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June 5, 2021

Might the California Supreme Court find a procedural flaw in the state's many death sentences?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the notable oral argument that took place last week in the California Supreme Court.  This Los Angeles Times piece, headlined "California’s top court weighs overturning hundreds of death penalty sentences," provides this account and context. Here are excerpts:

For decades, California’s highest court has left it up to individual jurors to decide whether certain circumstances increase the severity of a crime and thereby warrant the death penalty in murder cases that qualify for the ultimate punishment.  On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court heard arguments on a change to that long-standing practice, which could potentially overturn hundreds of death penalty sentences in California.

At issue is how juries review “aggravating” factors — such as whether a crime was gang-related or involved multiple victims. Defense lawyers in the case argued that to ensure equal application of the death penalty, state law and the state Constitution require juries to be unanimous in their reasoning on each factor.

That the court is even considering new requirements is unusual.  It has refused to impose them in the past and has even summarily dismissed the kind of arguments presented Wednesday.  But the court’s composition has changed over the years.  Last June, the court issued a brief order asking for written arguments on the jury issue in what was otherwise a routine death penalty case.  That raised hopes among some that the court might be ready to wield an ax to capital punishment in California, a state that has produced the nation’s largest death row but hardly any executions.

Wednesday’s hearing probably tempered those hopes.  During a 90-minute hearing, only three justices — the more liberal members of the seven-judge court — spoke.  Though the silence of the majority can be interpreted in different ways, the hearing did not clearly signal that monumental changes were afoot.

The June order asked litigants to submit written arguments on this issue: Must a jury decide beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant should get the death penalty or life without parole, and must that jury also be unanimous in deciding the reasons for a capital verdict?  If the court agreed, a ruling would probably throw out hundreds, if not all, previous death sentences in California.

The court’s sudden interest in the issue alarmed death penalty supporters.  They considered the questions long answered. Kent Scheidegger, a lawyer for a prominent pro-death penalty group, said he was both “surprised” and “very disturbed,” even with the changed composition of the court....

Justice Goodwin Liu, a Brown appointee, spoke the most during the hearing. He repeatedly pressed defense lawyers to cite precedent for their positions.  “I think there’s a lot of appeal to your argument from a fairness perspective,” Liu told a defense lawyer.  Liu’s “difficulty,” he said, was in finding cases that supported the argument legally. Is it possible, he asked, “that this issue has simply been missed this entire time? For 150 years, we have missed this issue?”...

Scheidegger said even that partial victory for the defense would have a “cataclysmic” impact on the death penalty and potentially overturn scores of sentences.  Such decisions in California are usually applied retroactively.  But Scheidegger said he felt “cautiously optimistic” after the hearing.  Liu, he said, did not seem “to be buying” the defendant’s main arguments.

UC Berkeley law professor Elisabeth A. Semel, who co-wrote Newsom’s written argument, declined to predict how the court would vote. “Justices Liu, Cuellar, and Groban had some tough questions” for the deputy attorney general defending the death penalty, she said.  “I do not believe she answered to their satisfaction.”

California has more than 700 inmates on death row, but legal challenges have stymied executions.  Only 13 inmates have been executed since 1992, and Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions during his term in office.

June 5, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Roper, Graham, Miller, & the MS-13 Juvenile Homicide Cases"

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

The majority of MS-13 suspects arrested for murder on Long Island in recent years have been minors.  This shocking and tragic phenomenon raises vexing issues for law enforcement, the courts, politicians, educators, and all citizens in communities plagued by gang violence.  This Note focuses on a single legal issue: in light of recent Supreme Court cases, beginning with the 2005 landmark ruling in Roper v. Simmons, how should judges impose sentences on persons convicted of committing homicide before their eighteenth birthday?  Although we will see that the holdings of the three leading Supreme Court cases addressing this question are reasonably clear, many challenging questions remain for sentencing judges who attempt to faithfully apply these decisions.  This Note will explore some of these issues through the prism of MS-13 juvenile-homicide cases, using the sentencing of Josue Portillo for his quadruple murder when he was 15 years-old, as a case study.

This Note proceeds in three parts. Part I sets the stage for studying the Supreme Court’s juvenile sentencing jurisprudence. It takes a step back in order to orient the landmark trilogy of cases — Roper, Graham, and Miller — within the broader legal framework of criminal and juvenile justice. It is broken into three subcategories.  Subpart (A) briefly explains the principal justifications for punishing criminality.  After better understanding why we punish altogether, Subpart (B) analyzes why juveniles should be punished differently from adults.  This is explored very briefly from a historical, political, and legal perspective.  Subpart (C) explains in what circumstances juveniles in the justice system are treated like adults and why, again from a historical, political, and legal perspective.  Part II examines how the Supreme Court limited in some measure the punishments that can be meted out to juveniles, even if being sentenced within the adult criminal justice system.  Roper, Graham, and Miller are explored in detail, as well as some of the preceding cases that paved the road to these landmark rulings, and some subsequent cases.  Part III analyzes how judges should implement the guidance given by the Supreme Court in these cases.  The analysis will trace Josue Portillo’s case but its implications apply across the field of juvenile justice.

June 5, 2021 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

June 4, 2021

Encouraging examples of democracy expanding for those previously disenfranchised

I just saw this recent Stateline piece headlined "More States Expand the Ballot to Previously Incarcerated," which provides some positivity to close out this week.  Here are excerpts:

Building off two decades of advocacy work and the recent national push to overhaul the criminal justice system, 20 states now restore voting rights for people with felony convictions when they leave prison.  Energy around the restoration of voting rights continues to swell. But there remains sustained opposition, as critics insist people with felony convictions pay all fines and serve the entirety of their parole before regaining the right to vote.

New York and Washington enacted laws in the past two months that automatically restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies after they are released from prison. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed an executive order in March that restored voting rights for more than 69,000 eligible Virginians.  A proposed amendment to the Virginia state constitution could make that change permanent.  The legislature passed the amendment this session.  Lawmakers will have to pass it again in 2022 before it heads to voters for final approval.

A holdover from the 19th century, 5.2 million Americans are disenfranchised because of their felony convictions — some 2.3% of the nation’s voting age population, according to a 2020 count by the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that lobbies for the restoration of voting rights.  In 11 states, people with felony convictions lose their voting rights indefinitely, sometimes having to wait for a gubernatorial pardon, or navigate a gauntlet of waiting periods, fees and petitions.

Some critics of these new laws say people with felony convictions should serve the entirety of their sentences, including parole, probation and fines, before being able to cast a ballot again.  However, proponents of voting rights restoration after prison think accessing the ballot connects people with society, giving them ownership over their lives and the community, and possibly dissuading them from committing crimes in the future....

Certain states are going beyond reinstating voting rights for those with felony convictions once they leave prison. Some are scrapping laws that disenfranchise those voters in the first place.  In Oregon, lawmakers are debating measures that would amend a law that strips voting rights from people with felony convictions.  The District of Columbia, Maine and Vermont do not disenfranchise those with felony convictions even while in prison. Illinois also is debating legislation that would repeal the state’s ban on voting by incarcerated people.

The restoration of voting rights has drawn some bipartisan support. Last year, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed an executive order giving the right to vote to thousands of residents with felony convictions after completing parole or probation.  The legislature is working to amend the state’s constitution to make this change permanent.

In Kentucky, Republican state Rep. Jason Nemes is one of the co-sponsors of bipartisan legislation that would amend the state constitution to automatically restore voting rights for people with certain felony convictions after they complete their imprisonment, probation or parole.  Denying them the right to vote, he said, can make people attempting to rejoin society feel ostracized.  “When someone has committed an offense against the community and they served their time, we want that person back in the community,” he told Stateline.  “Now it’s time for you to take a sense of ownership and responsibility for your neighbors.” If the measure gets legislative approval, the proposed amendment will go before voters on the November 2022 ballot.

This proposal comes more than a year after Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order in 2019 that restored voting rights to an estimated 140,000 Kentuckians with nonviolent felony convictions who have completed their sentences.  A Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy poll released in February shows more than two-thirds of Kentuckians support the automatic restoration of voting rights for people who finished their sentences.

But there is still opposition by many lawmakers around the country, most of them Republican, who say that some crimes are so heinous they merit lasting punishment such as disenfranchisement.  Others say that people with felony convictions should complete probation and parole periods, along with paying all fines, before they get their rights restored.  “Beyond voting rights, first comes responsibility,” said Washington state Rep. Jenny Graham, a Republican, during floor debate in February.  “When somebody makes a decision to harm or kill another individual, there is accountability that is due.”

After Florida voters passed a ballot initiative restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies after they leave prison, Republican lawmakers, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, rolled the measure partially back, insisting that people pay all fines before getting their rights returned.  This caused widespread confusion for many people who were formerly incarcerated, leaving them unsure whether they could vote in November’s presidential election. 

The Florida confusion illustrated the ongoing hurdles for voting rights activists: Once these laws are enacted, hurdles remain.  For example, informing recently released residents about their voting rights often falls on resource-limited community organizations, said Nicole Porter, director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project....

Lawmakers in Maryland this year introduced legislation that would require prison staff to provide voter registration information upon residents’ release from prison. It passed both houses of the Maryland legislature, though the chambers must now reconcile differences between their bills.  Such requirements are part of New York’s recent law. Local jails in Cook County, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and Philadelphia have implemented programs in recent years to inform incarcerated people of their voting rights and encourage voter registration, Porter said.

June 4, 2021 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Jails, Sheriffs, and Carceral Policymaking"

The title of this post is the title of this recent paper authored by Aaron Littman just published in the Vanderbilt Law Review. Here is its abstract:

The machinery of mass incarceration in America is huge, intricate, and destructive.  To understand it and to tame it, scholars and activists look for its levers of power — where are they, who holds them, and what motivates them?  This much we know: legislators criminalize, police arrest, prosecutors charge, judges sentence, prison officials confine, and probation and parole officials manage release.

As this Article reveals, jailers, too, have their hands on the controls.  The sheriffs who run jails — along with the county commissioners who fund them — have tremendous but unrecognized power over the size and shape of our criminal legal system, particularly in rural areas and for people accused or convicted of low-level crimes.

Because they have the authority to build jails (or not) as well as the authority to release people (or not), they exercise significant control not merely over conditions but also over both the supply of and demand for jail bedspace: how large they should be, how many people they should confine, and who those people should be.  By advocating, financing, and contracting for jail bedspace, sheriffs and commissioners determine who has a say and who has a stake in carceral expansion and contraction.  Through their exercise of arrest and release powers, sheriffs affect how many and which people fill their cells. Constraints they create or relieve on carceral infrastructure exert or alleviate pressure on officials at the local, state, and federal levels.

Drawing on surveys of state statutes and of municipal securities filings, data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, case law, and media coverage, this Article tells overlooked stories — of sheriffs who send their deputies out door knocking to convince voters to support a new tax to fund a new jail, and of commissioners who raise criminal court fees and sign contracts to detain “rental inmates” to ensure that incarceration “pays for itself.”  It also tells of sheriffs who override the arrest decisions of city police officers, release defendants who have not made bail, and cut sentences short — and of those who would rather build more beds than push back on carceral inertia.

A spotlight on jails and the officials who run them illuminates important attributes of our carceral crisis.  The power and incentives to build jail bedspace are as consequential as the power and incentives to fill it.  Expanding a county’s jailing capacity has profound ramifications across local, state, and federal criminal legal systems.  Sheriffs have a unique combination of controls over how big and how full their jails are, but this role consolidation does not produce the restraint that some have predicted.  Their disclaimers of responsibility are a smokescreen, obscuring sheriffs’ bureaucratic commitment to perpetuating mass incarceration.  State courts and federal agencies have increasingly recognized and regulated public profiteering through jail contracting, and advocates have begun to hold jailers accountable, challenging expansion in polling booths and budget meetings.

June 4, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

June 3, 2021

Split Sixth Circuit panel further muddles what grounds can contribute to basis for sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(1)(a)

As blogged here last month, in US v. Owens, No. 20-2139 (6th Cir. May 6, 2021) (available here), a split Sixth Circuit panel held that "in making an individualized determination about whether extraordinary and compelling reasons merit compassionate release, a district court may include, along with other factors, the disparity between a defendant’s actual sentence and the sentence that he would receive if the First Step Act applied."  This seemed consistent with the Sixth Circuit's prior holding in US v. Jones, 20-3701 (6th Cir. Nov. 20, 2020) (available here),  that district courts have full discretion [currently] to determine whether an 'extraordinary and compelling' reason justifies compassionate release when an imprisoned person files a § 3582(c)(1)(A) motion."  It was also consistent with rulings from other circuits like US v. McCoy, 981 F.3d 271, 285–87 (4th Cir. 2020) and US v. McGee, 992 F.3d 1035, 1048 (10th Cir. 2021).  

But today a distinct split Sixth Circuit panel in US v. Jarvis, No. 20-3912 (6th Cir. June 3, 2021) (available here),  states that "non-retroactive changes in the law [can] not serve as the 'extraordinary and compelling reasons' required for a sentence reduction."  Here is a passage from the majority opinion in Jarvis:

The text of these sentencing statutes does not permit us to treat the First Step Act’s non-retroactive amendments, whether by themselves or together with other factors, as “extraordinary and compelling” explanations for a sentencing reduction.  See Tomes, 990 F.3d at 505.  But for those defendants who can show some other “extraordinary and compelling” reason for a sentencing reduction (and we have plenty of deferential decisions on this score), they may ask the district court to consider sentencing law changes like this one in balancing the § 3553(a) factors — above all with respect to the community safety factor.

Judge Clay authors a lengthy dissent in Jarvis that starts this way:

In passing the First Step Act, Congress amended 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(a) to allow federal district courts to grant compassionate release under appropriate circumstances to those incarcerated in federal prison, even in instances where the Bureau of Prisons opts not to do so.  In accordance with this understanding of the amendment, we have found that district courts are not required to consider the policy statement in U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13 in determining what constitutes an extraordinary and compelling reason for release, thereby permitting district courts discretion in determining whether an individual defendant has demonstrated an extraordinary and compelling reason for release.  See United States v. Jones, 980 F.3d 1098, 1110–11 (6th Cir. 2020).  In line with that precedent, in United States v. Owens, 996 F.3d 755, 760 (6th Cir. 2021), we determined that a district court can consider a nonretroactive First Step Act amendment that creates a sentencing disparity in combination with other factors as the basis for an extraordinary and compelling reason for compassionate release.  The majority today ignores this binding precedent from our circuit and erroneously concludes that our previous decision in United States v. Tomes, 990 F.3d 500, 505 (6th Cir. 2021), requires that we affirm the district court’s denial of compassionate release in this case.

But in fact, Tomes’ conclusion that a non-retroactive sentence amendment cannot support a motion for compassionate release amounts to dicta that we are not bound to follow. Additionally, as Owens made clear, Tomes did not foreclose the conclusion that a sentencing disparity from a non-retroactive statutory change along with other grounds for release can serve as extraordinary and compelling reasons.  See Owens, 996 F.3d at 763.  By ignoring Owens, the majority contravenes the purpose of compassionate release to grant release, based on the consideration of the defendant’s unique circumstances, to individual defendants in extraordinary situations not covered by another statute.

Apart from concerns about how it approaches circuit jurisprudence, I find the majority ruling problematic from a straight-forward application of textualism. There is absolutely nothing in the text of § 3582(c)(1)(a) that supports the contention that non-retroactive changes in the law cannot ever constitute "extraordinary and compelling reasons" to allow a sentence reduction, either alone or in combination with other factors.  The majority here, presumably based on its own sense of sound policy, seems to be just inventing an extra-textual categorical limitation on the authority Congress gave to district courts to reduce sentences.

Notably, in its instructions to the US Sentencing Commission, Congress did provide expressly in statutory text that there was to be one factor that could not alone serve as the basis for sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(1)(a):  "Rehabilitation of the defendant alone shall not be considered an extraordinary and compelling reason." 28 USC § 994(t).  That textual exclusion reveals that Congress plainly knows how, in express statutory text, to exclude a particular reason from being alone the basis for a sentence reduction.  The expresio unius canon of construction — "the expression of one is the exclusion of others" — in turn suggest that courts should not be inventing additional extra-textual categorical exclusions that Congress did not expressly state.  Moreover, the use of the word "alone" in § 994(t) further suggests that Congress wants even "debatable" factors that cannot alone be the basis for a reduction to be useable in combination with other factors.

Congress continuing approval of advisory guidelines after Booker, along with its pro-judicial-discretion reforms in the Fair Sentencing Act and the FIRST STEP Act, all suggest that our nation's legislature is now quite comfortable and confident granting federal district judges broad authority to consider how best to achieve sound, individualized sentencing justice in a careful case-by-case manner.  But, this Jarvis ruling reveals that some circuit judges seem to still be eager to concoct categorical limits on judicial sentencing discretion even though they do not appear expressly in the text. 

June 3, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Prosecutors and Politics Project releases amazing "Prosecutor Lobbying in the States, 2015-2018"

The Prosecutors and Politics Project, a research initiative at the University of North Carolina School of Law, has just published this remarkable new report titled "Prosecutor Lobbying in the States, 2015-2018." Here are brief excerpts from the report's extended executive summary (which everyone should read in full):

American prosecutors are active lobbyists who routinely support making the criminal law harsher.  During the years 2015 to 2018, state and local prosecutors were involved in more than 25% of all criminal-justice-related bills introduced in the 50 state legislatures.  Prosecutors were nearly twice as likely to lobby in favor of a law that created a new crime or otherwise increased the scope of criminal law than a law that would create a defense, decriminalize conduct, or otherwise narrow the scope of criminal law.  And when state prosecutors lobbied in favor of a bill, it was more than twice as likely to pass than an average bill.

Prosecutors appeared to have more success when they lobbied in favor of a bill than when they opposed a bill.  Although bills with prosecutor support were twice as likely to pass, prosecutor opposition to a bill did not reduce its likelihood of passing.

Notably, prosecutors were more successful when they supported criminal justice reform bills than when they supported traditional law-and-order bills.  Approximately 60% of bills that narrowed the scope of criminal law and 55% of bills that decreased punishment passed when supported by prosecutors.  In contrast, when prosecutors supported bills that increased the scope of criminal law, only 40% of those bills passed; and bills that increased punishments did not fare much better, passing only 42% of the time.

More than 22,000 criminal law and criminal justice bills were introduced in the 50 state legislatures during the four-year period from January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2018. The number of bills introduced varied wildly by state.  The most bills (1536) were introduced in New York; the fewest bills (80) were introduced in Alaska.  The median state introduced 296 bills....

Overall, state lawmakers were more likely to introduce bills that made the criminal justice system harsher than bills that made the law more lenient.  More 40% of the bills introduced either increased the scope of criminal law or increased the sentencing range.  In contrast, only 11% of bills narrowed the scope of criminal law or decreased punishment.  Many criminal justice bills dealt with procedural issues. 35% of bills proposed changes in procedural limits or altered the rights, responsibilities, or liabilities of criminal justice actors.  And less than 5% of bills dealt with funding issues.....

Some prosecutor lobbying comes from specific prosecutor offices. An individual elected prosecutor or an employee in her office may choose to testify in favor or against a bill. The same is true for state attorneys general — some state AGs were active lobbyists.

But in many states the prosecutor lobbying was more coordinated. Most states have one or more organizations — often called associations or councils — that exist in part to lobby the state legislature.  Some of these organizations are private non-profit corporations; others were created by statute.  The organizations also serve other, non-lobbying purposes, such as providing training materials to local prosecutor offices or appointing members to serve on statewide commissions.

The existence of these state organizations did not necessarily supplant the lobbying of individual prosecutors or the state AG.  And, from time to time, the various prosecutors or their organizations took inconsistent positions on bills.  When that occurred, we treated the bill as having both been supported and opposed by prosecutors.

June 3, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

In 6-3 opinion for (police officer) defendant, SCOTUS limits reach of federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

The Supreme Court issued one opinion this morning, and it is an interesting criminal law decision with an interesting divide of Justices limiting the reach of a notable federal criminal statute.  The majority opinion in Van Buren v. US, No. 19–783 (S. Ct. June 3, 2021) (available here), is authored by Justice Barrett and it starts and ends this way:  

Nathan Van Buren, a former police sergeant, ran a license-plate search in a law enforcement computer database in exchange for money.  Van Buren’s conduct plainly flouted his department’s policy, which authorized him to obtain database information only for law enforcement purposes.  We must decide whether Van Buren also violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 (CFAA), which makes it illegal “to access a computer with authorization and to use such access to obtain or alter information in the computer that the accesser is not entitled so to obtain or alter.”

He did not.  This provision covers those who obtain information from particular areas in the computer — such as files, folders, or databases — to which their computer access does not extend.  It does not cover those who, like Van Buren, have improper motives for obtaining information that is otherwise available to them....

In sum, an individual “exceeds authorized access” when he accesses a computer with authorization but then obtains information located in particular areas of the computer —  such as files, folders, or databases — that are off limits to him.  The parties agree that Van Buren accessed the law enforcement database system with authorization. The only question is whether Van Buren could use the system to retrieve license-plate information. Both sides agree that he could.  Van Buren accordingly did not “excee[d] authorized access” to the database, as the CFAA defines that phrase, even though he obtained information from the database for an improper purpose.  We therefore reverse the contrary judgment of the Eleventh Circuit and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Thomas authored a dissent joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Alito. It starts this way:

Both the common law and statutory law have long punished those who exceed the scope of consent when using property that belongs to others.  A valet, for example, may take possession of a person’s car to park it, but he cannot take it for a joyride.  The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act extends that principle to computers and information.  The Act prohibits exceeding the scope of consent when using a computer that belongs to another person.  Specifically, it punishes anyone who “intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access, and thereby obtains” information from that computer. 18 U.S.C. §1030(a)(2).

As a police officer, Nathan Van Buren had permission to retrieve license-plate information from a government database, but only for law enforcement purposes.  Van Buren disregarded this limitation when, in exchange for several thousand dollars, he used the database in an attempt to unmask a potential undercover officer.

The question here is straightforward: Would an ordinary reader of the English language understand Van Buren to have “exceed[ed] authorized access” to the database when he used it under circumstances that were expressly forbidden? In my view, the answer is yes.  The necessary precondition that permitted him to obtain that data was absent.

The Court does not dispute that the phrase “exceeds authorized access” readily encompasses Van Buren’s conduct. It notes, instead, that the statute includes a definition for that phrase and that “we must follow that definition, even if it varies from a term’s ordinary meaning.”  Tanzin v. Tanvir, 592 U.S. ___, ___ (2020) (slip op., at 3) (internal quotation marks omitted). The problem for the majority view, however, is that the text, ordinary principles of property law, and statutory history establish that the definitional provision is quite consistent with the term it defines.

I am pretty sure that this is the first (non-unanimous) opinion in which all the Trump-appointed Justices joined with all the Justices appointed by Democratic presidents, and I am very sure that I am hopeful that this will not be the only case in which these Justices combine to limit the application of questionable criminal laws and doctrines. Interesting times.

UPDATE:  I see Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences has this age-related take on the alliances of the Justices in this Van Buren:

For those who like to categorize Justices and tally statistics, it may (or may not) be noteworthy that the six Justices appointed by Republican Presidents split by age, with the three younger ones supporting the narrower interpretation of this criminal law. There is perhaps a more libertarian streak in the more junior Justices and more wariness of overcriminalization.

June 3, 2021 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Notable new polling data on death penalty from Pew Research Center

The Pew Research Center has just reported its latest polling on the death penalty in this extended online report titled, "Most Americans Favor the Death Penalty Despite Concerns About Its Administration." Here are some excerpts:

[T]he death penalty for people convicted of murder continues to draw support from a majority of Americans despite widespread doubts about its administration, fairness and whether it deters serious crimes.

More Americans favor than oppose the death penalty: 60% of U.S. adults favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, including 27% who strongly favor it.  About four-in-ten (39%) oppose the death penalty, with 15% strongly opposed, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

The survey, conducted April 5-11 among 5,109 U.S. adults on the Center’s American Trends Panel, finds that support for the death penalty is 5 percentage points lower than it was in August 2020, when 65% said they favored the death penalty for people convicted of murder.

While public support for the death penalty has changed only modestly in recent years, support for the death penalty declined substantially between the late 1990s and the 2010s. (See “Death penalty draws more Americans’ support online than in telephone surveys” for more on long-term measures and the challenge of comparing views across different survey modes.)

Large shares of Americans express concerns over how the death penalty is administered and are skeptical about whether it deters people from committing serious crimes. Nearly eight-in-ten (78%) say there is some risk that an innocent person will be put to death, while only 21% think there are adequate safeguards in place to prevent that from happening. Only 30% of death penalty supporters — and just 6% of opponents — say adequate safeguards exist to prevent innocent people from being executed.

A majority of Americans (56%) say Black people are more likely than White people to be sentenced to the death penalty for being convicted of serious crimes.  This view is particularly widespread among Black adults: 85% of Black adults say Black people are more likely than Whites to receive the death penalty for being convicted of similar crimes (61% of Hispanic adults and 49% of White adults say this).  Moreover, more than six-in-ten Americans (63%), including about half of death penalty supporters (48%), say the death penalty does not deter people from committing serious crimes.

Yet support for the death penalty is strongly associated with a belief that when someone commits murder, the death penalty is morally justified.  Among the public overall, 64% say the death penalty is morally justified in cases of murder, while 33% say it is not justified.  An overwhelming share of death penalty supporters (90%) say it is morally justified under such circumstances, compared with 25% of death penalty opponents.

Partisanship continues to be a major factor in support for the death penalty and opinions about its administration.  Just over three-quarters of Republicans and independents who lean toward the Republican Party (77%) say they favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, including 40% who strongly favor it.  Democrats and Democratic leaners are more divided on this issue: 46% favor the death penalty, while 53% are opposed. About a quarter of Democrats (23%) strongly oppose the death penalty, compared with 17% who strongly favor it.

As in the past, support for the death penalty differs across racial and ethnic groups.  Majorities of White (63%), Asian (63%) and Hispanic adults (56%) favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder.  Black adults are evenly divided: 49% favor the death penalty, while an identical share oppose it.

Support for the death penalty also varies across age groups.  About half of those ages 18 to 29 (51%) favor the death penalty, compared with about six-in-ten adults ages 30 to 49 (58%) and those 65 and older (60%).  Adults ages 50 to 64 are most supportive of the death penalty, with 69% in favor.

There are differences in attitudes by education, as well.  Nearly seven-in-ten adults (68%) who have not attended college favor the death penalty, as do 63% of those who have some college experience but no degree.  About half of those with four-year undergraduate degrees but no postgraduate experience (49%) support the death penalty.  Among those with postgraduate degrees, a larger share say they oppose (55%) than favor (44%) the death penalty.

June 3, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

June 2, 2021

Second Capitol rioter reaches plea deal with reported guideline range of 15 to 21 months in prison

As reported in this Politico piece, a "38-year-old man from Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday became only the second defendant charged in relation to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot to plead guilty to obstructing Congress’ certification of the 2020 election results — an agreement that could shed light on the government’s strategy for prosecuting the hundreds of other alleged perpetrators of the insurrection." Here is more:

In a virtual plea hearing before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, prosecutors told Judge Randolph Moss they would drop the four misdemeanor charges against Paul Allard Hodgkins in exchange for the defendant’s guilty plea on the obstruction charge, his only felony count, which carries a statutory maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison.

However, defendants are typically sentenced in accordance with federal sentencing guidelines, and in most cases — especially for defendants with little or no criminal record — those standards call for sentences far shorter than the maximum. Hodgkins, who has no prior criminal convictions, is tentatively scheduled to be sentenced on July 19.

On Wednesday, attorneys for both the defense and the prosecution said the guidelines were likely to call for a 15- to 21-month sentence for Hodgkins. Moss would ultimately be free to impose a shorter or longer sentence, and Hodgkins’ attorney said he would likely argue for less time behind bars for his client.

The guidelines also call for a fine of between $7,500 and $75,000 for the obstruction charge — in addition to the $2,000 in restitution Moss said had been calculated as Hodgkins’ share of the roughly $1.5 million worth of damage done to the Capitol during the riot.

Although more than 450 people have been charged in relation to the storming of the Capitol, the only other defendant to accept a plea deal was Jon Schaffer, a 52-year-old man from Columbus, Ind., who pleaded guilty last month to two counts: obstruction of Congress and entering a Secret Service-restricted area with a deadly or dangerous weapon....

It is not clear, however, what information Hodgkins could offer prosecutors as part of his plea deal, and there was no discussion at the hearing about a cooperation aspect to his agreement. But taken together, Schaffer and Hodgkins’ pleas seemingly indicate that prosecutors will likely insist on a felony obstruction plea as the minimum plea deal for many defendants.

This official DOJ press release, headed "Man Pleads Guilty to Obstruction of an Official Proceeding for Breaching U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6," provides some more details about the defendant's offense conduct:

According to court documents, Paul Hodgkins, 38, of Tampa, Florida, entered the U.S. Capitol building at approximately 2:50 p.m. on Jan. 6. Around 3 p.m., Hodgkins entered the Senate chamber, walked among the desks, and then removed eye goggles. He took a “selfie-style” photograph with his cell phone and walked down the Senate well where, a few feet away, several individuals were shouting, praying and cheering using a bullhorn. Hodgkins walked toward the individuals and remained standing with them while they continued commanding the attention of others. At approximately 3:15 p.m., Hodgkins exited the Senate chamber and the U.S. Capitol Building.

Prior related posts:

June 2, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

In latest sentencing filings, Derek Chauvin requests probation while prosecutors ask for him to get 30 years in prison

As detailed in this CBS News piece, the parties in the case of Minnesota v. Chauvin are making very different sentencing requests:

Derek Chauvin asked a judge to sentence him to a term of probation or a shorter prison term than suggested by Minnesota guidelines in a sentencing memorandum filed Wednesday.  The memo cites Chauvin's lack of previous criminal history, his previous work as a police officer and the risk he could be victimized in prison as factors the judge should consider as he weighs a sentence.

But in another memorandum filed Wednesday, prosecutors asked for a sentence of 30 years for the convicted former Minneapolis officer, a term they said would "properly account for the profound impact of [Chauvin's] conduct on the victim, the victim's family, and the community."...

Last month, Judge Peter Cahill found "aggravating factors" exist that allow for him to sentence Chauvin to a term longer than the suggested 15 years. Cahill agreed with prosecutors that four such factors exist: that Chauvin committed a crime in front of a child, that Chauvin acted with particular cruelty, that he acted as part of a group, and that he abused his position of trust and authority as a police officer.  Cahill found that Chauvin acted with particular cruelty because he killed Floyd slowly despite Floyd's pleas that he couldn't breathe.  Floyd was "begging for his life and obviously terrified by the knowledge that he was likely to die" but Chauvin "objectively remained indifferent to Floyd's pleas," Cahill wrote.

Wednesday, prosecutors said the aggravating factors support their recommendation of double the 15-year upper end of the sentencing range, or 30 years.  Chauvin, they said, "brutally murdered Mr. Floyd, abusing the authority conferred by his badge."  "His actions traumatized Mr. Floyd's family, the bystanders who watched Mr. Floyd die, and the community. And his conduct shocked the Nation's conscience," the prosecution's memo read. "No sentence can undo the damage [Chauvin's] actions have inflicted.  But the sentence the Court imposes must hold [Chauvin] fully accountable for his reprehensible conduct."

But in the defense memo, Chauvin's attorney Eric Nelson asked Cahill to discount his finding that aggravating factors apply, and rule instead that mitigating factors allow either for a term of probation or a shorter sentence than guidelines suggest.  Nelson asked the judge to "look beyond" his findings to Chauvin's "background, his lack of criminal history, his amenability to probation, to the unusual facts of this case, and to his being a product of a 'broken' system."

Nelson said that Chauvin has been "painted as a dangerous man," but argued that "behind the politics, Mr. Chauvin is still a human being."  He cited Chauvin's 19-year history with the Minneapolis police department, several on-the-job commendations and the support of his family and friends.  "In spite of his mistakes, Mr. Chauvin has demonstrated that he has a capacity for good and that he has the discipline to consistently work toward worthwhile goals," the memo reads.

The defense memo says Chauvin, 44, has been diagnosed with heart damage and that he may be likely to die at a younger age like other ex-law enforcement officers.  It also says Chauvin may be more likely to be victimized in prison because he was convicted as a police officer, pointing to the fact that he is being segregated from the general prison population before his sentencing over safety concerns.  It also says Chauvin has no previous criminal convictions and complied with pre-trial release conditions and court procedures. "Throughout these proceedings, and in the face of unparalleled public scorn and scrutiny, Mr. Chauvin has been very respectful to the judicial process, the Court, and the State," the memo said.

These new sentencing filings are available at these links:

Prior related posts:

June 2, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7)

Fascinating split Third Circuit ruling on federal drug distribution prohibition (and death resulting 20-year mandatory minimum)

A helpful colleague made sure I did not miss yesterday's notable new ruling from a Third Circuit panel in US v. Semler, No. 19-2319 (3d Cir. Jun. 1, 2021) (available here). This split (non-precedential?) decision address the persistently problematic issue of when and how social sharing of drugs constitutes distribution and all of the potentially severe consequences that can follow.  Here is how the majority opinion authored by Judge Roth gets started: 

Emma Semler is an addict who bought and injected heroin with a fellow user, then failed to intervene as that user overdosed and died.  She now appeals her conviction and sentence under the Controlled Substances Act for distribution of heroin resulting in death, a charge that carries a mandatory minimum sentence of twenty years’ imprisonment.

We hold that the definition of “distribute” under the Controlled Substances Act does not cover individuals who jointly and simultaneously acquire possession of a small amount of a controlled substance solely for their personal use.  Because a reasonable jury could find that Semler and the decedent jointly acquired possession of the heroin in question for their personal use, we will vacate Semler’s conviction and remand this case for a new trial so that the jury can be instructed on the correct legal standard.

The dissent authored by Judge Porter starts this way:

The Controlled Substances Act prohibits the distribution of certain drugs.  In that statute, Congress carefully defined the meaning of “distribute.”  Dissatisfied with the breadth of Congress’s handiwork, the majority vacates Emma Semler’s judgment of conviction.  It holds that Semler did not “actually transfer” heroin when she handed it to Jennifer Werstler.  Because that “is flatly contrary to standard English usage” and contradicts our Court’s precedent, I respectfully dissent.  Kansas v. Garcia, 140 S. Ct. 791, 802 (2020).

A few prior posts on drug-causing-death prosecutions and punishments:

June 2, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

BJS unveils new website and new correctional reports of note

I received via email a press release from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that starts this way:

The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics today launched a redesigned website at a new location: https://bjs.ojp.gov. The modern, user-friendly design will be continually improved to allow the public easier access to new and archived data, interactive graphs and tables and other features.

BJS also released three reports that present information on the counts and rates of allegations of sexual victimization and outcomes of investigations in adult correctional and juvenile justice facilities.

Here are links to the report that now are easy see on the top of this BJS publications page:

June 2, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

June 1, 2021

"Victims’ Rights in the Diversion Landscape"

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

In this piece I explore the practical and theoretical conflicts that might surface when the diversion movement and the victims’ rights movement intersect.  I focus on two possible sites of tension: victim input into the diversion offer and the victim’s right to receive restitution as a term of diversion.  Protocols to give victims greater voice in the justice process have been a mainstay of the burgeoning victims’ rights movement for the past several decades, but I argue that those protocols must be understood within (and thus limited by) the context of fiscal responsibility, compassion for the offender, and proportionality in the justice system that lie at the heart of diversion schemes.  Any other arrangement risks elevating retribution over rehabilitation and inserts a level of arbitrariness into the diversion process that would subvert our commitment to fairness and transparency.

June 1, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Arnold Ventures releases detailed reports from multi-year community initiatives on Data-Driven Justice

Via this new press release, today "three pilot sites, Arnold Ventures, and the National Association of Counties publish findings and recommendations from a multi-year initiative aimed at using data and community coordination to better align resources to respond to people with complex health and social needs." Here is more from the release:

Arnold Ventures is proud to release the final reports from Data-Driven Justice (DDJ). These documents include a DDJ Insights brief that provides an overview of the pilot initiative and recommendations to policymakers, and an updated DDJ Playbook that provides detailed implementation guidance — a suite of materials that will help communities, both in the DDJ network and across the country, better respond to their most vulnerable residents. The three DDJ pilot test sites — Middlesex County, Massachusetts, Johnson County, Iowa and the City of Long Beach, California — are also releasing their final reports.

DDJ is a project of the National Association of Counties (NACo) and AV that aims to help local jurisdictions use data to better align resources to respond to people with complex health and social needs, particularly those who are frequent utilizers of justice, health, and human services systems....

These reports are key for practitioners and stakeholders charged with introducing DDJ in their own communities to gain insights into the details and processes behind implementation.  They will be especially helpful in demonstrating how DDJ can improve outcomes for frequent utilizers in communities starting with little to no capacity to share, integrate, and analyze data.

The lessons from the three pilot sites are incorporated into two overarching documents: the Insights Report, by AV, and a Playbook, by AV and NACo.

The Insights report presents an overview of the DDJ Pilot Site Initiative.  It reflects on the successes and challenges of the pilot initiative and provides recommendations for policymakers who seek to sustain and scale similar efforts. It is intended for use by the DDJ Network communities, funders, and policymakers interested in sustaining and scaling similar efforts to the pilot initiative.

The DDJ Playbook outlines step-by-step how communities and governments can use data and coordinate across criminal justice, behavioral health, and service providers to better align resources to respond to people with complex health and social needs for communities, and apply these lessons to community-specific contexts.

It can be used to inform DDJ Network communities and communities nationwide, provide recommendations for policymakers and funders, provide key insights into data analysis and integration, and further resources to explore and learn about how to improve outcomes for frequent utilizers through data integration and analysis.

June 1, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 31, 2021

Heartening coverage of one beneficiary of Ohio Gov DeWine's "Expedited Pardon Project"

Because I am directly involved in Ohio Governor Mike DeWine's "Expedited Pardon Project," I have been generally disinclined to blog about the work of the program.  But this recent local piece, headlined "Ohio governor pushes to grant more pardons," includes a terrific video of a recent pardon recipient that I was eager to share.  Here is a snippet from the story that provides some context:

15 years ago, Mutajah “Taj” Hussein says she could hardly draw a sober breath.  “During that time in my life, I experienced a level of hopelessness that most people can’t imagine,” Hussein said.

But that was 15 years ago. Now, she’s called, “Dr. Taj,” a badge she wears proudly.  She’s a licensed independent social worker. She’s served diverse populations and has worked abroad.  She plans to launch a mental wellness agency soon in Parma, Ohio and sit for the BAR exam next year. She wants to be a foster parent.

The transformation didn’t happen overnight. B efore she said she, “built a spiritual connection with the universe” in 2007, she had her run-ins with Ohio’s criminal justice system.  She said back then, it was like living on autopilot. Her only focus was finding the next drug fox or drink.

She eventually repaired her relationships and got on a path to right her wrongs. “I’m very close with my family now,” Hussein said. “Before, they hated to see me coming. Now they love it when I visit.”

Even while she was on the path to living her best life, Hussein still had a significant roadblock in her way: Her criminal history.  “My past was like an albatross around my neck,” she said. “I’ve been denied apartments that I’ve fallen in love with because of my background check. I’ve been denied positions.”

She was denied her dream job.  The offer was rescinded after her background check was complete.  “I felt dejected,” she said. “I felt like I was trapped in a nightmare where no matter how much distance I put between myself and my past, it would never be enough.  Although I’ve fought to redeem myself through restorative justice efforts, on paper, I was still just an addict.”...

The pardon process in Ohio can take years.  But she got in touch with the people involved with the Ohio Governor’s Expedited Pardon Project.  It’s a partnership between Gov. Mike Dewine, Ohio State University and the University of Akron.  Students and faculty from the universities review applications and figure out who is more likely to receive a pardon.  The team works with applicants to help them through the process, which takes around six months to a year, instead of multiple years.

Gov. DeWine called Dr. Taj to give her the news on Good Friday.  He pardoned her.  “I’ve always had hope,” she said. “But now I’m fully redeemed in the eyes of the law.  That’s a truly freeing feeling.  I really feel like the sky is the limit for me, especially with this pardon.  I can’t wait to see what the universe has in store for the rest of my life.”

Gov. DeWine has said he wants more low-level offenders to apply for pardons through the project that launched in Dec. 2019.  Dr. Taj spoke as part of a panel Thursday night that answered questions about the expedited pardon process.  Part of the panel’s goal was to raise awareness about the project in order to get more people to apply for a governor’s pardon....

DeWine hopes more people like Dr. Taj utilize the program to allow “model citizens” to maneuver what is usually a complicated and lengthy process. “My expedited pardon project can benefit Ohioans who are living in the shadow of a dark past and regretted mistake, giving them the opportunity to truly have a second chance to reach their full potential,” DeWine said.

Related posts and links:

May 31, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Amidst more guns and many more gun crimes (especially murders), can sentencing reforms move forward as media predicts "bloody summer"?

Because violent crime is on the rise (and perhaps also because the COVID beat has grown stale), I am now seeing a whole lot of recent media coverage and political punditry focused on rising crime rates and their political implications.  At times, I am a bit frustrated that this discussion often elides important data suggesting that it is primarily gun-related crimes that are on the rise while other crimes may still be on the decline.  To its credit, the New York Times has this new gun/crime piece headlined "An Arms Race in America: Gun Buying Spiked During the Pandemic. It’s Still Up."

But given that most murders in the US are gun murders (about 75%) and that most serious assaults involve guns and that violent crime has much greater salience than other crime, it is understandable that so much media coverage is focused on rising crime and associated punditry is focused on how political leaders should respond. That all said, I was still struck by this series of headlines the last few days from the Washington Post:

To the extent the inside-the-Beltway crowd still gives extra attention to the Post, key members of the political class cannot miss the "bloody summer" theme that the Post now seems eager to reinforce over and over.  Relatedly, a number of other media and political pundits are contributing to a narrative that certain political responses are needed.  Here is a sampling:

Notably, as highlighted in this post, the US Department of Justice last week announced a new "effort to help protect our communities from the recent increase in major violent crimes."  But, in part because there is no simple "solution" to rising gun crimes, this DOJ announcement did not have any headline-making elements likely to lead the press or pundits to starting praising DOJ's new efforts.  Simply put, the politics of crime and punishment is so challenging because horrible crimes will always garner more headlines than careful punishment practices.

So, with all the on-going rising crime chatter, can any sentencing reforms move forward?   I know better than to make bold predictions, and it is often wise in politics to bet on inertia.  Moreover, the long and winding five-year legislative road to the FIRST STEP Act of 2018 is a reminder that even modest reform efforts can take a very long time to become reality even when the political winds are all blowing in the right direction.  So, the simple, obvious answer to the question in the title of this post is perhaps just "no."

But law professors do not make a living on simple, obvious answers, and so I have more to say.  To be precise, I am eager to encourage elected officials and other policymakers to convert justified concerns over rising gun crimes into sound structural and strategic reform efforts.  The Biden Administration is now overdue to make appointments to the US Sentencing Commission (see here and here), and we are more generally long overdue for a long-discussed national crime commission (see talk of a National Criminal Justice Commission in 2009 and in 2010 and in 2015).  Though certain substantive reforms always represent an uphill legislative battle (particularly in a politically divided Congress), improving our infrastructure and knowledge base for future reform should still be possible, and might even be viewed as a priority, when crime and punishment is ever in the headlines.  States similarly might use this moment to create sentencing commissions (or better support and fund those already in existence) at a time when there is so much uncertainty and debate over just the "facts on the ground."

In addition, if bigger reforms falter, energy and efforts could and should be invested in bolstering and improving past reforms: e.g., at the federal level, making sure the FIRST STEP Act is fully implemented; at the state level, making sure various recent reform efforts are being soundly implemented and effectively studied.  And, even with concerns about rising crime, a lot of back-end and low-level reforms could even get an extra pragmatic push because we will not have room to incarcerate more serious, more risky repeat offenders if we keep our prisons filled with less serious, less risky first-timers.  

For so many reasons, I hope we can have productive sentencing reform summer rather than a "bloody" one.  But, I have to admit, I am growing particularly pessimistic on these fronts.

A few prior related posts:

May 31, 2021 in National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)