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February 29, 2020

"Why Shouldn't Prisoners Be Voters?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this New Yorker piece by Daniel Gross. The lengthy piece, which is part of the magazine's The Future of Democracy series, is worth a full read.  The subheading captures the piece's themes: "Americans take for granted that they have a right to vote. The situation of people in prison suggests otherwise."  Here is an excerpt:

Two centuries ago, only Connecticut barred citizens with criminal convictions from voting. The state’s constitution, which was ratified in 1818, declared that a man’s right to vote could be “forfeited by a conviction of bribery, forgery, perjury, duelling, fraudulent bankruptcy, theft, or other offence for which an infamous punishment is inflicted.”  In the years before the Civil War, seventeen states joined Connecticut in passing some form of felony disenfranchisement. Then, in the decade after the abolition of slavery, while the national movement for black suffrage was building momentum, ten more states, mostly in the South, quickly adopted them.  The same period saw a sharp increase, in many states, in the incarceration of African-Americans. (Although the vast majority of people in prison cannot vote, the census counts them as living where they are incarcerated, shifting political representation to the places that have prisons.)

Many state lawmakers were explicit about the racist motivations for these changes. In 1901, Alabama Democrats, who had a history of election tampering, called a convention to rewrite the state constitution. “The justification for whatever manipulation of the ballot box that has occurred in this State has been the menace of negro domination,” John B. Knox, the president of the convention, said in his opening remarks. “If we should have white supremacy, we must establish it by law—not by force or fraud.” The resulting constitution named twenty convictions, from robbery to forgery to vagrancy, that would strip men of their right to vote. The same document discriminated against black voters with poll taxes and literacy tests.

Felony-disenfranchisement laws spread across the country: by the nineteen-seventies, forty-six states had them. Massachusetts was the last state to join the group, passing a constitutional amendment in 2000 with more than sixty per cent of the vote.  (The Prison Policy Initiative observed that it was “the first time that the Massachusetts constitution has been amended to take away rights from a group of people.”)  Three years later, three researchers published a paper in the American Journal of Sociology showing that the most stringent of these laws were to be found in states with many potential voters of color.  In Tennessee, where citizens lose the franchise for life if they are convicted of crimes such as forgery, sodomy, or receiving stolen property, a fifth of African-Americans are barred from voting, according to the Sentencing Project.  (The same was true in Virginia and Alabama until recently, when the Democratic governors of those states restored the franchise to large numbers of citizens.)

Vermont and Maine, the only states that have never disenfranchised prisoners, are also the whitest states in the nation. Less than four per cent of Vermonters, and less than five per cent of Mainers, are people of color. “I do think that it’s not a coincidence that it’s only Maine and Vermont that allow inmate voting,” Emily Tredeau, a supervising attorney at the Vermont Prisoners’ Rights Office, told me.  “White voters will give pause before they disenfranchise other white people.” Joseph Jackson, a formerly incarcerated activist, added, “Mainers look at Maine folks that are incarcerated as though they are not other.”  (While the prison population in Maine is mostly white, it is significantly less white than the state as a whole: nearly twenty per cent of those incarcerated in Maine are people of color.)

February 29, 2020 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (2)

February 28, 2020

Notable new survey and resources concerning sentencing second looks and second chances

Fair and Just Prosecution and The Justice Collaborative this week released a new survey and additional materials on the hot topic of sentencing reviews and how prosecutors might approach second-look sentencing. This report, titled "Policies & Polling On Reducing Excessive Prison Terms," has these passages in its Executive Summary setting out the context and previewing some of the contents:

In recent years, despite an emerging bipartisan consensus around the need for criminal justice reform, there has been insufficient action to address people serving lengthy sentences who no longer pose a serious risk to public safety.  To gauge popular support for policies that provide opportunities for people serving long prison terms to seek release and return to their communities, we conducted a national survey of American voters.

Our results indicate that such policies have overwhelming support among American voters, regardless of ideology or party affiliation.  Voters believe that sentencing policies and practices should be closely connected to public safety — and that people who can be safely returned to their communities should not be warehoused because of excessive prison terms that waste taxpayer dollars and fail to reflect current values.  Voters believe that people deserve a second chance, and they support sentence-review policies that can provide it.

On the whole, voters believe that reviewing and reducing lengthy sentences serves a variety of important policy goals, including: bringing U.S. sentencing more in line with international standards, addressing racial disparities, reducing costs, correcting older excessive sentences that are out of step with current practices, and ensuring that people who pose little risk of committing crimes are not growing old behind bars, separated from their families and communities.

We sought public sentiment on two policies for sentence review that are gaining increased attention and that are the subject of a new policy brief, “Revisiting Past Extreme Sentences: Sentencing Review and Second Chances,” released today by Fair and Just Prosecution.  Those mechanisms include “second-look” legislation (see Appendix A) and sentence review by elected prosecutors (see Appendix B).  The survey results found strong support for both of these reforms:

  • Overall, 69% of voters support “second look” legislation that allows for “the reexamination of old sentences to provide a second chance for people who have been in prison for more than ten years and who can be safely returned to the community.”
  • Support for these reforms is bipartisan and cuts across geography and ideology. Support among “very conservative” voters for second-look legislation is 63% while support among “very liberal” voters is 82%. These numbers track support along party lines, with 81% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans supporting.
  • Similarly, two-thirds (67%) of voters support “elected prosecutors reexamining past sentences to provide a second chance to people who have been in prison for ten years or longer and who can be safely returned to the community.”

In addition to the Fair and Just Prosecution's policy brief, The Justice Collaborative has also released another great document titled "Model District Attorney Sentence Review Guidelines."  Here I will provide links to these two important new second look documents:

I cannot help but note that some years ago I gave a keynote speech at a conference focused on the work of prosecutors that suggested they should be much more involved in reviewing past sentence.  That speech got published as Encouraging (and Even Requiring) Prosecutors to Be Second-Look Sentencers, 19 Temple Political & Civil Rights L. Rev. 429 (2010).  It is nice to see that it only took about a decade for this idea to come into vogue.

February 28, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Changing Course in the Overdose Crisis: Moving from Punishment to Harm Reduction and Health"

The title of this post is the title of this big new Vera Institute of Justice report.  Here is part of its Introduction:

[A]long with the reports and public dialogue about the opioid overdose crisis, there is increasing recognition that relying on criminalizing drug use and enforcement-led approaches does not work.  Indeed, it is now firmly established that the long-running “war on drugs” in the United States has not only failed to reduce illicit drug use and associated crime but has also contributed mightily to mass incarceration and exacerbated racial disparities within the criminal justice system, with a particularly devastating impact on Black communities.

Researchers at the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) have long been working to provide accurate information about the latest evidence regarding justice system responses to problematic drug use and the opioid overdose crisis.  In so doing, Vera has highlighted innovative strategies that justice system actors are using to move away from enforcement-led approaches to drug use.  Furthermore, Vera, like others, has pushed for a public health approach to problematic drug use — one that simultaneously seeks to reduce contact with the justice system for people who use drugs and ensure that people who use drugs and do have such contact can access harm reduction, treatment, and recovery services to reduce the negative consequences of their drug use.

This report provides a look at the current intersection of problematic drug use and the criminal justice system. It offers practical guidance for practitioners, policymakers, and funders by compiling the wide range of interventions that communities can consider to minimize justice system contact for people who use drugs and to improve public health and safety.  In this report, Vera starts from the perspective that there is an urgent need to transform the criminal justice system’s response to drug use and to implement policies and practices that advance health.  The findings and recommendations in this report are guided by the principles of harm reduction — a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing the negative consequences of drug use without insisting on cessation of use — and by the conviction that problematic drug use should be addressed primarily as a public health problem rather than a criminal justice issue.

This report addresses the long-standing history of racialized drug policies in the United States and highlights the ways they have fueled mass incarceration and racial disparities at every point along the justice continuum.  It also shows that a new path forward requires not only bold leadership at the local level, where real change is more tangible, but also sustained investment in community organizations led by people who are directly impacted. This report is organized into four main sections.  To begin, it offers a brief overview of the context of the current drug overdose crisis and the ways that an enforcement-led approach to drug use has harmed people and communities.  The report then outlines the spectrum of community-based and justice system-based interventions that are currently applied in response to drug use at the local level.  The third section of the report describes how these interventions come together in two places: Ross County, Ohio, and Atlanta, Georgia.  These case studies describe responses in two different contexts, highlighting successes, common themes, and ongoing challenges.  The report concludes with key strategies and recommendations for changing the trajectory of justice system responses to drug use by drawing on these two case studies and interviews with advocates, scholars, and practitioners in the field.

February 28, 2020 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

February 27, 2020

Will SCOTUS take up another case to address other post-Miller JLWOP issues now that Malvo has gone away?

As noted in this post , earlier this week Virginia enacted new legislation to make all juvenile offenders eligible for parole.  One effect of that new legislation was to moot, more than four months after oral argument, the Supreme Court's consideration of the Malvo case which concerned whether infamous DC sniper Lee Malvo was constitutionally entitled to be considered for resentencing since he was given LWOP for a series of murders committed when he was 17.  Many were wondering whether and how the Justices might use the Malvo case to address broader Eighth Amendment concerns, because the Malvo case touched on, but did not necessarily require resolution of, various issues related to past SCOTUS jurisprudence concerning juvenile sentencing.

Though the dispute in Malvo has gone away, the array of questions about how properly to apply Miller and related SCOTUS precedents in sentencing juveniles to extreme sentencing terms has not.  And it seems quite possible that some Justices, having become sufficiently involved in working through draft opinions for resolving Malvo, may now be eager to now take up a replacement case.  Kent Scheidegger sure seems eager for SCOTUS to take up a replacement case, as he has two new posts over at Crime & Consequences highlighting the range of potential replacements for Malvo:

Because I am always keen for SCOTUS to take up more sentencing issues and to clarify its constitutional jurisprudence, I am hopeful we will see SCOTUS take up another case to address post-Miller issues ASAP.  But SCOTUS often has a way of dashing my hopes (e.g., its recent acquitted conduct cert denials), so I make no firm predictions.

February 27, 2020 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Does Bail Reform Increase Crime? An Empirical Assessment of the Public Safety Implications of Bail Reform in Cook County, Illinois"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Paul Cassell and Richard Fowles now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Recently bail reform issues have been in the news across the country, as concerns about fair treatment of defendants and possible public safety risks from expanding pretrial release have collided.  These issues involve important empirical questions, including whether releasing more defendants before trial leads to additional crimes.  An opportunity to investigate this public safety issue has developed in Chicago, our nation’s second largest city.  There, the Office of the Chief Judge of the Cook County Courts adopted new bail reform measures in September 2017 and reviewed them empirically in May 2019.  Cook County’s Bail Reform Study concluded that the new procedures had released many more defendants before trial without any concomitant increase in crime.

This article disputes the Study’s conclusions.  This article explains that, contrary to the Study’s assertions, the new changes to pretrial release procedures appear to have led to a substantial increase in crimes committed by pretrial releasees in Cook County. Properly measured and estimated, after more generous release procedures were put in place, the number of released defendants charged with committing new crimes increased by 45%. And, more concerning, the number of pretrial releasees charged with committing new violent crimes increased by an estimated 33%.  In addition, as reported by the Chicago Tribune, the Study’s data appears to undercount the number of releasees charged with new violent crimes; and a substantial number of aggravated domestic violence prosecutions prosecutors dropped after the changes, presumably because batterers were able to more frequently obtain release and intimidate their victims into not pursuing charges.  These public safety concerns call into question whether the bail “reform” measures implemented in Cook County were cost-beneficial.  And because Cook County’s procedures are state-of-the-art and track those being implemented in many parts of the country, Cook County’s experience suggests that other jurisdictions may similarly be suffering increases in crime due to bail reform.

February 27, 2020 in National and State Crime Data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Is Prez Trump legally unable to grant clemency to Roger Stone?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Politico Magazine piece by Corey Brettschneider headlined "Why President Trump Can’t Pardon Roger Stone."  Here are excerpts:

Speculation that President Donald Trump might pardon Roger Stone has reached a fever pitch after Stone’s sentencing by a federal judge and the president’s repeated hints that he thinks the verdict unfair.  But fortunately, the Constitution’s framers imagined this nightmare scenario — a suspected criminal president pardoning a co-conspirator — and they put in the Constitution language to legally prohibit the pardon power in exactly this kind of case.

Both the plain meaning of the Constitution’s text and the historical evidence show that once a president has been impeached, he or she loses the power to pardon anyone for criminal offenses connected to the articles of impeachment — and that even after the Senate’s failure to convict the president, he or she does not regain this power.

Under Article II, Section II of the Constitution, the president is given the “power to grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.”  Pardons are supposed to be used as acts of mercy.  The framers thought of the pardon power as a “benign prerogative”—prerogative because it was mostly unchecked by courts or Congress, but benign because presidents would use it for the public good.

But the framers knew not to place blind trust in the president to wield the power justly. That’s why they explicitly forbade a president from exercising the pardon power in “cases of impeachment.”  The clause prevents the worst abuse of the pardon power: a president’s protecting cronies who have been convicted of crimes related to the president’s own wrongdoing....

The limit on pardons for co-conspirators wouldn’t affect many of the president’s pardons. Pardoning convicted criminals like former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich might be ill-advised, but it is still permitted.  By contrast, pardoning longtime adviser Roger Stone would not be permitted, as his crimes relate directly to the impeachment case....

Inevitably, some will argue that an impeached president should regain the power to grant clemency to his alleged co-conspirators in cases of acquittal by the Senate.  That ignores not only the framers’ clear intent, but also the plain text of the Constitution.

The framers deliberately used the phrase “cases of impeachment,” not “conviction.” One reason why is simple: A president convicted by the Senate would be removed from office, and thus unable to pardon anyone. As such, there would be no reason for the Constitution to curb a convicted president’s pardon power. No exception to the pardon power needs to be granted, because no such power exists.

Moreover, the framers provided no explicit avenue for him to regain the power they took away after a House impeachment vote.  Time limits are common in the Constitution—think of the president’s four-year term — and the absence of one connected to the pardon power suggests that the power is not in fact lost for a limited duration.  In the absence of an explicit reinstatement of pardon power in the text, the strong presumption has to be that it is still lost.

I am generally chary about any efforts to place novel limits on clemency powers, but this commentary is making an interesting textualist and originalist-based claim here. In the end, I think political interest, not legal concerns, will shape how Prez Trump uses his clemency power here (and elsewhere). But if Prez Trump does give some form of clemency to Stone, we now can see the terms of inevitable legal challenges to that effort.

Prior related posts:

February 27, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"The Hidden Cost of the Disease: Fines, Fees, and Costs Assessed on Persons with Alleged Substance Use Disorder"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Meghan O'Neil and Daniel Strellman and available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The age-old adage “crime doesn’t pay” is true in more ways than one. This article stems from two years of field work in problem-solving treatment courts; circuit, district, and federal courts; addiction treatment centers; and probation offices throughout the State of Michigan.  Persons experiencing substance use disorder (SUD) can rapidly amass criminal charges on any given day, given that the private use of controlled substances is illegal, as is driving while intoxicated.  These repeated behaviors can, and frequently do, culminate in incarceration, supervision (e.g., probation or parole), and hefty fines and fees.  Moreover, persons experiencing SUD are far from uncommon: overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, and in 2018, focus groups with state district court judges in Michigan estimated that four out of every five criminal defendants were experiencing problematic substance use, illuminating the overwhelming degree to which SUD permeates our criminal justice system.

Practitioners, academics, and policymakers involved with the justice system ought to be concerned with the costs assessed in SUD cases because they can be potentially expensive to collect, excruciatingly burdensome on vulnerable people involved with the justice system trying to maintain sobriety and re-enter society, and present a generally inefficient method of punishment when the cost of collection outweighs the total amount which is ultimately collected by the state.  While crime doesn’t pay generally, it is particularly costly for vulnerable defendants experiencing SUD.  Identifying best practices for supervision of SUD offenders might present avenues to improve the cost effectiveness and efficiency of fines in ways that actually reduce subsequent offending — as fines were meant to do.

February 27, 2020 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Sentencing is Dang Hard... And So..."

The title of this post is the (silly?) title that I gave to a speech I delivered a few years ago when having the honor to receive the 2018 Richard P. Kern Memorial Award from the National Association of Sentencing Commissions. A cleaned-up version of the speech appears now in the February 2020 issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter, and I have posted the text here via SSRN. Here is the short piece's abstract:

This essay, adapted from a speech upon receipt of the 2018 Richard P. Kern Memorial Award from the National Association of Sentencing Commissions, details why sentencing is “dang hard” and explores implications of that reality.  The essay argues that the challenges of sentencing not only demand that all jurisdictions have a sentencing commission as an essential permanent agency, but also call for these commissions always to think big and to strive to work deep and wide to study all facets of modern criminal justice systems.  The essay also contends that sentencing errors may be quite common and that, even if we manage to get sentencing “right” at the outset, changes in society and in individuals can make even “right” sentences wrong over time.  Sensible humility about the likelihood of sentencing errors further suggests, for example: at the rule-making stage, having sentencing laws include sunset provisions and having sentencing commissions review and audit major guidelines and related sentencing practices on a regular basis; at the case-specific stage, having far more robust substantive appellate review of sentences and more robust mechanisms for parole and judicial reconsideration and clemency, and even developing more creative means to apply and revise different forms of punishment as time passes and new information is gathered.

February 27, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

February 26, 2020

Colorado on the verge of abolishing the state's death penalty

As reported in this local article, the "bill to repeal Colorado’s death penalty cleared its final legislative hurdle Wednesday afternoon in a 38-27 vote in the House of Representatives, and the governor’s office says he will sign the measure." Here is more:

The measure passed its third reading Wednesday morning after passing its second reading early Tuesday morning after an 11-hour debate period.  There was more than five hours of emotional testimony from lawmakers before the final vote Wednesday.  Passage of the bill, HB20-100, was all-but a foregone conclusion after the bill cleared the Senate late last month because of the strong Democratic majority in the House.

Some Republicans — and Democrats — made their final pleas to send the question of whether to repeal the death penalty to voters, as they have sought in prior discussions about the bill.  Rep. Tim Geitner again tried to offer an amendment to refer the question to voters — but that attempt failed despite five Democrats voting for it.  Rep. Tom Sullivan, a Democrat whose son was killed in the Aurora theater shooting, was also among those who opposed passage of the measure during prior debate this week.

Much of the opposition from lawmakers came because they feel families of murder victims will not get closure if the death penalty is not on the table for the killers.  But many Democrats pointed that there are other options, which they say are more cost-effective, than capital punishment....

In the end, three Democrats voted against the measure — Reps. Kyle Mullica, Brianna Titone and Tom Sullivan — all of whom said they would be voting "no" during Wednesday's debate.  Zero Republicans voted for the measure.  But Democrats hold an advantage in the House and had the votes to pass the bill Wednesday.

Colorado is now the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty.

The measure repeals the state’s death penalty for any crimes charged by prosecutors on or after July 1, 2020. There are currently three people on Colorado’s death row: Robert Ray, Sir Mario Owens and Nathan Dunlap.  Ray and Owens were convicted of killing Javad Marshall-Fields, the son of Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and Marshall-Fields fiancée in 2005, and Fields’ opposition to the repeal has been a key point of contention in this year’s debate after it caused last year’s repeal measure to fail.  New Republican sponsorship in the Senate offset Fields’ opposition to the measure and allowed it to pass the Senate.

The 2020 repeal measure was the sixth attempt by lawmakers in recent years to get rid of the death penalty in Colorado — but the first to succeed.  A spokesperson for Polis confirmed Tuesday night that the governor will sign the bill.

February 26, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

SCOTUS unanimously clarifies (in narrow way) that no special words are needed to preserve substantive reasonableness review

In this post when cert was granted in Holguin-Hernandez last June, I rejoiced because it has been nearly a decade since SCOTUS has said anything significant about reasonableness review.  But, recognizing that the case concerned only an appellate procedural issue, I was prepared for the ultimate ruling to be a narrow one.  And this morning in Holguin-Hernandez v. United States, No. 18–7739 (S. Ct. Feb. 26, 2020) (available here), the Justices through a unanimous opinion said about as little as possible while ruling for the defendant.  Here are some key excerpts from Justice Breyer's opinion for the Court, with my favorite and least favorite passages bolded (and lots of cites removed):

Congress has instructed sentencing courts to impose sentences that are “‘sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with’” (among other things) certain basic objectives, including the need for “just punishment, deterrence, protection of the public, and rehabilitation.” Dean v. United States, 581 U.S. ___, ___ (2017)... If the trial court follows proper procedures and gives adequate consideration to these and the other listed factors, then the question for an appellate court is simply, as here, whether the trial court’s chosen sentence was “reasonable” or whether the judge instead “abused his discretion in determining that the §3553(a) factors supported” the sentence imposed....

Judges, having in mind their “overarching duty” under §3553(a), would ordinarily understand that a defendant [advocating for a shorter sentence] was making the argument (to put it in statutory terms) that the shorter sentence would be “‘sufficient’” and a longer sentence “‘greater than necessary’” to achieve the purposes of sentencing. Nothing more is needed to preserve the claim that a longer sentence is unreasonable.

We do not agree with the Court of Appeals’ suggestion that defendants are required to refer to the “reasonableness” of a sentence to preserve such claims for appeal.  The rulemakers, in promulgating Rule 51, intended to dispense with the need for formal “exceptions” to a trial court’s rulings....  The question is simply whether the claimed error was “brought to the court’s attention.” Rule 52(b).  Here, it was.

The Court of Appeals properly noted that, to win on appeal, a defendant making such a claim must show that the trial court’s decision was not “reasonable.” Gall, 552 U.S., at 56.  But that fact is not relevant to the issue here.  Our decisions make plain that reasonableness is the label we have given to “the familiar abuse-of-discretion standard” that “applies to appellate review” of the trial court’s sentencing decision. Id., at 46 (emphasis added); ... The substantive standard that Congress has prescribed for trial courts is the “parsimony principle” enshrined in §3553(a).  Dean, 581 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 4).  A defendant who, by advocating for a particular sentence, communicates to the trial judge his view that a longer sentence is “greater than necessary” has thereby informed the court of the legal error at issue in an appellate challenge to the substantive reasonableness of the sentence.  He need not also refer to the standard of review.

The Government and amicus raise other issues.  They ask us to decide what is sufficient to preserve a claim that a trial court used improper procedures in arriving at its chosen sentence.  And they ask us to decide when a party has properly preserved the right to make particular arguments supporting its claim that a sentence is unreasonably long.  We shall not consider these matters, however, for the Court of Appeals has not considered them.  We hold only that the defendant here properly preserved the claim that his 12-month sentence was unreasonably long by advocating for a shorter sentence and thereby arguing, in effect, that this shorter sentence would have proved “sufficient,” while a sentence of 12 months or longer would be “greater than necessary” to “comply with” the statutory purposes of punishment. 18 U.S.C. §3553(a).

I am pleased to see that this decision clarifies, yet again, that district judges under Booker are duty-bound to impose sentences that are "sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with" statutory requirements.  A full 15 years after Booker, more than a few courts still talk about their obligation to impose a "reasonable" sentence even though this is an appellate standard of review.  Kudos to SCOTUS for stressing in this case that "the substantive standard that Congress has prescribed for trial courts is the 'parsimony principle' enshrined in §3553(a)."

But I am displeased to see that this decision refuses to address any other reasonableness review issues.  I respect the Court's decision to be circumspect in a case only raising a small issue, but there are thousands of sentence appeals each year that could benefit from additional clarity about how reasonableness review should proceed and how various issues are properly (or improperly) preserved.

Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, Justice Alito (joined by Justice Gorsuch), feels compelled to write a short concurring opinion in order "to emphasize what we are not deciding."  His opinion asserts that "the plain-error rule serves many interests" and he suggests that there are many ways even after Holguin-Hernandez to apply this limited review standard to various sentencing claims on appeal.

February 26, 2020 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

SCOTUS unanimously rejects effort to narrow ACCA-predicate drug crimes in Shular

Much of the never-ending Armed Career Criminal Act litigation concerns the reach of ACCA's "violent felony" definitions as predicate priors for applying the statute's extreme 15-year mandatory minimum term.  But the Supreme Court addressed unanimously today in Shular v. United States, No. 18–6662 (S. Ct. Feb. 26, 2020) (available here), the reach of the ACCA predicate provision defining "serious drug offense."  And while defendants have often prevailed on challenges to broad application of "violent felony," the unanimous opinion by Justice Ginsburg in Shular turns away a defense effort to limit what qualifies as a "serious drug felony."  Here is the full start to the Court's opinion:

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. §924(e), mandates a 15-year minimum sentence of imprisonment for certain defendants with prior convictions for a “serious drug offense.”  A state offense ranks as a “serious drug offense” only if it “involv[es] manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance.” §924(e)(2)(A)(ii).  This case concerns the methodology courts use to apply that definition.

While the parties agree that a court should look to the state offense’s elements, they disagree over what the court should measure those elements against.  In the Government’s view, the court should ask whether those elements involve the conduct identified in §924(e)(2)(A)(ii) — namely, “manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance.”  Petitioner Eddie Lee Shular, however, contends that the terms employed in the statute identify not conduct, but offenses.  In his view, those terms are shorthand for the elements of the offenses as commonly understood.  According to Shular, the court must first identify the elements of the “generic” offense, then ask whether the elements of the state offense match those of the generic crime.

Under the approach he advances, Shular argues, his sentence is not subject to ACCA enhancement.  The generic offenses named in §924(e)(2)(A)(ii), as Shular understands them, include a mens rea element of knowledge that the substance is illicit.  He emphasizes that his prior convictions were for state offenses that do not make knowledge of the substance’s illegality an element of the offense; the state offenses, he therefore maintains, do not match the generic offenses in §924(e)(2)(A)(ii).

The question presented: Does §924(e)(2)(A)(ii)’s “serious drug offense” definition call for a comparison to a generic offense?  We hold it does not.  The “serious drug offense” definition requires only that the state offense involve the conduct specified in the federal statute; it does not require that the state offense match certain generic offenses.

Even for hard-core ACCA fans (and you know who you are), there does not seem to be all that much of great significance in Shular (beyond a reminder that rulings for prosecutors can still sometimes garner unanimity from this Court).  There is an intriguing coda to the Shular ruling in the form of a three-page concurrence by Justice Kavanaugh in order to "elaborate on why the rule of lenity does not apply here."  In his elaboration, Justice Kavanaugh seems mostly just to reiterate basic doctrinal statements about the rule of lenity from past SCOTUS cases, so I am not quite sure what the separate opinion was designed to achieve (beyond giving the Justice an excuse to cite his own Harvard Law Review article: "Kavanaugh, Fixing Statutory Interpretation, 129 Harv. L. Rev. 2118 (2016)).

February 26, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Madoff Wants Leniency. My Dad Received None. Why should the Ponzi scheme king get out to die, when the judges imprisoned my father with just weeks to live?""

The title of this post is the full headline of this notable new Bloomberg Opinion commentary in which Ian Fisher reflects, in a personal way, on compassion and compassionate release.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

I cannot remember the name of the chaplain who called from the Butner correctional facility, perhaps the nation’s premier federal prison for sick white-collar prisoners. But he was a pro.  He talked slowly, in gentle circles about how my father had been very ill and how they did their best.  This verbal shuffling was all so I could figure out before the chaplain said the actual word that my father, Albert Ernest Fisher III, was dead. He was 78.

So it hit me with unexpected emotion, complicated now as a financial journalist, when I read that Bernie Madoff, 81, my father’s Butner prisonmate, is asking for compassionate release. He says he is dying.  I use “he says” as journalistic distancing and to signal that it may not be wise to believe everything that the engineer of the world’s biggest Ponzi scheme tells you....

After Madoff’s request, I’ve learned that the penal system is trending toward compassion — as well as a more hard-headed desire to unclog prisons and work toward fairness in drug sentencing.  The 2018 First Step Act, passed too late for my father, allows judges more flexibility to release federal prisoners. So when Bernard Ebbers, sent to prison for 25 years for $11 billion in accounting fraud, asked for compassionate release last year, it hardly raised a stir.  He was let out in December and died at home in Mississippi on Feb. 2, just around the time Madoff made his own request.

Still, when your own family life collides with larger forces embodied in First Step, the feelings are less abstract.  My dad was not in Madoff’s league, but there are parallels.  Both ran Ponzi schemes.  The crimes of each caused real damage, from life savings vaporized to student funds for room and board squandered in Bermuda and Neiman Marcus.  Neither was a violent threat to society, but the actions of each incurred a debt to it.  Those actions cost, in explicit ways....

My immediate reaction to Madoff’s request was a personal one: Why should he get out to die, when the judges imprisoned my father with just weeks to live? Madoff’s lawyers say he has maybe 18 months left in him. He’s been in prison nearly 11 years.

I don’t wish to be cruel. I wince seeing the terminally ill suffer in jail, my dad, Madoff or anyone else.  First Step seems like a reasonable attempt at reducing mass incarceration in the United States — case by case, on their merits, under specific guidelines.

But Madoff’s request has unexpectedly forced me to face something basic about being a citizen: Can you live with what you think is abstractly good even if is not good for you personally?  In my case, can I say it’s fine that Madoff may get to die freely when my father could not — even if I believe that people like him should be shown compassion?

Honestly, it’s not going down very well.  To me, Madoff is not a matter of public policy, brushing prison shoulders with my father: a better criminal, richer and more famous, who could glide free simply because times have changed.

Prior related posts:

February 26, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

February 25, 2020

Oregon discovering it might have Apprendi problems with its new first-degree murder sentencing provisions

A helpful reader alerted me to this interesting article from Oregon, headlined "New law throws true life sentence in doubt for MAX train killer Jeremy Christian, other murderers, experts say," which highlights that states are still struggling with the modern meaning of the Sixth Amendment a full two decades since Apprendi v. New Jersey.  Here are the details:

Now that a Portland jury has found Jeremy Christian guilty of the first-degree murders of two men on a MAX train, many people might assume that -- given the horrific nature of his crimes -- he’ll end up serving the rest of his life with the possibility of never being released.  Think again.

A growing chorus of legal experts say they believe there’s a glaring flaw in Oregon’s new first-degree murder law that effectively eliminates the possibility that Christian and other convicted murderers in the future will end up serving “true life” prison terms.

Critics say the new law, passed last summer as Senate Bill 1013, is unconstitutional and vague.  They say it disregards two landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions that invalidate the procedure laid out in the law for handing down true life sentences.  In a flurry of paperwork filed Monday, Christian’s lawyers told Multnomah County Circuit Judge Cheryl Albrecht that given the law’s constitutional problems, her only remaining option under the law is to sentence Christian to life in prison with the possibility of release after 30 years.

Other lawyers representing first-degree murder defendants across Oregon are beginning to make similar arguments, as the first batch of accused killers head toward trials since the law took effect Sept. 29.  Defense attorneys aren’t the only ones pointing to a problem. “In the prosecution community, there’s considerable concern,” said former prosecutor Josh Marquis. “It’d be naive to say this is some idle speculation.”...

He said few lawyers are aware of the impact that the Supreme Court cases -- Apprendi v. New Jersey in 2000 and Blakely v. Washington in 2004 -- have on true life in Oregon....  The Supreme Court rulings require a jury, not a judge, to decide on an elevated prison sentence, such as true life, critics of SB 1013 say.  And criteria -- or specific questions asked of jurors -- must be laid out by the law before the jury can hand down the harsher sentence, they say.

The problem with Oregon’s law is that it grants sentencing powers solely to a judge and doesn’t include sentencing criteria.  As a result, retired Multnomah County prosecutor Norm Frink believes there’s “a high degree of probability” that the Oregon Supreme Court will overturn true life sentences for defendants convicted of first-degree murder....

The uncertainty over how the law will affect the first batch of defendants found guilty of first-degree murder is beginning to play out in courtrooms across the state.  In Christian’s case, Albrecht could go along with the law as stated and decide to sentence him to true life by simply giving what the law calls “the reasons” she thinks he deserves that sentence.

But Albrecht appears to recognize a problem with this because, after jurors found Christian guilty last week, she asked them to return to court Tuesday and Wednesday.  She plans to ask them questions about Christian that will help her decide his sentence.

In court filings Monday, prosecutors came up with their own suggestions for what she should ask, including: Is there a high probability that Christian can’t be rehabilitated? Were his crimes fueled by “unreasonable racial and religious bias”? Has Christian shown remorse for plunging the knife into the necks of the three men?

Tuesday, defense attorney Greg Scholl cautioned the judge that she is stepping onto shaky ground. “There’s nothing in the statute that says this is how they (jurors) are supposed to do it," Scholl said. “We’re operating in a new and somewhat gray area," prosecutor Jeff Howes responded.  Howes said just because SB 1013 doesn’t lay out a process for the judge and jury, that doesn’t mean the judge can’t create a process that is constitutional.  Regardless of how Albrecht handles this, Christian’s attorneys are likely to appeal whatever process she devises....

Outside Portland, other Oregon judges also have been grappling with what to do.  In November, a Hillsboro jury found Martin Allen Johnson guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of a 15-year-old girl whose body washed up on the banks of the Columbia River more than 20 years ago.

Using suggestions from prosecutors, Washington County Circuit Judge Eric Butterfield also came up with a list of questions for jurors.  Among them was whether the defendant knew he was preying on a particularly vulnerable person and if prior punishment in the criminal justice system had deterred him from reoffending.  Butterfield then sentenced Johnson to true life.  Johnson is appealing.

In Linn County, Brenton Wade Richmond faces a double murder trial in the shooting deaths of his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend in her home in 2019.  Wade’s defense attorney asked Circuit Judge David Delsman to prevent the prosecution from seeking true life because of what they see as the first-degree murder law’s many constitutional issues.

Lawyers for the Oregon Department of Justice, however, have weighed in, saying in court filings that the true life option is legal and valid.  Sen. Floyd Prozanski, the Eugene Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he wasn’t aware of the deep concerns some critics have over the validity of the law’s true life option for first-degree murder. His committee backed the bill.  “Well, that’s their opinion, their interpretation,” said Prozanski, who is a municipal prosecutor and handles misdemeanor cases.  “I had not heard that.  And I will say that the law is pretty clear... The intent was not to do away with what’s called true life.”

The new law causing all this trouble appears in bold here, and it says in one section that the "court shall" impose a 30-to-life term and in the next section that "the court may sentence the person to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole."  That next section then provides that the "court shall state on the record the reasons for imposing the sentence." 

I understand the Sixth Amendment worry with this statutory scheme which seems to require that "reasons" be given for an elevated "true life" sentence.  But, ironically, because the statute does not specify what "reasons" are required for the elevated "true life" sentence, I think an argument might be made that the Oregon statute requires only reasoned judgment, not discreet fact-finding, to justify the higher sentence and thus does not create Sixth Amendment problems.  (In a 2006 article titled, "Conceptualizing Booker," I developed the argument that broad judicial power at sentencing can be justified if and only when judges are exercising reasoned judgment.)

February 25, 2020 in Blakely in the States, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Attorney General Barr names Michael Carvajal as new permanent Director of the Bureau of Prisons

As reported in this AP piece, "Attorney General William Barr has named a new director of the beleaguered federal Bureau of Prisons, months after shaking up the agency’s top leadership following the death of wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein."  Here is more:

Barr named Michael Carvajal as the new director Tuesday, replacing Kathy Hawk Sawyer, whom he had personally asked to return to run the agency in the wake of Epstein’s death. Carvajal is currently the assistant director of the department’s correctional programs division, which handles the daily oversight of the bureau’s correctional services. He has held a number of positions since joining the Bureau of Prisons in 1992 as a correctional officer, including working as a warden and director of a regional office.

The Army veteran is also responsible for leading the bureau’s intelligence efforts, working with other law enforcement and counterterrorism agencies around the country. “Michael’s nearly 30 years of experience with the Bureau will serve him exceptionally well as he takes on these new responsibilities, and I am confident he will do an outstanding job as director,” Barr said in a statement. “I want to thank Kathy Hawk Sawyer for her exceptional leadership and helping us identify a highly qualified individual to serve as permanent director.”

Hawk Sawyer, who will remain for now as a senior adviser at the Bureau of Prisons, did not intend to remain in the top post permanently and was appointed to help implement immediate reforms in the wake of Epstein’s suicide, three people familiar with the matter said. Her deputy, Thomas Kane, will remain in his job under Carvajal....

One of the people said a goal with Hawk Sawyer was to help raise Barr’s confidence in the bureau and identify someone to come in and the lead the bureau long-term. Senior Justice Department officials now believe the bureau is in a better position to implement the Trump administration’s sweeping criminal justice reform known as the First Step Act.

The Bureau of Prisons has been in the spotlight since Epstein killed himself in August while awaiting trial on charges he sexually abused girls as young as 14 and young women in New York and Florida in the early 2000s. But the federal prison agency has been plagued for years by a chronic staffing shortage and violence and Epstein's death while in custody highlighted a series of safety lapses inside one of the most secure jails in America.

The inspector general is investigating, and the Justice Department is still probing the circumstances that led to Epstein’s death, including why he wasn’t given a cellmate. Two correctional officers responsible for watching Epstein have pleaded not guilty to charges alleging they lied on prison records to make it seem as though they had checked on Epstein, as required, before his death.

The official statement from the Justice Department about this appoint can be found at this link. I do not know anything specific about Michael Carvajal, but I do know he will be a key figure in the continuing implementation of key provisions of the FIRST STEP Act.

February 25, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Why prosecutorial discretion must be less discreet for criminal justice"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable recent Hill commentary authored by Lars Trautman. Here are excerpts:

Although the term “prosecutorial discretion” is familiar to most people, the extent to which it influences the direction and outcomes of each case may not be.  Does an offense deserve criminal charges, and if so which charges?  Should an individual receive bail or await trial in a jail cell? Is that trial even necessary, or will a plea deal suffice? Prosecutorial discretion lies at the heart of the answer to these questions and more.

Yet legislators are in an uproar because some prosecutors have started using their discretion to presumptively dismiss or divert all cases involving certain low level offenses. In Indiana, this includes the Marion County prosecutor declining to prosecute cases involving under an ounce of marijuana.  Likely ignorant of the fact that prosecutors routinely get rid of these cases without a conviction anyway, legislators have taken this replacement of individual decisions with an office wide policy as an affront. The result is a push to let no law go unprosecuted.

That is of course impractical. There are simply too many offenses and possible offenders to actually prosecute them all.   This means that some prosecutorial discretion is inevitable.... General policies favoring alternatives to prosecution extend the benefits of this discretion universally in those cases where the consequences of a conviction are counterproductive to the aims of justice.  Such policies also recognize that scarce prosecutorial resources are generally better spent pursuing much more serious conduct. Ignoring marijuana possession to focus on violent crime should not be a controversial call.

But just because the legislature is attempting to solve a fictional problem does not mean very real ones do not exist.  Prosecutorial discretion suffers from unaccountability and lack of transparency that could undermine its potential for good.  It operates as a kind of black box that only prosecutors can see inside as facts go in, decisions come out, and explanations are rarely forthcoming.  Policies are seldom public, and prosecutors do not usually disclose why they reached an outcome in any given case.

This immunity from scrutiny becomes protection against any challenge.  After all, a bad outcome alone is standard fare in our justice system.  Without any information on why it was reached, who is to say it was not the natural and normal result?  But attempting to eliminate prosecutorial discretion does not address any of these issues.  With more than 13 million misdemeanor charges alone filed every year in the country, and annual prosecutorial caseloads exceeding a thousand in some places, the evidence suggests that discretion is probably not used enough.

Instead, legislators should work to verify that prosecutors exercise their discretion fairly.  They can do this by pushing prosecutors to release relevant policies to the public, explain individual decisions, and collect and publish data on these decisions.  Trying to remove discretion from prosecution is sheer folly.  But as a necessary force behind many of the decisions that occur in criminal justice, it should be brought further into the light.  Only then will the public be able to see that it is correcting imbalances and injustices rather than continuing them.

February 25, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Voting 5-4 on predictable lines, SCOTUS approves of appellate reweighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances to uphold a death sentence

The Supreme Court this morning handed down a notable (and notably short) opinion in the capital case of McKinney v. Arizona, No, 18-1109 (S. Ct. Feb. 25, 2020) (available here), which rules that an appeals court can, and a jury need not, reweigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances to uphold a death sentence. The court split 5-4 with Justice Kavanaugh writing the majority opinion and with Justice Ginsburg authoring a dissent joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.

Key passages from McKinney should be of interest not only to those who follow capital punishment jurisprudence, but also those who care about jury trial rights and the reach of precedents like Apprendi and Ring.  Here are excerpts from the seven-page majority opinion:

Nearly 20 years [after James McKinney was sentenced to death], on federal habeas corpus review, an en banc panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decided by a 6 to 5 vote that, in sentencing McKinney, the Arizona courts had failed to properly consider McKinney’s posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and had thereby run afoul of this Court’s decision in Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104 (1982)....  McKinney contends that after the Ninth Circuit identified an Eddings error, the Arizona Supreme Court could not itself reweigh the aggravating and mitigating circumstances.  Rather, according to McKinney, a jury must resentence him.

McKinney’s argument does not square with this Court’s decision in Clemons...  [which held] that “the Federal Constitution does not prevent a state appellate court from upholding a death sentence that is based in part on an invalid or improperly defined aggravating circumstance either by reweighing of the aggravating and mitigating evidence or by harmless-error review.”  The Court explained that a Clemons reweighing is not a resentencing but instead is akin to harmless-error review in that both may be conducted by an appellate court...

In deciding whether a particular defendant warrants a death sentence in light of the mix of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, there is no meaningful difference for purposes of appellate reweighing between subtracting an aggravator from one side of the scale and adding a mitigator to the other side.  Both involve weighing, and the Court’s decision in Clemons ruled that appellate tribunals may perform a “reweighing of the aggravating and mitigating evidence.”  In short, a Clemons reweighing is a permissible remedy for an Eddings error....

Under Ring and Hurst, a jury must find the aggravating circumstance that makes the defendant death eligible. But importantly, in a capital sentencing proceeding just as in an ordinary sentencing proceeding, a jury (as opposed to a judge) is not constitutionally required to weigh the aggravating and mitigating circumstances or to make the ultimate sentencing decision within the relevant sentencing range....  Ring and Hurst did not require jury weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and Ring and Hurst did not overrule Clemons so as to prohibit appellate reweighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

McKinney ... asserts that the Arizona Supreme Court’s 2018 decision reweighing the aggravators and mitigators constituted a reopening of direct review. Because this case (as McKinney sees it) is again on direct review, McKinney argues that he should receive the benefit of Ring and Hurst — namely, a jury resentencing with a jury determination of aggravating circumstances.

But the premise of that argument is wrong because the Arizona Supreme Court’s reweighing of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances occurred on collateral review, not direct review. In conducting the reweighing, the Arizona Supreme Court explained that it was conducting an independent review in a collateral proceeding.... Under these circumstances, we may not secondguess the Arizona Supreme Court’s characterization of state law.  As a matter of state law, the reweighing proceeding in McKinney’s case occurred on collateral review.

And here is how Justice Ginsburg's seven-page dissent gets started (with cites and footnotes removed):

Petitioner James Erin McKinney, convicted in Arizona of two counts of first-degree murder, was sentenced to death in 1993.  At that time, Arizona assigned capital sentencing to trial judges.  To impose a death sentence, the judge had to find at least one aggravating circumstance and “no mitigating circumstances sufficiently substantial to call for leniency.” Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. §13–703(E) (1993).  In 2002, in Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002), this Court held Arizona’s capital sentencing regime unconstitutional....  Here in dispute, does Ring apply to McKinney’s case?  If it does, then McKinney’s death sentences — imposed based on aggravating factors found by a judge, not a jury — are unlawful.

The Constitution, this Court has determined, requires the application of new rules of constitutional law to cases on direct review.   Such rules, however, do not apply retroactively to cases on collateral review unless they fall within one of two exceptions.  This Court has already held that Ring does not fall within those exceptions.  Thus, the pivotal question: Is McKinney’s case currently on direct review, in which case Ring applies, or on collateral review, in which case Ring does not apply?  I would rank the Arizona Supreme Court’s proceeding now before this Court for review as direct in character.  I would therefore hold McKinney’s death sentences unconstitutional under Ring, and reverse the judgment of the Arizona Supreme Court.

February 25, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Ending JLWOP, Virginia makes all juvenile offenders eligible for parole (and thereby moots SCOTUS consideration of Malvo case)

As effectively reported here by Daniel Nichanian at The Appeal: Political Report, Monday brought big news out of Virginia that had an echo effect on the Supreme Court's docket. The report is headlined "Virginia Makes All Children Eligible For Parole, A Major Shift For This Punitive State," and here are the details:

Virginia will give hundreds of people who have been incarcerated for decades, ever since they were kids, a shot at petitioning for release. House Bill 35 will make people who have been convicted of an offense committed before the age of 18 eligible for parole after 20 years in prison. The legislature adopted the bill last week and the governor signed it into law [on Monday], effective July 1.

In practice, the bill abolishes sentences of life without the possibility of parole for minors; minors sentenced to sentences that amount to life in prison would also get some chance at parole. “It’s a huge victory,” Heather Renwick, legal director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, told me. Besides banning life without the possibility of parole for minors, “the bill will provide broader relief and parole eligibility for all kids sentenced in the adult system,” she said.

Still, a major question looms over the concrete effect that the reform would have. It will only make people eligible to go in front of a parole board, with no guarantee that anyone gets paroled. And the recent history of Virginia’s board is to quasi-systematically deny the applications it receives. This signals the importance of strengthening the parole process alongside reforms that expand eligibility.

HB 35 also will not address the expansive mechanisms that lead minors to be prosecuted as adults in Virginia, and that trigger lengthy sentences in the first place. But the legislature is also considering separate bills to at least narrow those mechanisms....

In some ways, this bill is a modest reform. For one, it brings Virginia in line with many of its peers. With HB 35 signed into law, Virginia becomes the 23rd state (plus D.C.) to end sentences of life without the possibility of parole for minors. Oregon passed a similar bill last summer, and such proposals are on the table in other states as well.

HB 35, moreover, is a less expansive change than we’ve seen in other states. When neighboring West Virginia adopted a similar law in 2014, it made minors eligible for parole after 15 years, rather than the 20 that HB 35 stipulates. (Oregon’s law also stipulated 15 years.) And when Illinois established new parole rules for youths last year, it made people up to age 21 eligible to apply, affirming that considerations of youth do not just stop when someone is a day over 18. HB 35 still sets a cutoff at age 18.

The bill also better aligns Virginia on the U.S. Supreme Court rulings, such as Miller v. Alabama, which ended mandatory life without parole sentences for minors. The state has been slow at granting resentencing, and there is also litigation on whether the other mechanisms that impose extreme sentences on minors are any more constitutional. HB 35 addresses such concerns by retroactively conferring parole eligibility to minors sentenced to de facto life sentences.

When the bill becomes effective, it will affect 720 currently-incarcerated people, according to a legislative analysis....

Virginia may also soon pass a bill to make about 300 people sentenced between 1995 (when it ended parole) and 2000 (when it began informing juries of this change) eligible for parole.

Expanding eligibility may not by itself change much for anyone, though, including for minors. That’s because Virginia’s parole board has been denying the vast majority of applications it receives.

According to a Capital News Services analysis of Virginia’s parole board published in December, the vast majority of parole applications are denied: 94 percent since 2014. The rate of denial was above 90 percent for all age groups. Earlier analyses have found similar numbers.

This ABC News article explains the echo effect of this new Virginia law on a high-profile Supreme Court case argued last October:

D.C. sniper Lee Boyd Malvo asked the Supreme Court to dismiss his appeal on Monday after a change to Virginia state law now makes him eligible for parole....  In a letter to the Court signed by Malvo's attorney and an attorney for the state of Virginia, both sides agreed the case is now moot and should be dismissed.  Malvo will retain his sentences and remain behind bars, the letter says.

Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger has two posts in this wake of these developments, the first suggesting an alternative case for the Court to now take up and the second urging the Court to think about how best to dismiss the Malvo case:

February 25, 2020 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

February 24, 2020

"Imagining the Progressive Prosecutor"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Benjamin Levin. Here is its abstract:

As criminal justice reform has attracted greater public support, a new brand of district attorney candidate has arrived: the “progressive prosecutors.”  Commentators increasingly have keyed on “progressive prosecutors” as offering a promising avenue for structural change, deserving of significant political capital and academic attention.  This Essay asks an unanswered threshold question: what exactly is a “progressive prosecutor”?  Is that a meaningful category at all, and if so, who is entitled to claim the mantle?  In this Essay, I argue that “progressive prosecutor” means many different things to many different people.  These differences in turn reveal important fault lines in academic and public perceptions of the criminal system and its flaws.

This disagreement or definitional slippage matters, not just for semantic clarity.  Some commentators hail the progressive prosecutor as a new champion of fixing the criminal legal system, while others express skepticism about the transformative potential of even the most progressive DAs.  To the extent that there are fundamental disagreements, then it is critically important to surface them. If resources are being devoted to advancing a progressive prosecutor movement, how unified is that movement?  And, do all the voices pushing for a new approach to prosecution actually agree on what that approach should entail?

In an effort to answer these questions and clarify the terms of debate on progressive prosecutors, this Essay offers a typology of progressive prosecutors.  Rather than mapping all of the candidates and elected officials who have sought or received the mantle, I offer four ideal types: (1) the progressive who prosecutes; (2) the proceduralist prosecutor; (3) the prosecutorical progressive; and (4) the anti-carceral prosecutor.  Each ideal type reflects a different vision of what’s wrong with the criminal system and whether (or to what extent) prosecutors might help in righting those wrongs.

February 24, 2020 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Without any comment, SCOTUS quickly denies cert on two big cases raising the constitutionality of acquitted conduct sentencing

For a number of months, I have been keeping an eye on two certiorari-stage cases being briefed to the Supreme Court, Asaro v. United States and Michigan v. BeckAsaro is a not-too-uncommon case involving a federal defendant whose sentence was enhanced on the basis of so-called "acquitted conduct,” Beck is a somewhat unusual case involving a split Michigan Supreme Court finding due process precludes acquitted conduct being used to enhance a sentence. 

The fact that the state was appealing in Beck, as well as various past comments by newer Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, had me thinking maybe enough current members of the Supreme Court would be prepared to take up these important and challenging issues that have been churning with uncertainty in the wake of Fifth and Sixth Amendment rulings like Watts, Apprendi, Blakely and Booker.  But, via this lengthy order list, SCOTUS on its very first opportunity and without any comment from any Justice, quickly denied certiorari in both Asaro and Beck

I am a lot disappointed, and I suppose a little bit surprised, that these cases did not even generate a relist or any comment from any Justice.  I welcome spculation from others about why the Court seems so very eager to avoid taking up these issues.

February 24, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Via statement after cert denial, Justice Sotomayor makes lengthy case highlighting doubts about guilt of Texas capital defendant

In the middle of a lengthy order list with mostly just cert denials of interest to criminal justice fans (two of which I will discuss in a coming post), Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued this lengthy statement respecting the denial of certiorari in the capital case of Reed v. Texas, No. 19–411.  The bulk of the seven-page statement discusses the evidence raising doubts about the guilt of Rodney Reed, and here are the Justice's closing paragraphs:

In the instant petition for a writ of certiorari, Reed has presented a substantial body of evidence that, if true, casts doubt on the veracity and scientific validity of the evidence on which Reed’s conviction rests.  Misgivings this ponderous should not be brushed aside even in the least consequential of criminal cases; certainly they deserve sober consideration when a capital conviction and sentence hang in the balance.  In the pending tenth state habeas proceeding, however, Reed has identified still more evidence that he says further demonstrates his innocence.  It is no trivial moment that the Texas courts have concluded that Reed has presented a substantive claim of actual innocence warranting further consideration and development on the merits.  While the Court today declines to review the instant petition, it of course does not pass on the merits of Reed’s innocence or close the door to future review.

In my view, there is no escaping the pall of uncertainty over Reed’s conviction.  Nor is there any denying the irreversible consequence of setting that uncertainty aside.  But I remain hopeful that available state processes will take care to ensure full and fair consideration of Reed’s innocence — and will not allow the most permanent of consequences to weigh on the Nation’s conscience while Reed’s conviction remains so mired in doubt.

Prior related post:

February 24, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Whom else should Prez Trump pardon?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent CNN piece by James Gagliano, headlined "This is one pardon Trump should consider." This extended piece starts and ends this way

Since pardons are something of a topic du jour, Mr. President, I have a simple request.  I'm fairly certain you've heard of former NFL star quarterback Michael Vick.  We also all noticed the news reports that you just gifted a commutation for an alum of "The Celebrity Apprentice" who was accused of shakedowns involving a children's hospital and pardoned a former police commissioner convicted for tax fraud and lying to the government.  So please, sir, hear me out -- I have a far more deserving candidate for your leniency consideration.

ESPN's two-part 30 for 30 documentary entitled "Vick" aired recently.  And to tell the complete story of the film's 39-year-old protagonist, every second of its three-hour run time was required.  Vick's tale is one of against-long-odds achievement, meteoric ascension to the pinnacle of his profession and losing it all, while falling prey to hubris and his own cripplingly poor decision-making.  It is also a story of forgiveness, second acts and deserved redemption, Mr. President....

Michael Vick made good on his second chance.  He's back working in football as a television analyst.  He's a family man. He has acknowledged his failures and atoned for them. He has blamed no one else but himself.  Michael Vick could certainly be any of us. He made some grievous mistakes.  As have we all -- including the man who currently occupies the Oval Office.  Here's hoping you'll give this pardon request some serious consideration, Mr. President.

I am sure readers have some additional ideas for clemency candidates now that Prez Trump has his pen going. I would love to hear in the comments additional suggestions.  (Amusingly, thie Fox News piece highlights a humorous suggestion from a notable source under the headline "Mark Hamill wants Trump to 'pardon' notorious 'Star Wars Holiday Special'.")

February 24, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

February 23, 2020

"Can algorithms help judges make fair decisions?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this lengthy recent public radio piece.  Here are some excerpts from a lengthy article worth the time to read in full:

[I]n 2010, the [Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing] worked on an algorithm, a formula, that would allow a computer to predict how likely a person was to commit another crime and recommend when judges should get more information about a case. The goal was to make sentencing more consistent, reduce prison populations, and lead to less crime.

Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Commission on Sentencing, said compared to judges, an algorithm can process lots of data. “When we started our project, we didn’t look at a handful of cases, we looked at over 200,000 cases to try to see what factors sort of related to positive and negative outcomes. And that’s information that judges didn’t have or didn’t have in a … structured … way.”

The formula will look for patterns based on age, gender, what crime someone is being convicted of, prior convictions and for which crimes, and whether the offender has a juvenile record. It cannot take race into account, or county, which is seen as a proxy for race.

The judge will still make the ultimate decision on sentencing. The algorithm will be rolled out this year, and evaluated after 12 months. It took 10 years to create because it was so controversial.

For one thing, critics were afraid that a tool built from criminal justice data would still discriminate against people of color. Pennsylvania is more than 80% white. Almost half the prison population is black....

There is research on what a risk assessment algorithm will do: Virginia started using one in the early 2000s. Megan Stevenson, assistant professor of law at George Mason University, studied the effects: The number of people in prison did not go down, recidivism did not go down, and black people were slightly more likely to be incarcerated compared to white people, all else being equal.

“The impacts of a risk assessment tool don’t just depend on the statistical properties of the algorithm,” Stevenson said. “They depend on how human beings respond to the algorithm, when they choose to follow it, when they choose to ignore it.”

For example: When young people committed a crime, the risk assessment tool said those people are likely to commit more crime, sentence them harshly. But judges systematically said no. Were the judges wrong? On one hand, it’s well documented that criminals tend to do more crime when they’re young and less when they’re older. Statistically, young age is a strong predictor of future crime. But Stevenson said there is more to a sentencing decision than risk of future crime.

February 23, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Extraordinary Ordinary Prisoner: Essays From Inside America’s Carceral State"

Jeremiah-book-coverThe title of this post is the title of this notable new book authored by Jeremiah Bourgeois. The book is a collection of columns, mostly written while Jeremiah Bourgeois was serving a term of life imprisonment for a crime committed at the age of fourteen. Here is how the work is described at Amazon:

On June 7, 2016, an email from a prospective writer appeared in the inbox of The Crime Report, a nonprofit criminal justice news site. The last line in the message caught the editors' attention: “I realize that submissions should include more information. However, I hope you overlook that requirement in light of the fact that I am incarcerated.”

Over the next three years, Jeremiah Bourgeois, then confined to the Stafford Creek Corrections Center, a mixed medium-minimum security prison for men near Aberdeen, Washington, contributed 36 columns on his own transformation from self-destructive rage to dedicated writer and on subjects such as the treatment of gay and transgender prisoners, the lack of a #MeToo movement for incarcerated women, and the hypocrisies of prison “family visitation” events.

Months after Bourgeois finally won his parole in 2019, The Crime Report is publishing this collection of Jeremiah Bourgeois's most searing and unforgettable work.

The Crime Report provides more of the story in this posting:

When he wrote us, he was 38 years old — and had already spent the previous 24 years behind bars for the May 19, 1992, revenge killing of Seattle store owner Tecle Ghebremichale, who had testified against his brother in an assault case. Aged 14 at the time of his crime, he was sentenced to life without parole in the era before the Supreme Court ruled such sentences for juveniles unconstitutional.  Jeremiah had every expectation of spending the rest of his life in prison. “It was probably the saddest case I’ve ever had,” his lawyer, Michael Trickey, told the Seattle Times in 2005, noting both Jeremiah’s age and length of sentence.

Jeremiah spent much of his first decade in prison in a permanent state of anger and defensiveness, frequently in conflict with corrections officers and fellow inmates.  But then something changed.  Prisoner #708897, as he would later write in his columns, realized that he was on a path to self-destruction.  He began reinventing and reeducating himself through long hours in the prison library.

He is not the first incarceree to write his story.  Prison writing has long been a special genre, and The Crime Report has frequently published work written behind bars — by both juveniles and adults. But Jeremiah’s emergence as an independent, often contrarian, voice has been especially timely as our national debate about mass incarceration approaches a crossroads.

February 23, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)