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September 26, 2020

Some notable quotables from a high-profile speaker sounding like an advocate for criminal justice reform

A colleague made sure I checked out the full text of an interesting speech given by a high-profile speaker earlier this month.  Some of the lines from the speech struck me as particularly "quote-worthy" for federal criminal justice reform advocates and especially federal defense attorneys.  Here are some of the quotes that caught my reform-oriented eye:

People facing federal investigations incur ruinous legal costs and often see their lives reduced to rubble before a charge is even filed.... 

[Prosecutorial] power ... must be carefully calibrated and closely supervised.  Left unchecked, it has the potential to inflict far more harm than it prevents....

It would do far more harm than good to abandon all perspective and proportion in an attempt to ensure that every technical violation of criminal law by every person is tracked down, investigated, and prosecuted to the Nth degree.

Our system works best when leavened by judgment, discretion, proportionality, and consideration of alternative sanctions....

Individual prosecutors can sometimes become headhunters, consumed with taking down their target....

In recent years, the Justice Department has sometimes acted more like a trade association for federal prosecutors than the administrator of a fair system of justice based on clear and sensible legal rules.  In case after case, [DOJ has] advanced and defended hyper-aggressive extensions of the criminal law.  This is wrong and [DOJ] must stop doing it....

The criminal law is supposed to be reserved for the most egregious misconduct — conduct so bad that our society has decided it requires serious punishment, up to and including being locked away in a cage....

[I]t is important for prosecutors at the Department of Justice to understand that their mission — above all others — is to do justice.  That means following the letter of the law, and the spirit of fairness.  Sometimes that will mean investing months or years in an investigation and then concluding it without criminal charges.  Other times it will mean aggressively prosecuting a person through trial and then recommending a lenient sentence, perhaps even one with no incarceration.  

As I read these quotes, I was tempted to wonder if this was really from a talk given at the Brennan Center or the ACLU by a leading criminal justice reform advocate.  For example, the statement that "our system works best when leavened by judgment, discretion, proportionality, and consideration of alternative sanctions" serves as a lovely account for why severe mandatory minimum sentencing provision are a very bad idea.  And the statement that "the criminal law is supposed to be reserved for the most egregious misconduct" sounds like a prelude to advocating for legalizing marijuana and perhaps decriminalizing all drug possession offenses.

But, as readers will discover if they click through here to see who recently spoke these words, most of us do not generally think of this speaker as a leading criminal justice reform advocate.

September 26, 2020 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Might a notable celebrity endorsement help move a notable criminal justice reform ballot initiative toward passage in Oklahoma?

6416a9d467b9d4d8149586c51171eb55The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local press story headlined "Actress Scarlett Johansson supports Okla. State Question 805 in video."  Here are the basics from this short article (which includes the short video):

Actress Scarlett Johansson supported Oklahoma's State Question 805 in a video shared by Oklahomans for Sentencing Reform.

State Question 805, if passed on Nov. 3, ends repeat sentence penalties for nonviolent offenses in the state of Oklahoma, said officials with Oklahomans for Sentencing Reform. The penalties often add years, decades or even a life sentence for a nonviolent offense if someone had been convicted of a nonviolent offense in the past.

Oklahoma's overcrowded prisons put more women in prison per capita than any state in the nation, Oklahoma to lead the nation in incarceration rates. This is costing taxpayers over half a billion each year on corrections without improving public safety, said officials. If passed, State Question 805 will save the state almost $186 million over the next decade. This funding "could be reinvested in mental health and rehabilitative resources that have been proven to reduce the likelihood that someone will commit another crime," said officials.

State Question 805 is on the ballot in November 3, 2020 elections.

The full endorsement video, which is fairly somber and sadly does not include Black Widow costume or any other Avenger, is available at this link.  I have blogged a few times about this fascinating approach to criminal justice reform, which the "Yes on 805" campaign website describes this way:

WHAT DOES SQ 805 DO?

SQ 805 would end the practice of adding years to a person’s prison sentence for a nonviolent crime because they had a prior nonviolent conviction.  Under SQ 805, people who are convicted of nonviolent crimes could be sentenced up to the maximum allowable time in prison for their crime, but would not receive additional time in prison because of their past.  SQ 805 applies only to people with nonviolent offenses.

WHY IS SQ 805 NEEDED?

Oklahoma is handing down cruel and unfair sentences for minor crimes.  A second conviction for breaking into a shed can result in a life sentence. In Oklahoma an individual served 33 years in prison for writing $400 worth of bad checks, and a mother was sentenced to 15 years for stealing basic necessities and children’s toys from a Walmart. SQ 805 will limit sentences like these that are out of proportion to the crimes.

Unsurprisingly, the "No on SQ 805" campaign website present a distinct account of what this initiative would mean and do:

State Question 805 (SQ805) will create a culture where crime is okay in Oklahoma by reducing penalties for career criminals. With SQ805, habitual offenders of serious crimes will spend less time in prison. These crimes range from domestic violence in the presence of a child, home burglary, to child trafficking, soliciting sex from a minor using technology, animal cruelty and more.

  • SQ 805 will FOREVER treat convicted felons who repeatedly commit crimes, on any but the most heinous of crimes, to the same sentence range as first-time offenders.
  • SQ 805 is a CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGE which prohibits the legislature from addressing any of the myriad of negative consequences SQ 805 will bring.
  • SQ 805 is retroactive and will mandate reduced sentences for many of those currently in prison, disregarding the juries and judges who gave out those sentences.
  • Regardless of if the criminal has been convicted of a felony 20 or more times, under 805, the sentence can never be lengthened or enhanced because of these past actions.

This Ballotpedia page about SQ 805 provides a lot more background information about this initiative, but it does not reference any polling about the measure.  I know this initiative is one I will be watching closely on election night.  If it were to pass in a state like Oklahoma, it could well be rolled out in other initiative states in the years to come.

Prior related posts:

September 26, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Perils of 'Old' and 'New' in Sentencing Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new essay authored by Jessica Eaglin now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The introduction of actuarial risk assessment tools into the sentencing process is a controversial, but popular trend in the states.  While tools' proliferation is debated from numerous angles, scholarship tends to emphasize why this reform is new or old, and focus on whether and how this trend may improve or undermine sentencing law and policy.  This Essay suggests that the institutionalization of actuarial risk assessments into the sentencing process in response to social and political critiques of criminal administration is both a new and old idea.  It situates the proliferation of actuarial risk assessments in the context of technical guidelines created to structure and regulate judicial sentencing discretion in the 1980s and beyond.  It then examines debates about two conceptual issues — selective incapacitation and equality — to highlight that technical sentencing reforms raise recurring questions at sentencing, even as social perspectives on resolving those questions are shifting.

Rather than using the "old" nature of these issues as evidence that actuarial risk assessments should proliferate, however, this Essay urges critical reflection on the turn toward the technical in the present day, in the face of mass incarceration.  It urges scholars to dispense of the "old" and "new" concept when reflecting on whether and why actuarial risk assessments are proliferating in the states.  It also encourages scholars to draw on the expansive methodological approaches applied to study of sentencing guidelines when considering this reform going forward.

September 26, 2020 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 25, 2020

Second Circuit panel rules unanimously that district courts have broad discretion to consider "any extraordinary and compelling reason for release that a defendant might raise"

I am very pleased to see the first of what may soon be many circuit rulings on the reach and application of the compassionate release provisions amended by the federal FIRST STEP Act.  As regular readers know, in lots of (pre-COVID) prior posts I made much of the provision of the FIRST STEP Act allowing 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.  I have consider this provision a big deal because, if applied appropriately and robustly, it could and should enable many hundreds (and perhaps many thousands) of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced.  COVID realities, of course, raised the need for and stakes of this important provision of federal sentencing law.

The first significant circuit ruling on the reach and application of this statute is a great one, coming from a Second Circuit panel in US v. Zullo, No. 19-3218-CR (2d Cir. Sept. 25, 2020) (available here).  Though I may be a bit biased because this opinion was penned by a former boss of mine (Judge Guido Calabresi), I suspect others will share my view that this ruling is a great accounting of applicable law and a great outcome.  Here are just a few excerpts from the 21-page opinion (some analysis may follow in future posts):

The First Step Act of 2018, Pub. L. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5194 (“First Step Act”), was simultaneously monumental and incremental.  Monumental in that its changes to sentencing calculations, mandatory minimums, good behavior credits and other parts of our criminal laws led to the release of thousands of imprisoned people whom Congress and the Executive believed did not need to be incarcerated.  Incremental, in that, rather than mandating more lenient outcomes, it often favored giving discretion to an appropriate decisionmaker to consider leniency.

This case reflects that dichotomy.  The First Step Act provision we analyze overturned over 30 years of history, but at the same time it often did no more than shift discretion from the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) to the courts.  We must today decide whether the First Step Act empowered district courts evaluating motions for compassionate release to consider any extraordinary and compelling reason for release that a defendant might raise, or whether courts remain bound by U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual (“Guidelines” or “U.S.S.G.”) § 1B1.13 Application Note 1(D) (“Application Note 1(D)”), which makes the Bureau of Prisons the sole arbiter of whether most reasons qualify as extraordinary and compelling.  Because we hold that Application Note 1(D) does not apply to compassionate release motions brought directly to the court by a defendant under the First Step Act, we vacate and remand the district court’s contrary decision....

For all of these reasons, the First Step Act freed district courts to consider the full slate of extraordinary and compelling reasons that an imprisoned person might bring before them in motions for compassionate release.  Neither Application Note 1(D), nor anything else in the now-outdated version of Guideline § 1B1.13, limits the district court’s discretion....

Nor can we say, as a matter of law, that a court would abuse its discretion by granting someone compassionate release on this record.  It bears remembering that compassionate release is a misnomer.  18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) in fact speaks of sentence reductions.  A district court could, for instance, reduce but not eliminate a defendant’s prison sentence, or end the term of imprisonment but impose a significant term of probation or supervised release in its place. Id.  Beyond this, a district court’s discretion in this area — as in all sentencing matters — is broad.  See United States v. Cavera, 550 F.3d 180, 188 (2d Cir. 2008) (en banc) (noting a district court’s “very wide latitude” in sentencing). The only statutory limit on what a court may consider to be extraordinary and compelling is that “[r]ehabilitation … alone shall not be considered an extraordinary and compelling reason.”  28 U.S.C. § 994(t) (emphasis added).

In the instant case, Zullo does not rely solely on his (apparently extensive) rehabilitation.  Zullo’s age at the time of his crime and the sentencing court’s statements about the injustice of his lengthy sentence might perhaps weigh in favor of a sentence reduction.  Indeed, Congress seemingly contemplated that courts might consider such circumstances when it passed the original compassionate release statute in 1984.  See S. Rep. No. 98-225, at 55-56 (1984) (noting that reduction may be appropriate when “other extraordinary and compelling circumstances justify a reduction of an unusually long sentence” (emphasis added)); see also United States v. Maumau, No. 2:08-CR-00758-TC-11, 2020 WL 806121, at *6-*7 (D. Utah Feb. 18, 2020) (further discussing this history and collecting cases where district courts have reduced sentences in part because they were overly long).

September 25, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

September 24, 2020

Federal government completes its seventh (and final?) execution in 2020

The federal government this evening completed is seventh execution in the span of just over two months.  This AP article, headlined "Feds put first Black inmate to death since execution restart," provides these details:

A man who killed a religious couple visiting Texas from Iowa was executed Thursday, the first Black inmate put to death as part of the Trump administration’s resumption of federal executions.

Christopher Vialva, 40, was pronounced dead shortly before 7 p.m. EDT after receiving a lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.  In a last statement, Vialva asked God to comfort the families of the couple he had killed, saying, “Father … heal their hearts with grace and love.” His final words were: “I’m ready, Father.”...

A report this month by the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center said Black people remain overrepresented on death rows and that Black people who kill white people are far more likely to be sentenced to death than white people who kill Black people.  Of the 56 inmates currently on federal death row, 26 — or nearly 50% — are Black, according to center data updated Wednesday; 22, or nearly 40%, are white and seven, around 12% were Latino. There is one Asian on federal death row.  Black people make up only about 13% of the population....

Vialva was 19 years old in 1999 when he shot Todd and Stacie Bagley and burned them in the trunk of their car.  Vialva’s lawyer, Susan Otto, has said race played a role in landing her client on death row for killing the white couple.  Vialva was the seventh federal execution since July and the second this week.  Five of the first six were white, a move critics argue was a political calculation to avoid uproar.  The sixth was Navajo.

“I believe when someone deliberately takes the life of another, they suffer the consequences for their actions,” Todd Bagley’s mother, Georgia, wrote in a statement released after the execution.  “Christopher’s mother had the opportunity to visit him for the past 21 years,” she wrote.  “We have had to wait for 21 years for justice and closure. We cannot be with our children for visits or to see them on holidays. We were denied that privilege,” Bagley’s mother wrote.

In the video statement his lawyers released Thursday, Vialva expressed regret for what he’d done and said he was a changed man. “I committed a grave wrong when I was a lost kid and took two precious lives from this world,” he said. “Every day, I wish I could right this wrong.”

As detailed at this DPIC webpage, there remain 55 persons on federal death row, ten of which were convicted more than two decades ago. As of this writing, Attorney General Barr has not yet sought to set dates for any additional federal executions, but he has moved quickly in the past.

September 24, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Call for Papers: "Understanding Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment"

Understanding-Drug-Sentencing_for-web2I am pleased to highlight a new call for papers relating to an exciting event I am excited to be involved in helping to plan, "Understanding Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment."  Here is the full call, which is also available as a full pdf document at this link:

INTRODUCTION
Discussion of the “war on drugs” frequently fails to examine precisely how drug offenders are sentenced — and how they should be.  Drug sentencing practices are implicated in many fundamental criminal justice issues and concerns.  Research suggests incarcerating people for drug offenses has little impact on substance use rates or on crime rates more generally.  And, despite reports of comparable use rates, people of color are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug-related offenses than white counterparts.  Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes are applied commonly, but inconsistently, in drug cases and for persons with a criminal history that involves drug offenses. And while states have created specialty courts to handle the cases of low-level drug offenders, the efficacy and appropriateness of the “drug court movement” has long been subject to debate.

Distinct state and federal realities complicate our understanding of the relationship between the drug war and punishment. Nearly all federal drug defendants get sent to prison and nearly 50% of the federal prison population is comprised of drug offenders; relatively few state drug offenders are sent to prison and less than 20% of state prisoners are serving time on drug charges.  But data on arrests, jail populations, and community supervision highlight the continued, significant impact drug cases still have on state and local justice systems.  The role of drug criminalization and sentencing contributes to mass incarceration, yet mass punishment can look quite different depending on the criminal justice system(s) and the drugs.


ABOUT THE CALL
These issues and others related to drug sentencing will be part of a symposium jointly sponsored by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Academy for Justice at the Arizona State University Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.  "Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment," will take place on June 10–12, 2021, at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law in Columbus, Ohio. As part of this symposium, we invite scholars to submit papers for inclusion in the workshop scheduled for June 12.  Accepted submissions will be paired with a discussant who will review and provide feedback on the paper during the workshop.  Each paper should reflect on some aspect of drug prosecutions and sentencing in the United States.  Participants should have a draft to discuss and circulate by May 17, 2021.  The papers will be gathered and published in a Spring 2022 symposium edition of the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, a peer-reviewed publication.  Participants should have a completed version to begin the publication process by August 15, 2021.  Final papers may range in length from 5,000 – 20,000 words.

Deadline for submission is November 1, 2020. Please submit a title and an abstract of no more than 300 words to Jana Hrdinová at hrdinova.1@osu.edu. Accepted scholars will be notified by December 1, 2020

September 24, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 23, 2020

Interesting accounting of Facebook spending and advertising by presidential campaigns

The Marshall Project has this fascinating lengthy new piece on criminal justice advertising by the presidential candidates during the 2020 election cycle so far.  The full headline of the piece, which highlights its themes, is "Trump’s Crime and Carnage Ad Blitz Is Going Unanswered on Facebook: The president has spent millions on misleading Facebook ads targeting undecided voters, while Joe Biden has been virtually silent."  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

To understand how Republicans and Democrats are using criminal justice issues to reach voters, the Marshall Project analyzed hundreds of thousands of political campaign advertisements on Facebook from December 2019 to this month. Arguably the most powerful political messaging platform in history, Facebook allows candidates to microtarget tailored messages to demographic groups and even to individual voters by name.  Probing that data lets us see how candidates reach voters, with a level of detail that earlier generations of strategists and political pundits could only dream of.

Our analysis found that of the $82 million Trump’s reelection campaign has spent on Facebook ads this year, $6.6 million paid for ads about crime and policing — a top focus of his Facebook campaign. Almost all of it came since George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis in May.  More than one-third of those ad buys were aimed at key battleground states and many sought to persuade specific undecided voters, and married women in particular.  The Biden campaign?  It didn’t spend a cent on criminal justice ads on Facebook until late August, choosing instead to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recovery.  Yet Biden had, during the Democratic primaries, articulated a more progressive criminal justice platform than any of his party’s recent nominees....

Trump’s message on criminal justice began with a focus on reform.  Last December, his campaign ran ads featuring the First Step Act, the criminal justice reform bill he signed in 2018, boasting that the president was “helping prisoners gain a new lease on life and is making America safer.”

Then in May, for three days before Memorial Day — when George Floyd would die on a Minneapolis street — Trump spent more than $175,000 on ads criticizing Biden for his role in policies like the 1994 crime bill: “Mass incarceration has put hundreds of thousands behind bars for minor offenses.”

It’s not clear who those ads were meant to reach as they sought to capitalize on Biden’s “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black” quote in a May interview.  They disappeared quickly as protests against police brutality began in cities across the country.

By early July, as the protests continued, the Trump campaign had decisively shifted its tone.  In one ad, a 911 call is picked up by an answering machine that says, “You have reached the 911 police emergency line.  Due to defunding of the police department, we’re sorry but no one is here to take your call.  If you’re calling to report a rape, please press 1.”

Around that same time, Biden’s Facebook ads focused on praising essential workers dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and on vague messages of national unity.

You wouldn’t have seen any of these ads if you live in a state like California or Oklahoma that is considered a firm lock for one party.  Biden’s were shown in a narrow group of swing states, including Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  The Trump campaign paid Facebook about $1.5 million to show its “911” ads only to people in a slightly wider list of battleground states that included Ohio and Texas.  Since June, Trump’s campaign has spent about $2.6 million on criminal justice–related ads targeted to battleground states.

In the battleground states, these persuasive ads are not aimed at every voter.  The power of Facebook for campaigns is that it allows them to show ads directly to the specific voters they think are most likely to be on the fence.  The Trump campaign asked Facebook to show its “911” ad to at least two separate groups of people: first, to married women—the “suburban housewives” Trump has said he hopes to reach — and, second, to people specified by their name or phone number on a spreadsheet the campaign uploaded to Facebook. 

There are two main kinds of political ads on Facebook: ones intended to win votes and ones intended to encourage donations. That Trump’s “911” ad was presented to users in toss-up states suggests the goal was to persuade people to change their minds, according to digital political strategists.  When either campaign wants to raise money, they show ads to their own supporters in uncontested states like deep blue New York where they’d be unlikely to pick up additional electoral votes.

September 23, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Unified Theory of Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this new revised book chapter authored by Thom Brooks now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Most of the history of the philosophy of punishment is about our making choice of which theory to support and defend against all the rest.  Over time, there have been several attempts aiming to bring two or more theories together in new hybrid formulations.  This penal pluralism can be too quickly dismissed as conceptually contradictory.  At face value, there is a clear and undeniable clash between, say, supporting retributivism and consequentialist views like deterrence or rehabilitation.

For example, the punishments that retributivism might support as ‘deserved’ may lack or run counter to what might cause some desired effect.  Traditionally, the way this clash has been handled most frequently — as seen in Chapter 5 — is to say the justification for deciding who to punish is governed by one goal (e.g., typically retributivist desert) and the amount of punishment distributed to any deserving person is determined by a second, different goal (e.g., usually deterrence).  In giving each goal a different space, they avoid confrontation.  However, what this formula gains in practicability it loses in showing any theoretical coherence.  As we have seen, if desert is so important to justify punishment, why is it irrelevant to setting its amount?  And what necessary connection exists between them holding the two together as one integrated theory? For these reasons, critics have claimed that hybrid theories are unstable at best and incoherent at worst.  Given the way most are formulated, it is easy to agree — but yet it would be a serious mistake to write off the possibility and plausibility of hybrid theories if they might overcome those concerns.

This newly rewritten chapter for this second edition introduces and defends a new hybrid theory: the unified theory of punishment.  Instead of taking a side between retributivist and other positions, the unified theory is an attempt to show how multiple penal goals can be brought together coherently in a single framework, or what might be called a ‘grand unifying theory’ of punishment succeeding where others have failed.  I will argue that not only is the unified theory possible, but that it is most compelling and best able to address the complexity of criminal cases and deliver multiple benefits in a measure and evidenced way, providing a new way of expanding restorative practices as well.

The structure of this chapter is as follows.  First, it begins examining penal pluralism as found in sentencing guidelines, but lacking any framework for how different penal purposes can be coherently applied in any consistent way.  Second, I will provide an overview of philosophers starting primarily with Hegel who first attempted to create a new unified theory.  Thirdly, I will next formulate my own model for how a unified theory might work.  Key to this model is our ability to evidence whether its overarching aim — of protecting and maintaining rights — is fulfilled in a significant change in my thinking.  The chapter then considers several possible objections.

September 23, 2020 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 22, 2020

Federal government completes its sixth execution in 2020

Prior to 2020, the federal government executed only three persons in over half a century.  But thanks largely to the efforts and persistence of US Attorney General William Barr, the feds as of tonight have been able to complete double that many executions in just the year 2020.  This AP story about the latest execution, headlined "US government executes killer obsessed with witchcraft," includes these details:

The U.S. government on Tuesday executed a former soldier who said an obsession with witchcraft led him to kill a Georgia nurse he believed had put a spell on him.

William Emmett LeCroy, 50, was pronounced dead at 9:06 p.m. EDT after receiving a lethal injection at the same U.S. prison in Terre Haute, Indiana where five others have been executed i n 2020 following a 17-year period without a federal execution....

Another execution, of Christopher Vialva, is scheduled Thursday. He would be the first African-American on federal death row to be put to death in the series of federal executions this year....

LeCroy broke into the Cherrylog, Georgia, mountain home of 30-year-old Joann Lee Tiesler on Oct. 7, 2001, and waited for her to return from a shopping trip. When she walked through the door, LeCroy struck her with a shotgun, bound and raped her. He then slashed her throat and repeatedly stabbed her in the back....

LeCroy’s lawyers sought to halt the execution on appeal on multiple grounds, including that his trial lawyers didn’t properly emphasize evidence about his upbringing and mental health that could have persuaded jurors not to impose a death sentence.

September 22, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Another accounting of Justice Ginsburg's criminal justice legacy

I receive via email from Arizona State College of Law's Academy for Justice a terrific review (with links) of some of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg major work in criminal justice cases during her tenure on the Court, as well as some leading scholarship discussing this work. I got permission to reprint this collection here, so:

Some of Justice Ginsburg's Criminal Justice Opinions:

Some Scholarship Addressing Justice Ginsburg's Contributions

UPDATE: The Marshall Project has this extended new piece with lots of quote from criminal justice advocates and scholars under this full headline "RBG’s Mixed Record on Race and Criminal Justice: Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a revered feminist icon. Her legacy on issues such as prisoners’ rights, capital punishment, racial justice and tribal sovereignty has been less examined."

September 22, 2020 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Virtual Reality: Prospective Catalyst for Restorative Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this new article now on SSRN authored by Kate Bloch. Here is its abstract:

A 2018 U.S. Department of Justice report assessing data from 30 states found that 83% of individuals released from state prisons in 2005 were rearrested within nine years.  When a revolving door ushers five of six individuals back into custody and decimates communities, more effective approaches to criminal justice demand attention.  In countries around the world, restorative justice has been emerging as a promising candidate.  It generally involves an interactive process in which stakeholders identify and grapple with harms caused by the crime. 

But many environments lack the resources to invoke its benefits.  While restorative justice takes various forms, the crux of each variant involves perspective taking — seeing the harm and its consequences through the eyes of those who experienced it.  Cognitive science research suggests that the emerging technology of virtual reality provides an innovative and often especially compelling approach to perspective taking.  Embodying an avatar offers the opportunity to experience the world as another and could make virtual perspective-taking encounters a valuable introduction for subsequent in-person encounters or offer a perspective-taking opportunity when in-person encounters are not practical or prudent.  This analysis explores how virtual reality could become a catalyst for restorative justice.

September 22, 2020 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (0)

Pending federal executions to be first SCOTUS matters to be resolved without the late Justice Ginsburg

As reported in this CBS News piece, a "former U.S. soldier who said an obsession with witchcraft led him to slay a Georgia nurse in a bid to lift a spell he believed she put on him is the first of two more inmates the federal government is preparing to put to death this week."  Here is more about this and another federal execution scheduled for the coming days:

William Emmett LeCroy, 50, on Tuesday would be the sixth federal inmate executed by lethal injection this year at the U.S. prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Another is scheduled for Thursday of Christopher Vialva, who would be the first African-American on federal death row to be executed this year. LeCroy is white, as were four of the five inmates executed earlier. The fifth was a Navajo.

Critics say President Donald Trump's resumption of federal executions this year after a 17-year hiatus is a cynical bid to help him claim the mantel of law-and-order candidate leading up to Election Day. Supporters say Mr. Trump is bringing long-overdue justice to victims and their families....

LeCroy broke into the Cherrylog, Georgia, mountain home of 30-year-old Joann Lee Tiesler on Oct. 7, 2001, and waited for her to return from a shopping trip. When she walked through the door, LeCroy struck her with a shotgun, bound and raped her. He then slashed her throat and repeatedly stabbed her in the back....

LeCroy's lawyers have sought to halt the execution on appeal on multiple grounds, including that his trial lawyers didn't properly emphasize evidence about his upbringing and mental health that could have persuaded jurors not to impose a death sentence.  None of those appeals have succeeded, though lawyers could continue to ask for court intervention up to the hour of his scheduled execution. Last-minute legal appeals by the previous five death-row inmates all failed.

This lengthy Intercept article, headlined "Trump Prepares To Execute Christopher Vialva For A Crime He Committed As A Teenager," reports on the particulars of the person and crime leading to the federal execution scheduled for Thursday.

As these press reports and the headline of the post indicate, various "last-minute legal appeals" are being brought on behalf of these defendants and these appeals all are likely to come before the Supreme Court in the coming days and hours.  As is common in capital cases, many of these appeals may ultimately come before the US Supreme Court.  But, for the first time in nearly three decades, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will not be one of the Justices considering these appeals.

September 22, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 21, 2020

Notable research from Pennsylvania on positive pardon consequences

I just came across this interesting webpage at the site of the group Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity. The page highlights a pair of reports about the consequences of pardons in the state over a decade. Here is the summary from site:

In April 2020, the Economy League issued a pathbreaking report, finding that pardons issued over a ten-year period (2008-2018) had contributed $16.5 million to Pennsylvania’s economy, and urged the Board of Pardons to increase the number of pardon applicants, the percentage of applications granted, and the speed in which pardons are granted or denied.  Public officials and civic leaders praised the report, but cautioned that there needed to be “continued oversight for public safety concerns.”

Examining the same decade of data and over 3,000 files in its August 2020 report, PLSE conclusively demonstrated that there is no reason for concern when granting pardons to people who have already completed their sentences and need pardons so they can get, for themselves and their families, the better jobs, housing, credit, and other opportunities of life for which they are qualified.  PA Attorney General Josh Shapiro called the report “valuable and important.” 

Click here to read the press release.
Click here to read the report written by PLSE’s co-founder Ryan Allen Hancock and Executive Director Tobey Oxholm.
Click here to read the Economy League’s report.

September 21, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons | Permalink | Comments (0)

Big new NPR investigation showing pulmonary edema in executed inmates suggests a painful process

NPR has this interesting and extended new piece about the medical realities of modern executions under the headline "Gasping For Air: Autopsies Reveal Troubling Effects Of Lethal Injection."  The who piece should be reviewed in full for anyone who follows closely the debates over execution methods, and I am pleased to see that the piece discusses the ground-breaking litigation that has been pioneered by Allen Bohnert, a federal public defender who represents Ohio inmates with upcoming executions who happens to be a former student of mine.  I cannot easily summarize the piece, but here is an excerpt:

[Emory University Hospital doctors] Zivot and Edgar found pulmonary edema occurring in about three-quarters of more than three dozen autopsy reports they gathered.  "The autopsy findings were quite striking and unambiguous," says Zivot.  He had imagined that lethal injection induced a quick death and would leave an inmate's body pristine, or at least close to it. But the autopsies told another story.  "I began to see a picture that was more consistent with a slower death," he says. "A death of organ failure, of a dramatic nature that I recognized would be associated with suffering."...

Zivot and Edgar brought their findings of pulmonary edema to federal courts in Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Ohio.  That evidence is now at the forefront of constitutional challenges to the death penalty in the United States.  It has even made its way to the Supreme Court, where lawyers for inmates on federal death row have used autopsies to argue that lethal injection protocols constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Now, an NPR investigation has expanded the scope of this evidence of pulmonary edema significantly.  A review of more than 200 autopsies — obtained through public records requests — showed signs of pulmonary edema in 84% of the cases.  The findings were similar across the states and, notably, across the different drug protocols used....

Doctors who spoke with NPR about the findings also raised serious concerns that many inmates are not being properly anesthetized and are therefore feeling the suffocating and drowning sensation brought on by pulmonary edema.  The findings come at a time when death penalty states are already facing scrutiny over drug shortages, untrained execution personnel and a series of high-profile botched executions.

"These autopsy reports show definitively without question that these inmates are developing pulmonary edema," says Allen Bohnert, a federal public defender who represents Ohio inmates with upcoming executions.  "That evidence continues to build and continues to get better every time another execution happens, unfortunately."

September 21, 2020 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Wage Theft Criminalization"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Benjamin Levin now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Over the past decade, workers’ rights activists and legal scholars have embraced the language of “wage theft” in describing the abuses of the contemporary workplace.  The phrase invokes a certain moral clarity: theft is wrong.  The phrase is not merely a rhetorical flourish. Increasingly, it has a specific content for activists, politicians, advocates, and academics: wage theft speaks the language of criminal law, and wage theft is a crime that should be punished.  Harshly.  Self-proclaimed “progressive prosecutors” have made wage theft cases a priority, and left-leaning politicians in the United States and abroad have begun to propose more criminal statutes to reach wage theft.

In this Article, I examine the drive to criminalize wage theft.  In the literature on workers’ rights, “wage theft” has been accepted uncritically as a distinct problem.  But the literature fails to grapple with what makes wage theft clearly distinguishable from other abusive practices endemic to capitalism.  For scholars concerned about worker power and economic inequality, does classifying one class of conduct “wage theft” actually serve to legitimate the other injustices of the labor market?

Further, the literature on wage theft has failed to reckon with the stakes of using criminal law and incarceration as the tools to remedy workplace violations.  Absent from the discourse on wage theft is any engagement with one of the most vital contemporary movements to confront structural inequality: the fight to end mass incarceration.  Despite insistence from proponents of wage theft criminalization that their focus is on society’s most marginalized, particularly poor people of color, these advocates have turned to a criminal system that is widely viewed as inimical to the interests of those same marginalized populations.  Moreover, in calling for criminal prosecution, many commentators have embraced the same actors and institutions that have decimated poor communities and constructed a hyper-policed population.  By resituating wage theft within the literature on mass incarceration, I examine the limitations of using criminalization to redress economic injustices.  I frame pro-criminalization arguments within the growing literature and activist discourse on decarceration and abolition, examining why criminalization of wage theft is and might be particularly problematic.

September 21, 2020 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 20, 2020

Spotlighting notable series of substantive reasonableness reversals by the Sixth Circuit

A helpful reader sent me this thoughtful review of some notable recent reasonableness rulings by the Sixth Circuit:

The review of sentences for substantive reasonableness is often thought of as toothless, or as a “one-way ratchet” toward more severe sentences.  Of the countless appeals challenging sentences as overly harsh, only a couple of dozen have prevailed.  (Government appeals challenging sentences as too lenient seem to have found more success).  Appellate courts have been far more willing, on a defendant’s appeal, to say the sentencing court failed to follow proper procedures than to say the sentence was just too long.  In a trio of recent 2-1 decisions, however, the Sixth Circuit has done just that, reversing above-Guidelines sentences where there was an insufficient justification for the upward variance and putting some substance into substantive reasonableness review.

This line of cases started with United States v. Perez-Rodriguez, where the Sixth Circuit reversed an above-Guidelines sentence of 24 months in an illegal re-entry case where the Guidelines range was 8 to 14 months. 960 F.3d 748 (6th Cir. 2020).  Over a dissent, the Court held that the upward variance was substantively unreasonable because this was a “mine-run” case where the upward variance was unjustified and “created unwarranted sentencing disparities.” (Interestingly, in doing so, Judge Stranch drew on her opinion in United States v. Boucher, 937 F.3d 702 (6th Cir. 2019), where the court had held that a sentence of just 30 days for Rand Paul’s attacker, when the Guidelines range was 21 to 27 months, was substantively unreasonable because it was a “mine-run case.” Thus, at least in this instance, the ratchet went both ways.)

In the less than four months since Perez-Rodriguez, the Sixth Circuit has twice struck down above-Guidelines sentences as substantively unreasonable, each time over a vigorous dissent.  In United States v. Lee, the court held that a sentence of 60 months for possession of a stolen firearm, when the Guidelines range was 30 to 37 months’ imprisonment, was “far too long for his offense of conviction” and that the sentencing court “placed too much weight on Lee's criminal history, and not enough weight on the need to treat like defendants alike.”  __ F.3d __, 2020 WL 5269820 (6th Cir. Sept. 4, 2020). Then, in United States v. Brown, relying on Perez-Rodriguez and the unpublished 2-1 decision in United States v. Warren, 771 F. App’x 637 (6th Cir. 2019), the Sixth Circuit again held that an above-Guidelines sentence of 60 months for distributing heroin was substantively unreasonable because this was a “mine-run case” and the upward variance from the Guidelines range of 24 to 30 months would create “unwarranted sentencing disparities.” __ F. App’x __, 2020 WL 5569677 (6th Cir. Sept. 17, 2020).         

It’s hard to say whether this recent spate of substantive reasonableness reversals reflects an increasing recognition by (some) federal appellate judges of the realities of mass incarceration and overly harsh sentences, or simply a lucky streak by defendants.  Cutting in favor of the latter interpretation is that both Brown and Perez-Rodriguez are sentencing appeals from the same district judge — as was Warren — and that in each instance the sentencing judge upwardly varied even though the Government sought a Guidelines sentence.  These reversals may, then, simply reflect an attempt by appellate judges to rein in a particularly punitive district judge.  But I tend to think that this string of cases reflects an attempt to give some substance to substantive reasonableness review, and to use it as a tool to curb at least the most egregiously punitive sentences.  

Though the Sixth Circuit’s newfound willingness to find upward variances unreasonable in cases that fall within the heartland of the Guidelines is encouraging, it nonetheless is worth considering the limitations of this approach.  To begin with, it implicitly accepts that the Guidelines are the starting point for reasonableness review.  This is perhaps a natural outgrowth of the appellate presumption of reasonableness that the Sixth Circuit (and some but not all other circuits) afford to within-Guidelines sentences.  But it risks blunting the impact of Booker and Gall, which held that district courts must start by calculating the Guidelines range but then must proceed to give the sentence required by the factors enumerated in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), regardless of what the Guidelines may advise.  Accordingly, in certain districts such as the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York, only a quarter of sentences have been within-Guidelines in recent years.  In the view of many district judges, it seems, the proper sentence for a “mine-run case” is a below-Guidelines one. 

Indeed, anyone with a working knowledge of the Sentencing Guidelines — or any regular reader of this blog — is likely familiar with just how harsh the Guidelines can be.  Yet the approach of Perez-Rodriguez requires only that above-Guidelines sentences provide sufficient justification; it offers no path to challenging harsh but below- or within-Guidelines sentences.  A more robust appellate review of the reasonableness of above-Guidelines sentences is certainly welcome, but it is not by itself a panacea for the ills of mass incarceration. 

I am always grateful for (and eager to post) any and all caselaw reviews, so I thank this author and encourage others to help me track and report on lower court sentencing developments like this one.

September 20, 2020 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Due Process in a Fee-Driven State"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article now available via SSRN authored by Penny White and Glenn Harlan Reynolds.  Here is its abstract:

Inspired by the Justice Department's report on criminal law enforcement and the use of courts as a revenue-generation machine in Ferguson, Missouri, we address the widespread problem of policing for profit in light of two classic Supreme Court cases on due process, and two very recent Court of Appeals cases that focus specifically on the due process implications of a justice system dependent for funding on those people it "serves."  We argue that when everyone participating in the justice system is aware that the system itself depends on sufficient revenue from fines, fees, and forfeitures, that very dependency is a conflict of interest sufficient to violate due process rights. 

In this short article, we will look briefly at the history and law of judicial independence, after which we will describe the extent to which the modern judicial system — and, indeed, the entire law enforcement apparatus — depends upon extracting money from a steady stream of individuals who appear before it creating an untenable vested interest in charging and collecting and resulting in a fundamentally unfair system.  We then offer a number of solutions, and find Supreme Court support for our approach in a surprising place.

September 20, 2020 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)