefer, Maryland’s governor from 1987 to 1995.  It comes after courts have weighed in on juvenile sentencing and state lawmakers have attempted to remove the governor from the process in recent years.

Hogan’s decision to implement parole for juvenile lifers comes after 24 years of rejections for this group by the previous three governors, a trend that started with Gov. Parris Glendening in 1995.  “The governor talked about this issue in his original campaign, and it’s something that he gives serious attention to,” Hogan Administration Deputy Legal Counsel Chris Mincher said in an interview with Capital News Service.

Navarus Mayhew, 42, is scheduled to be released this month after 24 years in prison for first-degree murder, robbery and gun charges.  Robert Davis, 54, who served 37 years for first-degree felony murder and handgun charges has been recently released, a Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman said Thursday.  Shawn Delco Goodman, 42, will likely be released in December after 27 years behind bars for first-degree murder and robbery charges, according to Maryland Parole Commission records. Hogan approved paroles for two of the men and allowed the third to happen without his signature.

Prisoners sentenced to life in prison as both adults and juveniles have been released through other measures of executive clemency, like commutation, which allows the governor — rather than the parole commission — to set the terms of release.  Until the Hogan administration, parole hadn’t been implemented for any lifer — adult or juvenile — since Gov. Schaefer, a Democrat and Glendening’s immediate predecessor.  A number of inmates’ life sentences had been commuted, however....

In 2016, the ACLU of Maryland filed a federal class action lawsuit against Hogan on behalf of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative and three incarcerated juvenile lifers.  The three juvenile lifers in the ACLU suit are not the 2019 parolees.  The lawsuit states that Maryland’s process of juvenile lifer parole denied “meaningful opportunity for release,” therefore violating constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

There are currently more than 300 individuals sentenced to life who are imprisoned for crimes they committed before the age of 18 in Maryland facilities.  The ACLU suit is pending....

Hogan has commuted the sentences of four juveniles and 17 adults as of last month, and has approved parole for eight adult and three juvenile lifers.  Nine other individuals were released for medical parole.  This happens when a lifer is chronically ill and expected to die, and are no longer considered a threat to society.  They are released to a hospital, hospice care or family members....

There have been attempts to remove the governor’s hand from the state’s process in recent years.  In 2017, parole reform legislation that would dismiss the governor from the process was passed in the state House of Delegates, but failed to advance in the Senate.  This past session, a similar bill made little headway in either chamber.

Legislators are turning their eyes to 2020 — some with the hope that more advancement could be made this time around.  The bill’s former House sponsor, Del. Pam Queen, D-Montgomery, said in an interview with Capital News Service last month that there are plans for similar legislation in the upcoming session, and is looking to the Senate and its new president, Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore, to determine what will or won’t make it through....

In 2018, Hogan signed an executive order addressing juvenile lifers specifically, requiring that the governor weigh the same elements as the Maryland Parole Commission when considering parole, as well as the inmate’s age at the time of the offense and any signs of maturity or transformative rehabilitation.

UPDATE: A helpful reader made sure I saw this follow-up editorial from the Baltimore Sun headlined "Kudos to Maryland’s Gov. Hogan for paroling three ‘juvenile lifers,’ but we wish he weren’t involved at all." Here are excerpts:

We applaud Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to honor the recommendations of the Maryland Parole Commission and allow the release of three men sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as minors.... [I]t’s been almost a quarter century since this last occurred — since William Donald Schaefer held the governor’s post — and Mr. Hogan deserves praise for having the common sense to take action where his largely Democratic predecessors haven’t.

Forgive us, however, if the tribute is tepid.

The men Mr. Hogan allowed to be paroled — two by direct approval, and a third by declining to deny parole — amount to less than 1% of those currently in Maryland correctional facilities serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were under 18. And the action was a long time coming.  It’s been more than three years since the ACLU of Maryland filed a federal class action suit against Mr. Hogan on behalf of a different set of juvenile lifers, claiming the state’s parole process denies them “meaningful opportunity for release" in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  That case is still pending in the courts.

And, as we’ve said numerous times, we’d prefer Mr. Hogan weren’t required to take any action at all.  Maryland is one of only three states in the country, alongside Oklahoma and California, that requires the governor’s input in parole decisions, unnecessarily politicizing the process.  In 47 other states — many far less progressive than Maryland — the parole commission is trusted to review and assess an inmate’s suitability for release on its own. That’s how it should be here, as well.  The state legislature has for several years sought and failed to pass bills removing the governor from the process.  A similar measure is under consideration for the legislative session starting in January, and we urge its passage.

November 25, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Lots of comments from SCOTUS on various issues in holiday week order list

Order lists from the Supreme Court so far this Term have been mostly free of short rulings or separate statements from the Justices.  But this morning, the Court issued this order list full of comments in the form of a per curiam GVR in a First Amendment case from the Ninth Circuit and a number of statements about denials of review.  One of the denials came in the delegation case involving sex offender registries from last Term, Gundy, and Justice Kavanaugh has a short comment in a companion case.  Here is how it starts:

I agree with the denial of certiorari because this case ultimately raises the same statutory interpretation issue that the Court resolved last Term in Gundy v. United States, 588 U.S. ___ (2019).  I write separately because JUSTICE GORSUCH’s scholarly analysis of the Constitution’s nondelegation doctrine in his Gundy dissent may warrant further consideration in future cases.

Criminal justice fans are likely to be most interested in a statement by Justice Sotomayor in a capital case from Arkansas in which cert was denied.  Here are parts of her three-page statement:

After Isom was granted parole three years into his sentence, Prosecutor Pope met with the Office of the Governor to express his concern and to inquire whether Isom could somehow be returned to prison, but to no avail.

Seven years later, a jury convicted Isom of capital murder in a case presided over by Pope himself — now a Drew County judge.  Isom sought postconviction relief, which was denied, also by Judge Pope....

The allegations of bias presented to the Arkansas Supreme Court are concerning. But they are complicated by the fact that Isom did not raise the issue of Judge Pope’s prior involvement in his prosecutions, either at his capital trial or for nearly 15 years thereafter during his postconviction proceedings.  Although the Arkansas Supreme Court did not base its recusal decision on this point, it is a consideration in evaluating whether there was an “unconstitutional potential for bias” in this case sufficient to warrant the grant of certiorari.  I therefore do not dissent from the denial of certiorari.  I write, however, to encourage vigilance about the risk of bias that may arise when trial judges peculiarly familiar with a party sit in judgment of themselves. The Due Process Clause’s guarantee of a neutral decisionmaker will mean little if this form of partiality is overlooked or underestimated.

November 25, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

November 24, 2019

How quickly could litigation over federal execution procedures get to SCOTUS?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this AP article serving as follow-up to this past week's news, noted in this post, that a federal district court has halted pending scheduled federal executions based claim that planned execution protocol "exceeds statutory authority."  The AP piece is headlined "DOJ would take halted executions to high court" and here are excerpts:

Attorney General William Barr told The Associated Press on Thursday that he would take the Trump administration’s bid to restart federal executions after a 16-year hiatus to the Supreme Court if necessary. Barr’s comments came hours after a district court judge temporarily blocked the administration’s plans to start executions next month. The administration is appealing the decision, and Barr said he would take the case to the high court if Thursday’s ruling stands.

He said the five inmates set to be executed are a small portion of 62 death row inmates. “There are people who would say these kinds of delays are not fair to the victims, so we can move forward with our first group,” Barr said aboard a government plane to Montana, after he met with local and federal law enforcement officials in Cleveland.

The attorney general unexpectedly announced in July that the government would resume executions next month, ending an informal moratorium on federal capital punishment as the issue receded from the public domain. Some of the chosen inmates challenged the new procedures in court, arguing that the government was circumventing proper methods in order to wrongly execute inmates quickly.

U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan put the cases on ice while the challenge plays out. She said in a Wednesday evening ruling that the public is not served by “short-circuiting” legitimate judicial process. “It is greatly served by attempting to ensure that the most serious punishment is imposed lawfully,” she wrote.

Her ruling temporarily postpones four of the five scheduled executions beginning next month; the fifth had already been halted. It’s possible the government could win an appeal in time to begin executions Dec. 9, but that would be an unusually fast turnaround.

“This decision prevents the government from evading accountability and making an end-run around the courts by attempting to execute prisoners under a protocol that has never been authorized by Congress,” said the inmates’ attorney, Shawn Nolan. “The court has made clear that no execution should go forward while there are still so many unanswered questions about the government’s newly announced execution method.”...

In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs. Barr said in July that the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for executions to resume.

He approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug combination previously used in federal executions with one drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas, but not all.

Chutkan said in her opinion that the inmates’ legal challenge to the procedure was likely to succeed because the Federal Death Penalty Act requires that federal executions employ procedures used by the states in which they are carried out.

On Thursday, Barr defended the protocols, saying the Bureau of Prisons has been testing and conducting practice drills ahead of the first execution. He would not say where the cocktail of drugs would come from. “I was kept advised and reports were given to me, scientific tests, the drills they are running through,” Barr said.

Those chosen were among inmates who had exhausted their appeals, and the cases were forwarded to senior Justice Department officials who reviewed the cases and made recommendations to him, Barr said....

The death penalty remains legal in 30 states, but only a handful regularly conduct executions. Texas has executed 108 prisoners since 2010, far more than any other state. Though there hasn’t been a federal execution since 2003, the Justice Department has continued to approve death penalty prosecutions, and federal courts have sentenced defendants to death.

I was certain that DOJ would be inclined to appeal this ruling to the DC Circuit and even to SCOTUS as needed in order to try to move forward with executions.  But I am quite uncertain about just how quickly this litigation (and other litigation surrounding these capital cases) would move forward.  It is not uncommon for capital litigation to move though federal courts quickly on the eve of a scheduled state execution, but that often comes after an array of issues have first been reviewed by state court and often come with a deferential standard of review under applicable law.  It has been a very long time since any federal courts have had to consider any modern claims for relief on the eve of a scheduled federal execution. I have no idea if DOJ is going to press for an expedited appeal schedule or if the DC Circuit or SCOTUS will be inclined to fast-track these matters.

Though I am not following all of the relevant litigation, I assume that objections to the federal execution protocol is just one of a number of claims being brought by the death row prisoner with executions dates. As flagged in this post from July, I am especially interested to know how these particular defendants were put in the front of the execution queue and whether this selection process was constitutionally sound. And I suspect the lawyers representing those of federal death row have a lot of other question they are bringing to court in this process.

Prior related posts:

November 24, 2019 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Two new disconcerting reports on southern justice

This past week I saw two notable new reports from pubic policy groups about criminal justice problems in southern states.  Here are links to the reports and excerpts from them:

About Alabama via the Equal Justice Initiative, "As Prison Spending Increases, So Does Violence and Misconduct":

A new study by the Equal Justice Initiative on Alabama’s prisons concludes:

  • In the first 10 months of 2019, twice as many Alabama prisoners have been murdered (13) than the entire 10-year period between 1999 and 2009, making Alabama’s current system the most violent in the nation

About Mississippi via FWD.us, "We All Pay: Mississippi’s Harmful Habitual Laws":

Mississippi has an incarceration crisis, driven in large part by its use of extreme sentences. In fact, long prison sentences have become the norm in Mississippi. First-time drug possession can land you in prison for 20 years. Stealing tools from a garage can result in 25 years behind bars. These excessively long sentences weaken Mississippi’s families and workforce and waste tax dollars since they also do nothing to make neighborhoods safer....

Of the more than 2,600 people in prison today who have been sentenced with a habitual penalty, one-third (906 people) have been sentenced to more than 20 years in prison. Nearly half of that group (439 people) has been sentenced to die in prison through either a life or virtual life sentence of 50 years of more.

The impact of these laws is not felt equally across communities: Habitual penalties are applied overwhelmingly and disproportionately to Black men. Despite making up 13 percent of the state’s population,75 percent of the people with 20+ year habitual sentences are Black men.

November 24, 2019 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)