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January 18, 2020

Former US Rep Chris Collins sentenced to 26 months for insider trading

As reported in this Politico piece, on Friday "former Rep. Chris Collins was sentenced to 26 months in prison for an insider trading scheme that led to his arrest and resignation from Congress." Here is more about a notable federal sentencing:

The Western New York Republican pleaded guilty in October, accused of passing illicit stock tips to his son from the White House lawn during a Congressional picnic.

Judge Vernon Broderick handed down the sentence Friday in Manhattan federal court along with a $200,000 fine, after the disgraced Congressman broke down in sobs as he pleaded for mercy for himself and his son. “I violated my core values and there is no excuse,” Collins said, breathing heavily. “What I have done has marked me for life.”

Collins, the first member of Congress to back Donald Trump for president, was charged in August 2018 with securities fraud, wire fraud and making false statements to FBI agents — part of an alleged scheme to share confidential information about an Australian biotech company whose board he sat on.

When he learned of the results of a failed trial for a multiple sclerosis drug, he called his son Cameron Collins to alert him — allowing the son and his fiancee’s father to unload Innate Immunotherapeutics stock before it tanked and avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses.

He initially denied any wrongdoing and was reelected despite being under federal indictment, but ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud and one count of lying to the FBI. He resigned his seat ahead of the plea....

Broderick said prison time was necessary to instill respect for the law. He said he did not buy Collins’ argument that his crime was one of emotion and faulted him for leaving his constituents with no representation in Congress. “I don’t view this as a spur of the moment loss of judgment,” Broderick said.

Collins faced a maximum of ten years in prison, but agreed in a plea deal to accept a sentence of up to 57 months. Prosecutors asked the judge to hit him with a sentence of 46 to 57 months, arguing that a hefty sentence was necessary to send the message that abuse of power would not be tolerated....

The former congressman asked to be spared jail time and be sentenced to probation, saying he had shown remorse and already paid a price for his crimes through the loss of his political career. “Chris is a fundamentally good and decent human being,” said his attorney, Jonathan Barr.

His son Cameron and Stephen Zarsky, the father in law of Cameron’s fiancee, have also pleaded guilty for their role in the insider trading scheme. Collins asked the judge to show mercy for his son, even if he himself was not spared.

January 18, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3)

January 17, 2020

The Sentencing Project reports briefly on "Top Trends in State Criminal Justice Reform, 2019"

The folks at The Sentencing Project have this helpful new short brief reviewing "Top Trends in State Criminal Justice Reform, 2019." The four-page document starts and ends this way:

The United States is a world leader in incarceration and keeps nearly 7 million persons under criminal justice supervision.  More than 2.2 million are in prison or jail, while 4.6 million are monitored in the community on probation or parole. More punitive sentencing laws and policies, not increases in crime rates, have produced this high rate of incarceration.  Ending mass incarceration will require changing sentencing policies and practices, scaling back the collateral consequences of conviction, and addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.  In recent years most states have enacted reforms designed to reduce the scale of incarceration and the impact of the collateral consequences of a felony conviction.  This briefing paper describes key reforms undertaken in 2019 prioritized by The Sentencing Project....

During 2019, lawmakers in several states enacted legislative changes to address high levels of imprisonment. While the reforms help improve criminal justice policy, most measures will have a modest impact on the scale of incarceration.  It will take more far-reaching measures to markedly reduce the nation’s rate of incarceration, which is far above that of other western nations. Given the limited impact of incarceration on crime, there is potential for significant reductions in state prison populations.  Lawmakers and advocates should explore key changes that limit the use of incarceration, challenge racial disparity, address collateral consequences, and improve outcomes for justice-involved youth.

January 17, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 16, 2020

Georgia parole board commutes death sentences shortly before today's scheduled execution

As reported in this AP piece, "Georgia’s parole board on Thursday spared the life of a prisoner just hours ahead of his scheduled execution, commuting his sentence to life without the possibility of parole."  Here is more:

Jimmy Fletcher Meders, 58, had been scheduled to receive a lethal injection at 7 p.m. Thursday at the state prison in Jackson. But the State Board of Pardons and Paroles released its decision granting him clemency around 1 p.m.

Meders is only the sixth Georgia death row inmate to have a sentence commuted by the parole board since 2002. The last to have a sentence commuted was Tommy Lee Waldrip, who was spared execution on July 9, 2014....

Meders was convicted of murder and sentenced to die for the October 1987 killing of convenience store clerk Don Anderson in coastal Glynn County.

The parole board, which is the only authority in Georgia that can commute a death sentence, held a closed-door clemency hearing for Meders on Wednesday.  According to the commutation order, the board considered Meders' lack of a criminal record prior to Anderson's killing, the fact that he had only one minor infraction during 30 years on death row, the jury's desire during deliberations to impose a life without parole sentence and the support for clemency from the jurors who are still living....

Meders was sentenced to death in 1989, four years before a change in the law that allowed a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for capital cases. In the clemency application submitted to the parole board, his lawyers argued that it was clear that the jury wanted that option.  The application cited a note the jurors sent to the judge after 20 minutes of deliberations: “If the Jury recommends that the accused be sentence to life imprisonment, can the Jury recommend that the sentence be carried out without Parole??”

Meders' lawyers also gathered sworn statements from the six jurors who are still alive and able to remember the deliberations.  They all said they would have chosen life without parole if it had been an option and supported clemency for Meders.

Additionally, an analysis by Meders' attorneys of Georgia cases for which the death penalty was sought between 2008 and 2018 shows that in cases like his, with a single victim and few aggravating factors, juries don't choose the death penalty today and prosecutors rarely seek it in such cases.

The official commutation is available at this link.

January 16, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Rounding up some notable recent criminal justice discussions

A busy week has meant less than the usual time for me to keep up with criminal justice news and commentary, and so I am here going to round up a number of pieces I quickly flagged that I am looking forward to finding time to read and reflect upon:

January 16, 2020 in Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Defender General"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Daniel Epps and William Ortman now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The United States needs a Defender General — a public official charged with representing the collective interests of criminal defendants before the Supreme Court of the United States.  The Supreme Court is effectively our nation’s chief regulator of criminal justice.  But in the battle to influence the Court’s rulemaking, government interests have substantial structural advantages.  As compared to counsel for defendants, government lawyers — and particularly those from the U.S. Solicitor General’s office — tend to be more experienced advocates who have more credibility with the Court.  Most importantly, government lawyers can act strategically to play for bigger long-term victories, while defense lawyers must zealously advocate for the interests of their clients — even when they conflict with the interests of criminal defendants as a whole.  The prosecution’s advantages likely distort the law on the margins.

If designed carefully, staffed with the right personnel, and given time to develop institutional credibility, a new Office of the Defender General could level the playing field, making the Court a more effective regulator of criminal justice.  In some cases — where the interests of a particular defendant and those of defendants as a class align — the Defender General would appear as counsel for a defendant.  In cases where the defendant’s interests diverge from the collective interests of defendants, the Defender General might urge the Court not to grant certiorari, or it might even argue against the defendant’s position on the merits.  In all cases, the Defender General would take the broad view, strategically seeking to move the doctrine in defendant-friendly directions and counteracting the government’s structural advantages.

I have lots of (mostly positive) thoughts about the general idea of a Defender General. But I want to find time to read this article before I start opining on the general topic. But that should not stop others!

January 16, 2020 in Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

January 15, 2020

Texas completes first execution of 2020

As detailed in this local piece, "Texas, the state that has put to death more people than any other by far, carried out the nation’s first execution of the decade Wednesday." Here are some of the particulars:

John Gardner was executed for the 2005 Collin County murder of his soon-to-be ex-wife. Tammy Gardner was shot and killed in her home weeks before the couple’s divorce was finalized, according to court records. She called 911 before she died to say her husband had shot her.

With no pending appeals, John Gardner was taken into Texas’ death chamber in Huntsville and injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital at 6:20 p.m. He was pronounced dead 16 minutes later....

John Gardner had a history of domestic violence, including the shooting of a previous wife who later died from her injuries, court records state.

He had argued for years that his crime should not have been prosecuted as a capital murder, which is the only crime in Texas that can result in the death penalty. A capital murder conviction in his case required the jury to decide that the killing was committed during another felony crime — home burglary or retaliation for his wife being a witness in their upcoming divorce proceeding.

Instead, his appellate attorneys said, John Gardner’s trial lawyers should have raised an “abandonment rage” defense. They argued that he didn’t break into his wife’s house and that he shot her to prevent her from leaving him, not because she was going to testify against him in court. Texas and federal courts rejected the argument....

Texas has seven more executions scheduled through May.

As detailed in this article from Georgia, another state has another execution scheduled for Thursday.

January 15, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Justice Department announces new FIRST STEP Act developments and data

Via this press release, titled "Department of Justice Announces Enhancements to the Risk Assessment System and Updates on First Step Act Implementation," DOJ reported today on various new FIRST STEP realities. Here are excerpts from the press release:

The Department of Justice announced several significant developments in the implementation of the First Step Act (FSA) in a report published today [which is available here]...

Some of the key developments are described here:

  • In accordance with the First Step Act and due on Jan. 15, 2020, all inmates in the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) system have received an initial assessment using the Justice Department’s risk and needs assessment tool known as the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Need (PATTERN). Initially released last July, the tool is designed to measure risk of recidivism of inmates.
  • As of Jan. 15, 2020, inmates will be assigned to participate in evidence-based recidivism reduction programs and productive activities based on an initial needs assessment conducted by BOP. Participation and completion of those assigned programs and activities can lead to placement in pre-release custody or a 12-month sentence reduction under the First Step Act. A list of these programs will be published on the BOP’s website.
  • In response to the public comments received and in coordination with the Independent Review Committee (IRC), the Justice Department has made changes to PATTERN that enhance its effectiveness, fairness and transparency....
  • The department will also begin a pilot program to publish recidivism data and other First Step Act updates on a quarterly basis....

Implementation Progress, New and Expanded BOP Programs Under FSA.

The FSA provides for eligible inmates to earn time credits if they participate and complete assigned evidence-based recidivism reduction programs or productive activities. It also provides for the expansion of existing programs that allow for compassionate release and home confinement.

Releases for Good Conduct Time.  In July 2019, over 3,100 federal prison inmates were released from the Bureau of Prisons’ custody as a result of the increase in good conduct time under the Act.

Retroactive Resentencing.  The Act’s retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (reducing the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine threshold amounts triggering mandatory minimum sentences) has resulted in 2,471 orders for sentence reductions.

Compassionate Release.  The BOP updated its policies to reflect the new procedures for inmates to obtain “compassionate release” sentence reductions under 18 U.S.C. Section 3582 and 4205(g).  Since the Act was signed into law, 124 requests have been approved, as compared to 34 total in 2018.

Expanded Use of Home Confinement.  The FSA authorizes BOP to maximize the use of home confinement for low risk offenders.  Currently, there are approximately 2,000 inmates on Home Confinement.  The legislation also expands a pilot program for eligible elderly and terminally ill offenders to be transitioned to Home Confinement as part of a pilot program.  Since enactment of the law, 379 inmates have been approved for participation under the pilot program.

Drug Treatment.  The BOP has always had a robust drug treatment strategy. Offenders with an identified need are provided an individualized treatment plan to address their need.  In FY 2019, approximately 14,800 offenders enrolled in Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), almost 21,000 offenders enrolled in Non-residential drug treatment, and almost 23,000 offenders participated in Drug Education.

Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT).  The FSA requires BOP to assess the availability of and the capacity to treat heroin and opioid abuse through evidence-based programs, including medication-assisted treatment.  In the wake of the opioid crisis, this initiative is important to improve reentry outcomes.  Every inmate within 15 months of release who might qualify for MAT has been screened.

Effective Re-Entry Programming.  FSA implementation includes helping offenders successfully reintegrate into the community -- a critical factor in preventing recidivism and, in turn, reducing the number of crime victims.  Finding gainful employment is an important part of that process.  In furtherance of this goal, the BOP launched a “Ready to Work” initiative to connect private employers with inmates nearing release under the FSA.

Other BOP programs directed towards the full implementation of the FSA include the operation of twenty pilot dog programs, the development of a youth mentoring program, the identification of a dyslexia screening tool, and issuance of a new policy for its employees to carry and store personal weapons on BOP institution property.

January 15, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

"The economic and moral costs of our inhumane prison system"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Washington Examiner commentary authored by Arthur Rizer.  Here are excerpts:

In the U.S., we say we care about human dignity and rehabilitation. We say we want to promote public safety.  But our actions show a different reality. As a result, the American incarceration system produces little benefit to either those caught within the system or those forced to pay for it.

Mississippi, for example, houses more inmates on a per capita basis than nearly any other state in the country.  The reason has nothing to do with crime rates there but rather with how the state chooses to address crime.  Mississippi’s draconian habitual-offender laws have resulted in thousands of people serving decades in prison. Because these laws require prison sentences even for minor, nonviolent offenses, the punishment is often severely disproportionate to the underlying conduct.  A person can be sentenced to die in prison for possessing marijuana if they have two prior convictions — even if one conviction was for something as minor as shoplifting.

The conditions in Mississippi prisons are an added affront to America’s purported commitment to protecting human dignity.  Indeed, stories and photos of prison conditions at the state’s Parchman Farm penitentiary that were leaked earlier this year prompted Families Against Mandatory Minimums to send a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division demanding an investigation into the facility’s “unsafe conditions, violence, weapons, and understaffing.”

Unsurprisingly, U.S. prisons are also extraordinarily deadly.  Last year, more than 75 people died in Mississippi Department of Corrections custody — 16 in August alone. In 2019, the number of prisoner deaths spiked again.  Overcrowding, inadequate resources, and a focus on retribution over rehabilitation all contribute to an environment that is an affront to human dignity.

We pay not only a moral cost for this ineffective and inhumane system but also an economic one. Mississippi spends nearly $1 million a day on its prison system. But that money is not spent on making sure people are prepared to become productive members of society, so it is no surprise that many people return to prison after they are released. Warehousing people in prisons and then releasing them into society without any support, training, or opportunity rarely results in success....

Germans have a fundamentally different way of thinking about corrections. Article 1 of Germany’s postwar Constitution states that human dignity is “inviolable,” and one sees this value implemented nowhere more clearly than in the German approach to incarceration....  To Germans, the loss of freedom, not cruel treatment or inhumane prison conditions, is the punishment.  And that loss is administered for the shortest time necessary.  Approximately 75% of prison sentences are for 12 months or less, and 92% of sentences are for two years or less.  Compare this to the U.S., where the approximate average sentence is three years.

For Germans, corrections are not about humiliation or retribution.  They are about healing.  This means that their focus is squarely on rehabilitation.  Normalization, or making life in prison closely resemble life in a community, and preparation for reentering society take precedence over everything else.  Similarly, resocialization replaces isolation. Instead of simply treating inmates as potential problems, guards act as motivators and actively create a positive culture within the prison community.  By learning to respect the humanity of those within their care, the guards play an integral role in preparing those in prison for reentering their communities....

In our approach to criminal justice and corrections, we have fallen behind other major countries in the world.  Like the Germans, we have to change the way we think about our correctional systems.  Reforming Mississippi’s habitual sentencing laws and commuting overly harsh sentences would be a good place to start.

January 15, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (1)

Dispute over legality of new federal execution protocol up for argument in DC Circuit

As noted in this post, roughly six weeks ago the US Supreme Court refused the Justice Department's request to vacate a district court stay of scheduled federal executions.  That stay, as reported here, was based on the district court's conclusion that DOJ's new execution protocol "exceeds statutory authority."  Notably, the short SCOTUS order upholding the stay indicated that the Court expected the Court of Appeals to review the merits of the stay "with appropriate dispatch."  The DC Circuit's dispatch, as reported in this Bloomberg Law article, has led to oral argument today in front of a three-judge panel.  Here are the details:

The Trump administration’s quest to resume federal executions faces its latest hurdle on Wednesday when an appellate panel hears arguments in a case that was at the U.S. Supreme Court previously and soon may be headed back there.

Though the broader political themes that accompany capital punishment lurk in the background of the dispute, the three judge panel at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is tasked with looking at a narrower issue: essentially whether any difference between the words “method” and “manner” is enough to derail several executions for now....

Judges hearing the case are Bill Clinton appointee David Tatel and Trump appointees Gregory Katsas and Neomi Rao. Rao replaced Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit.

They’re reviewing the Nov. 20 ruling from Washington district judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who granted a preliminary injunction to federal death row prisoners Alfred Bourgeois, Daniel Lewis Lee, Wesley Ira Purkey, and Dustin Lee Honken. The uniform lethal injection protocol announced by the Department of Justice last year to carry out all federal executions likely violates the Federal Death Penalty Act, Chutkan found....

The death penalty act says that the U.S. marshal “shall supervise implementation of the sentence in the manner prescribed by the law of the State in which the sentence is imposed.” The act “provides no exceptions to this rule and does not contemplate the establishment of a separate federal execution procedure,” Chutkan said in effectively blocking the executions.

The statute’s use of the word “manner” includes not just execution method but also execution procedure, she said. The judge rejected the government’s argument that the law only gave the states the authority to decide the “method” of execution, like whether to use lethal injection or an alternative. But “manner” in the context of the federal act means “the method of execution,” the Justice Department said in a brief filed Jan. 13.

What’s more, the government says, Chutkan’s and the prisoners’ reading of the act leads to absurd results, like potentially causing the federal government to use less humane methods of execution than those used in some states, and giving states the power to “make it impossible to implement some federal death sentences.”

After Chutkan’s November injunction, the Justice Department appealed quickly to the D.C. Circuit, which declined to overturn it. The government then appealed that denial to the Supreme Court, which upheld the D.C. Circuit on Dec. 6 but sent the case back down for further review.

If the case is appealed back to the Supreme Court by whichever side loses in the D.C. Circuit this time, at least three of the nine justices are poised to side with the government. Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh issued a statement accompanying last month’s order, saying that the government “has shown that it is very likely to prevail when this question is ultimately decided.”

The D.C. Circuit’s decision could come relatively quickly after Wednesday’s argument. The high court said in its order that it expects the appeals court to “render its decision with appropriate dispatch,” and the separate statement from Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh said there’s no reason the appeals court can’t rule within the next 60 days, which is less than a month from now.

Prior related posts:

January 15, 2020 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 14, 2020

"Who challenges disparities in capital punishment?: An analysis of state legislative floor debates on death penalty reform"

the title of this post is the title of this new article just published in the Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice and authored by David Niven and Ellen Donnelly.  Here is its abstract:

In McCleskey v. Kemp, the Supreme Court tasked legislatures, rather than courts, with redressing racial disparities in capital punishment.  Elected officials must then decide to amend disparate death penalty procedures.  Analyzing floor debates, we explore why legislators make arguments for racial disparity or fairness in deliberations of death penalty reforms.  Results suggest views on race and the death penalty are products of partisanship, constituency composition, and the race/ethnicity of legislators, with the interaction of these factors being most predictive of argumentation.  Findings illuminate who leads discourse on fairness in criminal justice and the limits of legislative responses to racial injustice.

January 14, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Splitting with other state courts, Georgia Supreme Court upholds use of preponderance standard in LWOP sentencing determination for juve murderer

Yesterday the Georgia Supreme Court rejected a procedural attack on a life without parole sentence given to a 17-year-old murderer and created an interesting little split on the application of Miller and Montgomery in the process.  The unanimous ruling in White v. Georgia, No. S19A1004 (Ga. Jan. 13, 2020) (available here), covers a couple of issues, and here is the key passage dealing with the procedure for imposing a LWOP sentence on a juvenile murderer after Miller and Montgomery:

White argues that, as a matter of due process, the State must prove permanent incorrigibility beyond a reasonable doubt in order for the trial court to sentence him to life without parole.  At oral argument, White’s counsel cited Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (96 SCt 893, 47 LE2d 18) (1976), which some courts have relied on to conclude that due process demands a finding of permanent incorrigibility beyond a reasonable doubt before a juvenile may be sentenced to life without parole. See Davis v. State, 415 P3d 666, 682 (Wy. 2018); Commonwealth v. Batts, 163 A3d 410, 454-455 (Pa. 2017). But those decisions ignore United States Supreme Court precedent. That Court has made clear that Mathews does not apply in the context of a state criminal case.  See Medina v. California, 505 U.S. 437, 443 (112 SCt 2572, 120 LEd2d 353) (1992) (“[T]he Mathews balancing test does not provide the appropriate framework for assessing the validity of state procedural rules which . . . are part of the criminal process.”).  Rather, a state criminal procedure is not prohibited by the federal Due Process Clause “unless it offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.” Id. at 445 (citation and punctuation omitted).  The United States Supreme Court has held that “application of the preponderance standard at sentencing generally satisfies due process.” United States v. Watts, 519 U.S. 148, 156 (117 SCt 633, 136 LE2d 554) (1997).  And no Supreme Court decision of which we are aware — much less that White cites — holds that juvenile sentencing of the sort at issue here is an exception to that rule.  White has not shown that the burden of proof applied by the trial court here violated his rights under the federal Due Process Clause.

I do not know if Dakota Lamar White might appeal this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the paragraph above spotlights the clean split in state courts over this issue. of course, SCOTUS is now working toward a decision in the Malvo case dealing with retroactive application in Miller, and it is possible (though not really all that likely) that other Miller application issues could get addressed directly or indirectly in that coming ruling.

January 14, 2020 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 13, 2020

Rounding up previews of SCOTUS oral argument in "Bridgegate" case

More than six years after an infamous partial closing of the George Washington Bridge, and more than three years after a few staffers to then-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were convicted of federal crimes resulting from this incident, the US Supreme Court will be hearing oral argument tomorrow in Kelly v. United States.   This affair became known as "Bridgegate," and here is how the case's question is presented in the initial  petition for certiorari:  "Does a public official 'defraud' the government of its property by advancing a 'public policy reason' for an official decision that is not her subjective 'real reason' for making the decision?"

Though this case is more about the reach and application of federal criminal statutes than about sentencing, white-collar cases (and political cases) are often worth watching closely because of how they can skew, both jurists and advocates, the usual political divisions of who is pro-defendant and pro-government.  In light of that reality, I am especially interested in how the newer Justices will engage in this case.  Helpfully, Kelly has generated lots of previews from others, so I can be content here to do a quick round-up:

And back in September, SCOTUSblog had a little on-line symposium on the case, which can be found at this link.

January 13, 2020 in Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Governing puts "Criminal Justice Reform" on list of "The Biggest Issues to Watch in 2020" ... but then just discusses reentry issues

The folks at Governing have this lengthy new piece under the headline "The Biggest Issues to Watch in 2020" with the subheadline that "State legislatures will have a lot on their plates." I was pleased to see the heading "Criminal Justice Reform" among the 15 topics that received a few paragraphs of discussion, but then I was a bit surprised to see that nearly all the discussion of state developments focused on issues relating to collateral consequences and reentry:

In December, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a bill returning the right to vote to anyone on parole and probation.  Earlier that month, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order automatically restoring voting rights to people convicted of nonviolent felonies who have completed their sentence.  He then called on the Legislature to adopt a constitutional amendment codifying it into law.  Colorado and Nevada adopted similar laws last spring, raising to 18 the number of states that allow any adult not currently in prison to vote.  Included in that number are Maine and Vermont, which allow people to vote while incarcerated.  Iowa remains the sole state enforcing a lifetime ban on voting rights following any felony conviction.

In recent years at least 35 states and over 150 cities have adopted versions of so called "ban the box" laws and policies.  Named for the box on job application forms that asks for a yes or no answer about a prior criminal record, a yes answer makes it difficult for former felons to get a good job after serving time.  About 19 million Americans have felony convictions.  Many more have been charged with a misdemeanor or arrested.  Justice reform advocates argue that putting up economic barriers for millions of citizens with records is a burden on local economies.

Finding housing and obtaining a professional license for occupations such as barbering, cosmetology and nursing are also more difficult with a criminal record.  Under the Clean Slate law, Pennsylvania recently became the first state to automatically seal criminal records.  Last June, an automated computer process began wiping cases from public databases.  Arrest records, dropped charges and nonviolent crimes that occurred more than 10 years ago will be expunged.  Police and other law enforcement will still have access to the records.  Courts have until June to finish sealing all the cases.  Utah and Connecticut have since introduced similar bills of their own.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam recently announced his plans for decriminalizing marijuana possession, raising the threshold for felony larceny and considering incapacitated or terminally ill prisoners for early release.  In addition, Northam’s budget will include $4.6 million for probation services and $2 million to support reintegration of released inmates.

I do think issues relating to collateral consequences and reentry were very hot in 2019 and will remain hot in 2020 and beyond.  But, because there is so much more these days to criminal justice reform, I would like to have seen more discussion of other hot topics like defelonization of drug possession offenses, second-chance legislation and efforts to make prisons less criminogenic (not to mention bail reform and the use of risk-assessment tools).  I do not mean to criticize the folks at Governing for not be able to cover everything in a short space, but I do mean to spotlight how some are viewing state criminal justice reform efforts these days.

January 13, 2020 in Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 12, 2020

Seeking guest postings for "Reflections on Booker at 15"

44508843On this day 15 years ago, January 12, 2005, the Supreme Court (not-so-) radically transformed the federal sentencing system through its ruling in Booker v. United States.  I noted in this post exactly five years ago that Booker received very fanfare when it turned 10 in January 2015, so I suppose I am not surprised that it seems I may be one of the few to now highlight (or even realize) that today marks another big milestone in the history of the federal sentencing system.

I am inclined to call year 15 the biggest birthday for Booker because, prior to the ruling, the federal sentencing guidelines operated  as a "mandatory" or "presumptive" sentencing system for roughly 15 years from 1989 to 2004.  Then along came Blakely v. Washington and Booker finding this mandatory system constitutionally flawed and "fixing" the problem by making the guidelines "effectively advisory."  Notably, the US Sentencing Commission in November 2004, right between the Blakely and Booker rulings, released this 250-page report titled "Fifteen Years of Guidelines Sentencing: An Assessment of How Well the Federal Criminal Justice System is Achieving the Goals of Sentencing Reform."  I am not aware of any big forthcoming report from the USSC with any assessment of fifteen years of advisory guideline sentencing, though I think it could be very valuable for the USSC and others to reflect at length (and with lots of data) on what fifteen years of advisory guidelines have wrought.

So, in an effort to fill this 15 year Booker birthday void, I am eager to here solicit guest postings from anyone and everyone eager to reflect on the Booker world that has now proven to be so enduring.  In other words, if you follow or participating in the federal sentencing system, send me thoughts via email that I can repost in this space.

In some coming posts, I may do some of my own commentary under the headlined "Reflections on Booker at 15," but I am especially eager to hear other perspectives on the state of the federal sentencing world 15 years after Booker.  I will start the commentary here (and finish this post) with the notable paragraph from Justice Breyer after his embrace of an advisory guideline remedy:

Ours, of course, is not the last word: The ball now lies in Congress’ court. The National Legislature is equipped to devise and install, long-term, the sentencing system, compatible with the Constitution, that Congress judges best for the federal system of justice.

Based on the passage of 15 years without even the introduction of a major bill that makes any serious effort to change the advisory guideline sentencing system, it seems that Congress has ultimately judged the Booker-created sentencing system to be best for the federal system of justice (or at least good enough for government work).

January 12, 2020 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Cuomo's Clemency and Cruelty of False Hope"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective commentary authored by Steven Zeidman appearing in the Gotham Gazette. Here are excerpts:

In 2015, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a project to provide pro bono legal services to prisoners seeking clemency.  The governor explained that this was “a critical step toward a more just, more fair, and more compassionate New York,” and that he sought to “identify those deserving of a second chance and to help ensure that clemency is a more accessible and tangible reality.”

Two years later, the governor re-emphasized his interest in clemency via a press release stating that “Family members of individuals serving prison sentences are encouraged to apply for clemency on behalf of their family member.”

This expressed interest in clemency, more specifically clemency in the form of a commutation of sentence, reverberated across New York’s patchwork of 50 state prisons.  Men and women serving lengthy sentences with no chance of ever obtaining their freedom now had hope.  People who spent their time wasting away in their cells began to re-engage with programs.  Family visits reflected renewed promise of the possibility of unification beyond the prison walls.

In short order, CUNY Law School’s clemency project received more than 1,800 requests for help with clemency applications.

Yet not a single person had their sentence commuted in 2019 despite an abundance of robust and meritorious applications.  Then on Friday, January 3, 2020 at 6:15 p.m., an auspicious time for any gubernatorial announcement, Governor Cuomo revealed that clemency requests for commutations had been granted to two people.  Two people out of thousands of applicants.

Apparently, the promise of making clemency an “accessible and tangible reality” was nothing more than a cruel, soul-crushing hoax....

In present terms, clemency is the most readily available means to repair the nationally acknowledged crisis of mass incarceration that has devastated communities of color.  Mass incarceration is not just about unnecessarily incarcerating masses of people, but rather unnecessarily keeping masses of people in prison for decades.  Clemency is a means to address that brutal reality.

Furthermore, while clemency is usually cast as an act of mercy, we all stand to gain when clemency is granted to deserving people.  They are reunited with their families.  They care for aging parents.  They are the true credible messengers who mentor young people who might be on the wrong path.  They have jobs and contribute to the economy. And the taxpayer no longer needs to pay for the medical care required for older people in prison, among other costs. Liberal application of clemency makes us all safer and better.

Many of the men and women who submitted clemency applications based on renewed hope inspired by Governor Cuomo’s words are now saying that false hope is worse than no hope.  The wife of one of those men put it best in a tweet: “My husband wrote that he, his good friends, and more than 100 others sat on the edge of their metal beds all month [of December] waiting...PLEASE recognize the strides these men have made and show them mercy and use your redeeming power as the leader of this state.”

While clemency is typically cast as an end of year event consistent with holiday sentiments of mercy, charity, and forgiveness, surely there must be room for mercy, charity, and forgiveness more than once a year.  And surely, there are more than two people among the 45,000 in New York State prisons who deserve the measure of mercy afforded by a sentence commutation.

I am pleased to see this effort to call out Gov Cuomo for talking the talk, but then failing to walk the walk on clemency. The same also can and should be said about Prez Trump's clemency record. It is now more than 19 months since Prez Trump started talking about reviewing thousands of cases for possible clemency relief, but he has only granted a handful since then.

Prior related post:

January 12, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Mississippi Supreme Court upholds 12-year prison term for mere possession of cell phone in jail

If anyone is looking for a recent example of why and how America persistently earns its status as incarceration nation, look no further than this local article, headlined "Miss. Supreme Court upholds 12-year sentence of man convicted for having cellphone in jail."   Here are the ugly details:

The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the 12-year sentence of a man convicted for having a cellphone in jail on Thursday.

Willie Nash was originally booked in the Newton County Jail for a misdemeanor charge when he asked a jailer to charge his smartphone. The jailer confiscated the phone and brought it to the sheriff’s deputy in charge....

A jury convicted Nash of possessing the cellphone in a correctional facility, a felony that carries three to 15 years in prison.  On Aug. 23, 2018, a judge sentenced Nash to 12 years in prison, telling Nash to “consider himself fortunate” for not being charged as a habitual offender based on his prior burglary convictions. Nash was also fined $5,000....

On appeal, Nash challenged the sentence, arguing a 12-year sentence was “grossly disproportionate to his crime” and in violation of the Eighth Amendment....  As for the proportionality of the sentence, the court ruled that while “obviously harsh," the sentence was not grossly disproportionate, and the court affirmed the conviction and sentence.

In a separate written opinion, Presiding Justice Leslie D. King agreed the court reached the correct ruling based on case law, but wrote of his concern that the case as a whole “seems to demonstrate a failure of our criminal justice system on multiple levels.”

King said it is probable that the Newton County Jail’s booking procedure was not followed in Nash’s case, allowing him to enter the jail with his phone.  King also noted that Nash’s behavior indicated that he was not aware that inmates could not bring phones into the correctional facility.  Justice King pointed out that Nash voluntarily showed the jailer his phone when asking him to charge it, suggesting that he was not told during booking that he was not allowed to keep his phone.

King also noted that Nash’s criminal history reveals a change in behavior, with his last conviction of burglary being in 2001, which he was sentenced to seven years in prison for.  For eight to 10 years, King said Nash had stayed out of trouble with the law. He also has a wife and three children who depend on him. Based on the nature of his crime, King said the judge should have used his discretion to consider a lesser sentence....

According to the Mississippi Department of Corrections website, Nash’s tentative release date is Feb. 2, 2029.

The full Mississippi Supreme Court opinion in this case is available at this link, and it serves to highlight how easy it is to use extreme and cruel punishments to justify more extreme and cruel punishments.  Because the defendant here is apparently parole eligible in as few as three years, the trial judge was not off-base when telling him that he was lucky not to be facing a true 15-year mandatory minimum under the state's habitual offender law. And the Supreme Court of Mississippi was able to cite to other cases of defendants getting even harsher sentences(!) for mere cell phone possession to conclude that this harsh sentence was not constitutionally problematic.

With the scale of punishments set so severely for so long in so many places throughout our country, I fear it has become almost routine for many judges and prosecutors to send people off to live in cages for years and years without deep reflection on just what these sentences really mean for the defendant and what they say about American as a nation.  I suspect that, if told in general terms that a citizen had been sent to prison for more than a decade for having a cell phone in the wrong place, most of us would think that this story was coming from China or Russia or some other country with a poor human rights record.  But, in fact, it is just another day in the United States, the supposed land of the free. Sigh.

January 12, 2020 in Examples of "over-punishment", Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)