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January 30, 2021

So what's a reasonable expectation for how many of Prez Biden's judicial nominees will be criminal defense or civil rights lawyers?

There is a long-standing concern, especially among criminal justice reform advocates and civil rights groups, that the federal judiciary is badly skewed because of the disproportionate number of judges who are former prosecutors or former government lawyers or have only private practice experience.  As noted in this post, Clark Neily at Cato has done great work on this front with this report from late 2019 with these core findings:

[I]t is generally perceived that a disproportionate number of federal judges served as government lawyers before donning a robe.  Until now, however, no one had ever examined the professional background of every sitting federal judge to see whether that perception is true.  So Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice devised a methodology for coding judges’ prior professional experiences and went through the federal judiciary judge by judge to test that perception.

What we found confirms the conventional wisdom: Former government lawyers — and more specifically, lawyers whose formative professional experiences include serving as courtroom advocates for government — are vastly overrepresented on the federal bench.  Looking only at former prosecutors versus former criminal defense attorneys (including public defenders), the ratio is four to one.  Expanding the parameters to include judges who previously served as courtroom advocates for government in civil cases as well as criminal cases, and comparing that to judges who served as advocates for individuals against government in civil or criminal cases, the ratio is seven to one.

Taking a slightly different approach to these issues, the Center for American Progress produced this August 202 study with an even more stark accounting of professional imbalance in the federal circuit courts:

[P]rofessional diversity on the federal appellate courts is severely lacking, with significant implications for the type of legal expertise underlying the opinions these judges issue. Only about 1 percent of sitting circuit court judges have spent the majority of their careers as public defenders or within a legal aid setting.  In contrast, the federal appellate bench is swamped with those who spent the majority of their careers in private practice or as federal prosecutors — making up more than 70 percent of all sitting appellate judges.  No sitting judge spent the majority of their career with a nonprofit civil rights organization.

Notably, though I can think of a few prominent former criminal defense attorneys that Prez Barack Obama placed on the federal bench, this recent article highlights that he did not significantly improve these historic imbalances: "Around 14% of President Obama’s nominees for federal district and appeals court judges had experience working in public defense. Meanwhile, 41% of his nominees had experience working as prosecutors."

Encouragingly, there is now considerable chatter and seemingly considerable effort focused on Prez Biden making sure a much greater number of his judicial nominees are criminal defense or civil rights lawyers.  Here is just some of the recent press discussions on this front:

From The Hill, "Biden team asks Senate Democrats to recommend public defenders, civil rights lawyers for federal bench"

From NBC News, "After Trump, Democrats set out on a mission to 'repair the courts'"

From Reason, "Biden's Judicial Picks Should Include Lawyers Who Battled the Government in Court"

From the San Diego Union-Tribune, "Judges with criminal defense or civil rights backgrounds are rare in federal court. We need more."

Given the existing imbalances, I do not think it would be problematic or misguided for Prez Biden to aspire to have all of his judicial nominees, at least during his first year in office, be persons with criminal defense or civil rights backgrounds.  Certainly, I hope his very first judicial nominee should have this professional history (and elevating U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to fill Merrick Garland's seat on the DC Circuit, as has been discussion, would be a great way to start).  And I am certain there is an existing pool of many thousands of qualified potential nominees with significant criminal defense and/or civil rights experience from which to pick for the roughly 50-100 federal judicial nominees he may be able to make in the coming year.

But I am prepared to admit that it is likely unrealistic for anyone to expect all of Prez Biden's 2021 judicial nominees to be criminal defense or civil rights lawyers.  But what is realistic?  Would it be crazy to hope and expect that there are four judicial nominees with this kind of professional history for every one without such a history?  At least two?  I suspect (and fear) that the Biden team will garner considerable praise if even 50% of its judicial nominees have some criminal defense or civil rights background, but I will likely be disappointed if it is not even higher.

January 30, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Assessing Graham v. Florida at the Ten-Year Mark: Progress and the Prospects for Ongoing Juvenile Sentencing Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this great looking upcoming symposium being conducted by the Catholic University Law Review this coming Friday, February 5, 2021 starting at 1pm EST. Here is how the event is described and the planned coverage (click through to see all the great speakers):

Three Supreme Court decisions in the last decade have dramatically reshaped the treatment of juveniles in our criminal justice system.  In Graham v. Florida (2010), the Court held that juveniles may not be sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) for non-homicide crimes.  Two years later, in Miller v. Alabama (2012), the Court held that even juveniles convicted of homicide may not be sentenced to mandatory LWOP.  Finally, in Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016), the Court held that Miller was retroactively applicable, thereby entitling several thousand individuals to a resentencing hearing at which their youth and all its mitigating attributes would be taken into account.  These cases not only significantly curbed the uniquely American practice of sentencing minors to LWOP, but also, together they stand for the proposition that children are different for purposes of sentencing.

Ten years after the landmark decision in Graham, this symposium will explore the impact that these cases have had on juvenile sentencing in the LWOP context and more broadly. The first of three panels will include practitioners who can provide a firsthand perspective on resentencing hearings and how they are playing out in courtrooms across the country.  The second panel will consider the legislative effects of Graham and will include policymakers working on the ground to pursue related juvenile sentencing reforms. Finally, the closing panel will afford attendees an opportunity to hear directly from individuals affected by Graham, that is, those who were sentenced to life imprisonment as juveniles and have now come home.

The Program

1:00 p.m.  Graham v. Florida at the Ten-Year Mark

1:30 p.m.  Resentencing Hearings Post-Graham

2:45 p.m.  Legislative Effects of Graham

4:00 p.m.  Life after Graham

January 30, 2021 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 29, 2021

Interim Attorney General releases new "Interim Guidance on Prosecutorial Discretion, Charging and Sentencing"

601446752800005c00974ec2Via this HuffPost piece, headlined "DOJ Pulls Trump Administration’s Harsh Charging And Sentencing Policy," I see that the failure of the Biden Administration to yet have a new confirmed Attorney General is not keeping it from having a new prosecutorial charging and sentencing policy.  Well, actually, the Biden Justice Department now has an old charging and sentencing policy, as explained by HuffPost:

In a memo to all federal prosecutors obtained by HuffPost, acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson rescinded a May 10, 2017, memo from then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  At the time, Sessions told federal prosecutors across the country to always pursue to harshest charges and penalties possible unless they received specific permission from their supervisors.

“The goal of this interim step is to ensure that decisions about charging, plea agreements, and advocacy at sentencing are based on the merits of each case and reflect an individualized assessment of relevant facts while longer-term policy is formulated,” Wilkinson wrote.

Under Donald Trump-era policies, prosecutors were instructed to always disclose any facts that would trigger mandatory minimum sentences during the sentencing process.  If a prosecutor wished to recommend a departure or variance to a judge during the sentencing process, they were also told to get a supervisor’s approval.

For now, the Justice Department is reverting back to a 2010 charging and sentencing policy issued by former Attorney General Eric Holder.  Under Holder’s guidelines, federal prosecutors were encouraged to focus on “individualized justice” and decision-making based on “the merits of each case.”

This change is not unexpected, but it is still a big deal (and really a much bigger deal than the recent Executive Order on private prisons). Because this is a big deal, I am quite disappointed this change is announced on a Friday afternoon and without seemingly any official statement (yet) from the Justice Department.  Because we are still awaiting confirmation hearings for AG-nominee Merrick Garland, I suppose I can understand why this is getting a "soft launch" and is merely a partial reversal back to prior Obama-era policies.  But, at a time when there is a real interest and concern for criminal justice reform, this memo could be a real "teaching moment" if handled differently.  Sigh.

January 29, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

In high-profile sentencing, victim input and collateral consequences pus judge away from prison term for misconduct by former FBI attorney

This lengthy Politico piece, headlined "Ex-FBI lawyer spared prison for altering Trump-Russia probe email," reports on an interesting high-profile federal sentencing today in DC.  Here are excerpts, with a bit of commentary to follow:

The only person charged in the Justice Department's investigation into the origins of the probe of former President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign and its ties to Russia was spared prison time for altering an email used to support a surveillance application.  Former FBI attorney Kevin Clinesmith, 38, received the sentence of 12 months probation and 400 hours community service from U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg Friday during a video hearing.

Clinesmith admitted that in June 2017 he sent an altered email to an FBI agent that indicated a target of court-ordered FBI surveillance, former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, was "not a source" for the Central Intelligence Agency. The statement, passed along as the FBI was applying for a third extension of surveillance of Page, made Page's actions seem more suspicious by downplaying his past cooperation with the CIA.

Clinesmith insisted that he thought the statement was true at the time and only altered the message to save himself the hassle of procuring another email from the CIA. Prosecutors contested that claim, arguing that the FBI lawyer intended to mislead his colleague, but Boasberg sided with the defense on that point.  "My view of the evidence is that Mr. Clinesmith likely believed that what he said about Mr. Page was true," Boasberg said. "By altering the email, he was saving himself some work and taking an inappropriate shortcut."

While Trump and his GOP allies have suggested that Clinesmith was engaged in a political vendetta against Trump, Boasberg noted that a Justice Department inspector general investigation failed to establish that political considerations played a role in Clinesmith's actions or numerous other errors and omissions that impacted filings with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court....

Clinesmith pleaded guilty last August to a felony false statement charge in a plea deal with John Durham, the prosecutor then-Attorney General William Barr tapped in 2019 to investigate the origins of the Trump-Russia probe. Barr formally designated Durham as a special counsel last fall, in an apparent bid to complicate any attempt by a new administration to shut down Durham's inquiry.

Prosecutors argued that Clinesmith's misconduct was so serious that he deserved between about three and six months in prison. Clinesmith's lawyers asked that he not receive any prison time.  The maximum sentence on the false statement charge is five years in prison, although judges usually sentence in accord with federal guidelines that called for Clinesmith to serve between zero and six months in prison. "The defendant's criminal conduct tarnished and undermined the integrity of the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] program," Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Scarpelli told the court.  "It has lasting effects on DOJ, the FBI, the FISC, the FISA process and trust and confidence United States citizens have in their government...The resulting harm is immeasurable."

Clinesmith's lawyer Justin Shur called his client's actions "inexcusable," but said they were "aberrations" in a life of dedicated public service.  He also said they played a relatively small part in the overall surveillance process and the broader probe. "There were many people involved in these applications and many mistakes that were made," Shur said....

Clinesmith also addressed the court, expressing contrition and describing his career as essentially destroyed by his misconduct and the ensuing prosecution. "I am fully aware of the significance of my actions and the crucial error in judgment I made," the lawyer said. "I let the FBI, the Department of Justice, my colleagues, the public and my family down. I also let myself down.  I will live with the consequences and deeply-held feeling of regret, shame and loss caused by it for the rest of my life."

While prosecutors urged the judge to send Clinesmith to prison to send a message to others in government not to try something similar, Boasberg said he believed that message had already been sent. He noted that Clinesmith has lost his job, may be disbarred and may never be able to work in the national-security field again. "He went from being an obscure government lawyer to standing in the eye of a media hurricane," the judge said. "He's not someone who ever sought the limelight or invited controversy other than by his criminal action here....Anybody who's watched what Mr. Clinesmith has suffered is not someone who would readily act in that fashion."

The 90-minute sentencing hearing also featured an impassioned speech from Page, in which the energy industry analyst complained that his life was also turned upside down by the media firestorm that followed public disclosure that he was a focus of the FBI probe into potential Russian influence on the Trump campaign. "My own personal life has been severely impacted," Page said. "I was frequently harassed on the street and even under the street such as in the Washington metro beneath the courthouse....It was deadly serious. At the time I received many death threats as a 'traitor.'"

However, Page did not ask for imprisonment for Clinesmith. "I hope the defendant can get back to his family as soon as you deem appropriate," the former Trump campaign adviser told the judge. That seem to strike a chord with Boasberg, who mentioned twice during the hearing that Page wasn't seeking prison for the ex-FBI lawyer.

The politics surrounding this case account for why this matter will be covered in many newspapers, but I am drawn to this tale as a notable sentencing story.  Tellingly, while federal prosecutors argued that some prison time was needed, the person victimized by the offense (Carter Page) had the magnanimous and impactful view that the defendant need not serve any prison time.  In addition, the federal district judge here recognized, as should every sentencing judge in every case, that the defendant was already subject to a wide array of significant and persistent collateral consequences which function to punish and deter in ways that transcend a short period in prison.

January 29, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Lots of commentary and advice for Prez Biden's criminal justice reforms task one week in

Prez Biden has been on the job for only a little more than a week, but lots of folks already have lots of thoughts and advice for what he (and his party) should be doing in the criminal justice reform arena.  Here is a round up of just some of the discussions I have seen in recent days:

From Al Jazeera, "Biden and prison reforms – a soft target?"

From The American Prospect, "How Biden Should Prosecute Corporate Crime: In top-to-bottom criminal justice reform, let’s not forget the top."

From The Appeal, "Why The Biden Administration’s Choice To Lead The Bureau Of Prisons Matters"

From Bloomberg Law, "Criminal Justice Changes Need Harris to Lead, Advocates Say"

From the Boston Globe, "Biden must not miss the urgency of the moment on criminal justice reform"

From The Hill, "True criminal justice reform requires family support"

From HuffPost, "After Trump’s Execution Spree, Criminal Justice Leaders Urge Biden To End Death Penalty"

From Reason, "Democrats Have No Excuse Not to Reform the Criminal Justice System"

From Time, "‘Much More Work To Be Done.’ Advocates Call for More Action Against Private Prisons After Biden's ‘First Step’ Executive Order"

From USA Today, "Biden's executive orders on criminal justice should extend to inmates sent home by COVID"

January 29, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Transparency of Jail Data"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper available via SSRN and authored by William Crozier, Brandon L. Garrett and Arvind Krishnamurthy. Here is its abstract:

Across the country, pretrial policies and practices concerning the use of cash bail are in flux, but it is not readily possible for members of the public to assess whether or how those changes in policy and practice are affecting outcomes.  A range of actors affect the jail population, including: law enforcement who make arrest decisions, magistrates and judges who rule at hearings on pretrial conditions and may modify such conditions, prosecutors and defense lawyers who litigate at hearings, pretrial-service providers who assist in evaluation and supervision of persons detained pretrial, and the custodian of the jail who supervises facilities.  In the following Essay, we present the results of a case study in Durham, North Carolina.  We began this project in the fall of 2018 by scraping data portraying daily pretrial conditions set for individuals in the Durham County Jail.  The data was scraped from the Durham County Sheriff’s Inmate Population Search website and details the individual’s name, charges, bond type, bond amount, court docket number and time served.  Scraping was initiated on September 1, 2018, and continues to the present.

Beginning in early 2019, the judges and prosecutors in Durham, North Carolina, adopted new bail policies, reflecting a shift in the pretrial detention framework.  This Essay provides a firsthand look into the pretrial detention data following these substantive policy changes. Our observations serve as a reflection on how the changes in Durham reflect broader pretrial detention reform efforts.  First, we observe that a dramatic decline in the jail population followed the adoption of these policy changes.  Second, we find that the policy changes corresponded with changes in aggregate conditions imposed pretrial. We describe, however, why public data that simply reports initial pre-trial conditions cannot answer additional questions concerning the jail population or outcomes for the released population.  Nor can this data fully answer questions concerning which actors can be credited with the observed changes.  During a time in which jail populations are a subject of pressing public concern, we have inadequate information, even in jurisdictions with public jail websites, to assess policy.  We conclude by discussing the implications of data limitations for efforts to reorient bail policy.

January 29, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 28, 2021

New efforts to fix the ugly old problem of sentencing disparity for federal crack and powder cocaine offenses

As detailed in this press relase from Senator Cory Booker's office, "U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced legislation that will finally eliminate the federal crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity and apply it retroactively to those already convicted or sentenced."  Here is more:

After the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, sentencing for crack and powder cocaine offenses vastly differed. For instance, until 2010, someone caught distributing 5 grams of crack cocaine served the same 5-year prison sentence as someone caught distributing 500 grams of powder cocaine. Over the years, this 100:1 sentencing disparity has been widely criticized as lacking scientific justification. Furthermore, the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity has disproportionately impacted people of color.

The Fair Sentencing Act, introduced by Senator Durbin, passed in 2010 during the Obama administration and reduced the sentencing disparity from 100:1 to 18:1....  The Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act would eliminate the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity and ensure that those who were convicted or sentenced for a federal offense involving cocaine can receive a re-sentencing under the new law.

And FAMM has this press release highlighting advocates support for this effort to remedy a long-standing and ugly federal sentencing injustice.  Here are excerpts:

FAMM and Prison Fellowship have teamed up to launch the #EndTheDisparity Campaign to urge Congress to eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine-related sentences. Both organizations are circulating petitions and are planning a series of activities to build public support for reform.

“We have been fighting to repeal unjust sentencing laws for 30 years, and we’ve seen no greater injustice than the crack-powder disparity,” said FAMM President Kevin Ring. “We were glad Congress reduced the disparity in 2010, but it’s time to finish the job. We must remove this racially discriminatory scheme from the criminal code.”

In 2010, an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the crack-powder disparity from 100:1 to 18:1. Lawmakers acknowledged that the arguments for the original disparity had been proven incorrect; crack cocaine is no more addictive than powder and is not more likely to cause violent crime.

“The unequal treatment of crack and powder cocaine offenses is among the most glaring examples of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system,” said Heather Rice-Minus, Senior Vice President of Advocacy and Church Mobilization for Prison Fellowship. “There is no sound scientific reason to punish powder and cocaine offenses differently and more importantly, there is a moral imperative to repent from this injustice.”

Uncontroverted was the fact that lengthy mandatory minimum prison terms for crack offenses disproportionately harmed Black people.  Crack usage rates did not differ greatly between white and Black Americans, but more than 80% of federal crack convictions involved Black defendants.

While the Fair Sentencing Act greatly reduced the number of people subject to the mandatory minimum sentences for crack, Black people still make up more than 80 percent of federal crack convictions....

For more information and background on the disparity and campaign see the resources below:

January 28, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Stress of Injustice: Public Defenders and the Frontline of American Inequality"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available via SSRN and authored by Valerio Baćak, Sarah Lageson and Kathleen Powell.  Here is its abstract:

Fairness and due process in the criminal justice system are all but unattainable without effective legal representation of indigent defendants, yet we know little about attorneys who do this critical work — public defenders.  Using semi-structured interviews, this study investigated occupational stress in a sample of 87 public defenders across the United States. We show how the intense and varied chronic stressors experienced at work originate in what we define as the stress of injustice: the social and psychological demands of working in a punitive system with laws and practices that target and punish those who are the most disadvantaged.  Our findings are centered around three shifts in American criminal justice that manifest in the stress of injustice: penal excess, divestment in indigent defense, and the criminalization of mental illness.  Working within these structural constraints makes public defenders highly vulnerable to chronic stress and can have profound implications for their ability to safeguard the rights of poor defendants.

January 28, 2021 in Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

ACLU urging Prez Biden to "use his clemency powers to bring home 25,000 people" from federal prisons

In this post yesterday reviewing commentary on former Prez Trump's use of the clemency power, I mentioned that on this front I am always more eager to look forward than look back.  Consequently, I am pleased to see that via this press release that the ACLU is looking forward and pressing the new President to use his clemency powers boldly.  Here are excerpts:

On Tuesday, the Biden administration announced a slate of executive orders on racial justice. Notably missing was any executive action to boldly use his power of clemency. Today, the American Civil Liberties Union launched a six-figure advertising buy asking President Biden to honor his commitment to significant decarceration by immediately using his clemency authority to help tens of thousands of people in federal prison who could be safely released immediately.

poll released by the ACLU last year found widespread support for executive officials to use their clemency authority to correct past injustices.... “The American public, voters, and most importantly, incarcerated people and their families were encouraged by President Biden’s commitment to reduce our country’s prison population significantly. Now that he is in office, the president has the opportunity to act on this commitment and correct the harms created by decades of racist policies that have led to the unjust and disproportionate incarceration of Black and Brown people by using his executive power to grant clemency to thousands of people,” said Cynthia Roseberry, deputy director of the ACLU’s Justice Division and former project manager for the Obama administration’s 2014 Clemency Initiative. “Clemency provides an opportunity for the Biden administration to show mercy to those who are incarcerated, repair injustices, and mend communities most impacted by mass incarceration. The new administration must commit itself to the routine and bold use of clemency.”

Specifically, the ACLU is asking President Biden use his clemency powers to bring home 25,000 people in some of our most vulnerable populations including individuals who are currently incarcerated under statutes that have since changed, older people and medically vulnerable people, particularly people at risk of COVID-19 infections, and people incarcerated for drug offenses. Collectively, these categories add up to tens of thousands of people currently incarcerated in the federal prison system.

I am quite pleased that the ACLU is making a big, big ask in this way, but I think it critical for everyone to also be pushing Prez Biden to just get his clemency pen flowing ASAP in even modest ways.  Though it would be amazing to see thousands of commutations in short order, Prez Biden could send a powerful signal by simply making a regular habit of commuting, say, a few dozen sentences every week while also encouraging all the nation's governors to do the same. 

If Prez Bden would just grant 10 clemencies each week (with perhaps five pardons and five commutations), he would set a record-setting pace for the use of the historic clemency power.  According to the latest BOP data, there are over 10,000 federal prisoners aged 60 or older and over 66,000 in for drug offenses; surely five can be found among this group each week who could safely be released from confinement.  There are hundreds of thousand of Americans still bearing the burdens of a long-ago federal conviction, surely five can be found among this group each week who deserve a pardon.

Interestingly, though not properly attributed to anything done by the Biden Administration, the federal prison in the last week has increased by over 400 persons.  Last week, BOP reported the federal prison population at 151,646; today, BOP reports that it stands at 152,071.  This reality provide an important reminder that, absent proactive and sustained effort to decarcerate, the federal punishment bureaucracy may often be lkely to drive up prison populations.

January 28, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Guest post: "Criminal Justice Scholarship and Reform"

6a00d83451574769e201b7c9134b4d970b-320wiI am very pleased to have the opportunity to publish this guest post from Michael Serota, who is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, an Associate Deputy Director of the Academy for Justice, and the Director of the Criminal Justice Reform Lab.  I was lucky enough to be a small part in a big project Michael has just completed, and so it is especially exciting to provide this platform for highlighting this work: 

Can scholarship improve criminal justice decisions?  That question drives Reforming Arizona Criminal Justice (RACJ), a collaborative project between the Academy for Justice and the Arizona State Law JournalRACJ is a special law review issue comprised of a dozen articles on Arizona criminal justice policy written by an interdisciplinary group of scholars (including SL&P’s own Doug Berman).  Each article offers an intimate look at an area of Arizona criminal law, provides an overview of relevant academic research, and proposes concrete recommendations for reform.  Together, the RACJ articles cover topics across all major stages of the criminal process, with an eye toward the most pressing and salient issues in Arizona.  Issues addressed by RACJ include: bail and pretrial detention, marijuana reform, expungement, sentencing reform, juvenile justice, forensic evidence, treatment of sex offenders, the policing of homelessness, public safety, private prisons, and prison oversight.

What’s unique about RACJ is the organizing principle driving the project.  We invited a diverse group of scholars from across the nation to focus their attention on the criminal law and policy issues in a single jurisdiction, and tasked them with offering targeted recommendations and specific policy guidance sensitive to legal and geographic context.  The goal is not only to persuade the government decisionmakers in that jurisdiction to move forward with reforms but also to offer them a clear sense of how to do so. 

I think of scholarship, whether in law or the social sciences, as existing on a spectrum of actionability, with the most general and abstract work on one end, and the most contextual and concrete on the other.  Valuable scholarship exists at all points along the spectrum.  That said, it seemed worthwhile, both intellectually and practically, to develop a collection of articles whose organizing principle was to push as far toward the concrete end of the spectrum as possible, with the hopes of seeing what a thoroughly actionable law review issue might look like. 

Criminal justice needs this kind of push because government decisions in this area are rarely made in the right way—that is, rationally, deliberately, and informed by expertise.    Instead of a careful weighing of costs and benefits, we’ve too often witnessed a pathological process in which all forms of expertise—and scholarly expertise in particular—have been marginalized.  (To take just one example: for decades, legislators have ratcheted punishments upward despite an academic consensus that marginal increases in sentencing severity are an ineffective way to promote public safety.)  And the consequences have been horrifying: mass imprisonment concentrated on our most vulnerable populations, and racial disparities that defy belief. 

Thankfully, we’re undergoing a societal reckoning during which increasing numbers of government officials seem interested in replacing this afactual, tough-on-crime decision-making calculus with something smarter.  But making smarter decisions requires better information, and criminal justice scholarship should be a critical part of that.  That said, hurdles to entry may put topically relevant academic work out of reach.  Aside from the obvious challenges (length, jargon, etc.), criminal justice scholarship typically offers conclusions pitched in the most general and universal terms, while focusing on the conceptual “U.S. criminal justice system,” or the very real but very distinctive “federal criminal justice system.”  In contrast, it is our many individual state and local criminal justice systems that brought us mass incarceration.  So it will be the distinct policy decisions made by the government actors that populate these systems that will need to lead us out of it.  Hopefully, the production of rigorous yet accessible scholarship, sensitive to the on-the-ground realities in these states and localities and filled with concrete recommendations, will help promote better outcomes.

One would be hard-pressed to find a better place to attempt this kind of project than Arizona.  In a nation that leads the world in incarceration, Arizona has the country’s fifth highest imprisonment rate.  Over the past four decades, prison populations throughout the United States expanded by 400%—but in Arizona, they exploded by around 1200%.  And most of this growth occurred while crime went down in the state.  What we’re left with is a prison population of more than 40,000 Arizonans.  And the situation is even worse than it seems because a disproportionate number of those trapped in the Arizona criminal justice system are also among the most vulnerable: the poor, the underserved, and minorities.  And, as the collection of RACJ articles reveals, Arizona appears to be more resistant to criminal justice reform efforts than other jurisdictions of similar size, resources, and political orientation.

So why, then, might one think that accessible, targeted scholarship could actually improve criminal justice decision-making—whether in Arizona or elsewhere?  Let me end with a couple of reasons for optimism.  Prior to entering academia, I spent six years working on criminal justice reform for the District of Columbia’s local government.  Time and again during this period, I heard expressions of interest in, but lamentations about the absence of, actionable scholarship.  Public servants who wake up every day thinking about how to improve a particular area of policy are, in my experience, inherently interested in what others with relevant expertise have to say about it.  Their question is simply this:  Are those experts speaking our language, and is what they’re saying sufficiently attuned to the diversity of factors bearing on the decisions I have to make?  

I also believe that, in Arizona, there is particular interest in hearing from experts who are attuned in this way.  Prior to undertaking this project, in the fall of 2019, I met with a wide range of Arizona criminal justice stakeholders to learn about the most pressing policy issues facing the state.  Over the course of these discussions, it became clear that there is a marked desire for research, but that written policy analyses of criminal justice issues are few and far between.  All too often, bills are proposed (and enacted) in Arizona without any meaningful written work product to support them.  At the same time, criminal justice debates in Arizona are more frequently centered around claims about evidence and data, alongside an omnipresent sense that Arizona’s policy challenges are unique in ways that generalized research might not be able to capture.  So, hopefully, a collection of evidence-driven, Arizona-focused scholarship will be a welcome addition to the criminal justice reform efforts happening around the state.

For those interested, here’s a list of the articles and participants:

The articles, along with executive summaries and other project-related multimedia, can be found at the Reforming Arizona Criminal Justice site.

January 28, 2021 in Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 27, 2021

Reviewing Prez Trump's clemency work from a number of perspectives

It is now a full week since former Prez Trump issued a large batch of clemencies in his final hours in office (basics here and here).  The final 140+ clemencies on the final day, and Trump's entire clemency efforts, are full of fascinating and frustrating stories with respect to individual cases and the entire body of clemency work.  Here is just a partial round-up of recent pieces assessing Trump's clemency record: 

From the Business Insider, "Trump's pardons may be poorly worded enough to leave some people on the hook"

From the Center for Responsive Politics, "Trump-tied lobbyists paid massive sums to push pardons"

From Law360, "Trump Pot Pardons A Bittersweet Win For Clemency Groups"

From Reason, "Presidential Mercy Is a Woefully Inadequate Remedy for Injustice: The controversy over Trump’s pardons and commutations highlights longstanding problems with clemency."

From the New York Post, "Comparing presidential pardons through the years"

From the New York Times, "The Road to Clemency From Trump Was Closed to Most Who Sought It: Of the nearly 240 pardons and commutations he granted during his term, only 25 came through the regular Justice Department process. The rest were a product of connections, influence and money."

From the New York Times, "For Prosecutors, Trump’s Clemency Decisions Were a ‘Kick in the Teeth’: Commutations in high-profile Medicare fraud cases have elicited anger among those who spent years pursuing complex prosecutions."

I may have more to say about Prez Trump's record in future posts, but on this front I am always more eager to look forward than look back.  Looking forward, I must note (and already complain) that Prez Biden has been setting records for execution action during his first week in office and yet has not yet used his clemency power or said a work about clemency reform.  

UPDATE: I am pleased to now be able to add that the Federal Sentencing Reporter is planning to cover Prez Trump's clemency record in a forthcoming issue, and FSR's publisher has this new posting on its blog providing a bit of context. That posting includes these paragraphs:

Donald Trump was certainly no exception to the tradition of presidents making waves through distinctive use of the clemency power, and the Federal Sentencing Reporter will be continuing a modern tradition of devoting a full issue to examining a president’s grants and considering clemency’s future.  Notably, Trump generally did not concern himself with the recommendation of the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, which has long played a central role in advising the president on such matters.  In addition to exploring the substantive clemency choices made by Trump, FSR‘s forthcoming June 2021 issue will also discuss what clemency process ought to be embraced by presidents to ensure the most effective and responsible use of this historic power.

FSR’s first extensive coverage of federal clemency actions appeared in a special double issue prompted by Bill Clinton’s high-profile and controversial pardons issued on his last day in office back in 2001.  The decision by George W. Bush to commute the sentence of Administration official Scooter Libby in 2007 prompted another FSR issue on clemency as a form of sentencing power.  And in 2017, FSR devoted a full issue to assessing Barack Obama’s remarkable and record-setting commutations resulting from the “Clemency Project” he set up toward the tail end of his second term.

January 27, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Prosecuting Misdemeanors"

The title of this post is the title of this book chapter authored by Jenny Roberts now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Although violent crime gets the most media, public, and legislative attention in the United States, misdemeanors make up approximately 75 percent of all criminal court cases, with more than 13 million new misdemeanor cases filed each year.  This chapter discusses the role of prosecutors in the misdemeanor system.  First, it addresses prosecutorial discretion and mass misdemeanor criminalization.  Prosecutors, with near-unfettered discretionary power, are characterized as the most powerful actors in criminal cases.  Yet often, prosecutors fail to properly exercise their discretion in low-level cases or are completely absent from the charging and sometimes even the adjudicatory processes.  This is particularly problematic in misdemeanor cases, where informed prosecutorial decision-making is critical given the enormous volume of arrests and structural and institutional realities that weaken the role of other lower court actors.  Proper exercise of discretion is also critical given well-documented racial disparities in the misdemeanor realm and the need to mitigate the myriad disproportionate effects of the ever-growing number of collateral consequences that flow from even a minor criminal record.

Second, the chapter examines the misdemeanor prosecutor’s role at key stages: charging, bail, plea bargaining, sentencing, expungement, and post-conviction innocence claims. The chapter draws on examples of prosecutorial practice as well as theoretical and empirical research about prosecutorial discretion.  Some recently elected so-called progressive prosecutors have already implemented significant promised changes.  Although implementation of such reforms is nascent, time will tell whether a newly attentive electorate and a fresh prosecutorial approach will begin to roll back the extreme overuse and disproportionate impact of misdemeanor prosecutions in the United States.

January 27, 2021 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Vera Institute reports on "People in Jail and Prison in 2020" and finds US total now well below two million

Images (7)The Vera Institute of Justice has been taking on the challenging task of collecting data on the number of people in state and federal prisons and jails to provide more timely information on incarceration that the Bureau of Justice Statistics releases in its annual reports. Impressively, Vera has already produced this great new report, titled "People in Jail and Prison in 2020," with the latest nationwide prison and population headcounts. Here his part of the start of the report (with a few sentences I have emphasized):

The United States saw an unprecedented drop in total incarceration between 2019 and 2020.  Triggered by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and pressure from advocates to reduce incarceration, local jails drove the initial decline, although prisons also made reductions.  From summer to fall 2020, prison populations declined further, but jails began to refill, showing the fragility of decarceration.  Jails in rural counties saw the biggest initial drops, but still incarcerate people at double the rate of urban and suburban areas.  Despite the historic drop in the number of people incarcerated, the decrease was neither substantial nor sustained enough to be considered an adequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and incarceration in the United States remains a global aberration.

Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) researchers collected data on the number of people in local jails and state and federal prisons at both midyear and fall 2020 to provide timely information on how incarceration is changing in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Vera researchers estimated the national jail population using a sample of 1,558 jail jurisdictions and the national prison population based on a sample of 49 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons....

Generally, jails and prisons do not make race and gender data available.  However, preliminary results from other studies suggest that race inequity in incarceration may be worsening during the pandemic.

The number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails in the United States dropped from around 2.1 million in 2019 to 1.8 million by mid-2020 — a 14 percent decrease.  This decline held through the fall. This represents a 21 percent decline from a peak of 2.3 million people in prison and jail in 2008.  State and federal prisons held an estimated 1,311,100 people at midyear 2020 — down 124,400, or 9 percent, from 2019.  Prisons declined by an additional 61,800 people in late 2020, bringing the total prison population to 1,249,300 people, a 13 percent decline from 2019 to late 2020 (the end of September or beginning of October).

Local jails had steeper population declines than prisons in the first part of 2020. From June 2019 to June 2020, the jail population decreased by 182,900 people, or 24 percent.  However, from June to September, jail populations increased substantially, growing 10 percent in just three months. By late 2020, there were 633,200 people in local jails, up from an estimated 575,500 people at midyear.  In total, the national jail population declined 17 percent from midyear 2019 to late 2020, with jail incarceration trending upward in recent months.

The national jail population counts hide stark divergence across the urban-to-rural continuum. In the past year, the largest and most sustained jail population declines were in rural areas, where the jail population dropped by 60,400 (33 percent) between midyear 2019 and midyear 2020, and subsequently grew by 10,600 (9 percent) between midyear 2020 and late 2020.  Urban areas and small and midsized metro areas had smaller incarceration declines followed by slightly higher subsequent growth from June to September 2020. Even with dramatic declines, rural areas still have the highest incarceration rates by far.  Three out of five people incarcerated in local jails are in smaller cities and rural communities.

This four-page fact sheet goes with the report and provides a lot of its highlights and includes recommendations for policy-makers.

January 27, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

January 26, 2021

Prez Biden signs Executive Order "to Eliminate the Use of Privately Operated Criminal Detention Facilities" in the federal prison system

I had heard reports that today was going to be a day for Prez Biden to sign a number of executive orders related to criminal justice, but it seems as though only one such order was actually signed today during an event that was focused more broadly on racial equity.  Still, as reported in this AP piece, the one criminal justice executive order signed today is still notable:

President Joe Biden on Tuesday ordered the Department of Justice to end its reliance on private prisons and acknowledge the central role government has played in implementing discriminatory housing policies. In remarks before signing the order, Biden said the U.S. government needs to change “its whole approach” on the issue of racial equity. He added that the nation is less prosperous and secure because of the scourge of systemic racism....

Beyond calling on the Justice Department to curb the use of private prisons and address housing discrimination, the new orders will recommit the federal government to respect tribal sovereignty and disavow discrimination against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community over the coronavirus pandemic....

The order to end the reliance on privately-run prisons directs the attorney general not to renew Justice Department contracts with privately operated criminal detention facilities. The move will effectively revert the Justice Department to the same posture it held at the end of the Obama administration. “This is a first step to stop corporations from profiting off of incarceration,” Biden said.

The more than 14,000 federal inmates housed at privately-managed facilities represent a fraction of the nearly 152,000 federal inmates currently incarcerated. The federal Bureau of Prisons had already opted not to renew some private prison contracts in recent months as the number of inmates dwindled and thousands were released to home confinement because of the coronavirus pandemic.

GEO Group, a private company that operates federal prisons, called the Biden order “a solution in search of a problem.” “Given the steps the BOP had already announced, today’s Executive Order merely represents a political statement, which could carry serious negative unintended consequences, including the loss of hundreds of jobs and negative economic impact for the communities where our facilities are located, which are already struggling economically due to the COVID pandemic,” a GEO Group spokesperson said in a statement.

David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, noted that the order does not end the federal government’s reliance on privately-run immigration detention centers. “The order signed today is an important first step toward acknowledging the harm that has been caused and taking actions to repair it, but President Biden has an obligation to do more, especially given his history and promises,” Fathi said.

The full EO, which is titled "Executive Order on Reforming Our Incarceration System to Eliminate the Use of Privately Operated Criminal Detention Facilities," can be found at this link, and it has this interesting "preamble" in its first section:

Policy.  More than two million people are currently incarcerated in the United States, including a disproportionate number of people of color.  There is broad consensus that our current system of mass incarceration imposes significant costs and hardships on our society and communities and does not make us safer.  To decrease incarceration levels, we must reduce profit-based incentives to incarcerate by phasing out the Federal Government’s reliance on privately operated criminal detention facilities. 

We must ensure that our Nation’s incarceration and correctional systems are prioritizing rehabilitation and redemption.  Incarcerated individuals should be given a fair chance to fully reintegrate into their communities, including by participating in programming tailored to earning a good living, securing affordable housing, and participating in our democracy as our fellow citizens.  However, privately operated criminal detention facilities consistently underperform Federal facilities with respect to correctional services, programs, and resources.  We should ensure that time in prison prepares individuals for the next chapter of their lives. 

The Federal Government also has a responsibility to ensure the safe and humane treatment of those in the Federal criminal justice system. However, as the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General found in 2016, privately operated criminal detention facilities do not maintain the same levels of safety and security for people in the Federal criminal justice system or for correctional staff.  We have a duty to provide these individuals with safe working and living conditions. 

January 26, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

"The U.S. Sentencing Commission’s Recidivism Studies: Myopic, Misleading, and Doubling Down on Imprisonment"

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

Recidivism is now the guiding principle of punishment and has become the new hallmark of criminal justice reform, as reflected in the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s recidivism project.  So far, the Commission has issued three reports in 2020 alone, which outline the parameters within which “safe” criminal justice reform can proceed.  Yet the overly broad definition of “recidivism” and the focus on easily measurable and static risk factors, such as prior criminal record, create a feedback loop.

The Commission’s work should come with a warning label.  Its recidivism studies should not be consumed on their own.  Instead, they must be read in conjunction with U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services recidivism research, which includes data on the impact of programming, treatment, and services on reentry success.  Yet, concerns about undercounting recidivism events drive the entire U.S. approach.  Western European studies reflect different philosophies and values that explain some of the underlying reasons for the dramatically different imprisonment rates on the two sides of the Atlantic.

These recidivism studies raise also questions about the Commission’s role.  Its ongoing preference for imprisonment indicates that it continues to consider itself the guardian of incarceration-driven guidelines.  The studies reenforce the status quo and the Commission’s role in it.  They threaten to propel us into data-driven selective incapacitation and continuously long prison terms for those with prior criminal records, all in the name of public safety.

January 26, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 25, 2021

Some prosectors concerned LA's new progressive prosecutor is progressing too far

Last month I noted in this post that L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón made a lot of bold policy changes in his first day in office.  Now this new Politico article, headlined "California prosecutors revolt against Los Angeles DA’s social justice changes," highlights the push-back these policy changes are engendering.  Here are excerpts:

Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón ran on a vow to shake up America’s largest law enforcement jurisdiction. Sweeping progressive changes followed — and so has the California backlash.

Within weeks of taking office, Gascón instructed prosecutors to stop seeking the death penalty and trying juveniles as adults.  He ordered a halt to most cash bail requests and banned prosecutors from appearing at parole hearings.  Most controversially, he barred prosecutors from seeking various sentencing enhancements.

Even if expected, Gascón’s moves have set off a political confrontation of unprecedented magnitude.  Rank-and-file Los Angeles prosecutors have revolted and sought to block their new boss in court.  District attorneys elsewhere in California have said they will not share cases with Gascón....

The widening battle offers a high-profile microcosm for larger tensions roiling law enforcement in California and around the country.  The outcome will substantially impact Los Angeles and send a message to prosecutors everywhere.  Once a pioneer in stringent penalties that drove an incarceration boom, Los Angeles is now the hub of a struggle over the course of criminal justice.

“He’s doing exactly what he said he was going to do during the campaign,” transition spokesperson Max Szabo said. “There’s certainly backlash, but we can’t as a system of justice change course based on that backlash and ignore what the broader public has asked for.”...

“This is the first time that a district attorney in Los Angeles County is using data, science and research instead of fear and emotion to drive policy decisions,” Szabo said.  “Enhancements have never been shown to enhance safety, but excessive sentences have been shown to exacerbate recidivism and therefore create more victims of crime in the future.”

January 25, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

US Sentencing Commission publishes report on "Fentanyl and Fentanyl Analogues: Federal Trends and Trafficking Patterns."

The United States Sentencing Commission, despite its status as an incomplete agency due to the absence of confirmed commissioners for years, keeps churning out notable data reports.  Today brings this notable new publication, clocking in at 60 pages, titled "Fentanyl and Fentanyl Analogues: Federal Trends and Trafficking Patterns."  Here is this report's "Key Findings" from this USSC webpage:

January 25, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Is Mass Incarceration Here to Stay?"

The title of this post is the title of this recent essay authored by Lynn Adelman and now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This article argues that the number of people imprisoned in the United States is so large and that policymakers’ concerns about being perceived as soft on crime are so significant that it is very possible that mass incarceration will be with us for a very long time.  The article discusses some of the reasons that have been put forward as to why the United States has imprisoned so many people in the last 50 years and the harms that mass incarceration has brought about.  The article also explores some of the proposals that scholars and others have offered to reduce the number of people imprisoned.  Ultimately, however, the article questions whether there is sufficient will to address the enormity of the problem.

January 25, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 24, 2021

Two more new 3582(c)(1)(A) reductions to remedy stacked 924(c) sentences reformed by FIRST STEP Act

As regular readers know, I have made much of the FIRST STEP Act provision now allowing federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  The BOP reports here that a total of 2,693 of these motions have now been granted in the 25 months since the FIRST STEP Act became law.  The vast majority of the sentencing reduction motions brought by federal prisoners and granted by federal district judges these days are focused on the health threat posed by COVID.  But judges are still rightly finding other "extraordinary and compelling reasons" warranting sentencing reductions.

A helpful reader recently flagged for me two great new district court rulings using § 3582(c)(1)(A) to undo the now-repealed harshness of severe stacking of mandatory minimum 924(c) counts.  Both rulings ought to be read in full as yet another set of examples of the ridiculousness and injustice of (post-trial) sentences that had to be imposed by judges under mandatory sentencing provisions, and to appreciate how the FIRST STEP Act helps to restore at least a little sanity and justice in this ugly part of the federal sentencing world.  I will here just note the openning paragraphs and provide a link to the full opinions:

US v. McDonel, No. 07-20189 (ED Mich. Jan. 13, 2021):

Defendant Robert McDonel, then 21 years old, was sentenced to over 100 years in prison in 2008 after engaging in a spree of auto parts store robberies using a handgun.  That extraordinarily harsh sentence was the product of a statutory sentencing scheme that required enhancing and stacking sentences for multiple firearm brandishing offenses even when the crimes were committed as part of the same episode and charged in a single indictment.  Congress since has corrected that Draconian measure, but the legislation does not help McDonel, as the amendment is not retroactive. He asks the Court for relief under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), as amended by section 603(b)(1) of the First Step Act of 2018, Pub L. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5194, 5239, which allows a sentence reduction for “extraordinary and compelling reasons.”  The gross disparity created by the legislative changes, which mitigated the harshness in the sentencing scheme to which McDonel was subjected, coupled with McDonel’s youth and rehabilitative efforts, qualify as extraordinary and compelling reasons under section 3582(c)(1)(A)(i). Other factors that the Court also must consider favor relief.  The motion will be granted.

Download McDonel opinion

US v. Nafkha, No. 2:95-CR-00220-001-TC (D Utah Jan. 11, 2021):

Prisoner Mounir Nafkha moves for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), asking the court to reduce his nearly 73-year sentence in the custody of the United States Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to time served.  To date, Mr. Nafkha has served approximately 25 years of his sentence. He asserts that the circumstances surrounding his sentence — which consists of four consecutively “stacked” counts under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) — constitute extraordinary and compelling reasons for his early release.  The court finds that Mr. Nafkha has satisfied his burden of showing extraordinary and compelling reasons to release him and that the balance of sentencing factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) warrant his release. Accordingly, his motion (ECF No. 214) is GRANTED.

Download Nafkha Grant

January 24, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Why not a clemency push focused on the (more lethal) new death penalty that is COVID in federal prisons?

I noted in this recent post that group of Democratic members of Congress signed a letter calling upon Prez Biden to "commute the sentences of all those" on federal death row.  I wondered in my post if there might be a less politically controversial group of federal prisonsers who might be a better focal point for the very first clemencies from Prez Biden.  And this new BuzzFeed News piece, which carries the subheadline "In crowded cells, where COVID is running rampant, appeals for clemency for thousands of prisoners have gone unanswered or flat-out rejected," reminded me that Prez Biden might actually save many more lives right away if he were to focus on communiting federal prison sentences for the most vulnerable persons at risk of suffering "the new death penalty" that takes the form of COVID-19.  Here is some contexnt from the BuzzFeed piece: 

For many federal inmates who aren’t politically connected to the president, or state inmates with no sway with their governor, a pardon isn’t just about getting out of prison or having their sentence overturned, it’s literally a case of life and death.  In crowded prisons, with little access to healthcare or the ability to socially distance, COVID-19 cases have exploded, with at least 1 in 5 inmates infected.

A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative found that crowded jails and prisons led to more than half a million additional COVID-19 cases nationwide — or about 1 in 8 of all new cases — over the summer, including cases both inside and outside correctional facilities because the virus spreads via prison workers to the world beyond bars. At least 2,144 inmates and 146 corrections staff have died from the disease, according to data collected by the Marshall Project....

Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the nonpartisan Prison Policy Institute, pointed out that people in prison are infected with COVID-19 at a rate four times higher than that of the general population and twice as likely to die from the disease. “What that means is that people who were never sentenced to death are being killed by COVID-19,” Bertram said. “More people have been killed by COVID-19 in prisons than have been killed by the death penalty in like the last few decades, all over the country.”

Bertram pointed to a report published last month showing places with prisons record higher levels of community infection. “This is a tragedy,” she said. “It’s something that governors and the federal government should have been dealing with a long time ago by doing whatever it is that they had to do to get huge numbers of people out.”

The federal Bureau of Prison's COVID-19 page currently reports that there "have been 204 federal inmate deaths ... attributed to COVID-19 disease."  That amounts to more than four times the number of persons on federal death row; in a few older posts here and here, I noted that nearly half of the early reported deaths of federal prisoners involved individuals serving time for drug crimes, and thus crimes much less serious than the aggarvated murders that lead to formal death sentences.   

The Buzzfeed piece rightly notes that "Public officials have been slow to use clemency powers, despite calls from the American Medical Association and other groups to reduce the prison population."  I sure wish a bunch of members of Congress and lots and lots of other folks would focus a push for clemency on the persistent and pressing need to try to depopulate federal prisons in order to reduce the spread and carnage of COVID in federal prisons.

A few of many prior related posts:

January 24, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)