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March 26, 2022

Following up on just some of the sentencing discourse from SCOTUS confirmation hearings

Prior to this past week's Supreme Court confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, I had been pleased to see coverage of the US Sentencing Commission and the ways in which nominee Judge Jackson's service on the USSC might impact her future work if confirmed.  I have also long said that a nominee's experience as a federal district judge (and thus a sentencing judge) should be an asset to work as Justice.  But, while looking forward to a sentencing-related discourse, I ended up generally disappointed by what generally seemed like a failure by all Senators on both sides of the aisle to engage thoughtfully with the deep challenges and profound humanity of sentencing determinations.  

Helpfully, I have now seen a couple of press pieces picking up some of these themes.  Here are links and snippets:

By Dawinder S. Sidhu at The Baltimore Sun, "Senators questioning of Judge Jackson’s sentencing history during Supreme Court confirmation hearings reveals their own failures":

If anything, the senators’ questions highlight Congress’ failures in erecting the sentencing structure that federal judges across the country, including Judge Jackson, operate within. Once the confirmation process is over, the Senate should fix the very system that they criticize judges for following....

Judge Jackson should stand behind her sentencing decisions. So too should Congress step up and fix a system that only it is capable of repairing. It would be a shame for Congress to give attention to that system only when the cameras are rolling and the bright lights of the confirmation process are flashing. The American people, and the principled administration of justice, deserve more.

By Jessica Schulberg at HuffPost, "Ketanji Brown Jackson Was Right To Use Discretion On Sentences. Why Didn’t Democrats Defend It?":

When Republicans falsely accused the Supreme Court nominee of going easy on sex offenders, Democrats could have taken the opportunity to educate the public about the need for sentencing reform. Instead, they sidestepped the issue.

Some prior related posts:

March 26, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

March 25, 2022

"The Law Enforcement Lobby"

The title of this post is the title of this paper authored by Zoe Robinson and Stephen Rushin now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The law enforcement lobby represents one of the most important and undertheorized barriers to criminal justice reform. We define the law enforcement lobby as the constellation of entrenched actors within the justice system — particularly police unions, correctional officer unions, and prosecutor associations — that exert an outsized role in policy development.  The law enforcement lobby operates largely without coordinated opposition, resulting in capture of criminal justice policymaking and skewed policy outcomes that often institutionalize injustice and subordination. The strength of the law enforcement lobby also presents a challenge to the growing defunding and abolition movements.  Nevertheless, the law enforcement lobby remains at the periphery of contemporary scholarly conversations about the democratization and design of criminal justice institutions.

This Article describes and evaluates the influence of the law enforcement lobby on criminal justice policy.  It argues that the law enforcement lobby raises unique problems that extend beyond traditional lobbying concerns, including the ability to influence life and liberty, the power to perpetuate racial subordination, and a pervasive power over the operation of democratic institutions.

Drawing on the growing calls for democratization and power-shifting in the criminal justice system, this Article offers a range of recommendations to curtail the strength of the law enforcement lobby.  First, the Article argues for reforms that “level up” of the power of competing interests that can counter the power of the law enforcement lobby in criminal justice policymaking.  In doing so, the Article focuses specifically on reforms that imbed contestation in policymaking by communities most impacted by the criminal justice system.  Second, the Article concurrently proposes mechanisms to “level down” the power of the law enforcement lobby, including realistic restrictions on the lobbying capacity of law enforcement interest groups that draws on First Amendment Speech Clause doctrine that permits restriction of public employee speech. Taken together, these reforms could facilitate broader transformation of the American criminal justice system.

March 25, 2022 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Prison Policy Initiative provides terrific accounting of COVID pandemic's early impact on prison and jail populations

Wendy Sawyer at the Prison Policy Initiative has authored this great new report that effectively explores the various forces that contributed to declining incarcerated populations in the early COVID period. The report, which merits a full and careful read, is fully titled "Untangling why prison & jail populations dropped early in the pandemic: Reductions in prison and jail populations were due to COVID-related slowdowns in the gears of the criminal legal system. Without intentional action, these reductions will be erased." Here is how it gets started (with links from the original):

Last week, we released the latest edition of our Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie report, in which we showed about 1.9 million people locked up by various U.S. systems of confinement, according to the most recent data available.  Out of context, that number would be cause for celebration among those of us fighting to end mass incarceration: it’s almost 400,000 fewer people than were locked up before the pandemic.  Unfortunately, this reduction in the incarcerated population is unlikely to last very long without more lasting policy change.  In fact, fear-mongering about upticks in certain specific crimes may make this work even harder and lead to policy changes that make mass incarceration even more intractable.

It’s important, therefore, to understand what changes — intentional or not — led to the prison and jail population drops in 2020 and 2021. This briefing offers the context needed to temper expectations about sustaining those population drops and to maintain focus on the policy changes needed to permanently reduce the use of confinement. Without those needed changes, we can expect prison and jail populations to return to pre-pandemic “normal” (extreme by any other measure) as the criminal legal system returns to “business as usual.”

The changes that have had the most impact on incarceration since the start of the pandemic include:

  • 24% fewer arrests in 2020 compared to 2019, largely due to changes in everyday behaviors under widespread “stay at home orders,” as well as short-term guidance issued by some police departments to limit unnecessary contact and jail bookings;
  • 21% fewer criminal cases filed in state courts in 2020 compared to 2019 — the result of fewer arrests and changes in some prosecutorial practices;
  • 36% fewer criminal cases resolved in state courts from 2019 to 2020, attributable to court closures, operational changes, and delays in case processing;
  • A 17 percentage point net drop in criminal case clearance rates in state courts, indicating a growing backlog of pending cases;
  • 40% fewer admissions to state and federal prisons in 2020 compared to 2019, largely the result of court slowdowns but also partly due to the refusal of some prisons to accept transfers from local jails to prevent the spread of the virus.

March 25, 2022 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

March 24, 2022

Applying RLUIPA, Supreme Court rules 8-1 in favor of condemned Texas inmate seeking religious touching in execution chamber

The US Supreme Court handed down a lengthy and notable death penalty administration ruling today with Ramirez v. Collier, No. 21-5592 (S. Ct. Mar. 24, 2022) (available here). Chief Justice Roberts authored the opinion of the Court, which every Justice other than Justice Thomas joined. Justices Sotomayor and Kavanaugh did author concurring opinions.  Here is the start and end of the Court's opinion:

A Texas jury sentenced John Ramirez to death for the brutal murder of Pablo Castro. In this litigation, Ramirez does not challenge his conviction. Nor does he challenge his sentence. He asks instead that his long-time pastor be allowed to pray with him and lay hands on him while he is being executed. He says that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 114 Stat. 803, 42 U. S. C. §2000cc et seq., requires this accommodation. Ramirez sought a preliminary injunction ordering Texas to permit his religious exercise if the State went forward with his execution. The District Court and Court of Appeals declined to grant such relief. We then stayed the execution and granted certiorari....

We hold that Ramirez is likely to prevail on the merits of his RLUIPA claims, and that the other preliminary injunction factors justify relief. If Texas reschedules Ramirez’s execution and declines to permit audible prayer or religious touch, the District Court should therefore enter appropriate preliminary relief. The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Here is the start of Justice Thomas's dissenting opinion:

Petitioner John Henry Ramirez stabbed Pablo Castro 29 times during a robbery that netted $1.25.  Castro bled to death in a parking lot. Since that day, Ramirez has manufactured more than a decade of delay to evade the capital sentence lawfully imposed by the State of Texas.  This Court now affords yet another chance for him to delay his execution. Because I think Ramirez’s claims either do not warrant equitable relief or are procedurally barred, I respectfully dissent.

March 24, 2022 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Religion, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (26)

In praise of the continued sentencing sensibility of the National Review's Andrew McCarthy

Though I have been intrigued by the considerable attention given to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's sentencing record even since Senator Josh Hawley's tweets flagged his concerns about about her writings, comments and sentencings in some sex offense cases (background here), I have been quite disappointed by what seemed to me to be a general failure by all of Senators on both sides of the aisle to engage thoughtfully with the deep challenges and profound humanity in any and all sentencing determinations.  District judges often say sentencing is the hardest part of their job, and this is true even in the run-of-the-mill cases when the facts are routine and the applicable statutory law is clear and the applicable guidelines are helpful.  (A few years ago, I gave a talk (written up here) partially titled "Sentencing is So Dang Hard" which details just some reasons I think judge are right to describe sentencing this way.)

Critically, in federal child pornography (CP) cases, the basic facts are rarely routine, the applicable statutory law is rarely clear, and the applicable guidelines are the very opposite of helpful.  In the CP setting, applicable statutory law is quite messy — e.g., what is the real difference between child pornography "possession" and "receipt", how should USSC policy statements be considered here — and the applicable guidelines are widely regarded as badly broken.  Those legal realities mean federal sentencing takes on extra layers of challenge in CP cases.  The challenges become especially profound when difficult and distinctive facts come along, such as in the oft-discussed Hawkins case where, according to this New York Times article, the prosecutor described "very unique circumstances" involving teenage offender and the defense presented an "evaluation by a psychologist asserting that Mr. Hawkins did not 'demonstrate sexual deviation' but was instead driven to watch the pornographic images as 'a way for him to explore his curiosity about homosexual activity and connect with his emotional peers'."

Under difficult circumstances during questions from mostly GOP Senators, Judge Jackson tried hard to explain her sentencing process and goals, and she did highlight some of the unique challenges these cases present in light of problematic guidelines.  But, based on the parts of the hearing I was able to watch, I was generally underwhelmed by the efforts of Judge Jackson's supporters to discuss with her more broadly the deep challenges and profound humanity that all sentencing decision-making involves.  And I heard precious little discussion of the particulars of the Hawkins case or other cases in which defendants present significant mitigating circumstances that find little or no expression is problematic guidelines. 

But, as the title of this post suggest, there is one commentator who has done a great job in this arena this week, and I want to give a particular shout out to the work he has done to consistently and effectively contextualizing these stories.  Specifically, the National Review's Andrew McCarthy has now done three lengthy pieces that are must-reads for everyone following these stories:

"Senator Hawley’s Disingenuous Attack against Judge Jackson’s Record on Child Pornography"

"Ho-Hum: The Cases Senator Hawley Cites Show Judge Jackson Is an Unremarkable Sentencer in Child-Porn Cases"

"Judge Jackson and Judiciary Committee Republicans Joust on Child-Porn-Possession Case against 18-Year-Old . . . Again"

I flagged the first of these pieces in a prior post, but I want to especially laud Mr. McCarthy for not being content with his important first salvo against this line of attack on Judge Jackson.  Mr. McCarthy makes clear that he is not a fan or supporter of Judge Jackson, but he has still been willing to write a significant series of detailed pieces documenting in so many ways why the sentencing discourse by the GOP here is so misguided.  Kudos to him (and the National Review) for such sentencing sensibility.

March 24, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Spotlighting that public defenders are underrepresented on all high courts in the US

The nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the US Supreme Court has brought needed attention to the fact that persons with criminal defense experience, particularly public defense experience, have long been underrepresented on our nation's top court.  And this Bolts article, headlined "Despite Federal Gains, Public Defenders Largely Missing from State Supreme Courts," usefully highlights that the top courts in our states also have roughly five times as many former prosecutors as former public defenders.  Here is how the article starts (with links from the original):

Ketanji Brown Jackson’s past work as a public defender emerged as a focal point of her confirmation hearings this week as Joe Biden’s pick for the U.S. Supreme Court. If confirmed, Jackson would be the first former public defender on the high court in more than three decades, and also the first Black woman to join the court, carrying on the legacy of Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first Black justice and the last with public defender experience. Biden has already tapped former public defenders for federal judgeships at a record rate.

“You are standing up for the constitutional value of representation,” Jackson said during her hearings on Tuesday, defending her record from Republican attacks.  Her supporters, meanwhile, have cheered Jackson’s experience as adding a much-needed perspective to the court.  From the way this clash has unfolded, you’d think that judges with public defender backgrounds are part of the routine tit-for-tat of judicial nominations, a perspective that Democrats relish adding to the bench when they get the opportunity.

But in state supreme courts around the country, there is comparatively little momentum to install judges with public defense backgrounds, despite the great power those judges hold in interpreting criminal law.  The vast majority of criminal cases are decided at the state level, and according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, as of 2021 only seven percent of state justices are former public defenders.  More than a third are former prosecutors.

In the two most populous states with Democratic governors, California and New York, efforts by some advocates to convince recent governors to appoint public defenders have fallen short, and former prosecutors have been added to the bench instead.

“The high courts of every state and the U.S. Supreme Court are regularly confronted with novel questions about the interpretation of criminal statutes and procedure,” said Alan Lewis, the chair of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’s screening committee. “It is very much regrettable if the only kind of experience that all of the judges bring to the bench from their previous career as advocates is for one side — the prosecution — with no experience on the other, representing accused persons.”

March 24, 2022 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

March 23, 2022

Is Congress finally on the verge of equalizing crack and powder cocaine sentences?

I asked in this post a few weeks ago, "Why is getting the EQUAL Act through the US Senate proving so challenging?".  Excitingly, as detailed in this new Bloomberg piece, headlined "GOP Support Clears Senate Path for Bill on Cocaine Sentencing," it now looks like a bill to equalize crack and powder sentences now may have a ready path to passage. Here are the exciting details:

Ten Senate Republicans have signed on to a bill that would eliminate the federal sentencing disparity between drug offenses involving crack and powder cocaine, paving the way for likely passage in the evenly divided chamber where 60 votes are needed for most legislation.

“That looks like you’d get to 60, really,” said Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, one of the 10 GOP co-sponsors of the EQUAL Act.  “This is the Democrats’ prerogative, it’d be nice if they would bring it to the floor.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer signed onto the bill as a co-sponsor on Monday, but his office did not immediately respond to questions on his plans for floor debate.  The bill passed the House, 361-66, in September and President Joe Biden, who campaigned on criminal justice reform, is expected to sign the measure when it reaches his desk.

The bill, sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker, eliminates the lower quantity thresholds for crack cocaine, which the bill’s proponents have said unjustly targets Black offenders.

In 2020, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that 77.1% of crack cocaine trafficking offenders were Black and 6.3% were White.  Yet White people are more likely to use cocaine in their lifetime than any other group, according to the 2020 National Survey of Drug Use and Health.

Current laws establish an 18-to-1 ratio on federal penalties for crack and powder cocaine, meaning anyone found with 28 grams of crack cocaine would face the same five-year mandatory prison sentence as a person found with 500 grams of powder cocaine....

Sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine were originally created in 1986 with a 100-to-1 ratio.  The Sentencing Commission issued a special report in 1995 stating the 100-to-1 ratio punished low-level crack dealers “far more severely” than high-level suppliers of powder cocaine, despite there being no pharmacological difference between the two forms of the drug.  Then-President Bill Clinton and Congress rejected the commission’s recommendations to amend the law.

Fifteen years later, Congress reduced the sentencing disparity from to 18-to-1, but advocates have fought to further narrow the sentencing gap....

Senator Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, recently signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill after studying the issue with constituents, he said, and determining this would be a step toward “criminal justice fairness.” Moran said it is his “expectation that this bill will be considered by the Senate.”

A few related posts on the EQUAL Act:

March 23, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (3)

Nebraska having a bad time sorting through how to apply good-time credits

I just came across this interesting recent local article from Nebraska, headlined "Prison officials wrote a bill to release prisoners earlier. They’re applying the law in a way that doesn’t." The story it tells is yet another reminder of the myriad challenges that can attend effectively reforming and effectively administering our sentencing and corrections systems. Here is part of the story:

In 2011, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services wrote a bill that would allow well-behaved prisoners the chance to shorten their time behind bars.  Eleven years later, that same department is applying the resulting law in a way neither the state senator who sponsored the bill nor the then-director of Nebraska’s prisons intended.

Prison officials now shorten a prisoner’s final release date, but never change the day that prisoner becomes eligible for parole.  The result: Thousands of prisoners sentenced under the law have potentially stayed in prison days, weeks or months longer than the law’s authors intended.

The debate over semantics — namely, the meaning of three dozen words buried in a state law — has made its way to the Nebraska Supreme Court, whose decision could shorten the stays of thousands of people in the state’s chronically overcrowded prisons....

On one side: The department argues that it’s properly following the 11-year-old law when it comes to calculating when a prisoner is eligible for parole. If there’s a flaw, it’s in the language of the law itself, state lawyers have argued in court.

On the other: Robert Heist II, who has been imprisoned since 2016, argues that the department is misreading the law and delaying parole eligibility.

In some cases, prisoners end up being released with no supervision — “jamming out” in prison-speak — before they even become parole eligible....

The question now before the Nebraska Supreme Court: Should the three days a month earned for good behavior be applied to the date when a prisoner first becomes eligible for parole? The state senator who sponsored the bill and the former head of prisons say yes.  Making prisoners parole eligible sooner was an intended result of the bill, both Council and Houston told the Flatwater Free Press.  “I introduced this bill as a means of providing additional ways to reduce the prison population and get people parole eligible,” Council said in an interview....

But the state is simply following the letter of the law, state lawyers have argued to the Nebraska Supreme Court.  That law as written, they say, doesn’t allow for the extra good time days to go toward parole eligibility....

This interpretation of the law has potentially affected thousands of prisoners who could have had at least a little time shaved off their sentences. But the most egregious cases are those prisoners who “jam out” before even becoming parole eligible.

In 2019, the department told Heist that 62 prisoners at the time had tentative release dates that preceded their parole eligibility because of their earned good time.  As of March 2022, the prison’s roster listed as many as 306 individuals sentenced since 2011 who were released before they became eligible for parole.

“When you become parole eligible after you’ve done your sentence, that doesn’t make any sense,” Heist said in an interview.  Those prisoners — whose sentences should have included a shot at parole — become “guaranteed jam outs,” Heist said.

Under questioning at the Nebraska Supreme Court, the state’s lawyers didn’t dispute that inverted sentences — when mandatory release actually comes before parole eligibility — can and do happen.  “Yes, it is possible that [inverted sentences] can occur,” Scott Straus, assistant attorney general for the state, said during oral arguments.  “However, the plain language of the statute does not let us even get to whether that result is absurd or not.”

March 23, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Sentencing Project and Fair and Just Prosecution produce "Felony Murder: An On-Ramp for Extreme Sentencing"

The Sentencing Project and Fair and Just Prosecution today released this interesting new report about sentencing in felony murder cases titled "Felony Murder: An On-Ramp for Extreme Sentencing." Here is part of its executive summary:

Murder typically refers to an intentional killing.  But “felony murder” laws hold people like Mendoza liable for murder if they participated in a felony, such as a robbery, that resulted in someone’s death.  These laws impose sentences associated with murder on people who neither intended to kill nor anticipated a death, and even on those who did not participate in the killing.  As such, they violate the principle of proportional sentencing, which is supposed to punish crimes based on their severity.  These excessively punitive outcomes violate widely shared perceptions of justice.  With one in seven people in U.S. prisons serving a life sentence, ending mass incarceration requires bold action to reduce extreme prison terms such as those prescribed for felony murder.

These laws run counter to public safety, fiscal responsibility, and justice.  Although other countries have largely rejected the felony murder doctrine, 48 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government still use these laws.  The only two states that do not have felony murder laws are Hawaii and Kentucky.  Six other states require some proof of intentionality regarding the killing to consider it murder, though the use of a gun — or mere knowledge of a codefendant’s gun use — satisfies this requirement in some jurisdictions.  In any case, all felony murder laws use the underlying felony to either a) treat as murder a killing that would not have otherwise been considered murder, or b) increase the gradation of murder, such as from second to first degree.

This report evaluates the legal and empirical foundation, and failings, of the felony murder rule, profiles impacted individuals, and highlights recent reform efforts in 10 jurisdictions. Key findings include:

1. Felony murder laws widen the net of extreme sentencing and are counterproductive to public safety.

  • For felony murder convictions for adults, eight states and the federal system mandate LWOP sentences, 15 states mandate LWOP in some cases, and 17 states and Washington, DC make LWOP a sentencing option.  Four states permit or require a virtual life sentence of 50 years or longer for some or all felony murder convictions.
  • In Pennsylvania and Michigan, one quarter of people serving LWOP were convicted of felony murder — over 1,000 people in each state.
  • Felony murder laws have not significantly reduced felonies nor lowered the number of felonies that become deadly.
  • The extreme prison sentences associated with felony murder laws add upward pressure on the entire sentencing structure.
  • Felony murder laws spend taxpayer dollars on incarcerating people who no longer pose a danger to the community and divert resources away from effective investments that promote public safety.
2. Felony murder laws have particularly adverse impacts on people of color, young people, and women.
  • In Pennsylvania in 2020, 80% of imprisoned individuals with a felony murder conviction were people of color and 70% were African American.
  • Felony murder laws ignore the cognitive vulnerabilities of youth and emerging adults by assuming that they recognize the remote consequences of their own actions — and those of others in their group. In Pennsylvania, nearly three-quarters of people serving LWOP for felony murder in 2019 were age 25 or younger at the time of their offense, as were over half of Minnesotans charged with aiding and abetting felony murder in recent years.
  • An exploratory survey in California found that 72% of women but only 55% of men serving a life sentence for felony murder were not the perpetrators of the homicide.  The California Coalition for Women Prisoners reports that the majority of their members convicted of felony murder were accomplices navigating intimate partner violence at the time of the offense and were criminalized for acts of survival.

March 23, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6)

March 22, 2022

"Bargaining Without Bias"

The title of this post is the title of this article authored by Cynthia Alkon and recently posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Bias, disparate treatment, and racism are embedded into the U.S. criminal legal system.  A key player within the criminal legal system who could dramatically reduce or eliminate these disparities are prosecutors.  Prosecutors enjoy extraordinary power and they exercise that power with few constraints. For most defendants the single most important prosecutorial decision, after charging, is the plea offer.  Yet, there are virtually no limitations on prosecutors during the plea bargaining stage and relatively little attention given to how standard plea bargaining practices can exacerbate bias. The prosecutor is the key decision maker and, unfortunately, standard prosecutorial practices can exacerbate the biases that are already embedded into the criminal legal system.  There are multiple challenges that make it difficult for prosecutors to reduce or eliminate their biases.  The first core problem is that plea bargaining is largely unsupervised and prosecutors have extraordinary power and virtually unlimited discretion in the process. Prosecutors regularly engage in hard bargaining tactics and there is no meaningful check on prosecutorial bias in deciding what offers to make on what cases.  The second core problem is that plea bargaining can exacerbate racial disparities and bias.  The third core problem is that once a case comes into the criminal legal system, and the case is charged, a prosecutor’s first offer acts as an anchor in the negotiation, regardless of whether the offer reflects bias.  Unlike in other negotiation contexts, the defendant in a criminal case most often has no meaningful option to counter or walk away from the prosecutor’s offer.

In this article, to work towards decreasing bias in plea bargaining, I propose a structural fix and an individual fix to these core problems.  The structural fix is that prosecutors' offices should adopt policies for blind assessment of cases when the first plea offer is made.  All indicia of race or ethnicity (including names and neighborhoods) should be removed when prosecutors review a case and make the initial plea offer.  This would help prosecutors focus on the facts and their evidence when making a plea offer and prevent bias in decision making.  However, it is not realistic to expect that prosecutors, even in offices that adopt blind charging and plea bargaining policies, would remain blind to who the individual defendant is in all cases, particularly in cases where the first offer is made after arraignment.  Therefore, the individual fix is to train prosecutors on empathy.  Prosecutors' offices should expand and improve training and programs on empathy to change how prosecutors view defendants.  People tend to have empathy for, and in the criminal context give the benefit of the doubt to, those who are "more like them" — including being the same race and socio-economic group. Empathy for others is a skill that can be taught, like trial skills, negotiation, or writing.  Prosecutors' offices need to include empathy skills as an integral part of their overall training. Improved empathy skills would help prosecutors to stop looking at defendants as simply "criminals" — a label that is often racially-based. Instead, more prosecutors could learn to see defendants, in the words of Bryan Stevenson, as "more than the worst thing" they have ever done.

March 22, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Right on Crime highlights "Second Look for conservative justice and cost-savings"

ROC-Thumbnails-18The folks at Right on Crime has this interesting new coverage of "Second Look in Texas."  This one-pager, produced by Nikki Pressley, carries the title that is quoted in this title of this post, and here is the main text (along with the interesting graphic I have reprinted):

Texas has the harshest parole eligibility guidelines for juvenile offenders of any state, allowing some to be imprisoned without the possibility of parole for 40 years. Even worse, many of these youth are convicted through the Law of Parties, meaning they were merely an accessory to the actual crime and never pulled the trigger.  Science proves that continued brain development allows a healthy brain to mature and make more logical decisions far before someone completes a 40-year sentence, and recidivism rates for these offenders is extremely low.

Second Look legislation would lower the time until parole eligibility for juvenile offenders from 40 years to 20 years.  This change should also be retroactive, allowing adults currently serving time in prison for a crime committed as a juvenile to also have the opportunity for earlier parole.  Proving to be little or no threat to public safety and simultaneously saving hundred of thousands of taxpayer dollars, Second Look legislation is a win-win reform.

And here are "key points" stressed:

March 22, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

March 21, 2022

Recalling the text of the applicable law which helps account for Judge Jackson's sentencing rulings

I was able to listen to some of the opening statements of Senate Judiciary Committee members during today's installment of the hearings concerning the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.  Unsurprisingly, various GOP Senators extolled the importance of judges following the law and being committed to the rule of law:

Senator Grassley: "We depend on judges to interpret the laws as we write them."

Senator Cornyn: "Part of that judgment requires a judge to go where the law commands."

Senator Cruz: "Will you follow the law?" 

Senator Cotton: "I am looking for a Justice who will make decisions based on the law."

Senator Kennedy: "Sometimes Justices have to uphold the rule of law when it is not popular."

These various statement led me to reflect on my recent post about Judge Jackson's sentencings of persons involved with child pornography, and I realized that Judge Jackson’s critics have not asserted that Judge Jackson failed to follow the sentencing laws set out by Congress.  Through 18 USC § 3553(a), Congress has instructed judges in to impose a sentence "sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes" of sentencing, and also demands that district judges consider "the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct."  Since the Booker ruling made the guidelines advisory, guideline ranges are still to be considered, but only as one of multiple statutory factors in service to a "sentencing judge’s overarching duty under §3553(a) to 'impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary' to comply with the sentencing purposes set forth in §3553(a)(2)."  Pepper v. US, 562 U.S. 476, 491 (2011).

Senator Hawley reiterated during his opening statement what seems to be his chief concern with Judge Jackson's sentencing efforts: “What concerns me, and I've been very candid about this, is that in every case, in each of these seven, Judge Jackson handed down a lenient sentence that was below what the federal guidelines recommended and below what prosecutors recommended and so I think there’s a lot to talk about there.”  Critically, applicable federal sentencing law does not call upon a judge to follow "what the federal guidelines recommended" or "what prosecutors recommended."  Indeed, a sentencing judge who adhered only to guideline or prosecutorial recommendations would arguably violate a judge's obligation of independence and the express text of the law Congress enacted to guide judges at sentencing.

Of course, "what the federal guidelines recommended" is one of many 3553(a) factors to be considered by sentencing judges and "what prosecutors recommended," though not part of the text of federal sentencing law, can still provide judges with insights concerning the proper application of all the 3553(a) factors.  But, to repeat, those recommendations are not the applicable law: Judge Jackson when on the district court was duty bound, to use Senator Cotton's words, to "make decisions based on the law" which means she had "to 'impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary' to comply with the sentencing purposes set forth in §3553(a)(2)."  Pepper, 562 U.S. at 491.  To parrot Senators Cornyn's and Kennedy's words, Judge Jackson was required at sentencing "to go where the law commands" and to "uphold the rule of law [even] when it is not popular."  Based on insights from her time on the US Sentencing Commission and her considerable judicial service, Judge Jackson surely understood the importance of all the 3553(a) factors in reaching a sentencing outcome, and nobody has suggested otherwise.

Some prior related coverage:

March 21, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

"Punishment without Trial: Why Plea Bargaining is a Bad Deal"

Go directlyThe title of this post is the title of this exciting panel discussion being hosted this week by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.  It is also the title of this book authored by Professor Carissa Byrne Hessick, and she is the featured speaker at the event.  But, as detailed in this event description, the panel is full of headliners: 

When Americans think of the criminal justice system, they picture a trial. The right to a trial by jury is supposed to undergird our entire justice system – but that bedrock constitutional right has all but disappeared thanks to plea bargaining. In 2018, more than 97 percent of defendants pleaded guilty.

Join the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center for a panel discussion featuring Professor Carissa Byrne Hessick on how plea bargaining undermines justice. In her latest book, Punishment Without Trial: Why Plea Bargaining is a Bad Deal, Hessick makes the case against plea bargaining and illustrates why and how we need to fix it if we ever hope to achieve lasting criminal justice reform. 

Panelists

Carissa Byrne Hessick, Ransdell Distinguished Professor of Law, University of North Carolina School of Law; Director, Prosecutors and Politics Project
The Honorable Justice Michael Donnelly, Ohio Supreme Court
Ric Simmons, Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer Professor for the Administration of Justice and Rule of Law, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law
Michael Zuckerman, Visiting Assistant Professor, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law

About the event

This is currently a hybrid event and registrants may attend in person or via Zoom. Note however, that depending on university guidance, the event may become online only. Both in-person and virtual attendees should register via the Zoom registration form and select their attendance preference there.  For in-person attendees, the event will be held in Room 244 Drinko Hall, 55 West 12th Avenue, Columbus, OH 43210-1391, and boxed lunches will be available to take away following the event.

March 21, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (15)

Gearing up and rounding up before start of Senate hearing on the SCOTUS nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson

At 11am this morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin hearings concerning the "Nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States." I believe the hearing can be watched live here via the Senate Judiciary website and here via C-SPAN.  Because of Judge Jackson's considerable criminal justice and sentencing history, I am likely to follow (and blog about?) these proceedings a bit more than some other recent SCOTUS hearing.

For lots of general coverage, How Appealing has many recent stories collected here and here and here.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Senator Josh Hawley's criticisms of Judge Jackson attitudes toward sex offenders and those who download child pornography (first discussed here) continue to generate attention and commentary.  Here are just some of the newer pieces on this front and related issues:

From ABC News, "Fact check: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson child porn sentences ‘pretty mainstream’"

From the National Review, "Senator Hawley’s Disingenuous Attack against Judge Jackson’s Record on Child Pornography"

From Reason, "Josh Hawley Absurdly Suggests That Ketanji Brown Jackson Has a Soft Spot for 'Child Predators'"

From the Wall Street Journal, "Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Hearings to Focus on Legal Experience, Record on Crime"

Here is some of my prior coverage since Judge Jackson's nomination:

March 21, 2022 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)