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January 29, 2022

Lots of good long criminal justice reads for a wintery weekend

Here in central Ohio on the last Saturday in January 2022, the temperatures are stuck in the teens and so the snow from days ago remains where it is.  Meanwhile, I see that lots of folks on the east coast are getting lots of new snow this weekend.  So, whether stuck inside by the weather or just eager for some good criminal justice readers, I am pleased here to round-up just some recent criminal justice pieces worth some time:

From AL.com, "Police in this tiny Alabama town suck drivers into legal ‘black hole’"

From the AP, "Illinois Change in ‘Felony Murder Rule' Left Some Behind"

From Grid, "A year after Biden’s executive order on private prisons, business is still booming: GEO Group, one of the largest private prison companies, detailed its 'strategy' for getting around the order in a previously confidential document filed with the SEC."

From Inquest, "No More Compromisers: The Supreme Court doesn’t need another Stephen Breyer, but someone who can openly confront the immorality of our criminal legal system."

From The Marshall Project, "Who’s Electing Judges in the Cleveland Area? Not Those Ensnared in the System: In Cuyahoga County, voting patterns have resulted in mostly White judges deciding the fate of mostly Black criminal defendants."

From the Wall Street Journal, "The Once and Future Drug War: During the 50 years the U.S. has battled the narcotics trade, illegal drugs have become more available and potent. But that’s no reason to give up. Governments must adapt and find answers beyond law enforcement"

From The Washington Post, "They were sentenced to life in prison. Who should decide if they get a second chance?: The long shadow of ‘truth in sentencing’ politics in Maryland, where the vast majority of lifers are Black."

January 29, 2022 in Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

Joe Exotic gets 21 years (only a year off prior sentence) at resentencing

It feel like it has been a very long time since everyone was talking about Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, even though NetFlix released "Tiger King 2" only a few months ago.  And, as this new AP article details, there was something of a "Tiger King 2" in federal court this past week as Joe Exotic (aka Joseph Maldonado-Passage) was resentenced for trying to put an end to Baskin.  Here are some of the details:

A federal judge resentenced “Tiger King” Joe Exotic to 21 years in prison on Friday, reducing his punishment by just a year despite pleas from the former zookeeper for leniency as he begins treatment for early-stage cancer. “Please don’t make me die in prison waiting for a chance to be free,” he tearfully told a federal judge who resentenced him on a murder-for-hire charge.

Joe Exotic — whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage — was convicted in a case involving animal welfare activist Carole Baskin.  Both were featured in Netflix’s “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.”

Wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, Maldonado-Passage, 58, still had his trademark mullet hairstyle, but the bleach-blonde had faded to brown and gray.  Baskin and her husband, Howard Baskin, also attended the proceedings, and she said she was fearful that Maldonado-Passage could threaten her. “He continues to harbor intense feelings of ill will toward me,” she told the judge.

Baskin said even with Maldonado-Passage in prison, she has continued to receive “vile, abusive and threatening communications” over the last two years. She told the judge she believes Maldonado-Passage poses an even more serious threat to her now that he has a larger group of supporters because of the popularity of the Netflix series.

Maldonado-Passage’s attorneys told the judge their client is suffering from stage-one prostate cancer, along with a disease that compromises his immune system, making him particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Stage-one prostate cancer means it has been detected early and hasn’t spread.  Maldonado-Passage previously said that he planned to delay treatment until after his resentencing.  Federal officials have said Maldonado-Passage will need up to eight weeks of radiation treatments and would be unable to travel during the treatments.  His attorney Amy Hanna told the judge he’s not receiving the proper medical care inside the federal prison system and that a lengthy prison sentence is a “death sentence for Joe that he doesn’t deserve.”

Prosecutors also told the judge Friday that Maldonado-Passage received a disciplinary write-up in September for being possession of a contraband cellphone and unauthorized headphones that was not included in his pre-sentencing report. Palk added that Maldonado-Passage had four previous disciplinary write-ups, although he described those as “relatively minor and not violent.”

Friday’s court proceedings came about after a federal appeals court ruled last year that the prison term he’s serving on a murder-for-hire conviction should be shortened.

Supporters packed the courtroom, some wearing animal-print masks and shirts that read “Free Joe Exotic.” His attorneys said they would appeal the resentencing and petition for a new trial. “The defense submitted a series of attachments that showed excessive government involvement in the creation of the offense for which he’s been convicted,” attorney Molly Parmer told reporters after the hearing. “We are going to continue our post-conviction litigation, but we did preview for the court the evidence we have through our post-conviction investigation.”

The former zookeeper was sentenced in January 2020 to 22 years in prison after he was convicted of trying to hire two different men to kill Baskin.  A three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Maldonado-Passage that the court should have treated them as one conviction at sentencing because they both involved the same goal of killing Baskin, who runs a rescue sanctuary for big cats in Florida and had criticized Maldonado-Passage’s treatment of animals....

Maldonado-Passage, who maintains his innocence, also was convicted of killing five tigers, selling tiger cubs and falsifying wildlife records.

Prior related post:

January 29, 2022 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 28, 2022

"Private Prison Companies and Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posted to SSRN and authored by Amy Pratt, a recent graduate of The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.  (This paper is yet another in the on-going series of student papers supported by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center.)  Here is this paper's abstract:

The use of private prisons in the United States to house federal and state inmates has added a voice to sentencing practice.  This voice is unnecessary and should not exist as a concern in sentencing law and policy.  Private prisons affect sentencing at the policy level through lobbying, networking, and by influence over judges’ sentencing decisions in individual cases.  These methods of influencing sentencing are not always blatant, but they do exist.  The United States should end the use of private prisons or adopt a hybrid model similar to that used in Europe to help quiet this unnecessary voice. However, eliminating the use of private prisons will not end the United States’ mass incarceration problem.  Policy makers must address other causes of mass incarceration along with ending the use of private prisons. 

This paper will explore the history of private prisons in the United States, how private prisons influence sentencing, and potential solutions to end or improve the use of private prisons, while addressing the larger causes of mass incarceration.  The suggested solution explored at the end of this paper is for the United States to develop and implement a hybrid model similar to that used in France, which eliminates completely private prisons, but still uses some private entities in the prison system.  Eliminating private interests from the prison system entirely is unrealistic and unlikely given their long history of presence in the United States criminal justice system.

January 28, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (1)

January 27, 2022

By 5-4 vote, Supreme Court enables Alabama to move forward with execution

As reported in this AP piece, the Supreme Court "cleared the way Thursday night for the state of Alabama to execute an inmate who contended that an intellectual disability combined with the state’s inattention cost him a chance to avoid lethal injection and choose a new method."  Here is more:

Reeves was convicted of killing a driver who gave him a ride in 1996. Reeves claimed the state failed to help him understand a form that would have let him choose a new execution method involving nitrogen, but the state argued he wasn’t so disabled that he couldn’t understand the choice.

A divided court agreed with the state’s bid to let the execution to proceed.  Justice Amy Coney Barrett said she would deny the state’s request, while Justice Stephen Breyer, who just announced his retirement, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined with Justice Elena Kagan in a dissent that said the execution shouldn’t occur.

The dissenting opinion of Justice Kagan, which runs three pages and is available here, starts this way (with cites removed):

Four judges on two courts have decided — after extensive record development, briefing, and argument — that Matthew Reeves’s execution should not proceed as scheduled tonight.  The law demands that we give their conclusions deference. But the Court today disregards the well-supported findings made below, consigning Reeves to a method of execution he would not have chosen if properly informed of the alternatives. I respectfully dissent.

I believe this is the first time Justice Barrett has voted in favor of a capital defendant is one of these cases, though she did not explain just why.

UPDATE:  The AP article linked above now reports that the execution has been completed:

Alabama executed an inmate by lethal injection for a 1996 murder on Thursday after a divided U.S. Supreme Court sided with the state and rejected defense claims the man had an intellectual disability that cost him a chance to choose a less “torturous,” yet untried, execution method.

Matthew Reeves, 43, was put to death at Holman Prison after the court lifted a lower court order that had prevented corrections workers from executing the prisoner. He was pronounced dead at 9:24 p.m. CST, state Attorney General Steve Marshall said in a statement.

January 27, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

CCJ releases "Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities: Year-End 2021 Update"

Back in summer 2020, I noted here that the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) had launched an importantand impressive new commission titled the "National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice" and headed by two former US Attorneys General.  That commission has produce a number of important works (examples here and here and here), along with an on-going series of accounts of recent crime trends under the heading "Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities."  The latest version of this report, titled "Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities: Year-End 2021 Update," was released this week and can be accessed via this website.  Here is an overview:

This study updates and supplements previous reports by the Council on Criminal Justice on recent U.S. crime trends with additional crime data through the end of 2021. It examines monthly crime rates for ten violent, property, and drug offenses in 27 American cities. The crime data were obtained from online portals of city police departments that provided weekly updates for the period between January 2018 and December 2021.

The largest city in the sample is Los Angeles, with nearly 4 million residents. The smallest is Norfolk, VA, with 245,000 residents. The data are subject to revision, and not all cities reported data for each crime or for each week. Offense classifications also varied somewhat across the cities.


  • The number of 2021 homicides in the cities studied was 5% greater than in 2020 — representing 218 additional murders in those cities — and 44% greater than in 2019, representing 1,298 additional lives lost.
  • Aggravated and gun assault rates were also higher in 2021 than in 2020.  Aggravated assaults increased by 4%, while gun assaults went up by 8%.  Robbery rates increased slightly after dropping in 2020.
  • Burglary, larceny, and drug offense rates were lower in 2021 than in 2020, by 6%, 1%, and 12% respectively.  Motor vehicle theft rates were 14% higher in 2021 than the year before.
  • Domestic violence incidents increased by nearly 4% between 2020 and 2021. But this result is based on just 11 of the 27 cities studied and should be viewed with caution.
  • In response to continuing increases in homicide and serious assaults, the authors conclude that police and policymakers should pursue violence-prevention strategies of proven effectiveness and enact needed policing reforms to achieving durable reductions in violent crime in our cities.

January 27, 2022 in National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (0)

Oklahoma completes first execution of 2022

As reported in this AP piece, "Oklahoma executed a man Thursday for the brutal slayings of two hotel workers during a robbery in 2001."  Here is more about the first execution completed in the United States in 2022:

Donald Grant, 46, received a lethal injection at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester and was declared dead at 10:16 a.m. It was the first execution in the U.S. in 2022 and the third in Oklahoma since the state resumed lethal injections in October following a nearly seven-year hiatus....

Shirl Pilcher, the sister of one of Grant's victims, Brenda McElyea, said her family felt that justice had been served. “Although Donald Grant's execution does not bring Brenda back, it allows us all to finally move forward knowing justice was served," Pilcher said after witnessing his execution.

Grant had asked a federal judge to temporarily halt his execution, arguing that he should be reinstated as a plaintiff in a separate lawsuit challenging Oklahoma’s three-drug lethal injection protocol as presenting a risk of unconstitutional pain and suffering. But both a federal judge and a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver previously denied that request.  The U.S. Supreme Court denied Grant’s request on Wednesday.

Several Oklahoma death row inmates with pending execution dates have sought to delay their executions after John Grant convulsed on the gurney and vomited after receiving the first dose of midazolam, a sedative, during his October execution.  John Grant's execution was the state's first since problems with the state's lethal injection protocols in 2014 and 2015 led to a de facto moratorium.

Richard Glossip was just hours away from being executed in September 2015 when prison officials realized they received the wrong lethal drug.  It was later learned the same wrong drug had been used to execute an inmate in January 2015.  The drug mix-ups followed a botched execution in April 2014 in which inmate Clayton Lockett struggled on a gurney before dying 43 minutes into his lethal injection — and after the state’s prisons chief ordered executioners to stop.

During a clemency hearing in November, Donald Grant admitted killing Brenda McElyea and Felicia Suzette Smith so that there would be no witnesses to his robbery of the Del City hotel. Court records show both women were shot and stabbed, and Smith was also bludgeoned.  Prosecutors say both women also begged him to spare their lives before he killed them. During November's hearing, he expressed “deep, sincere remorse” and apologized for the killings, but the state’s Pardon and Parole Board voted 4-1 against recommending clemency....

Two of Donald Grant's attorneys, Susan Otto and Emma Rolls from the federal public defender's office, argued that he was mentally ill and had suffered brain damage that made him a candidate for mercy.  They also discussed Grant’s childhood growing up in a New York City housing project during the crack epidemic of the 1980s, a time when he was frequently beaten and members of his family experienced alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness.  But the board also heard from members of McElyea's family, who tearfully urged them to reject clemency for him.

January 27, 2022 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (5)

January 26, 2022

Some notable recent commentary on modern carceral stories

I have seen a variety of great new commentary on a number of notable carceral fronts.  Here is a quick round-up:

From The Hill by Jason Pye, "New head of prisons must embrace criminal justice reform"

From Inquest by Judah Schept, "Cages in the Coalfields: A growing carceral state has slowly replaced the coal industry in large swaths of Central Appalachia. But even here, a different future is possible."  

Also from Inquest, "Abolition Is Public Health: The largest public health professional organization in the U.S. took a stand against carceral systems as fundamentally antithetical to our nation's health. Here's why that matters."

From Slate by Eric Reinhart, "How Joe Biden Launched a New Prison Boom"

January 26, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Justice Breyer indicates plan to retire ... and first big legacy review ignores landmark Booker ruling to focus on capital dissent

Major outlets are today a buzz with news that US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has told Prez Biden that he plans to retire soon.  Speculation about who Prez Biden might nominate as his replacement is already well underway, but I will save that discussion (with a sentencing spin) for future posts.  Here I want to start a discussion of Justice Breyer's sentencing and criminal justice legacy.

 I suspect all readers of this blog know that, in the sentencing universe, Justice Breyer's authorship of the advisory guideline remedy in Booker (and getting later Justice Ginsburg to sign on to it) has impacted many millions of criminal defendants.  And, of course, as a staffer and judge, Breyer helped write the legislation leading to the federal sentencing guidelines and then helped write those guidelines. But, frustratingly and tellingly, this big Vox piece providing a huge sweep of Breyer's career entirely ignores his work on the US Sentencing Commission, Booker and all sorts of other truly consequential criminal justice work by Justice Breyer and only talks about one dissent of his in a capital case:

Breyer’s commitment to democracy is profound, but it is not absolute. And the retiring justice did feel a special obligation to police arbitrary governmental practices.

In recent years, for example, Breyer became the Court’s most outspoken opponent of the death penalty — in large part because of his belief that it cannot be fairly administered. “Death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual,” Breyer wrote in his dissenting opinion in Glossip v. Gross (2015), quoting from a 1972 opinion by Justice Potter Stewart.  Rather than handing down death sentences exclusively to the worst criminals, such sentences are doled out to a “capriciously selected random handful” of the most serious offenders.

Breyer bolstered this argument with empirical studies showing that an offender is far more likely to be sentenced to die if their victim is white. Or if their victim is a woman. Or if the offender is merely unfortunate enough to be tried in the wrong location. “Within a death penalty State,” Breyer wrote in his Glossip dissent, “the imposition of the death penalty heavily depends on the county in which a defendant is tried.”

For these and other reasons, Breyer concluded that it is “highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment,” and he called upon his Court to receive full briefing on whether the death penalty should be allowed to exist at all.

Sigh.  Oh well, I am hopeful some other outlets will give some attention to his sentencing and criminal justice legacy.  Perhaps readers can start in the comments.

January 26, 2022 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Articulating concerns while celebrating implementation of FIRST STEP earned-time credits

As first discussed in this post, the Department of Justice a few weeks ago officially announced its new rule for "implementing the Time Credits program required by the First Step Act"; as noted in this follow-up post, the process of awarding retroactive credits to prisoners who were eligible and had already done the work to earn credits resulted in an immediate significant reduction of the federal prison population.  And though there is much to celebrate about this stage of implementation of a huge part of the FIRST STEP Act — which was enacted with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress and signed by President Trump way back in late 2018 — I have noticed a number of new commentaries and other press pieces flagging concerns to watch.

This CNN opinion piece, by Michael Cohen, E. Danya Perry and Joshua Perry, carries a headline that is most celebratory: "This is an unmistakable win for incarcerated people."  But, after an effective review of the positives of the new DOJ rules on earned-time credits, it closes with these sentiments:

There is still a lot of work to be done. There are strong indications that the BOP is not offering enough high-quality programs to help support people in prison, particularly during the pandemic.  While unquestionably impactful, the act was indeed only a "first step" towards broader changes that are desperately needed to reduce our cruel and counterproductive overreliance on incarceration.  And even this welcome development does not erase the needless suffering of too many people, while the BOP pushed back against inmates seeking time credit and initially proposed a rule that cut against Congress' intent.

This Forbes piece by Walter Palvo picks up these themes with even more concern for the implementation particulars under the headline "Bureau Of Prisons Begins Implementing First Step Act With Release Of Thousands In Custody":

One concern is that there does not appear to be a consistent way these ETCs are being calculated at each institution.  Case managers, who have been keying in classes that prisoners have taken over the past two years, seem to have a liberal way of calculating ETC and those who I have spoke to about their release have no idea how their release date was calculated.  As one man told me, “I was just happy to be released and don’t care how they calculated it.”  However, for the man or woman sitting in prison, it makes a huge difference.  Many advocates may be giving one another high-fives, but, as history has demonstrated, the BOP somehow finds a way to mess up a good thing. The law. already has flaws as there are a number of exceptions carved out to prevent some offenses from being ineligible from earning ETC. 

And this new NPR piece from Carrie Johnson spotlights long-standing concerns about the PATTERN risk-assessment tool central to these new prison policies.  The lengthy piece is headline "Flaws plague a tool meant to help low-risk federal prisoners win early release," and here are excerpts:

Thousands of people are leaving federal prison this month thanks to a law called the First Step Act, which allowed them to win early release by participating in programs aimed at easing their return to society. But thousands of others may still remain behind bars because of fundamental flaws in the Justice Department's method for deciding who can take the early-release track. The biggest flaw: persistent racial disparities that put Black and brown people at a disadvantage.

In a report issued days before Christmas in 2021, the department said its algorithmic tool for assessing the risk a person in prison would return to crime produced uneven results. The algorithm, known as Pattern, overpredicted the risk that many Black, Hispanic and Asian people would commit new crimes or violate rules after leaving prison. At the same time, it also underpredicted the risk for some inmates of color when it came to possible return to violent crime....

Risk assessment tools are common in many states. But critics said Pattern is the first time the federal justice system is using an algorithm with such high stakes. Congress passed the First Step Act in 2018 with huge bipartisan majorities. It's designed to prepare people in prison for life afterwards, by offering credits toward early release for working or taking life skills and other classes while behind bars....

Only inmates who pose a low or minimal risk of returning to crime can qualify for the programs, with that risk level determined using the Pattern algorithm.... The implementation has been rocky. The Justice Department finished the first version of Pattern in a rush because of a tight deadline from Congress. It then had to make tweaks after finding Pattern suffered from math and human errors. About 14,000 men and women in federal prison still wound up in the wrong risk categories. There were big disparities for people of color.

Prior recent related posts:

January 26, 2022 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 25, 2022

"Child Pornography and Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article now available via SSRN and authored by Dawinder Sidhu and Kelsey Robinson. Here is its abstract:

Drug offenses lie at the heart of the movement for criminal justice reform, and for good reason.  The defining attributes of prevailing drug policy — severe and disproportionate penalties owning to a retributive, factually flawed, and hurried congressional process — apply to the child pornography context as well.  In this Article, we identify the common issues with drug and child pornography sentencing and outline the doctrinal implications of this shared foundation, especially as to district court discretion to vary under Kimbrough v. United States.

Though drug sentencing is problematic enough, child pornography is arguably worse.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission has disavowed these guidelines and invited judges to vary from them.  Judges have done just that, varying in 63% of all cases, more than any other offense type.  Thus, in this Article, we also suggest how the improvements to this uniquely distressed area of law can inform criminal justice reform more generally, especially as to substantive reasonableness review under Gall v. United States, mandatory minimum sentences, and sunset provisions for penalty levels.

Child pornography is not part of the conversation for criminal justice reform.  We take on child pornography sentencing, and in doing so hope to ensure that the movement for criminal justice reform is both correct and complete.

January 25, 2022 in Booker in district courts, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Gall reasonableness case, Kimbrough reasonableness case, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable new report on juve LWOP reviews "Montgomery v. Louisiana Six Years Later: Progress and Outliers"

This morning I received this email from the folks at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth that highlighting this new report "Montgomery v. Louisiana Six Years Later: Progress and Outliers." The full short report is worth a full read, and the emails provides this brief accounting of the report's coverage:

Six years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, making Miller v. Alabama’s requirement that judges consider the mitigating attributes of youth retroactive and offering new hope to thousands of people who had been sentenced to life without parole as children.  For many, that hope has led to shorter prison sentences, and for hundreds of others, it’s meant freedom.  At the time of the decision, 2,800 individuals in the U.S. were serving life without parole for crimes committed as children.  In the six years since, 835 individuals formerly serving this sentence have been released from prison. 

Today, 25 states and the District of Columbia ban life-without-parole sentences for children, and in six additional states, no one is serving life without parole for a crime committed as a child.  While we celebrate this inspiring progress, we recognize that far too many others have not yet received the relief they rightfully deserve.  Thus, we are pressing forward in the fight for these individuals across all areas of our work, with a particular focus on state legislatures and advocacy in outlier states. You can read more about how far we have come and the challenges we still face in this report authored by Rebecca Turner, the CFSY’s Senior Litigation Counsel.  

The full report gives particular attention to developments in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Louisiana, which "each had more children sentenced to life without parole than any other state in the country" when Montgomery was handed down.  Here is how the report describes subsequent developments in those states and nationwide:

A majority of the 2,800 individuals serving juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) following Miller have been resentenced in court or had their sentences amended via legislation, depending on the jurisdiction in which they were convicted.

Yet despite the 80% reduction in people serving JLWOP, jurisdictions have varied significantly in their implementation of Miller. As a result, relief afforded to individuals serving JLWOP is based more on jurisdiction than on whether the individual has demonstrated positive growth and maturation.

The uneven implementation of Miller disproportionately impacts Black individuals, who represent 61% of the total JLWOP population....

Within that population [serving JLWOP when Montgomery was decided], 29% have been released, over 50% have had their sentences reduced from JLWOP, about 17% have not yet been afforded relief, and approximately 3% have been resentenced to JLWOP.

January 25, 2022 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

January 24, 2022

Connecticut Supreme Court reverses sentence based "materially false information" that defendant was in "mythical group of teenage 'superpredators'"

A few helpful folks made sure I did not miss the notable ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court this past Friday in State v. Belcher, No. SC 20531 (Conn. Jan 21, 2022) (available here). The start of the unanimous opinion sets out the basics:

The defendant, Keith Belcher, a juvenile offender, appeals from the trial court’s denial of his motion to correct an illegal sentence. After his conviction, the defendant received a total effective sentence of sixty years of incarceration.  He claims, inter alia, that the trial court improperly denied his motion to correct on the basis of the court’s conclusion that the sentencing court did not impose the sentence in an illegal manner by relying on materially false information.

Our review of the record reveals that the defendant established that the sentencing court substantially relied on materially false information in imposing his sentence, specifically, on the court’s view that the defendant was a ‘‘charter member’’ of a mythical group of teenage ‘‘superpredators.’’  Therefore, we conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to correct.  Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court, and the case is remanded with direction to grant the defendant’s motion and for resentencing.

The full opinion merits a full read for many reasons.  Therein, one learns that the defendant here was only 14 when committing his crimes way back in 1993 (meaning he has now already served nearly three decades).  Also of note, the court avoids resolution of constitutional claims by deciding he gets resentencing based on the illegal manner of the original sentence's imposition. Here are a few highlights from the interesting opinion:

We conclude that the superpredator theory was baseless when it originally was espoused and has since been thoroughly debunked and universally rejected as a myth, and it therefore constituted false and unreliable information that a sentencing court ought not consider in crafting a sentence for a juvenile offender....

In the context of the sentencing of the defendant, a Black teenager, the court’s reliance on the materially false superpredator myth is especially detrimental to the integrity of the sentencing procedure for two reasons.  First, reliance on that myth invoked racial stereotypes, thus calling into question whether the defendant would have received as lengthy a sentence were he not Black.  Second, the use of the superpredator myth supported treating the characteristics of youth as an aggravating, rather than a mitigating, factor....

In summary, by invoking the superpredator theory to sentence the young, Black male defendant in the present case, the sentencing court, perhaps even without realizing it, relied on materially false, racial stereotypes that perpetuate systemic inequities — demanding harsher sentences — that date back to the founding of our nation.  In addition, contrary to Roper and its progeny, in relying on the superpredator myth, the sentencing court counted the characteristics of youth as an aggravating factor against the defendant.  Although we do not mean to suggest that the sentencing judge intended to perpetuate a race based stereotype, we cannot overlook the fact that the superpredator myth is precisely the type of materially false information that courts should not rely on in making sentencing decisions.  Whether used wittingly or unwittingly, reliance on such a baseless, illegitimate theory calls into question the legitimacy of the sentencing procedure and the sentence.

January 24, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

CCRC releases "From Reentry to Reintegration: Criminal Record Reforms in 2021"

2022_CCRC_Annual-Report_Cover-768x994As detailed at this post over at the website of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, "each year since 2017, CCRC has issued a report on legislation enacted in the past year that is aimed at reducing the barriers faced by people with a criminal record in the workplace, at the ballot box, and in many other areas of daily life."  True to form, CCRC has now released this 55-page report titled  "From Reentry to Reintegration: Criminal Record Reforms in 2021."  The CCRC post about the report provide this helpful review of the full document (emphasis and links from the original):

The title of this post introduces our annual report on new laws enacted during the past year, and emphasizes the continuum from reentry (for those who go to jail or prison) to the full restoration of rights and status represented by reintegrationRecent research indicates that most people with a conviction never have a second one, and that the likelihood of another conviction declines rapidly as more time passes. The goal of full reintegration is thus both an economic and moral imperative.

In the past year the bipartisan commitment to a reintegration agenda has seemed more than ever grounded in economic imperatives, as pandemic dislocations have brought home the need to support, train, and recruit workers who are essential to rebuilding the businesses that are the lifeblood of the economy.  If there is any one thing that will end unwarranted discrimination against people with a criminal history, it is a recognition that it does not pay.

Our 2021 report highlights key developments in reintegration reforms from the past year. It documents that 40 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government enacted 152 legislative bills and took a number of additional executive actions to restore rights and opportunities to people with an arrest or conviction history. As in past years, a majority of these new laws involved individual record clearing: All told, an astonishing 36 states enacted 93 separate laws that revise, supplement or limit public access to individual criminal records to reduce or eliminate barriers to opportunity. Most of these laws established or expanded laws authorizing expungement, sealing, or set-aside of convictions or arrest records.  Several states enacted judicial record clearing laws for the very first time, and a number of states authorized “clean slate” automatic clearing.  Executive pardoning was revived in several states where it had been dormant for years.

In addition, many of the new laws enacted general provisions limiting considering of criminal record in economic settings: 17 states enacted 26 new laws regulating employment and occupational licensing, and more than a dozen other states enacted laws facilitating access to housing, education, driver’s licenses, and public benefits.

Finally, civil rights restoration continued to make progress: Four states took steps to restore voting rights upon release from prison, bringing the total in that category to 21 (with another two states and D.C. not disenfranchising at all). Three other states and the federal government took steps to expand awareness of voting eligibility by those in jail or prison or after release, and four states acted to restore eligibility for jury service and public office....

From Reentry to Reintegration, Criminal Record Reforms in 2021 is available here.  It includes our third annual legislative Report Card recognizing the most (and least) productive legislatures in 2021.  The body of the report provides topical discussions of last year’s reform measures, followed by an appendix documenting and summarizing the new laws by jurisdiction. More detailed analysis of each state’s law is available in the CCRC Restoration of Rights Project.

January 24, 2022 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Brennan Center reviews "Criminal Legal Reform One Year into the Biden Administration"

I received via email news this morning that the Brennan Center for Justice had published this notable new short report titled "Criminal Legal Reform One Year into the Biden Administration." Here is the first part of the email, which serves as an overview of the report's coverage:

During his campaign, President Biden pledged to “strengthen America’s commitment to justice and reform our criminal justice system.” Brennan Center experts conclude that, after his first year in office, some progress has been made — but significant missed opportunities remain.  They identify eight key federal reform measures that the administration could achieve easily, in many cases without needing to rely on Congress, and detail the progress that has been made (if any), ranking them as follows:

Little or no progress

  • Overhauling federal clemency process
  • Empowering the U.S. Sentencing Commission

Limited policy changes

  • The First Step Act and the Bureau of Prisons
  • Federal death penalty
  • Private, for-profit prisons and detention centers

Notable progress

  • Federal home confinement
  • Nominations for U.S. Attorney positions and federal judgeships
  • Commitment to funding community anti-violence programs

January 24, 2022 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 23, 2022

Guest post #2 on big Seventh Circuit Wilks decision on Bail Reform Act’s "presumption of detention"

6a00d83451574769e202788010ea87200d-320wiAs explained in this post from last week, Alison Siegler, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the University of Chicago Law School's Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, wrote to me to highlight a big Seventh Circuit ruling on the Bail Reform Act (BRA).  I suggested that she do a guest post series on this Wilks ruling (as she previously did a series of guest posts on her stash-house sting litigation).  Alison  prepared two  posts on the topic; the first is at this link, the second is here:

The Wilks opinion is groundbreaking not only for its clarification of the BRA’s presumption of detention, but also because it is the first opinion from the Seventh Circuit to address the standard of review for a revocation decision under 18 U.S.C. § 3148.  The court sets the same standard of review for both an initial detention decision under 18 U.S.C. § 3142 and a revocation decision under § 3148: “‘independent review’ of the decision below, though with deference to the judge’s findings of historical fact and his greater familiarity with the defendant and the case.” United States v. Wilks, 15 F.4th 842, 847 (7th Cir. 2021); id. (“We conclude that the same standard of review governs an appeal from an initial detention decision and a decision to revoke pretrial release.” (emphasis in original)).

Moreover, Wilks is also the first Seventh Circuit case to address the legal standard for revocation of pretrial release in 18 U.S.C § 3148 (a different issue from the standard of review).  The court holds, in relevant part: “A finding that the defendant violated a release condition does not alone permit revocation; the judge must make findings under both § 3148(b)(1) and (b)(2) before he may revoke release” and must also “weigh the factors listed in § 3142(g).” Id. at 848.

The court ultimately determines that the judge’s findings were insufficient to satisfy the legal standard: “[T]he judge did not find by clear and convincing evidence that Wilks violated a condition of release. See § 3148(b)(1)(B).” Id.  The court finds fault for two reasons.

First, as a factual matter, the judge did not focus on the correct alleged bond violations and did not give the defense an opportunity to respond to new allegations: “Though it was not improper for the judge to reframe the inquiry, the fact remains that Wilks’s counsel did not have an opportunity to address the specific issue that the judge was concerned about.” Id. For the judge to permissibly order detention, the defense must have an opportunity to meaningfully rebut the court’s justification for detention, especially if the court orders detention on the basis of an argument not raised by the government.

Second, the judge did not make sufficient factual findings or properly apply the legal standard to the facts: “A recitation of the statutory language ‘devoid of any discussion, analysis, or explanation as to why the district court concluded that the criteria for release had not been met’ cannot justify detention even after conviction, when the presumption of innocence has been extinguished.” Id. (emphasis in original) (citation omitted).  In other words, before revoking pretrial release, the judge must provide detailed factual findings that are connected to the relevant legal standard — notably, even if the accused has already been convicted and is pending sentencing.

Finally, Wilks reminds us that “the government’s interest in ensuring the safety of the community and securing the defendant’s appearance in court” must be balanced against “the defendant’s interest in his personal liberty.” Id. at 847. As the Supreme Court has emphasized, “[f]reedom from bodily restraint has always been [ ] the core liberty protected by the Due Process Clause.” Foucha v. Louisiana, 504 U.S. 71, 90 (1992). And in the pretrial detention context, “the individual[ ] [has a] strong interest in liberty.” United States v. Salerno, 481 U.S. 739, 750 (1987).  Too often, the government’s interests are treated as paramount, despite the fact that the BRA and precedent require a meaningful consideration of an accused’s “importan[t] and fundamental” interest in liberty. Id.

Federal practitioners seeking to obtain their clients’ release on bond should file written bond motions incorporating the foregoing arguments and applying § 3142(g) to the facts of their case.  My Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School has written a template motion for pretrial release in presumption cases and other bond motions that are available on fd.org at this link (click on “Bail Handout”) and via NACDL at this link.  If you do not have access to these websites you can obtain the FCJC’s template bond motions by emailing the clinic’s assistant, Kyla Norcross, knorcross @ uchicago.edu. For more tips for getting federal clients released on bond, see Alison Siegler & Erica Zunkel, Rethinking Federal Bail Advocacy to Change the Culture of Detention, THE CHAMPION 46, 50 (July 2020); Erica Zunkel & Alison Siegler, The Federal Judiciary’s Role in Drug Law Reform in an Era of Congressional Dysfunction, 18 OHIO STATE JOURNAL OF CRIMINAL LAW 238 (2020).

January 23, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)