Monday, August 22, 2016

Would the "the first liberal Supreme Court in a generation" really reshape the criminal justice system in the United States?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new Vox article headlined "How the first liberal Supreme Court in a generation could reshape America." Interestingly (and appropriately?), the article talks a lot and at length about sentencing issues, and thus it is this week's first must-read. And here are excerpts:

Odds are that very soon, the Supreme Court will become something it hasn’t been in nearly 50 years: made up of a majority of Democratic-appointed justices.

Ever since Abe Fortas’s resignation in 1969, the Court has either been split down the middle or, more often, made up primarily of Republican appointees. Some of those Republican appointees nonetheless turned out to be liberals, but even taking that into account, the Court hasn’t been majority liberal since 1971, when William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell joined....

The unfilled vacancy of Antonin Scalia’s seat combined with a Hillary Clinton victory in November could set the Court on a new course. Merrick Garland, nominated by Barack Obama in March, has yet to face a vote. But though Senate Republicans have denied they’ll confirm him in the lame-duck session this winter, should Hillary Clinton win they might be tempted to confirm him lest she name a more liberal nominee. Either way, the result is a moderate to liberal justice in Scalia’s seat, moving the Court appreciably to the left.

Clinton also stands a good chance of replacing the moderate-to-conservative Anthony Kennedy (who recently turned 80) with a reliable liberal, and keeping Ruth Bader Ginsburg (83 and a two-time cancer survivor) and Stephen Breyer’s (78) seats in liberal hands. The result would be a solid 6-3 liberal majority of a kind not seen in many decades....

A liberal Court could end long-term solitary confinement. It could mandate better prison conditions in general, making it more costly to maintain mass incarceration. It could conceivably end the death penalty. It could uphold tough state campaign finance rules and start to move away from Citizens United. It could start to develop a robust right to vote and limit gerrymandering. It could strengthen abortion rights, moving toward viewing abortion rights as a matter of equal protection for women....

Let’s start with perhaps the biggest thing that could happen under a liberal Court, perhaps even a Court where another conservative replaces Scalia: the end of long-term solitary confinement. In 2015, Anthony Kennedy filed a concurring opinion in Davis v. Ayala, a death penalty case in which the Court (joined by Kennedy) sided against the defendant. Nevertheless, Kennedy used his concurrence to unleash a bracing jeremiad against the evils of solitary confinement, in which the defendant had been held for most of his more than 25 years in prison....

The implication was clear: Kennedy wanted advocates to bring a case challenging the constitutionality of long-term solitary confinement on the grounds that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. He basically dared them to, and suggested that if such a case reached the Court, he’d be inclined to limit the practice. With four reliable liberals already on the Court and likely to join him, it’s quite likely that such a case would end with solitary confinement sharply limited....

Solitary confinement is perhaps the most shockingly cruel condition of imprisonment in the United States, but the sheer scale of mass incarceration is also an issue in need of addressing. And because federal courts have the ability to affect policy at both the federal and state level, they can have considerable influence on the incarceration rate going forward.... "The new focus of prison conditions, which could be a real game changer in my view, is the intersection of overcrowding with mental and physical health burdens. The real game changer in terms of the current prison population is how disease-burdened it is," [Professor Jonathan] Simon says. "That could be pretty far-reaching because states have to contemplate the consequence of incarcerating so many aging prisoners."...

One way in which the courts could be more receptive to directly challenging sentences, she says, is by starting to take "collateral consequences" into account. That’s the technical term for the myriad ways that criminal convictions, and in particular sex crime convictions, can hamper defendants’ lives in the long term. That includes restrictions on where they can live after they’re released from prison, bans on government employment and benefits like public housing, inclusion on sex offender registries, bans on gun purchases and voting, and so forth....

Almost as explosive as Kennedy's 2015 concurrence was a dissent filed by Stephen Breyer and joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg that same year. The case, Glossip v. Gross, resulted in a 5-4 ruling affirming that the particular drug cocktail Oklahoma currently uses in executions doesn't violate the Eighth Amendment. One dissent, by Sonia Sotomayor and joined by the Court's other three liberals, narrowly argued against the specific drugs. Breyer's dissent took aim at capital punishment as a whole....

It’s telling that neither Sotomayor nor Elena Kagan, the two other liberals on the Court, joined Breyer’s opinion. And it’s hard to imagine Merrick Garland, who was one of the prosecutors who successfully sought to see Timothy McVeigh executed, declaring his own past actions categorically unconstitutional. But if Garland’s nomination fails and Clinton picks a less tough-on-crime nominee for Scalia’s seat, or if Kennedy leaves the Court during her presidency, it’s conceivable there would exist five votes for outright abolition of the death penalty.

"I would not be surprised to see Sotomayor and Kagan supportive of [abolishing the death penalty]," Simon says. "Kennedy is a harder call. The reason I'm somewhat optimistic about including Kennedy goes back to his interest in dignity. The strongest of the opinions in Furman" — the 1972 case that briefly abolished capital punishment — "was William Brennan's, and Brennan based it most directly on human dignity. He argued the Eighth Amendment bans any punishment you can't carry out without respecting the dignity of those being punished." Kennedy leaned heavily on the importance of dignity in Brown v. Plata, the California prison overcrowding case....

One other death penalty–related case Simon thinks the Court could amend or overturn, which could have widespread implication outside this specific issue area, is McCleskey v. Kemp, a 1987 case in which the Court ruled 5-4 that a death sentence for a black defendant could not be overturned due to the state of Georgia's hugely disproportionate imposition of capital punishment on African Americans. The effect of that was to foreclose challenges to the criminal justice system premised on its discriminatory effect — the Court required that plaintiffs show that discrimination was intended, not merely that the system was in effect discriminating against African Americans.

"It's been terrible for equal protection law generally. Criminal justice is run through with very disproportionate racial practices that are very difficult to prove as discrimination," Simon says. "Overturning McCleskey, and a companion case a few years later, could be a really important change agent both in unleashing the potential for trial court challenges to racially disproportionate criminal justice practices of all sorts, and perhaps ending the death penalty in those states where it seems most firmly rooted, like Texas and Florida."

August 22, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Is "tough-on-crime" talk really now a losing political strategy?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Hill commentary authored by Holly Harris and Andrew Howard. Here are excerpts:

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s primary opponent, Paul Nehlen, frequently attacked Ryan’s support for criminal justice reform. Nehlen accused Ryan of pushing Obama’s agenda on jailbreak criminal justice reform policies.  Not only was Nehlen’s narrative wrong, his political calculus was flawed.  Ryan clobbered him on Election Day, winning the primary with more than 80 percent of the vote.

This isn’t the first time justice reform opponents, clinging to the old school thought that “tough on crime” rhetoric still sells with voters, have attempted to use their opposition to these reforms for political benefit.  What they got was the opposite, and here’s why.

First and foremost, it is conservatives in big red states like Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina who have led the way on justice reform issues for a decade.  These efforts yielded great success in safely reducing the prison population, saving significant taxpayer resources, and most importantly lowering crime and recidivism rates.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin are just a few of the conservative leaders who are the most ardent champions of, and effective spokespersons for, criminal justice reform.  Given all the state successes, President Obama’s support is actually a bit late to the party.

Republican U.S. Senator David Vitter, vying for conservative Louisiana gubernatorial seat, learned the hard way that attempting to tie his opponent to Obama’s criminal justice reforms was unproductive.  With support from law enforcement, John Bel Edwards doubled down on his push for “bipartisan” criminal justice reforms.  Edwards is now the Governor of Louisiana.

Additionally, polling data from dozens of states across the country shows overwhelming support across the political and ideological spectrum for criminal justice reform.  Replacing one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum sentences with penalties that reflect individual cases polls out the roof in battleground states like Michigan (91%) and Ohio (87%).

Surveys in states that will have hotly-contested Senate races such as Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Nevada, and Speaker Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin show support for reform issues ranging from the 60s to high 80s. The smart political play is to embrace these reforms.

Doing otherwise could backfire. Just ask Alaska’s then-incumbent Senator Mark Begich.  In the state’s 2014 U.S. Senate race, Begich attacked his Republican opponent, Dan Sullivan, alleging he was soft on crime.  Sullivan emerged victorious over Begich and is currently serving as the junior senator from Alaska.

In a time when one in three American adults has a criminal record and every single American family is impacted by our broken justice system, supporting reform not only makes for sound policy but also smart politics.  Which is why this irrational fear of supporting federal legislation similar to the aforementioned state reforms is all the more baffling....

Paul Ryan’s trouncing of his ill-advised primary opponent could be a game changer.  After all, in the new era of smart on crime policy, reform opponents are 0-3.

August 20, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Poll suggests Californians will vote in November 2016 to mend rather than end the death penalty in their state

This new press release from the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, which is titled "IGS Poll Finds Support for Retaining Death Penalty," suggests that California voters have some strong preferences regarding competing death penalty ballot initiatives.  Here are the interesting details via the main text of the press release:

California voters oppose an effort to abolish the death penalty and strongly support a competing measure that would streamline procedures in capital cases, according to a new poll released today by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Respondents opposed the abolition measure 55.1 percent to 44.9 percent, while three out of four respondents supported the streamlining proposition, the survey found. Since the two measures conflict, if both should pass, the measure receiving more votes would take effect.

The poll used online English-language questionnaires to survey respondents from June 29 to July 18. All respondents were registered California voters, and the responses were then weighted to reflect the statewide distribution of the California population by gender, race/ethnicity, education and age. The sample size for the questions on the two death penalty initiatives was 1,506 respondents for one question and 1,512 for the other.

A stark partisan difference emerged on Proposition 62, which would abolish capital punishment and replace it with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Democrats supported the measure, 55.1 percent to 44.9 percent. Republicans overwhelmingly opposed it, 70.2 percent to 29.8 percent. Independents were also opposed, though by only 60.6 percent to 39.4 percent. By contrast, there was support across partisan lines for Proposition 66, which would streamline procedures in capital cases to speed up the resolution of those cases. Even among Democrats there was strong support (69.7 percent) for the measure, and support was even higher among independents (81.1 percent) and Republicans (85 percent).

A majority (60 percent) of African-Americans favored abolishing the death penalty, but among all other ethnic groups, most respondents opposed that proposal. Support for the death penalty was stronger among older people.

Interestingly, religious differences were reflected in views about abolishing the death penalty, but mostly that difference was related to whether the respondent was or was not religious, rather than to differences among various religious denominations. Among all religious groups there was majority opposition to eliminating the death penalty; only among the self-identified atheists and agnostics did most voters support abolition of capital punishment.

Prior related posts:

August 18, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Noting that the 2016 major Prez candidates seem disinclined to say much about the death penalty

Donald-Trump-Hillary-ClintonThe Guardian has this lengthy new article providing an interesting take on the modern realities of presidential politics and capital punishment. The article is headlined "Politics and the death penalty: for Clinton and Trump, safest stance may be silence: Neither candidate seems keen to take on the controversial topic of capital punishment in the 2016 election, despite waning public support for it." Here are excerpts:

Donald J Trump phoned in to Fox & Friends in May 2015, shortly after two police officers were shot dead in Mississippi. Presenter Steve Doocy wanted to know what an appropriate punishment for the killers would be. “Well, it’s the death penalty,” Trump said airily.  “We have people who are, these two, animals who shot the cops … the death penalty, it should be brought back and it should be brought back strong.”

A month later, Trump announced he was running for president. He has barely said the words “death penalty” in public since, although a top adviser has called for Hillary Clinton’s execution, saying she “should be put in the firing line and shot for treason”.

Clinton only talks about capital punishment when pressed and then, clumsily. Unlike most of her own party — including running mate Tim Kaine — the Democrat supports death in the case of terrorists. She has said she would be happy if someone would outlaw execution. Someone else.

In campaign 2016, the safest stance on the ultimate punishment may be silence. Both candidates need to woo disaffected members of the other’s party.  Neither can afford to lose their own loyal base.  “Why bring it up if it’s going to stir the pot if you don’t have to?” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.

For the first time since 1972, the Democratic party platform advocates repealing the death penalty. Mainstream Republican opinion has begun to turn away from it, too. Executions and death sentences are down nationwide, while the number of exonerated death row inmates creeps upward.

The percentage of Americans who support the death penalty has been steadily declining since its high of 80% in the mid-1990s, although a comfortable majority — 61% according to Gallup, and 56% according to the Pew Research Center — still favor the use of capital punishment for a person convicted of murder.  And California — with the biggest death row in the country — could become the sixth state in recent years to do away with executions as voters there face dueling ballot measures in November, one to repeal the death penalty, the other to streamline it.

Trump has increasingly positioned himself as a law and order candidate. He doubled down on fear of immigrant criminals in his speech to the Republican national convention and recently said he supported “extreme vetting” of people from other countries. Yet he has so far shied away from promising grisly execution for murderers.  The main exception was a December speech to the New England Police Benevolent Association, a police officers’ union, in which he promised an executive order mandating death sentences for cop-killers. (This would not work out, in any case; mandatory death sentences were rendered unconstitutional by a 1976 supreme court decision.)...

The Republican platform, recently ratified at the party’s convention in Cleveland, contains just two sentences on the subject of capital punishment.  “The constitutionality of the death penalty is firmly settled by its explicit mention in the Fifth Amendment,” it says.  “With the murder rate soaring in our great cities, we condemn the Supreme Court’s erosion of the right of the people to enact capital punishment in their states.”...

In the 1980s and 90s, opposition to the death penalty was “political poison in most elections”, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “Now, you are seeing Republican legislators, many of them conservative Republicans, openly oppose the death penalty.”  Still, most of the decline in death penalty support comes from Democrats, according to a 2015 study by Pew Research Center.  Nearly 60% of Democrats oppose the death penalty, compared to just 25% in 1996.

Which may be part of the problem for Clinton, who was roundly criticized for her awkward responses to questions about the death penalty during the primary season. Both of her primary rivals — Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley — opposed capital punishment. Now that the general election is under way, a Clinton challenge will be getting Sanders’ fervent and progressive supporters to the polls.

August 17, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Could "conservative Latinos religious groups" become a significant voice and force in death penalty debates (at least in California)?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this intriguing new Fox News Latino article headlined "Conservative Latino religious groups make big push to end death penalty." Here are excerpts:

A growing number of conservative Latino religious groups are beginning to shift their position on capital punishment, due in large part to a belief among them that it disproportionately affects minorities. “Given studies on how the death penalty is meted out, particularly for people of color, if it’s not a level playing field, we need to speak out,” Reverend Gabriel Salguero, founder of the national Latino Evangelical Coalition (NaLEC) told Fox News Latino.

“The needle has moved for Latinos and evangelicals," Salguero said. "Botched executions and advancements in DNA science have awakened us to a moral response."

According to the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Latinos represent a larger portion of those on death row than they did in the past. Half of new Latino death row inmates were from California, bringing their total to 157 inmates, the most in the country. Hispanics now represent 13.5 percent of the U.S. death row population – up from 11 percent in 2000.

A study conducted by University of Nebraska-Lincoln psychology and ethnic studies professor, Cynthia Willis-Esqueda and her colleague, Russ K.E. Espinoza of California State University, Fullerton, found that white jurors were more likely to impose the death penalty in cases where the defendant was Latino and poor. A study in California found that those who killed whites were over 3 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed blacks and over 4 times more likely than those who killed Latinos.

“There’s an almost impossibly disproportionate number of Latinos incarcerated – a third of the labor force has a criminal record,” Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of Latino Justice (PRLDEF), told Fox News Latino. “There’s easy acceptance that the criminal justice system is a racially skewed system,” Cartagena said.

In June, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA), a coalition of 40 prominent Latino organizations, joined several bipartisan groups calling for the end to the death penalty, saying that Latinos are “directly affected by its injustices.”...

This November, the death penalty will be on the California ballot. Proposition 62 seeks to repeal the statute. “There’s been a shift, not just attributed to religion, but a heightened understanding of the death penalty and its implicit bias in the criminal justice system,” Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, and a nationally recognized civil rights attorney, told Fox News Latino. “The time is right, but it’s a ballot with 17 measures on it. Whether the issue gets the attention it deserves, who knows,” he added.

Salguero said it made sense for clergy to lead the charge on the fight to end the death penalty. “We’ve been pro-life all along, but what does that mean? If even one innocent person is killed, it’s too many,” Salguero said....

“The gospel teaches us that crime has a place, but God has the last word," Salguero said. "We’re against the ultimate role. We have ministries in prisons. If anyone has a moral platform it is the clergy. I think in my heart of hearts we can do better than executing people." “Christ was an innocent man who was executed. If there’s a possibility that we execute one innocent person we should have pause.”

Because Latinos make up nearly 40% of the population in California, how they general cast their votes in this November's death penalty reform/repeal initiative battle is going to play a huge rule in the future of the death penalty in the state.  This press article from January 2016 reports on polling done around that time suggesting that Latino voters favored repealing the death penalty to speeding up executions by a margin of 54% to 42%.  If the opposition within the Latino community has continued to grow (and certainly if it reaches the typical 2-1 opposition found in polling of African Americans), I think the repeal efforts of abolitionists in California might have a pretty good shot at carrying the day.

August 11, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Obama Criminal Justice Reforms That Trump Could Undo"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Marshall Project piece by Eli Hager.  Here is how the piece sets up its "rundown of Obama’s efforts on criminal justice and how each of them could or could not be unraveled by a President Donald Trump":

Donald Trump has not said much about how he would handle matters of criminal justice if he is elected president.  Beyond a promise in his speech at last month’s Republican National Convention that “safety will be restored” in America — and a suggestion in December that he would seek the death penalty for anyone convicted of killing a police officer — the candidate has not articulated a policy agenda on issues such as the drug war, federal sentencing guidelines, community policing or clemency.

Yet Trump has made it clear what he will undo: the Obama administration’s executive actions and regulations, including those having to do with criminal justice.“You know, the great thing about executive orders is that I don’t have to go back to Congress,” he said at a campaign rally in Manassas, Va., on Dec. 2, according to the Daily Caller.

Experts on executive authority say the next president could absolutely — and immediately — rescind any and all executive orders made by President Obama during his eight years in office, including those tightening background checks, “banning the box” on federal job applications and banning the solitary confinement of juveniles in federal prisons.  “They can be overturned in one day, with the stroke of a pen,” said Susan Dudley, a professor of public policy at George Washington University and an expert on regulatory procedure.

Trump could also opt to slow-walk Obama’s policies — either by appointing cabinet officials who will not enforce them or by instructing his Justice Department to reprioritize which laws it will prosecute.  The department could also reach weakened, out-of-court settlements in the investigations that the Obama administration has launched into local police departments.

But other moves of Obama’s, from his pardons and commutations to his attempts to ease sentencing guidelines for drug offenders, will be harder to roll back.  “Trump could say he doesn’t want to pursue a certain policy anymore, but he can’t take away benefits and rights that have already gone out to people,” said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas and an expert on constitutional law and the federal system.

August 11, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

"It's Silicon Valley vs. law enforcement on California death penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this local press report on the alignment of various participants in the debate over the future of the death penalty in California, where voters will be considering reform initiatives this fall.  Here are the details:

Two competing November ballot measures that aim to abolish or expedite California’s long-dormant death penalty each raised more than $3 million through the first half of the year, according to state campaign finance records, and largely drew their funding from a narrow group of major donors: Silicon Valley executives and law enforcement unions.

Proposition 62, which would replace capital punishment with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, led its rival campaign with nearly $4.1 million raised through June 30, filings show. Proponents argue that executions are costly, inhumane and bound to kill wrongly convicted people.

The dozen top contributors, each of whom gave at least $50,000, are nearly all affiliated with the technology industry in the Bay Area. They include Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, venture capitalist John O’Farrell, and data management company Integrated Archive Systems, which was founded by major Democratic donor Amy Rao. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Nicholas McKeown, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford University who has started several technology companies, have each given $1 million to the effort so far. Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and Y Combinator CEO Paul Graham both put in $500,000.

Supporters of Proposition 66, an initiative to speed up the death penalty by putting the California Supreme Court in charge of a revised appeals process with strict time limits, raised almost $3.5 million through June 30, according to financial records. It currently can take decades for a death row inmate to exhaust their appeals, though California has not executed anyone since 2006 because of legal challenges to its lethal drug cocktail.

Nearly 80 law enforcement groups have given to the campaign, led by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association with $325,000, the Peace Officers Research Association of California with $305,000, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen with $250,000 and the Los Angeles Police Protective League with $225,000. Among the largest contributors, twenty of whom have donated more than $50,000 to the campaign, are a handful of individuals, including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan, Orange County businessman Henry T. Nicholas III, and A. Jerrold Perenchio, the former CEO of Univision....

California voters last weighed in on capital punishment in 2012, when another initiative to repeal the death penalty narrowly failed. A January Field Poll showed an even split, with 48 percent of respondents supporting speeding up the process and 47 percent favoring abolishing it. If both Proposition 62 and Proposition 66 pass in November, whichever has a higher number of votes will become law.

Prior related posts:

August 3, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, July 29, 2016

Is it lack of conviction, lack of courage, or just lack of cleverness that leads Dems to be so weak on criminal justice reform advocacy?

In this post on Monday, I predicted we would hear a lot more this week about criminal justice reform from leading Democrats during the DNC than we had heard last week from leading Republicans during the RNC.  I suppose that prediction was not entirely mistaken, as both Prez Obama on Wednesday and Prez candidate Clinton on Thursday each had a few lines about criminal justice reform in their speeches.  For those who missed the brief mentions of criminal justice in their two+ hours of speechification, here is what was said:

I suppose I was foolish for thinking and really hoping that Democratic leaders would have much more to say than this relative pablum about criminal justice reform circa 2016. And the deliberative decision to prioritize polite CJ reform pablum over actual CJ reform advocacy prompts the (frustration-filled) question in the title of this post.  Let me briefly unpack what I mean by this question, hoping to generate some serious and sober discussions on this front:

A lack of conviction?:  In light of Prez Bill Clinton's "tough-on-crime" legacy and Prez Obama's milquetoast efforts to reverse course, I am growing ever more convinced that leading Democrats are perhaps just not all that troubled by modern mass incarceration, the aggressive drug war, marijuana prohibition, private prisons, felon disenfranchisement, overcriminalization, inadequate defense funding, wrongful convictions, prosecutorial misconduct or a host of other persistent criminal justice problems that have nothing to do with the hot-button (dog-whistle?) topics of race or guns.

A lack of courage?:  I sincerely want to believe that leading Democrats (as well as leading Republicans and independents) really are troubled by modern mass incarceration, the aggressive drug war, marijuana prohibition, private prisons, felon disenfranchisement, overcriminalization, inadequate defense funding, wrongful convictions, prosecutorial misconduct and a host of other persistent criminal justice problems.  But if leading Dems do want to see real reform in these arenas, why do they lack the courage to encourage serious discussion of serious reforms?  Why thoughout the election season to date has (independent) Bernie Sanders been the only major candidate with the courage to keep talking forcefully about the probems of mass incarceration and to advocate for specific reforms like ending federal marijuana prohibition and the use of private prisons?

A lack of cleverness?:  I am never sure if I am comforted or further depressed when thinking that leading Dems genuinely care about criminal justice reform but ultimately lack the ability to speak about these issues in clever and politically shrwed ways to build on (now bipartisan) political interest in significant reforms.  For example, Prez Obama could have (and I think should have) added to his statement that he has been pleased to see many more "mayors and sheriffs and state's attorneys and state legislators" in red states as well as blue states committed to innovative justice programming seeking to reduce our nation's over-reliance on incarceration.  Similarly, Prez candidate Clinton could have (and I think should have) added to her statement that she would be eager to draw on the work and wisdom of both Republican and Democratic Governors and Attorneys General to identify state-level reforms that have proved most effective at rebuilding needed "trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve."

Sigh.....

July 29, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (18)

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Does Hillary Clinton really have a "bold vision" for criminal justice reform, as claimed by former AG Holder?

I predicted in this prior post that we all would likely hear at least a bit more about criminal justice reform at the DNC this week than we heard at the RNC last week.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, former AG Eric Holder devoted his DNC speech to asserting Prez candidate Hillary Clinton would be committed to criminal justice reform, and these passages addressed some sentencing/prison issue (with my emphasis added):

At a time when our justice system is out of balance, when one in three black men will be incarcerated in their lifetimes, and when black defendants in the federal system receive sentences 20 percent longer than their white peers, we need a president who will end this policy of over-incarceration.  As Attorney General, I launched sweeping reforms of our federal criminal justice system and reduced its reliance on draconian mandatory minimum sentences. As a result, we cut the federal prison population and the crime rate — together — for the first time in more than 40 years.

That's right: despite the fiction and fearmongering you've heard from the other party's nominee, violent crime has gone down since President Obama took office.

As President, Hillary will go even further.  She fought, as a Senator, against sentencing disparities and racial profiling. She used her first major speech, as a candidate, to lay out a bold vision for criminal justice reform. As a presidential candidate she has talked about systemic racism in a way that no one else has. And she will help our nation summon the courage to confront racial injustice — and face down the legacies of our darkest past.

I recall blogging about Clinton's big criminal justice speech back in April 2015, and I do not remember that it included any dramatic statements about criminal justice reform, let alone a "bold vision." Then again, I suppose it is in some sense "bold" for a Clinton to talk about criminal justice reform at all, so maybe I am being too tough on Holder for his account of what Clinton has said about reform.

Prior related posts:

July 26, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, July 25, 2016

How much (and what kind of) criminal justice reform talk can we expect to hear at the DNC?

I am going to be off-line much of today, and thus I am genuinely interested in having folks spend the day discussion what I see as the most interesting criminal justice reform question for this work-week.  I was not too surprised that we heard relatively little criminal justice reform discussion at the RNC last week, although arguably the emphasis by GOP Prez nominee Donald Trump on being the "law and order" candidate was an indication that the new GOP leader is inclined to get Republicans back to "tough-and-tougher" rhetoric and realities.

Meanwhile, Democratic Prez nominee Hillary Clinton seems likely to be eager to reach out (and motivate) voters interesting in significant sentencing (and police and marijuana) reforms, and these topics even were addressed this past weekend when she officially announced her VP pick Tim Kaine.  Consequently, I am expecting to hear a lot more express and significant reform talk at the DNC than at the RNC.  But how much, and what will be the main focus and more-frequent "talking points"?

In addition to hoping many folks will respond to this post with predictions about what we will hear at the DNC, I would also love to see folks explain just what they are hoping to hear.  So if you could, for example, script two of three sentences that would be in the speech to be given by Clinton or Kaine or others, what would they be?

A few recent related posts:

July 25, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (11)

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Covering VP candidate Tim Kaine's history on crime and punishment issues (especially the death penalty)

Kaine_official_high_res_photoThe folks at FAMM now have this very helpful and timely webpage reviewing some recent and prior statements by Tim Kaine, the former Viginia Gov and current US Senator whom Hillary Clinton has now picked as her running mate.  That page also provides this interesting accounting of "Kaine’s record on criminal justice issues"

In addition, a number of mainstream and new media sources have now run a number of articles about Kaine's criminal justice history (most of which, notably, are focused on the death penalty). Here are headlines and links:

July 24, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (16)

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Why Donald Trump's "law and order" vision and voice is so important to advocates of sentencing reform (and marijuana reform)

Two new commentaries about current politics together help explain why I continue to view GOP Prez candidate Donald Trump as the most important (and also most opaque) national figure with respect to the future direction of a lot of on-going criminal justice reform movements.  The full headlines of the commentaries provides a window into my thinking:

Here are a few passages from these pieces, respectively:

From Jeet Heer:  "With the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Trump’s approach to politics has become squarely mainstream in his party.  The Trumpification of the GOP is not likely to go away soon.  It’s rooted in some fundamental demographic facts that the party has been struggling with for decades: that it’s increasingly a party of old white people in a nation that is becoming more diverse.  Even if Trump loses by a blowout in November, the party is likely to become even more Trumpified because the #NeverTrump people will have left the party — or at least become inactive — while the politicians and activists who are most responsive to his message will have stayed on.  That’s how Barry Goldwater conservatism continued to be a force after his epic defeat of 1964, and it’s likely to replicate itself with Trumpism.  Like it or not, the GOP will be the Party of Trump for many years to come."

From Steve Teles:  Trump [i]s like a throwback to New York in the 1980s.... The Right on Crime movement depends upon, in some important ways, the transformation of the Republican Party into a more consistently anti-statist party in the wake of the Tea Party, combined with the role that evangelical leaders have played in encouraging an emphasis on second chances and forgiveness.  Neither of those changes in conservatism is characteristic of the conservatism of Trump.  I could imagine him going all-in on a back-to-the-80s, Charles Bronson-ish approach to crime, and if he’s able to rebrand the Republican Party in that way, that would be very troublesome [for those supportive of criminal-justice reform].

July 20, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

"Two Parties, Two Platforms on Criminal Justice: The Republicans nod to reforms, then take a sharp right turn."

The title of this post is the title of this timely new piece by Maurice Chammah, which includes a blow-by-blow accounting of how the party platforms have changed on criminal justice issues since 2012. Here is how the piece sets up the comparative look at how time changes platforms:

The 2016 Republican and Democratic party platforms — the GOP’s approved Monday night, the Democrats’ still in draft form — swing hard to the right and left, with Republicans amplifying their traditional positions against gay marriage, abortion, transgender rights, and immigration, and Democrats calling for expanded public healthcare and higher education, and a $15 minimum wage.  Platforms are not binding on candidates, but they distill a consensus of the forces within the party at this point in history.  That’s particularly clear this year on the subjects of crime and punishment.

In the new Democratic party platform, the fingerprints of the Black Lives Matter movement and Bernie Sanders are apparent, in calls for independent investigations of police-involved shootings, more body cameras, and training in de-escalation.  There is a declaration that “states that want to decriminalize marijuana should be able to do so.”  There is also a call for the end of the death penalty, something President Obama and Hillary Clinton have not endorsed.  Parts of the Democratic draft platform clearly repudiate the tough language their party embraced a generation ago, when their current candidate’s husband was president. The mother of Sandra Bland, who died at a Texas jail last year and became a symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement, is scheduled to speak at their convention next week in Philadelphia.

The Republican document reflects recent tensions in conservative circles.  It includes the language of conservatives who call for reducing incarceration — influential Republican patrons like the Koch brothers, politicians like Rick Perry, Rand Paul and Newt Gingrich — but it also includes plenty of traditional invocations of law and order.  An ambitious bipartisan sentencing reform effort in Congress, which Sen. Ted Cruz supported and then abandoned, has been whittled down and allowed to languish.  And it was opponents of that bill including Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke (who regularly attacks the "myths" of justice reform) who were in the lineup Monday night in Cleveland, where the evening’s theme was “Make America Safe Again.”  It was those figures who dominated the party’s televised presentation.

To feel the tension, consider the 2016 passage on mandatory minimum sentences, which says such sentences served a good purpose and should only be rolled back sparingly: "In the past, judicial discretion about sentences led to serious mistakes concerning dangerous criminals.  Mandatory minimum sentencing became an important tool for keeping them off the streets.  Modifications to it should be targeted toward particular categories, especially nonviolent offenders and persons with drug, alcohol, or mental health issues, and should require disclosure by the courts of any judicial departure from the State’s sentencing requirements."

Conservative criminal justice reformers, who have gathered under the banner of “Right on Crime,” had gotten brief nods to rehabilitation and non-prison sentences for drug crimes into their 2008 and 2012 platforms.  An April 2016 resolution they promoted, which was adopted by the Republican National Committee, points out that despite a massive growth in incarceration, many who are released from prison commit new crimes, meaning prisons might not be the best investment in public safety.  They added language acknowledging the success of conservative lawmakers in traditionally red states to reduce incarceration and save money. “90% of the prisoners in this country are not federal,” says Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia, “so it’s meaningful to talk about the experimentation and successes in the states.”

The rift in conservative circles was apparent when the 112 members of the full platform committee edited the document last week in Cleveland.  At one point, April Newland, a delegate from the Virgin Islands, proposed adding a line supporting a national registry of child murderers, which had been in the 2012 platform. She described how her brother’s three and five year-old children were murdered by a man who went on to be released from prison, moved near a school, and molested more victims. Other delegates pushed back.  “A federal mandate doesn’t work,” Maryland delegate JoeyLynn Hough said.  “So, I’m sorry about your family, but I don’t think this is the answer.”

The committee also added support for “mens rea” reform, an effort to force prosecutors to prove a defendant intended to commit a crime, as well as strong language supporting drug treatment programs, particularly for first-time offenders.  In other areas, the new platform’s language took a different tack, condemning the Supreme Court for limiting use of the death penalty, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch for her “present campaign of harassment against police forces around the country.”

At one of the hearings, delegate Giovanni Cicione, an attorney from Rhode Island, proposed language encouraging lawmakers to “fairly assess the social and economic costs of the failure of drug prohibition, and recognize that our states are sending a clear signal that a new approach is long overdue.”

“We have created with drug prohibition a multi-billion dollar underground economy, and a generation of Al Capones,” Cicione told the other delegates.  “And if you want to respond to the Black Lives Matter protesters, if you want to respond to the families of those police officers who died in Dallas, if you want to respond to the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile... we can’t answer these questions without explaining how we demean and weaken law enforcement by forcing them to enforce unworkable laws.”

He admits he may have gone overboard in bringing up Black Lives Matter, and his suggestion failed. North Carolina delegate Ron Rabin worried his state “could be regionally surrounded by states where the use of drugs is legal and they come into our state to harass.” Cicione didn’t expect to win, but he did notice that the the average ages of the yes and no votes were “separated by 40 years,” which to him signalled that reformers will eventually get their way. “Those of us who grew up in a more tolerant environment about drugs are less afraid of them,” he said.

July 19, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Scouting Mike Pence on criminal justice: likely Trump VP pick with notably mixed reform record

According to the latest headlines and alerts Mike-pence on my smart phone, the word today is that GOP Prez candidate Donald Trump is poised to select Indiana Gov Mike Pence as his running mate.  As a supporter of sentencing reform, I am disappointed a bit that Newt Gingrich did not make the cut, as he has been a recent vocal and repeated supporter of the "Right on Crime" sentencing reform efforts.  (That said, Newt often sounded like a member of the tough-and-tougher GOP crowd in the past, and thus I would not have felt confident that even a Newt pick would signal a Trumpian affinity for sentencing reform.)

Gov Pence's record on criminal justice reform is decidedly mixed, and these linked press stories about various aspects of his work as Indiana's chief executive document the basics:

From May 2013 here, "Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signs sentencing, expungement bills into law":

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has signed bills to revamp the state's felony sentencing laws and give some offenders the ability to expunge their records. "Indiana should be the worst place in America to commit a serious crime and the best place, once you've done your time, to get a second chance," Pence said in a statement.

The sentencing legislation — House Bill 1006 — is the product of three years of work by lawmakers, judges, prosecutors and others. It's the first wholesale overhaul of the criminal code since the 1970s. It will move Indiana's system of four felony classes to one that has six felony levels. It also requires offenders to serve 75 percent of their sentences instead of the 50 percent currently required....

Pence had expressed concerns about an earlier version of the bill, saying it was too soft on offenders convicted of drug crimes. But lawmakers made changes that appeased the governor. Pence said Monday that the bill will "reform and strengthen Indiana's criminal code by focusing resources on the most serious offenses."

House Bill 1482 gives those Hoosiers previously convicted of crimes the opportunity to essentially have their records wiped clean — if they've had a sustained period without a new offense. The bill sets different standards for different crimes.

Pence the bill will strengthen their opportunities for gainful employment. Businesses will no longer be able to ask applicants if they've been convicted of felonies. Instead, they'll have to ask if they've been convicted of felonies that have not been expunged. The new law "will give a second chance to those who strive to re-enter society and become productive, law-abiding citizens," Pence said. 

From March 2016 here, "Pence reinstates mandatory minimum prison terms for some drug crimes":

Gov. Mike Pence is toughening his stance toward drug dealers ahead of a likely bruising re-election campaign where he'll have to answer for Indiana becoming the nation's methamphetamine capital on his watch. The Republican signed into law House Enrolled Act 1235 on Monday, reinstating a 10-year mandatory minimum prison term for a person convicted of dealing meth or heroin who has a prior conviction for cocaine, meth or heroin dealing.

"Drug-abuse problems are not unique to our state, but I'm determined to meet this challenge head-on," Pence said. "We need to make it clear that Indiana will not tolerate the actions of criminals, and I'm pleased to sign into law HEA 1235 to increase penalties on drug dealers."

An analysis of drug-dealing convictions since criminal sentencing reform was enacted in 2014, conducted by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, found just four of the 119 individuals convicted of meth or heroin dealing had a prior conviction and were sentenced to less than 10 years in prison — receiving on average 7.5 years.

More concerning for some lawmakers, including state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, is Pence reversing course on his past actions to eliminate mandatory minimums by now reducing the ability of judges to issue the appropriate sentence for each criminal and giving prosecutors the upper hand in plea bargaining with an accused.

Given this governing histry, I am inclined to call Gov Pence comparable to Prez candidate Trump (and also Prez candidate Clinton) in the arena of criminal justice reform: if you try hard enough, you can readily find a basis to be very encouraged or a basis to be very discouraged by his statements and record.

July 14, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Reentry and community supervision, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Law Enforcement Leaders write letter to Prez candidates Trump and Clinton to urge sentencing reform

As reported via this press release from Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration, in a letter addressed "to Republican Donald J. Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, leading groups representing more than 30,000 current and former police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, district attorneys, attorneys’ general and U.S. Attorneys from all 50 states call for sensible steps to address burgeoning prison populations." According to the press release, this letter "marks the first time the law enforcement community has united with one voice to ask major party candidates to support reducing imprisonment" and thus represents "a powerful reversal from law enforcement’s past support of rigid sentencing laws, and signatories asked the candidates to consider the expertise and perspective that led them to the change of heart."

The full letter is available at this link and it gets started this way

Dear Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton:

We write to you as representatives of our nation’s largest law enforcement organizations.  Collectively our membership includes more than 30,000 law enforcement professionals — current and former police chiefs, sheriffs, district and assistant district attorneys, attorneys’ general and U.S. Attorneys from all 50 states.

As the presumptive nominees for President of the United States, we hope that you will take into consideration the perspective of law enforcement as you set your policies.  We believe there is an urgent need for the next Administration to help promote the public safety of this country, reduce recidivism, and reform sentencing policies.

As the men and women who dedicate our lives each day to protect this country’s people, public safety and the administration of justice is our utmost priority.  Every day, we are required to make tough judgment calls.  Sometimes, that judgment call involves locking-up individuals for a long period of time for a heinous crime that damaged a community.  We want dangerous offenders off our streets, and behind bars.  We want to make sure the people in the communities we serve are protected.  Today we are proud that our country is safer than it has been in a generation, and we work hard every day to ensure it remains that way.

However, we also know that our burgeoning prison population is creating a new public safety challenge.  Though this may seem counterintuitive, we know from our experience as law enforcement officials that over-relying on incarceration does not deter crime.  As prison budgets have continued to rise, funding for state and local law enforcement has been slashed, negatively impacting innovative work in the field including diversion programs, updating information-sharing systems, and smart policing tactics.  With finite prison space, we believe prison should be used for the most dangerous offenders.

Budget aside, law enforcement across the country has shifted to embrace rehabilitation and the opinion that certain individuals in our prison system are serving sentences that are too long for the crime they committed.  We also realize that, as we see the same offenders reenter the criminal justice system time and time again, we must be creative and devise innovative programs to reduce recidivism, including job training, addiction counseling, and other productive activities.

July 14, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

What should we make of Donald Trump declaring himself the "law and order" and "compassion" candidate?

At the risk of prompting an excessive focus on politics over policy, I am genuinely interested in hearing reader thoughts on this recent Politico article, headlined "Trump: 'I am the law and order candidate'."  Here are excerpts:

Hillary Clinton can add the title “secretary of the status quo” to her political résumé, according to Donald Trump, who on Monday also bestowed another moniker upon himself: “the law and order candidate.”

“We must maintain law and order at the highest level or we will cease to have a country, 100 percent,” he said during a speech in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in which he heaped praise upon America’s law enforcement officers. “We will cease to have a country. I am the law and order candidate.”...

“Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is weak, ineffective, pandering, and as proven by her recent email scandal which was an embarrassment not only to her but to the entire nation as a whole,” Trump continued. “Not only am I the law and order candidate, but I am also the candidate of compassion, believe it. The candidate of compassion.”

Trump’s remarks backing America’s law enforcement officers came at the top of a planned speech in which he outlined plans to fix health care for U.S. military veterans and offered a 10-point proposal to reform the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs....

The presumptive Republican nominee was preceded at his rally by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who likewise praised law enforcement. “We need a president who will once again put law and order at the top of the priority of the presidency in this country,” Christie said. “Our police officers, the men and women who stand each day to protect us need to understand that the president of the united states and his administration will give them the benefit of the doubt, not always believe that what they’ve done is somehow wrong.”

July 13, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Some mid-summer highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Because federal statutory sentencing reform has stalled in Congress and with the Supreme Court now on its extended summer break, major new sentencing stories are relatively rare these days.  In contrast, over at my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog, I have been struggling greatly to keep up with all the marijuana reform news.  These recent posts from the last few weeks highlight just some of the significant summer stories that seem worth following:

July 12, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Might the Nebraska death penalty repeal referendum in 2016 be even more important symbolically than the dueling California capital initiatives?

As highlighted in prior posts here and here, death penalty opponents and supporters will surely be focused on California during the 2016 election season as voters there will be have a clear capital punishment reform choice between "end it" and "mend it" based on two competing ballot proposals. But this local article from Nebraska, headlined "Death penalty debate heats up," provides a useful reminder that citizens in a very different state will also be voting on the future of the death penalty in their jurisdiction. Here are the basics:

Nebraskans will go to the polls four month from now and vote for an array of issues-one being whether or not to reinstate the death penalty in Nebraska. The legislature voted 30-19 to repeal it in the Spring of 2015, but supporters of capital punishment were able to get enough signatures to get the issue on the November ballot.

“It's a very complicated system, the system is broken and it doesn't work,” said Retain a Just Nebraska campaign manager Darold Bauer [campaign website here]. “The repeal of the death penalty was very unpopular across the state,” said Rod Edwards, state director for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty [campaign website here].

Those for the death penalty say murder victim’s families want justice. “They want that just penalty for the people who killed their loved ones,” said Edwards.

However the group Retain a Just Nebraska said the system doesn’t work and actually harms murder victim’s families. “Eliminate years and years of appeals, and eliminate the possibility of executing an innocent person,” said Bauer.

Both sides of this issue are now ramping up their campaigns this summer coordinating their army of volunteers and getting their message out. “We are re-energizing those volunteers we are working with our Facebook followers to make sure they get the message out and working with those 166-thousands signature gathers to expand that to an electorate,” said Edwards.

Even churches are getting involved-handing out materials urging their people to vote for a specific item. This past weekend, some parishioners likely saw a bit of politicking in the pews. “We are getting help from a number of different churches and different denominations, we are not turning anyone away, if they believe what we do in eliminating the death penalty, we welcome their support,” said Bauer.

Both campaigns will start airing ads on TV and radio soon.

Because California has the nation's largest death row (as well as the largest population of any state in the nation), the outcome of the death penalty reform initiatives in that state will, practically and politically, be far more consequential in the short-term than whatever happens in Nebraska.  But, as the question in the title of this post is meant to suggest, I think the vote in Nebraska could have more symbolically importance and long-term significance for the future of the death penalty in the United States.

California is, of course, a "deep-blue" state and its quirky and complicated history with the death penalty will make it relatively easy for whichever side that loses in November to claim that the result is not really representative of the views of the national as a whole.  But Nebraska is a "deep-red" state, and its legislative repeal of the death penalty was driven by conservative elected officials.  If Cornhusker voters embrace capital repeal at the ballot this November, I think death penalty abolitionists can and will assert forcefully that this vote shows that even conservative citizens want to see an end of capital punishment int he US. But if Nebraska voters reject the repeal, and especially if they do so by a large margin, supporters of capital punishment can and still will be able to point to the outcome as proof that most voters in most states still support the punishment of death for some murderers.

July 6, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Draft DNC party platform calls for abolition of death penalty ... which means?

In this post last week, I wondered whether it really mattered what the traditional political parties had to say about criminal justice issues in their party platforms.  But this latest platform news as reported by CNN from the Democratic National Committee will surely matter to those who are eager to see abolition of the death penalty in the United States:

Democrats are calling for an end to capital punishment.  The latest draft of the party's platform, released Friday, says the death penalty "has proven to be a cruel and unusual form of punishment" that "has no place in the United States of America."

The inclusion of the provision represents a victory of sorts for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders -- a longtime opponent of the punishment who has said he is remaining in the presidential race in order to fight for progressive causes.  Sanders offered mild praise for the platform Friday evening, tweeting, "The Democratic Platform includes some accomplishments that will begin to move this country in the right direction."

Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has supported the death penalty in the past, albeit on a limited basis, suggesting that there could be cases for "very limited use" of the punishment in "horrific" terrorist crimes.  She was confronted over the issue during a CNN-TV One town hall event in May by an exonerated former death row inmate who spent 39 years in jail for a murder he did not commit.

For a host of reasons, I would be very surprised to hear Hillary Clinton now express opposition to the death penalty for the likes of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or even Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof. Thus, it would seem the DNC is charting a path toward adopting a party platform that will not be fully embraced by its Prez nominee. And that, in turn, means .... I have no idea.

July 3, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Will party platforms include commitment to reduce mass incarceration (and does it really matter)?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Politico article , headlined "Civil rights groups push Dems, GOP to include sentencing reform in their platforms."  Here are excerpts:

An influential coalition of civil rights groups pushing for criminal justice reform is pressuring both the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee to include the issue in their respective party platforms this summer.

In a new letter, the organizations — including the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the Urban League and the Brennan Center for Justice — argue that after decades of pushing tougher crime laws, both Democrats and the GOP need a “bold break” toward policies aiming at easing incarceration rates.

“As you convene to set your respective policy agenda, we urge you to include reducing mass incarceration, while increasing public safety, as part of your party platforms,” the groups wrote in the letter, addressed to the respective party chairs and platform committee leaders and provided to POLITICO in advance of its release.

Among the policies called for by the pro-criminal justice reform groups: Revising sentencing laws so the “punishment is proportional to the crime and no longer than necessary to achieve rehabilitation and deterrence,” helping to reduce recidivism rates by promoting job training and educational programs for former inmates, and using federal funds to reward states for policies that reduce both the prison population and crime rates.  “While more is needed to fully achieve reform, including these measures in the platforms will signal a significant shift in national policy,” the organizations wrote.

Criminal justice reform has been a lingering issue in Washington, with both President Barack Obama and key Republican leaders in Congress saying they want to pass legislation overhauling sentencing laws and other prison reforms this year.  But the issue has also been a divisive one, particularly within the Senate Republican Conference, and its prospects are growing dimmer -- particularly in a contentious election year.

June 25, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, June 03, 2016

Former House Speaker (and future Trump running-mate?) Newt Gingrich helps make the case for "raising the age" for adult prosecutions

Regular readers know that Newt Gingrich has become a notable and frequent "right on crime" commentator calling for all sorts of criminal justice reforms in all sorts of settings.  And here we have another example:  this new commentary authored by Gingrich and Pat Nolan, headlined "Don’t train kids to be felons in adult jails," makes the case for limiting the prosecution of teenagers as adults in Louisiana.  Here are excerpts: 

The noted “tough on crime” criminologist John Dilulio once commented that “jailing youth with adult felons under Spartan conditions will merely produce more street gladiators.” Louisiana should heed Dilulio’s caution against locking up young petty criminals alongside violent adult criminals. The Bayou State is one of only nine states that prosecutes 17-year-olds as adults, often for the most minor of crimes (stealing a bag of potato chips, for instance).

We all can agree that breaking the law is wrong and that these teens deserve to face consequences for their actions. But tossing them into adult jails with hardened criminals just makes those bad situations worse. The research and data are clear: Adult jails are no place for teenagers, who with the help and guidance of parents are likely able to turn their lives around.

Placing youngsters in adult jails makes them more likely to be victims of rape and assault, and more likely to commit suicide. They also are likely to learn a lot more about leading a life of crime from the hardened criminals. There is a lot of truth in the notion that jails and prisons are graduate schools of crime.

In addition, the damage of this policy continues long after they are released. By treating teens differently from the majority of the country, Louisiana makes it harder for them to grow into successful adults....

Fortunately, the Legislature is working on a bill to “Raise the Age” of juvenile jurisdiction. It would assign most 17-year-olds who commit offenses to the juvenile justice system, where they would be held accountable, continue their schooling, learn critical skills and be prepared to live productive and healthy lives as law-abiding members of society. Prosecutors still would be free to choose to prosecute youth accused of more serious offenses as adults....

Raising the age would make society safer and stronger by doing away with the destructive “one-size-fits-all punishment” system we have now. Adult jails and prisons can turn teens into career criminals, and taxpayers are stuck with the bill. By raising the age of how we punish and reform young people who make minor mistakes, Louisiana will help these kids turn their lives around, will make neighborhoods safer and in the process will save taxpayers money. This is being smart on crime.

As the headline of this post highlights, I think Gingrich's continued advocacy for all sort of criminal justice reform is especially notable and important in light of the fact that he name is being brought up repeatedly as a possible running mate for GOP Prez nominee Donald Trump.  As detailed in a number of posts linked below, Gingrich has had his name on many commentaries in the last few years vocally supporting a wide array of modern state and federal sentencing reform efforts.  If Trump were in fact to select Gingrich as his running mate, I would have to rethink my belief (and fear) that the Trump campaign will be actively opposing most criminal justice reform efforts.

Prior related posts about Gingrich's criminal justice reform advocacy:

June 3, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Are there really now lots more conservatives in lots of states "starting to question the cost and legality of capital punishment"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new short Governing article with this full headline: "The Death Penalty’s New Skeptics: In states across the country, conservatives are starting to question the cost and legality of capital punishment."  Here are excerpts from the article:

It’s a government program that is prone to error, marred by long delays and far more expensive than alternative policies.  So it may be little wonder that the death penalty keeps attracting new opposition. But it’s surprising where some of that opposition is coming from. 

Over the past decade, the death penalty has been abolished in seven states. Most of those are dominated by Democrats. But the most recent is deeply conservative Nebraska, where lawmakers overrode Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of an abolition bill last year.  Other red states are revisiting the issue as well.   A bill to abolish the death penalty fell short by a single vote in a Kentucky House committee this year, while similar legislation actually passed the Utah Senate before failing in the House.  Last year, the Montana House killed an abolition bill on a tie vote.  A few months later, a judge there imposed a moratorium on executions, citing the difficulty of obtaining appropriate drugs for lethal injection -- an issue that has put capital punishment on hold in several states.  Litigation over delayed or botched executions compounds problems with meting out the penalty.  “Our death penalty is a joke,” Republican state Rep. Clayton Fiscus said during the debate.

The average death row inmate can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year more to house than run-of-the-mill criminals.  Prisoners who are executed can cost upward of $1 million more than those sentenced to life without possibility of parole.  “This is a program that’s so bad, the left and right can actually agree on it,” says Marc Hyden, a former field representative with the National Rifle Association who now works for an advocacy group called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty....

[I]t’s indisputable that the growing corps of death penalty skeptics now includes many conservatives.  There are enough Republican legislators in Washington state ready to join with Democrats that a repeal measure there could pass, if a key committee chair would allow it to come to a vote.  “Many of us conservatives don’t trust government to launch a health-care program or fill potholes, let alone carry out life and death,” Hyden says.  “It’s the quintessential broken big-government program.”

I would not dispute that a few prominent GOP elected officials in a few states that have never had a long history of active and effective use of the death penalty may ultimately conclude (as did some in the Nebraska legislature) that it makes more sense to end rather than try to mend a rarely-applied punishment. But I do not believe any of the 17 persons who sought the GOP nomination for Prez this year had ever expressed any reservation about the death penalty either in theory or in practice.

June 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Highlighting just some of the ways that "Democratic Leadership Is Missing In Action on Mass Incarceration"

Election_donkey3The quoted portion of this post's title comes from this new commentary at The Nation authored by Inimai Chettiar and Ames Grawert. The piece carries the subheading "Sentencing reform will be a compromise between moderate and conservative Republicans, unless Democrats finally come to the table," and here are extended excerpts:

Even though it now looks like Americans will be deprived the drama of a contested Republican convention, the gathering in Cleveland could hold at least one surprise.  The Republicans are set to vote on an RNC resolution to reduce mass incarceration.  The measure asks for “reforms for nonviolent offenders at the state and federal level” and urges “state legislators and Congress to…provide substance abuse treatment to addicts, emphasize work and education, and implement policies that cut costs while obtaining better outcomes.”

Finally, Democrats may say, Republicans have woken up to mass incarceration as a 21st-century civil-rights struggle, joining what has for years been a progressive fight.  Not so fast. If the Republican Party makes criminal justice reform a priority, they’ll be the first major party to do so, ever.  Democrats need to catch up. Adding ending mass incarceration to their own platform would mark a significant step, boldly breaking with their past politics.

So what have the Democrats said about criminal justice?  Recent Democratic platforms haven’t merely been silent; they have actually called for policies creating more imprisonment, and then applauded the result.  Mentions of progressive alternatives are hard to find.

In 1992, Democrats supported alternatives to incarceration, such as “community service and boot camps for first-time offenders.” But four years later the platform went in the opposite direction. It praised mandatory “three-strikes-you’re-out” laws, truth-in-sentencing provisions that limited earned early release, and “$8 billion in new funding to help states build new prison cells.”  At the turn of the century, the party still championed “tougher punishments” as a way to fix “an overburdened justice system that lets thugs off easy,” and applauded federal funding for “new prison cells” as a major success story (a clear nod to the 1994 Crime Bill, which paid states to increase imprisonment).

More recently, in 2008 and 2012, the DNC approved language supporting “local prison-to-work programs” aimed at “making citizens safer and saving the taxpayers money,” and noting the importance of “fight[ing] inequalities in our criminal justice system.” But neither platform made any mention of sentencing reform, or reducing the number of criminal laws, even as the US incarceration rate topped the world and some states reversed course on their “tough-on-crime” policies.

This year’s Democratic presidential candidates have broken with this legacy. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have prominently featured prison reform in their campaigns and vocally noted that the 1994 Crime Bill, which they both supported, went too far.

Yet Democrats still lag behind. Today’s movement to end mass incarceration has largely been led by Republicans. If the federal Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act passes Congress, advocates will have Republican Senators Mike Lee (Utah) and John Cornyn (Texas) to thank for courting support for the bill and hammering out compromises with the party’s most conservative members. At the state level, Republican Governors Rick Perry in Texas and Nathan Deal in Georgia fought for and signed laws that led to sharp reductions in the prison population. In Ohio, Governor John Kasich championed and signed legislation in 2011 to expand the use of treatment in lieu of prison.

In announcing the Republican National Committee resolution to end mass incarceration, RNC member Tom Mechler claimed that “Republicans are the ones that have taken the lead on this.” That’s no idle boast — he’s right. So where are the Democrats?

A few Democrats have stepped up to champion the cause, such as Senators Dick Durbin, Corey Booker, and Patrick Leahy. But the senior party leadership — Senator Harry Reid, Representative Nancy Pelosi, and DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz — have largely been mum. Other influential party voices, including Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer, have done the same. To be sure, Democrats may still be haunted by the ghost of Willie Horton and the fear of being branded as “soft on crime.” And some may believe that stoutly maintaining a belief in “law and order” will secure votes.

But times have changed. Now Democrats can point to Republicans such as Lee, Cornyn, Perry, and Kasich. Even law enforcement supports reform. These conservative voices now give Democrats cover to come out strongly on the issue. And, in the wake of a national protests to reform policing, Clinton and Sanders have energized parts of Democratic electorate — African-American communities and white liberals alike — on the issue. The consensus to reduce unnecessary imprisonment has arrived. But we will never see true reform until Democrats provide a solid left flank, so that compromise lands at the center, instead of to the right.....

Criminal justice reform should be a simple step for a party that believes in progress, equality, and inclusion. It was the Democrats who fought for civil rights in the last century. If the Democrats do not raise their voice, history will record that it was the Republicans who led the civil-rights struggle in this one.

Though I am pleased to see this piece calling out failings of Democratic Party leaders like Senator Harry Reid, Representative Nancy Pelosi, and DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz, this commentary still strikes me as many days too late and many dollars short. First and foremost, where is the needed criticisms of the Clintons and the Obamas, who are and seem likely to remain for some time the four most important Democratic leaders? Regular readers know I lay particular blame on the Clintons not only for consistently moving to the right on criminal justice issues for crass (and racialized) political benefits in the 1990s, but particularly for not being involved in helping to swinging the pendulum back when mass incarceration became an obvious problem in the following decade and Justice Reinvestment movements could have used an extra boost from the mainstream left. But I also blame the Obamas: the Prez (and lawyer and constitutiuonal scholar) certaintly could have and should have invested more time, energy and political capital on an array of "low-hanging" federal sentencing reform opportunities during his first Term; the First Lady (also a lawyer) perhaps could have and should have incorporated discussion of criminal justice reform into her advocacy for healthy families, service members and their families and higher education.

Second, as especially critical right now, this piece (and many others) ought to be aggressively attacking Prez Obama and other Democrats for being resistent to the federal mens rea reform that Republicans want to see included in sentencing reform efforts. I continue to be both annoyed and deeply disappointed that an issue like mens rea reform, which should be a cause championed by true liberals, has become a critical impediment to getting a sound and needed federal sentencing reform bill through Congress. I have long suspected and feared that sentencing reform would not get done this year absent Prez Obama and other Democrats being willing to work toward sound and needed mens rea reform, and yet it does not appear any real efforts are being made by anyone on the D side of the aisle.

And do not get me started on the failure of federal Democratic Leadership to see the extraordinary opportunities that state-level marijuana reforms has created in recent years for remaking the modern federal war-on-drugs narrative.  As long time readers may know, I consider effective federal and state marijuana reforms to be a critically important front in the battle against mass incarceration, and one that should have even more long-term potential and impact than modest federal sentencing reforms discussed in Congress.  But, short-sighted and fixed in their own dated views of political realities, establishment Democrats have now an impressively long record of mistakes and missed opportunities in this arena.  Sigh.

May 31, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Despite a quarter-century being "tough," Hillary Clinton still attacked by Donald Trump as soft-on-violent-crime

As regular readers surely know, the "Clinton record" on crime and punishment issues has many elements and nuances.  See, e.g., this post from last month titled "The many challenges of a fully nuanced understanding of the Clintons, crime, punishment and the 1994 Crime Bill."  That said, one can still generally summarize the Clintons in general, and Hillary Clinton in particular, as having been significantly "tougher" than nearly all other Democrats and even tougher than a great many GOP elected officials over the last quarter century on a long list of sentencing issues ranging from the death penalty to mass incarceration to juvenile punishments to federal crack sentencing.

But Donald Trump has used the 2016 election season to demostrate time and time again that a lengthy past record can matter a heck of a lot less than a catchphrase and fiery rhetoric, and thus I was not surprised to see this New York Times headline emerge after Trump's speech yesterday to the NRA: "Donald Trump Tells N.R.A. Hillary Clinton Wants to Let Violent Criminals Go Free." Here is the context and basis for this headline:

“Crooked Hillary Clinton is the most anti-gun, anti-Second Amendment candidate ever to run for office,” he said. Mrs. Clinton has called for tightened restrictions on guns, but not for abolishing the right to own them.

Mr. Trump, whose record of sexist remarks, among other things, has left him at a potentially crippling disadvantage among female voters, polls show, appealed directly to women in his speech, imbuing his defense of gun rights with an undercurrent of fear.

“In trying to overturn the Second Amendment, Hillary Clinton is telling everyone — and every woman living in a dangerous community — that she doesn’t have the right to defend herself,” Mr. Trump said. “So you have a woman living in a community, a rough community, a bad community — sorry, you can’t defend yourself.”

If Mr. Trump’s comments seemed reminiscent of an era when crime rates were far higher — the Willie Horton ads attacking Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic nominee, in the 1988 presidential race came to mind — they also appeared somewhat at odds with the broad bipartisan consensus on the need to reduce incarceration rates and prison populations: Mr. Trump sought to frighten voters about the idea of criminals being released from prison.

He said Mrs. Clinton’s agenda was “to release the violent criminals from jail,” freeing them to roam the streets and put “innocent Americans at risk.” He even tried out a new epithet for Mrs. Clinton: “heartless Hillary.”

I consider to be Donald Trump to be an especially shrewd political figure because he seems to have stronger instincts than a number of other GOP figures as to how best to refine the rhetorical packaging of social issues in ways that can energize the GOP base without unduly locking himself into positions from which he can effectively pivot when seeking to appeal to more moderate and independent voters. Talking about women needing the Second Amendment as a means to have access to guns for self-defense in urban areas shows off his political deftness, as does his eagerness to assert (without any firm basis) that Hillary Clinton wants to release "violent criminals."  By including the term "violent" here, Trump will still be able to eventually express support for some "non-violent" sentencing reforms.

(For the record, I expect that in an effort to make nice with various members of the GOP estabishment in Congress, Trump will at some point in the next few months express some support for some modest federal drug sentencing, civil forfeiture, and mens rea reforms.  In the wake of this NRA speech, I would expect Trump, aided by crime-and-punishment-focused folks on his team like Senator Jeff Session and Chris Christie, to eventually say the federal government can and should follow the lead of reform-oriented southern states like Texas and Georgia, but do so only after we take steps to address illegal immigration and eliminate federal gun restrictions (and perhaps ramp up the federal death penalty).  In this context, I find notable this recent Washington Examiner commentary authored by Grover Norquist and Adam Brandon which carries the headline "Congress' new bills show how conservatives are still tough on crime."  This headline suggests that conservatives are coming to see that they can and likely need to preserve their "tough-on-crime" brand as part of efforts to promote sentencing reforms.)

A few prior related posts:

May 21, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

"Criminal Justice: The Real Reasons for Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new National Review commentary authored by Vikrant Reddy, a senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute. The piece's subheadline highlights its themes: "There’s no reason to exaggerate the need for it; the true state of affairs is bad enough."  And here is how the piece starts and ends:

For all public-policy ideas, there are good arguments and there are bad arguments. The bad arguments sometimes carry flash and sizzle, but they should be resisted. Criminal-justice reform — an issue many prominent conservatives have begun to champion — is particularly rife with bad arguments, but that is no reason to ignore the good ones. In a recent piece in RealClearPolicy, the conservative writer Sean Kennedy expertly filleted some of the worst arguments made by overzealous criminal-justice reformers on both the left and the right.  But his takedown was not an argument against thoughtful reform efforts that have improved public safety, saved taxpayer dollars, and advanced individual dignity....

The broadly accepted view among criminologists is that incarceration does bring down crime rates, but it is a tool with diminishing marginal returns.  At a certain point, if the goal is to decrease crime, each additional tax dollar is better spent on law enforcement and prevention.  Indeed, there is even a point at which incarceration becomes criminogenic, causing more crime than it stops.  This happens because, as noted above, some petty criminals spend lengthy stints in prison and emerge with limited reentry options and having learned more bad habits.

The upshot of all of this is simple. First, whether or not America has the world’s highest incarceration rate, it certainly has a rate vastly higher than that of any comparable Western democracy. Second, a slight majority of the prison population consists of violent offenders, but this is hardly an argument for ignoring criminal-justice reforms that would (1) reduce the number of non-violent offenders behind bars and (2) better direct resources at preventing violent crime.  Finally, reformers should not forget that our high rates of incarceration, in certain ways, make society less safe, and public-safety considerations must be central to any discussion of criminal-justice reform.

Those are the good arguments in support of criminal-justice reform — and they remain good arguments even when some are making weak arguments.

Of course, not everyone who gets published in the National Review is advocating for sentencing reforms, as evidence by these other two notable recent pieces to be found there:

"Why Trump Should Oppose ‘Criminal-Justice Reform’" by Jeffrey Anderson

"Criminals are unicorns: And that’s why it is so difficult to stop them" by Kevin Williamson

May 19, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

So who would you like to see on Prez candidate Donald Trump's SCOTUS shortlist?

The question in the title of this post came to mind upon seeing this new National Review commentary by Jim Geraghty headlined "Where Is Trump’s Supreme Court Shortlist?".  Here are excerpts:

Back on March 21, Donald Trump, sensing there was some conservative anxiety about whom he would nominate to the Supreme Court, promise to compile and release a list of five to ten “great conservative judges” with “great intellects.”

“I will guarantee that those are going to be the first judges that I put up for nomination if I win,” Trump said. “And that should solve that problem.”  It’s mid-May now, Senate Republicans are holding the line against hearings or a confirmation vote on President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, and there remains no sign that a list of potential Trump nominees is forthcoming.

Trump’s handling of the Supreme Court question is worrisome on three fronts. First, there is the simple failure to deliver on a public promise....

Second, he gives little indication he’s spent more than a few minutes thinking about who would make a good pick for the Court, or about the role of the judiciary in our government....

Third, there’s little sign that Trump or anyone around him grasps how important and consequential the issue of judicial appointees is, or how much good it would do him to reassure Republicans who aren’t jumping on board the bandwagon. If there were a way to be absolutely certain that Trump would appoint two, three, or four Antonin Scalia clones during his presidency, a lot of Trump-skeptic conservatives might immediately see one giant reason to vote for him.  If nothing else, they could rest easy knowing that the Second Amendment wouldn’t be effectively nullified or curtailed, that Citizens United would remain the law of the land, that voter-ID laws would be upheld, and that pro-lifers could continue to make progress in the courts....

And that’s the real tragedy of Trump’s rise: At a time when the future of the issues most vital to conservatives is more tied to the Court’s composition than ever before, the Republican party is about to nominate a man who inspires little confidence in conservatives.  There are still actions he can take to help allay conservative concerns, and there’s still time for him to take them.  But if he does, all evidence suggests it will be because they’re in his own best interests rather than the nation’s.  Though it’s less than ideal, getting the right outcomes for the wrong reasons may be the best we can hope for now.

For a number of reasons, sentencing fans should be very interested in who will become the next Supreme Court Justice, and it is seemingly becoming more and more likely that it Justice Scalia's replacement will not be Judge Garland (at least not in 2016 before Election Day).  And though I am not through this post trying to make any predictions about who is likely to be the next President, I can confidently predict that the next person nominating federal judges (both to SCOTUS and to lower courts) will have a "yuge" impact on the future of all sorts of sentencing jurisprudence.

So, dear SL&P readers, if you had The Donald's ear, what names would you whisper to him if and whenever he starts thinking seriously about judicial nominations?

UPDATE:  Seemingly only a few minutes after I put up this post, Trump did release his SCOTUS shortlist. This AP article provides these details:

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, released Wednesday a list of 11 potential Supreme Court justices he plans to vet to fill the seat of late Justice Antonin Scalia if he's elected to the White House.

The list of conservative federal and state judges includes Steven Colloton of Iowa, Allison Eid of Colorado and Raymond Gruender of Missouri. Also on the list are: Thomas Hardiman of Pennsylvania, Raymond Kethledge of Michigan, Joan Larsen of Michigan, Thomas Lee of Utah, William Pryor of Alabama, David Stras of Minnesota, Diane Sykes of Wisconsin and Don Willett of Texas. Trump had previously named Pryor and Sykes as examples of kind of justices he would choose....

In a statement, Trump said the list "is representative of the kind of constitutional principles I value" and said that, as president, he would use it "as a guide to nominate our next United States Supreme Court Justices." His campaign stressed the list was compiled "first and foremost, based on constitutional principles, with input from highly respected conservatives and Republican Party leadership."...

Apart from Sykes, who is 58, the others all are younger than 55 and David Stras is just 41. The eight men and three women on the list are all white.

As a commentor below has aleady suggested, I am disappointed (but not suprised) that there does not appear to be any person with a history as a criminal defense attorney on this list. But I am excited to see Judge Pryor on the list due to his thoughtful sentencing writings and his recent experiences as a member of the US Sentencing Commission (as well as my pleasant interactions with him).

May 18, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

An effective accounting of why "Sentencing Reform is Seriously Stuck"

The quoted portion of the title of this post is from the headline of this effective new Roll Call commentary authored by David Hawkings, and it carries this astute subheadline "Presidential politics, poison pills and attack ads threaten hopes for bipartisan accord." Here are excerpts:

For more than 18 months, a rewrite of laws governing federal criminal punishments has been touted as the exception that was going to prove the rule: An effort that had so galvanized both conservatives and liberals that it would become one of the few memorable policy achievements of the current Congress.  Well, the rule has held true about the deadlocked-by-polarization Capitol becoming only more so in the sessions before a presidential election. But the exception, by fits and starts, is growing ever less likely to be exceptional.

“Sentencing reform,” as it’s known on the Hill, is seriously stuck.  On the surface, it may not appear that way.  Just offstage, there’s a fundamental impasse that looks as if it can only be broken if one sitde caves in, thereby imperiling the highly unusual bipartisan coalition that has been the issue’s signature feature.

Complicating matters further, there are solid presidential and congressional campaign rationales for a deal, but also political arguments in opposition being at least as forcefully expressed. All this is on clearest display in the Senate, where the legislation looks to be riding a little wave of momentum but may be close to publicly coming off the rails – buffeted by anxieties about Willie Horton on the right and anger at Wall Street greed on the left....

[T]here’s a decent chance the [latest revised sentencing reform] bill will come to the floor this summer, assuming the appropriations process inevitably seizes up and there no longer is the need to devote the Senate’s time to spending bills.

Along the way, the measure is going to face one assault from powerful Republicans determined to kill it outright, and another from Republicans willing to love it to death. Ted Cruz of Texas, who returned to the Capitol this week vowing to press ahead with the combative outsider tone of his presidential campaign, and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the first senator to endorse de facto GOP nominee Donald Trump, are leading the lambasting of the bill as going way too soft on crime.

A floor debate would give Cruz an opportunity to put his scorched-earth style for opposing legislation back on C-SPAN display.  And though Trump has not taken an explicit position on the bill, his many authoritarian statements suggest he’ll take Sessions’ advice and come out emphatically against it – especially if his likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, who’s become newly critical of “mass incarceration,” decides to endorse the bill. So it’s quite easy to envision law-and-order groups producing 30-second TV spots, evocative of the legendary Willie Horton ad from the 1988 presidential campaign, chiding even the GOP backers of the bill as pro-drug-dealer criminal justice weaklings.

The other big obstacle, which might prove even more problematic, goes by the much nerdier label, mens rea.  That Latin phrase, which translates as “guilty mind,” is law school shorthand for the way prosecutors are sometimes required to prove a defendant’s criminal intent in order to obtain a conviction. Under federal law, many categories of behavior are crimes only when the accused know what they’re doing is wrong and do it anyway – but some actions can bring convictions and imprisonment whether or not there’s any willful criminal intent.

Many influential Republicans, urged on by their business allies and such conservative fundraising forces as the Koch brothers, are eager to apply a blanket mens rea requirement across the federal criminal code.  They say the government has too much power to convict companies and their executives without having to prove any criminal intent. And they are eyeing the sentencing overhaul bill as their best available vehicle for getting the job done.

Lawmakers and activists from the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party deride this proposal as a thinly veiled effort to deliver a permission slip for more “What, me worry?” sketchy behavior to the same sort of bad actors in the corporate and investment worlds who melted down the economy eight years ago.  These liberal forces, too, have the ability to produce punchy campaign commercials targeting those in Congress who go along.

Even if the bill gets through the Senate without having to swallow the mens rea poison pill, top Republicans in the House are insisting that sentencing legislation will only move if it’s lashed together with their efforts to expand the need to prove criminal intent. The Obama administration argues the opposite, that the only way to sign a bill on sentencing this year is to negotiate protections for unwitting white collar criminals on a separate track.

One again this campaign season, it’s the small clusters of combative voices at the edges that are likely to have more power than any collaborative majority in the middle.

Not only does this piece effectively detail all the ways in which and reasons when the revised SRCA might not make it through the legislative process over the next six month, it also hints at an intriguing and perhaps disconcerting reality that for me has now emerged: GOP Prez front-running Donald Trump is now perhaps the political power-player with the greatest opportunity to "unstick" the SRCA.

If GOP Prez candidate Trump were to make nice to certain key GOP leaders like Paul Ryan and Chuck Grassley and John Cornyn (not to mention key GOP funders like the Koch brothers) by getting seriously and vocally behind the significant sentencing reform efforts by the "establishment right" (with or without mens rea reform), then I would increase my optimism about the odds of these reforms becoming a reality. But if Trump stays mum on this front, or especially if prodded by folks like Jeff Sessions and Chris Christie to oppose any reforms, I think the 2016 campaign dynamics will come to doom reform at least until we get to the lame duck period.

A few 2016 related posts:

May 12, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Candidate Clinton promises to "institute gender-responsive policies in the federal prison system and encourage states to do the same"

Ap_clinton_lb_151013_12x5_1600Yesterday in this post I sought readers' perspectives on whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would likely end up being a "better" sentencing President. Perhaps realizing I am not the only wondering on this front, today CNN published this notable new commentary authored by Hillary Clinton under the headline "Women and prison -- the cost in money and lives." Here are some extended excerpts (with one sentence emphasized):

Mass incarceration has torn families apart, impoverished communities, and kept too many Americans from living up to their God-given potential.  But mass incarceration's impact on women and their families has been particularly acute — and it doesn't get the attention it deserves....

The United States' prison and jail population includes 215,000 women — nearly one-third of all female prisoners worldwide, and 800% more women than were in prison four decades ago.  African-American women are more than twice as likely to be in prison than white women.

But women aren't the only ones affected when they are sent to prison.  The high number of women in prison — and the long lengths of their sentences — destabilizes families and communities, especially their children.  Since 1991, the number of children with a mother in prison has more than doubled. Mothers in prison are five times more likely than fathers in prison to have to put their children in foster care while they serve their sentences.

We can't go on like this. It is time we reform our broken criminal justice system.  First, we need to reform policing practices, end racial profiling, and eradicate racial disparities in sentencing.  Second, we need to promote alternatives to incarceration, particularly for nonviolent and first-time offenders, so families aren't broken up.  We need to improve access to high-quality treatment for substance abuse, inside and outside the prison system, because drug and alcohol addiction is a disease, not a crime — and we need to treat it as such.

And third, we need to be deliberate about understanding the different paths that can land women in prison, be more attentive to women's unique needs while they are incarcerated, and do more to support women and their families once they are released.  I will institute gender-responsive policies in the federal prison system and encourage states to do the same — because women follow different paths to crime than men, and face different risks and challenges both inside and outside the prison walls, and every part of the justice system, from sentencing to the conditions of confinement to re-entry services, should reflect women's unique needs. 

Research shows that women's relationships ... are often a significant risk factor for becoming involved with the justice system. Most women in prison are there because of nonviolent drug or property crimes.  Over 60% of them report drug dependence or abuse in the year before they went to prison. Many of them grew up in abusive households ... and they are more likely than men in prison to have experienced sexual abuse or trauma in their life before prison.

And too often, a woman and her children continue to live with the consequences even after she has served her time and paid her debt to society.  Because formerly incarcerated people face limited job opportunities, an entire family is effectively punished by a woman's time in prison.  "Banning the box" — preventing an employer from asking about criminal history at the initial application stage, so that individuals have a chance to compete for jobs on a fair basis — is a necessary and important step, but it isn't enough.  In addition to job training and interview coaching, women returning to their communities after years behind bars need safe housing for themselves and their children, continuity of health care, and above all a supportive community....

Women and the families they support are being crushed by a criminal justice system that costs far too much — in state and federal budgets, and in lives derailed and economic opportunity lost — without making us safer.  Too often, people are prejudiced against the formerly incarcerated — in employment, in housing, in everyday interactions.  We say we are a nation of second chances — and it's time that we act like it.

I am, generally speaking, quite supportive of "gender-responsive policies" in our criminal justice systems, particularly because there are lots of evidence-based reasons for viewing (and sentencing) most female offenders as much lesser threats to public safety than most male offenders.  That said, I am not entirely sure what specific sentencing laws and prison policies need to be changed dramatically in federal and state systems in order to make them more "gender-responsive."  Should (and legally could) a Prez Clinton institute an executive order providing that federal resources earmarked for prison treatment and post-prison reentry programs must be used first for all female federal offenders before any male offenders have access to these programs?

April 28, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Seeking serious, sober, sophisticated substantive analysis: would Clinton or Trump be a "better" sentencing President?

After last night's primary results, I have resolved myself to the less-than-thrilling prospect of being presented in November with a Prez voting choice between Hillary R. Clinton and Donald J. Trump.  On some issues unrelated to criminal justice systems, it likely will be easy to figure out which candidate is more likely to pursue (and achieve) policy developments that are more to my liking as a (moderate?) libertarian.  But, as the question in the title of this post is meant to suggest, I am genuinely unsure whether Clinton or Trump would end up being a "better" sentencing President.  (I have put the term "better" in quotes here because I fully recognize that lots of different people have lots of different views about what makes for a good President on sentencing issues; I hope thoughtful folks with lots of different prespectives will chime in.)

Back in 2008, I believed that then-candidate Barack Obama would prove to be a "better" sentencing President than Hillary Clinton or John McCain.  (A big factor in this judgment was not just the Clintons' criminal justice track record, but especially Hillary's worrisome opposition to retroactive implementation of the small reduction in crack guideline sentences that the US Sentencing Commission completed in 2007.)  In April 2012, based in part on the fact that Prez Obama did not live up to my hopes during his first term, I wrote this Daily Beast commentary making the point that "given policy and practical developments of recent years, there’s a good argument to be made that a President Romney could prove to be more likely to make real and long-term reforms to American criminal justice."  In that commentary, I urged then-candidate Romney to "embrace what Right On Crime calls the 'conservative case' for criminal-justice reform, and in doing so appeal to groups of independent and minority voters (especially young ones) while demonstrating a true commitment to some core conservative values about the evils of big government."

Of course, Romney did not take my advice (and lost), and Prez Obama has proven much more committed to working on sentencing issues during the second half of his second term.  Still, perhaps ironically, I think a Prez Romney would have ended up supporting AND getting enacted the kinds of federal statutory sentencing reforms that have been bogged down in Congress in recent years.  I say this based in part on legislative reforms in the states, including my own Ohio: states led by GOP govs have generally been more inclined to enact significant legislative sentencing reforms.

I set this all out because I genuinely think, no matter what your vision of "better" sentencing, it is now time to start some serious, sober and sophisticated substantive assessments what kind of sentencing President Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump might prove to be.  In many ways, both seem to me to be comparable (and annoying) enigmas on sentencing law and policy: in the past, both have generally said only whatever seemed politically useful at the time of their statements; in the future, both are sure to face challenges getting Congress to enact whatever criminal justice reform agendas they might want to pursue.  So, I hope anyone who care a lot about these issues will help me try to start a robust, rigorous conversation on this front.  

(For the record, I expect that, after nominations and party platforms become official this summer, I will do a series of Clinton vs. Trump posts on specific sentencing issues like the death penalty, clemency, and drug/white-collar sentencing.)

April 27, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, April 25, 2016

Republican National Committee adopts resolution urging criminal justice reform in Congress

Rnc-logoThis Daily Signal article, headlined "Republican Leaders Throw Weight Behind Prison Reform," reports on a notable development during the RNC's Spring Meeting in Florida last week.  Here are the details:

The Republican National Committee [on Friday] adopted a resolution in support of reforming the nation’s criminal justice laws, in a significant sign of bipartisan consensus to undo mass incarceration in America. In the one-page resolution, obtained by The Daily Signal, the RNC commends conservative-led states that have adopted policies to reduce their prison populations — such as Texas, Alabama, and Georgia — and urged Congress to act as well.

“This is the Republican Party coming together and saying criminal justice reform is an issue that needs to be addressed, and I think it’s sending a message that the RNC wants to make certain Congress has this as one of its top priorities,” said Telly Lovelace, the Republican National Committee’s director for urban media.

Lovelace added: "It’s the first time the RNC has taken a significant step like this on criminal justice reform, as the issue is sweeping the country, with conservative states leading the way in adopting policies to deal with it. Criminal justice reform is an issue that impacts all Americans, no matter which part of the country they live in."

The RNC’s official position supporting prison reform was one of 10 resolutions announced to committee members today during the national GOP organization’s spring meeting in Hollywood, Fla.... Each resolution is voted on by nine committee members, including RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.

Criminal justice reform is thought to be one of the few areas where Congress and President Barack Obama can work together to enact a substantive law during a contentious election year. Both the Republican-led House and Senate judiciary committees have advanced legislation that would shorten prison sentences for low-level nonviolent drug offenders and allow well-behaved inmates to earn time off their prison terms.

But on the Senate side, some conservatives have argued that the Judiciary Committee’s proposal would allow violent felons the chance to be released from prison early. The bill’s authors, including Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have fought that characterization. They recently made revisions to the legislation to satisfy critics.

Mark Holden, a top lawyer at Koch Industries, one of the biggest proponents of criminal justice reform on the conservative side, says he hopes the Republican National Committee’s resolution pushes skeptical conservatives in Congress to support the effort. “The RNC position makes it clear that Republicans can and should continue to lead on this critically important issue as they have for the past several years,” Holden told The Daily Signal in an emailed statement...

In its resolution, the RNC notes that the federal prison population, over which Congress has jurisdiction, increased 734 percent from 1980 to 2015, while taxpayer dollar spending on the prison system spiked 595 percent in that same period. The resolution states that taxpayers “are not receiving the public safety return they deserve because lengthy prison terms increase recidivism rates for low-level offenders.”

In addition to supporting treatment options for drug addicts, and other policies to reduce the number of re-offenders, the RNC calls for “mens rea” reform. That would require prosecutors to prove that certain criminal suspects knowingly intended to break the law.

The text of this resolution does not yet appear to be posted on the RNC's website, but I will post it once it becomes available.

April 25, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

"The Prison Reformer Who Champions Ted Cruz"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Ozy article about a notable supporter of Senator Ted Cruz, who also has played a bit role in sentencing reform in Maryland.  Here is how it starts:

Michael Hough’s statehouse digs are filled with awards — from the American Conservative Union here, the Leadership Institute there.  You can’t miss the gold-framed Declaration of Independence, the old George W. Bush campaign sign or the NRA logo carpet outside the state senator’s office.  The photo of him and Ted Cruz glad-handing isn’t shocking, either, since Hough’s leading the presidential candidate’s primary efforts here in Maryland.  What’s more surprising: the picture next to it — of Hough and his wife, posing with another White House hopeful.  “My wife likes Donald,” the father of three says, painfully.

What’s a state campaign chairman to do?  Hough’s received high praise as “a respected conservative leader” from Cruz himself, though the 36-year-old lawmaker faces not just a divided home, but a divided state — one that could go the way of his wife if polls hold true during Maryland’s primary on Tuesday. It’s just one of many apparent contradictions. Bespectacled with a slick, Cruz-ian comb-over, Hough today looks nothing like the long-haired rock star of his garage-band days. He’s an Air Force vet who never served outside Wyoming.  And while he plays the part of a bona fide guns-and-faith conservative well, Hough’s most significant work is in … compassionate prison reform?

The Justice Reinvestment Act — which eases sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenders and pushes offenders to treatment rather than prison — passed into law this month, in no small part thanks to Hough, who led the Republican efforts to craft it.  He’s also helped push through bills limiting civil asset forfeiture (“You had the ACLU and the prosecutors support it, which never happens,” he brags) and reforming police conduct and accountability — without being “antipolice,” Hough claims.  Popping open a Diet Coke, at just past 8 a.m., Hough calls the justice act the largest reform “in a generation” — and some experts agree it’s a doozy.

Yet, not everyone’s happy: “The Senate amended the life out of it,” the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform’s Pat Schenck tells OZY.  It’s something to build off of and “a once-in-a-lifetime bill,” says Keith Wallington of the Justice Policy Institute, if only because “Maryland has (historically) set the bar pretty low for justice reform.” And while an early proposal included a reduction in prisons and budget savings nearing $250 million over 10 years, the Senate version went down to “a paltry” $34 million, Wallington says. “That’s a little overblown,” Hough counters, though he agrees the budget savings in the final bill will be less than originally projected.

At first blush, this stalwart Republican seems like an unlikely advocate for addicts and rampant recidivists.  But while GOPers such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan birthed and expanded the war on drugs decades ago, red state leaders from Texas to Utah and Georgia have recently championed justice reform due to both compassionate conservatism and a response to “draconian laws” that proved costly yet rarely improved public safety, says Lauren Krisai with the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.  As a teen growing up with an alcoholic father, Hough knew the tug and pull of crime and addiction — the Nirvana fan got through those years fixing cars, dying his hair blond and red, and ignoring school to the tune of a 2.0 GPA — but as an adult he became an expert in addressing those problems.  “We over-criminalize everything,” says Hough, whose non-legislature job is as a senior policy adviser on criminal justice for the Faith & Freedom Coalition.  “This is where my Christianity and libertarianism come together.”

April 23, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Taking full stock of the Prez Clinton's punishment legacy by looking at PLRA (and AEDPA and ....)

Though I have enjoyed seeing the 1994 Clinton Crime bill getting lots and lots of attention recently (example here and here), there is so much more to legacy of the "Clinton years" to the full story of US punishment practices.  This new New Republic commentary, headlined "Another Clinton-Era Law that Needs to Be Repealed: The Prison Litigation Reform Act is still trampling on prisoners' legal rights," tells another piece of the story, and here are excerpts:

Signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 as a rider to the annual congressional appropriations bill, the PLRA laid waste to the ability of incarcerated people to bring prison officials to court for violations of their constitutional rights, whether it be racial discrimination, lack of medical care, or brutality by prison guards.  The act was championed as a solution to the thousands of supposed “frivolous lawsuits” by prisoners, with barely any discussion by Congress about its far-reaching effects.

Locked away, those in prison are easily demonized, unable to refute any exaggerations or myths created by those on the outside. One story publicly hyped by members of Congress leading up to the act’s passage had a prisoner filing suit after receiving crunchy peanut butter instead of creamy.  But when a federal judge researched the case later, he found that the issue wasn’t about that prisoner’s taste in condiments, but that the prisoner had never been reimbursed after returning the item.  The price of a jar of peanut butter might seem trivial to those of us on the outside, but most people in prison are poor and are often deeply in debt.  Plus, many prisons overcharge for simple items (the jar of peanut butter cost $2.50, significantly more than the average cost at the time).  Looking back, the PLRA did not solve a problem of “frivolous” litigation, rather it masked and discredited the legitimate claims of people with nowhere else to turn.

Since the PLRA became law, tremendous burdens have been placed on prisoners wishing to file suit for violations of their constitutional rights.  For example, one of the law’s provisions forces you to go through the prison’s administrative complaint procedures before bringing an actual lawsuit.  This can take months. Imagine a prisoner who is in pain and in need of medical treatment, but ignored by prison staff: She must not only file her complaint with the same staff that is denying her treatment, but wait for a refusal, appeal that decision, and only after a judgment on that appeal can she then file a legal case beyond prison walls.  By that time, it may be too late for a court to do anything.

As the title of this post is meant to suggestion, lots of other Clinton-era federal criminal laws and developments, particularly the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and Prez Clinton's decision to sign-on to Congress's rejection of the US Sentencing Commission's crack/powder amendment to equalize the guidelines, ought to be a continuing topic of conversation as we consider putting another Clinton in the White House this year.

Prior related posts:

April 19, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Continued compelling commentary on the Clintons, crime, punishment and the 1994 Crime Bill

In this post over the weekend, titled "The many challenge of a fully nuanced understanding the Clintons, crime, punishment and the 1994 Crime Bill," I highlighted nearly a dozen articles and commentary to stress that there are many nuances essential to a full understanding of just what the 1994 Crime Bill did (and did not) achieve, and just what has been the role and record of former Prez Bill Clinton (and Prez candidate Hillary Clinton) on criminal justice reforms past and present. And because these stories are so nuanced, and I glad we are continuing to see lots of worthy commentary on these fronts, such as these recent pieces from various sources:

I am very pleased to see this important 20-year-old story is getting some useful attention now as part of the 2016 campaign.  But, for a variety of reasons, I hope attention soon turns to the more recent (very mixed) records of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama on crime and punishment with focused questions to all the remaining 2016 candidates about whether, why and how they will be eager to continue or to change various modern federal criminal justice policies and practices.

April 13, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The many challenges of a fully nuanced understanding of the Clintons, crime, punishment and the 1994 Crime Bill

Blog_prison_population_crime_bill_0The notable interchange a few days ago between former Prez Bill Clinton and protestors (noted here) has brought renewed attention to the contributions of the 1994 "Clinton" Crime Bill to mass incarceration and the massive reduction in modern crime rates.  Like every other important criminal justice story, there is considerable nuance to fully understanding (1) just what the 1994 Crime Bill did (and did not do), and (2) just what this single piece of federal legislation has produced with respect to crime and punishment two decades later.  Also full of considerable nuance is the role and record of Prez Bill Clinton (and now Prez candidate Hillary Clinton) on criminal justice reforms past and present.

All the political, policy and practical dynamics of the Clintons' record and the 1994 Crime Bill justifies considerable scholarly commentary, and lots of important nuances cannot be fully captured by soundbites or brief blog postings. Nevertheless, I thought it might be useful here, in service to encouraging a richer understanding of all these matters, to collect below a number of notable commentaries I have seen that help highlight why any simple account of the Clintons, crime, punishment and the 1994 Crime Bill is likely to be simply wrong:

UPDATE:  Here is another recent addition to this list via the New York Times: "Prison Rate Was Rising Years Before 1994 Law"

April 10, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, National and State Crime Data, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Former Prez Clinton takes on protestors complaining about his tough-on-crime policies

This new Reuters article, headlined "Bill Clinton confronts protesters who say his crime reforms hurt blacks," reports on a notable exchange about crime and punishment involving former President Bill Clinton today. Here are the details:

Former President Bill Clinton faced down protesters angry at the impact his crime reforms of 20 years ago have had on black Americans and defended the record of Hillary Clinton, his wife, who is relying on the support of black voters in her quest for the presidency. The former president spent more than 10 minutes confronting the protesters at a campaign rally in Philadelphia for his wife on Thursday over criticisms that a 1994 crime bill he approved while president led to a surge in the imprisonment of black people....

In Philadelphia, several protesters heckled the former president mid-speech and held up signs, including one that read "CLINTON Crime Bill Destroyed Our Communities."

Video footage of Hillary Clinton defending the reforms in 1994 has been widely circulated during the campaign by activists in the Black Lives Matter protest movement. In the footage she calls young people in gangs "super-predators" who need to "be brought to heel." Hillary Clinton, 68, who also has faced protesters upset by her remarks, in February said she regretted her language.

Bill Clinton, 69, who was president from 1993-2001, on Thursday defended her 1994 remarks, which protesters say were racially insensitive, and suggested the protesters' anger was misplaced. "I don't know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children," he said, shaking his finger at a heckler as Clinton supporters cheered, according to video of the event. "Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She (Hillary Clinton) didn't."

"You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter," he told a protester. "Tell the truth."

Hillary Clinton promised to end "mass incarceration" in her first major speech of her campaign last year. She has won the support of the majority of black voters in every state nominating contest so far, often by a landslide....

Bill Clinton said last year that he regrets signing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act into law because it contributed to the country's high incarceration rate of black people for nonviolent crimes. On Thursday, he did not explicitly recant those regrets, but appeared to be angry at any suggestion the bill was wholly bad.

The legislation imposed tougher sentences, put thousands more police on the streets and helped fund the building of extra prisons. It was know for its federal "three strikes" provision that sent violent offenders to prison for life. The bill was backed by congressional Republicans and hailed at the time as a success for Clinton....

Bill Clinton's remarks on Thursday drew criticism online. Some saw him as dismissive of the Black Lives Matter movement, a national outgrowth of anger over a string of encounters in which police officers killed unarmed black people.

April 7, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Public concerns about crime and violence increases, justifiably, along with increasing crime rates

Fgroul1z306minwfhuphkwThis new report from Gallup, headlined "Americans' Concern About Crime Climbs to 15-Year High," details that it is not only politicians and researchers who have noticed that crime rates are up in recent years.  Here are the basic details:

Americans' level of concern about crime and violence is at its highest point in 15 years. Fifty-three percent of U.S. adults say they personally worry "a great deal" about crime and violence, an increase of 14 percentage points since 2014.  This figure is the highest Gallup has measured since March 2001.

Twenty-six percent of U.S. adults currently worry "a fair amount" about crime and violence, while 22% worry "only a little" or "not at all."

When Gallup first asked Americans about their level of concern regarding crime and violence in March 2001, 62% said they worried a great deal.  That figure remains the highest level of worry in Gallup's 15-year trend on this question. In the months leading up to 9/11, Americans consistently mentioned crime and violence as one of the most important problems facing the country in response to a separate Gallup question.  But after 9/11, crime and violence no longer appeared among the list of problems Americans identified as most important, with terrorism rising to the top.

In turn, the percentage saying they personally worry about crime and violence plunged to 49% by March 2002.  Crime worry remained at a lower level over the next decade, as Americans named other issues such as the situation in Iraq, terrorism, the economy, dissatisfaction with government and healthcare as the most important problems facing the country.  After falling to a record-low 39% in 2014, worry about crime and violence increased in 2015 and 2016.

The rise in Americans' level of concern about crime could reflect actual, albeit modest, increases in crime, as well as increasing media coverage of it.  The number of violent crimes reported to police across the country in the first half of 2015 was up by 1.7% compared with the same period in 2014, according to the FBI's 2015 Uniform Crime Report.  Many large U.S. cities reported spikes in their homicide rates in 2015, including Milwaukee, St. Louis, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. From a long-term perspective, though, violent crime is down significantly since the 1990s.

April 7, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Disconcerting report on the (declining?) state of federal statutory sentencing reform efforts in Congress

This new New York Times report on the status and fate of federal statutory sentencing reform has me getting ever closer to asserting that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will not get to President Obama's desk before election day.  The piece is headlined "Garland Fight Overshadows Effort to Overhaul Sentencing Laws On Washington," and here are excerpts:

A bipartisan overhaul of criminal justice laws was supposed to be a defining issue of this Congress, a rare unifying moment for Republicans, Democrats and President Obama. Instead, the members of the Judiciary Committee who wrote the criminal justice package are at war over whether to consider Mr. Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Merrick B. Garland.

This feud over the nomination has overshadowed the effort to reduce mandatory minimum sentences and ease the transition from prison. Now supporters of an overhaul are worried about its fate, especially with the Senate about to turn to a series of time­consuming spending bills and the electionyear calendar approaching a point where little gets done that is not absolutely necessary.

“If this is going to happen along with 12 appropriations bills, we are going to have to elbow our way into the queue,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, one of the chief Democratic authors of the bill. “The ball is now on the Republican side of the net.”

Before the death of Antonin Scalia in February created a Supreme Court vacancy, the criminal justice measure had already run into trouble from skeptical Senate Republicans, notably Tom Cotton of Arkansas. He contended that the proposed sentencing changes would result in the premature release of violent felons. And there were whispers about Willie Horton, the furloughed inmate who committed a rape while on release from a state prison in Massachusetts, a case that Republicans used in 1988 to portray Michael S. Dukakis, then the state’s governor and the Democratic nominee for president, as soft on crime.

The internal turbulence led Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, to urge Republican authors of the measure to consider changes to win over some doubters and ease party divisions. They have retooled the legislation, decreasing the chances of felons who carried guns in their crimes qualifying for lighter sentences, among other expected revisions. The changes have won the backing of at least one Republican senator, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, whose aides say will support the reworked bill.

One of its top Republican supporters says they are making progress. “We continue to do work on criminal justice reform, to try to meet some of the concerns that have been previously stated and to shore up support and show additional support both inside and outside the Capitol for those important reforms,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said Tuesday.

One problem backers of the bill have run into is that senators are questioning the political risk of supporting it when the measure might not go anywhere before the November elections. At the same time, some on the left contend that the measure has been too watered down.

Hoping to restore momentum, leaders of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a coalition of conservative and liberal groups behind the legislative effort, plan to bring leading advocates from around the country to Washington next week. They will meet with undecided senators and House members to make the case for the measure. The group has also scheduled a briefing for Senate staff members on Friday with former senior law enforcement officials to try to build support and ease doubts among Senate Republicans....Other backers of the measure, including some in the Senate, are expected to step up their push for the legislation next week as well, and new endorsements could be coming.

In the House, Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin recently reaffirmed his support for a criminal justice overhaul, calling himself a late convert to the cause and promising to move forward with legislation. “We’re going to bring criminal justice reform bills, which are now out of the Judiciary Committee, to the House floor and advance this,” he said in a recent question-­and-­answer session....

Some see a potential upside in the Supreme Court fight. Mr. McConnell could be more motivated to bring the criminal justice measure to the Senate floor to show that Republicans, who are under withering criticism from Democrats on a daily basis over the Garland nomination, can work in a bipartisan way and produce some accomplishments.

“Senator McConnell has one of the bigger incentives to work on this particular bill because it is one of the few, if not the only, things that the left and right agree on,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, director of the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy institute affiliated with the New York University School of Law.

What happens in the next few weeks will determine if the criminal justice effort has a chance this year.  Failure to find consensus would represent a major defeat not just for President Obama and congressional backers of the legislation, but also for the unusual coalition of disparate political forces that united behind it as an overdue course correction from the tough­-on-­crime approach of the 1990s.

I am starting now to worry that more than a few folks on the left may be disinclined to encourage Democratic Senators like Dick Durban to elbow the SRCA into the queue based on the hope that a big Democratic victory in November would enable a push for a more robust and far-reaching reform bill.  Moreover, as every day passes, it seem to me increasingly easy given various 2016 election timelines for any and every fence-sitting Senator to urge leadership to postpone a vote on federal sentencing reform at least until the 2016 lame duck sesssion or in the next Congress.

A few 2016 related posts:

 

UPDATE: I just came across this recent Roll Call piece striking similar themes and headlines "White House Eager to Rekindle Criminal Justice Effort: Cornyn 'optimistic' but GOP fissures, floor time posing problems."

April 7, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Friday, April 01, 2016

GOP frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz author joint letter urging Prez Obama to commute tens of thousands more federal sentences!

April-Fool-5Apologies to those who clicked through based on the headline of this post to discover that this headline is my lame attempt to bring a timely sentencing spin to April Fools Day. 

As I was thinking about what to post on this special day for silliness and pranks, it dawned on me that whomever does eventually become the GOP candidate for President probably would be eager to have Prez Obama commute tens of thousands of prison sentences before the election... so that he could thereafter blame any and all future crimes on the current President and every other Democrat currently in office or running for office.  This reality, I think, helps explain why Prez Obama has still been so stingy with his clemency grants to date despite so much talk about a big clemency push.

Indeed, in light of Prez Obama's grant of only 61 more commutations earlier this week (details here), I am inclined to predict that we will only see, at most, a few dozen more clemency grants before the November election.  But once the election is completed, I think it is entirely unpredictable what Prez Obama might do in the clemency arena.  Prez Bill Clinton issued a large number of last-day clemencies, including a notorious pardon to campaign funder and fugitive Marc Rich, and the controversy that created likely led the Prez George W. Bush only granting a few lame-duck clemencies.

Ironically, if a fellow Democrat is elected in November, I suspect Prez Obama will be inclined to grant fewer lame-duck clemencies: he likely will not wish to create any unique challenges or controversies when a member of his own party takes over his position in the Oval Office, and he likely will be hopeful that a successor from his party will continue his visible clemency push.  In contrast, if a Republican wins in November, I would expect Prez Obama to grant more clemencies so that he could in this way burnish his claim to have lived up to his "hope and change" campaign mantra in the criminal justice arena.

Finally, while focused on the intersection of April Fools Day and the 2016 campaign, am I crazy to imagine that GOP frontrunner Donald J. Trump might give a big speech today to announce that his entire campaign was just a massive prank and the most amazingly extended form of performance art in American political history?

April 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

GOP frontrunner Donald Trump says "some form of punishment" would be needed for women who have abortions if procedure is made illegal

This recent article at The Crime Report, headlined "Trump On Crime: Tough Talk, Few Specifics," highlighted how hard it is to figure out Donald Trump's policy position on various criminal justice issues (in which I was quoted):

Most experts we talked to say it’s hard to distinguish the rhetoric from the policies. “[The Trump campaign] has not issued a platform yet, so I’m not sure that I’d take anything that he’s been saying as an actual criminal justice policy,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.

“What’s really frustrating, is that (he’s) like a cardboard candidate; you know what his pitch is but you don’t know anything else beyond that,” said Prof. Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School. “And maybe he doesn’t either.”

Berman suggests half-jokingly that there’s a “simple answer” to the question of what Donald Trump believes about criminal justice. “Who the hell knows?” he said.

On many policy issues, Trump has sidestepped detailed responses by pointing to his experience in real estate and suggesting that good dealmakers keep their positions ambiguous at the start of any negotiation. That seems to apply to his approach to justice as well. Asked about specific criminal justice reforms, Trump often changes the subject back to supporting police or vague answers about needing to be “tough.”

But today GOP frontrunner Trump is making headlines for talking about criminal punishment in an especially controversial setting.  This FoxNews piece, headlined "Trump says abortion ban should mean punishment for women who have procedure," provides the details:

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump said Wednesday said that if abortion were illegal in the United States, then women who have the procedure should be punished.  Trump made the comments during a taping of an MSNBC town hall that will be aired later Wednesday.

Host Chris Matthews pressed Trump to clarify, asking him whether abortion should be punished and who ultimately should be held accountable. “Look, people in certain parts of the Republican Party, conservative Republicans, would say, ‘Yes, it should,’” Trump said. The candidate later put out a statement saying: “This issue is unclear and should be put back into the states for determination.”...

When asked specifically at the town hall what he thought, the New York businessman answered, “I would say it’s a very serious problem and it’s a problem we have to decide on. Are you going to send them to jail?”

“I’m asking you,” Matthews prompted.

“I am pro-life,” Trump said.

Matthews pressed on, asking again who should be punished in an abortion case if it were illegal.

“There has to be some form of punishment,” Trump said.

“For the woman?” Matthews asked.

“Yeah,” Trump responded, adding later that the punishment would “have to be determined.”

His rivals seized on the remarks. Ohio Gov. John Kasich later told MSNBC “of course women shouldn’t be punished.” An aide to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted: “Don't overthink it: Trump doesn't understand the pro-life position because he's not pro-life.”

With all due respect to the statement made by an aide to Senator Ted Cruz, it seems to me that Donald Trump actually understands — and may be taking more seriously than many other politicians — the oft-stated pro-life position that life begins at conception and that abortion it at least somewhat akin to homicide.

The National Right to Life Committee, the nation's oldest and largest pro-life organization,  states expressly here that in the US "over 40 million unborn babies have been killed in the 40 years since abortion was legalized and more than 1.2 million are killed each year" and that "medical science has known conclusively that every individual's life begins at the moment of fertilization."   Pro-Life Action League states expressly here that "killing an unborn child is inherently wrong, and therefore can never be justified regardless of circumstances. It is no more just to kill an unborn child in order to avoid hardship than it would be to kill a toddler to avoid hardship. Because the unborn child is unseen, it is easier for society to condone killing him or her, though this is morally indistinguishable from killing any child at any stage of development."  The American Life League similarly states expressly here that "abortion is a direct attack on a preborn child which kills; it is murder."

If one genuinely believes that any abortion involves the intentional "killing" of a human life, that it is "morally indistinguishable from killing any child at any stage of development," and that "it is murder," and thus an act which should be criminally prohibited (like all other forms of intentional homicide), then I would hope that one ought also be genuinely committed to criminally punishing, at least to some extent, any and every person intentionally involved in this act of intentional killing which "morally indistinguishable from killing any child at any stage of development." 

In modern society, we threaten to punish all sorts of persons (at least with fines) for all sorts of petty crimes like overtime parking and illegal copying of a DVD and loitering.  I believe I am understanding and showing respect to the views and claims of persons who are pro-lifer when I surmise they consider any intentional abortion to be a societal wrong that is far more serious than, say, overtime parking or loitering.  If that is right, then I also think it would be fair to say that Donald Trump is actually understanding and showing respect for the views and claims of persons who are pro-life when he suggests that women intentionally involved in obtaining illegal abortions ought to be subject to at least "some form of punishment."

March 30, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Friday, March 18, 2016

Making the (Trumpian?) case for winning the drug war via full legalization

HarpersWeb-Cover-201604-302x410_black This cover story of the April 2016 issue of Harper's magazine is authored by Dan Baum and is headlined "Legalize It All: How to win the war on drugs."  And, as I mean to suggest via  the headline of this post, this article may be channeling what GOP Prez candidate front-runner Donald Trump really thinks about how to improve modern drug policy in the US.  (Recall that I had this post on my marijuana reform blog, way back when Trump first announced his serious run for the Oval Office last summer, which highlights that Trump not all that long ago had once suggested full legalization would be the only way to "win" the drug war.)  Here are is an except from the first part of the lengthy Harper's piece:

Nixon’s invention of the war on drugs as a political tool was cynical, but every president since — Democrat and Republican alike — has found it equally useful for one reason or another. Meanwhile, the growing cost of the drug war is now impossible to ignore: billions of dollars wasted, bloodshed in Latin America and on the streets of our own cities, and millions of lives destroyed by draconian punishment that doesn’t end at the prison gate; one of every eight black men has been disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.

As long ago as 1949, H. L. Mencken identified in Americans “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” an astute articulation of our weirdly Puritan need to criminalize people’s inclination to adjust how they feel.  The desire for altered states of consciousness creates a market, and in suppressing that market we have created a class of genuine bad guys — pushers, gangbangers, smugglers, killers.  Addiction is a hideous condition, but it’s rare. Most of what we hate and fear about drugs — the violence, the overdoses, the criminality — derives from prohibition, not drugs. And there will be no victory in this war either; even the Drug Enforcement Administration concedes that the drugs it fights are becoming cheaper and more easily available.

Now, for the first time, we have an opportunity to change course. Experiments in alternatives to harsh prohibition are already under way both in this country and abroad. Twenty-three states, as well as the District of Columbia, allow medical marijuana, and four — Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska — along with D.C., have legalized pot altogether.  Several more states, including Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada, will likely vote in November whether to follow suit.

Portugal has decriminalized not only marijuana but cocaine and heroin, as well as all other drugs.  In Vermont, heroin addicts can avoid jail by committing to state-funded treatment. Canada began a pilot program in Vancouver in 2014 to allow doctors to prescribe pharmaceutical-quality heroin to addicts, Switzerland has a similar program, and the Home Affairs Committee of Britain’s House of Commons has recommended that the United Kingdom do likewise.  Last July, Chile began a legislative process to legalize both medicinal and recreational marijuana use and allow households to grow as many as six plants.  After telling the BBC in December that “if you fight a war for forty years and don’t win, you have to sit down and think about other things to do that might be more effective,” Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos legalized medical marijuana by decree. In November, the Mexican Supreme Court elevated the debate to a new plane by ruling that the prohibition of marijuana consumption violated the Mexican Constitution by interfering with “the personal sphere,” the “right to dignity,” and the right to “personal autonomy.”  The Supreme Court of Brazil is considering a similar argument.

Depending on how the issue is framed, legalization of all drugs can appeal to conservatives, who are instinctively suspicious of bloated budgets, excess government authority, and intrusions on individual liberty, as well as to liberals, who are horrified at police overreach, the brutalization of Latin America, and the criminalization of entire generations of black men.  It will take some courage to move the conversation beyond marijuana to ending all drug prohibitions, but it will take less, I suspect, than most politicians believe.  It’s already politically permissible to criticize mandatory minimums, mass marijuana-possession arrests, police militarization, and other excesses of the drug war; even former attorney general Eric Holder and Michael Botticelli, the new drug czar — a recovering alcoholic — do so. Few in public life appear eager to defend the status quo.

A few prior related posts:

March 18, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"Why many black voters don't blame Hillary for tough-on-crime laws"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable Christian Science Monitor article from earlier this week which strikes me as especially timely given that Hillary Clinton's success in the most recent state primaries would seem to put her on a near-certain path to a Prez candidate nomination. Here are excerpts from the lengthy piece:

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, [gang violence and open-air drug dealing] was the everyday reality in African-American neighborhoods around the country. It was in this context that black political leaders, under pressure from their communities, pleaded for the federal government to address the drug problem. The now infamous response from the federal government was a series of bipartisan “tough on crime” laws that, instead of just cracking down on drugs and violent crime as intended, filled the country’s prisons to a breaking point, disproportionately with young black men.

Now amid bipartisan efforts to undo many of these laws, and the rise of a new generation of civil rights activists, this history has created a strange dissonance. Black Lives Matter activists have criticized Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, for supporting these tough-on-crime policies as first lady in the ’90s. But Mrs. Clinton has ridden overwhelming support from black voters to a commanding lead in the Democratic primaries. Earlier this month, the urban black vote helped her edge out a victory in the Massachusetts primary over challenger Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“If you read some intellectuals on the left, they’d suggest there should be a grudge against the Clintons, but I think the primary results show there isn’t a grudge at all,” says Michael Fortner, a professor of urban studies at the City University of New York and author of the book “Black Silent Majority.”

Part of the reason, he notes, is that black communities are aware that for decades they were some of the loudest advocates for tough drug laws. Tough-on-crime policies, he adds, “weren’t something that just happened to black people, that were imposed on the black community…. Political leaders, mayors, and pastors played an important role in pushing for these policies.”

Another reason, he says, is that most black voters aren’t just concerned about criminal justice policy, past or present. “They’re also, like everybody else, concerned about paying their bills, they’re concerned about good schools, concerned about achieving the American dream,” he says....

“I think the African-American community, like Hillary Clinton, they’ve had to rethink their approach,” says Thomas Whalen, an associate professor of social sciences at Boston University. “And you have to. In a so-called drug war, you can’t be rigid in your position and hope to be ultimately successful — you have to be as flexible as possible based on the conditions on the ground.”...

For many decades, however, drugs were a priority.  As early as June 1970, for example, Ebony magazine published an article titled: “Blacks declare war on dope.”  In 1986, 16 of 19 African-American members of the House co-sponsored President Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act.  And eight years later, 22 members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill that boosted funding to police, expanded the death penalty, and created the “three strikes” sentencing law.

March 16, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, March 14, 2016

Interesting moment concerning Hillary Clinton and the death penalty at CNN town hall

I largely stopped watching much TV coverage of the Prez campaign except on election nights, in part because crime and justice issues continue to get precious little attention in debates or in coverage of what the various candidates might do if elected.  But, as reported here, last night's CNN town hall included a notable exchange concerning the death penalty:

An exonerated former death row inmate challenged Hillary Clinton on Sunday night to defend her continued support for capital punishment in some instances despite cases in which innocent people have been wrongly convicted.

"I came perilously close to my own execution," Ricky Jackson said during the CNN-TV One town hall event Sunday at Ohio State University, where he described the circumstances of his case and exoneration. He asked the Democratic front-runner, "In light of what I just shared with you and in light of the fact that there are documented cases of innocent people who have been executed in our country, I would like to know how you can still take your stance on the death penalty in light of what you know right now?"

In 2014, Jackson was freed after spending nearly four decades in prison for a crime he did not commit.  Convicted at the age of 18 for the 1975 killing of a money-order salesman in Cleveland, the Ohio man was exonerated after the prosecution's key witness, only 12 years old when he gave his damning account to police, recanted in court.

Calling his a profoundly difficult question, Clinton first criticized the states, saying they "have proven themselves incapable of carrying out fair trials that give defendants the rights that defendants should have."

"I've said I would breathe a sigh of relief if either the Supreme Court or the states themselves began to eliminate the death penalty."

But the former secretary of state did not retreat from her broader position.  "Where I end up is this, and maybe it's a distinction that is hard to support, but at this point, given the choices we face from terrorist activities primarily in our country that end up under federal jurisdiction, for very limited purposes, I think it can still be held in reserve for those."

Clinton referenced the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, an act of domestic terrorism that killed 168 people, as one example of the kind of crime she considered punishable by death.  "That is the exception that I still am struggling with, and it would only be in the federal system," she said.

Interestingly, this afternoon CNN just published this commentary authored by Ricky Jackson under the headline "Exonerated death row inmate: Clinton wrong on death penalty." Here is an excerpt from the later part of the commentary:

I know that the death penalty does not deter.  That can no longer be seriously debated. I also know that it is very expensive at a time when states are struggling financially and many are on the brink of bankruptcy.  As an expensive government program with no proven track record of effectiveness, it is, indeed, the proverbial "bridge to nowhere." But I also know that it sends innocent people to death row, and sometimes kills them.

Some of those likely innocents, such as Cameron Todd Willingham and Carlos DeLuna, have been executed at the hands of the government.  Other innocent inmates -- in fact more than 150 of them -- have been lucky enough to have been exonerated and freed before their execution.

Furthermore, I learned from my time on death row that even the guilty are worthy of salvation. As an innocent and scared 18-year-old boy sent to death row, it was only the kindness and humanity of death row's guilty, who took me under their collective wing, that kept my sanity and maintained my faith in humanity.  These inmates made horrible mistakes, and deserved to be punished, but they are not the animals our criminal justice makes them out to be.

A society should not be judged on how it treats its best, but rather on how it treats is lowest.  And even the lowest are capable of incredible acts of humanity and are worthy of decency.  They are worthy of God's grace, just as they bestowed grace upon me.

When I asked Clinton why she still supports the death penalty, she said she supported it only for the worst of the worst: those who committed acts of mass killing or terrorism.  I cannot accept that.  In cases such as those, the societal pressure to convict is at its highest.  And when an intense pressure to convict is present, that is when the risk of convicting an innocent is greatest.  The death penalty is also not a deterrent in terrorism cases.  In fact, death can serve the purpose of many terrorists who wish to become "martyrs" for their cause.

During all the decades I sat in prison as an innocent man, I saw societal views gradually change.  Not too many years ago, a Democratic candidate could not publicly support same-sex marriage and stand a chance of getting elected in a general election.  Now, a Democratic candidate could not be taken seriously if he or she didn't support same-sex marriage.

Likewise, no serious Democratic candidate should be able to support the death penalty. We have evolved. We have seen the evidence that the death penalty doesn't work and that it kills the innocent.  Given this evidence, it is time that no candidate -- Democrat or Republican -- should be taken seriously if he or she supports capital punishment.

The fact that Clinton continues to hang on to this antiquated relic confuses me.  She touts "criminal justice reform" -- and much reform is needed -- but she misses one of the lowest hanging pieces of fruit.  I said last night that I am an "undecided" voter.  I hope that Clinton reconsiders her position on capital punishment before I do what I have been waiting my entire life to do: cast my first presidential vote as a free and vindicated man.

March 14, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, March 10, 2016

"Make No Mistake: Hillary Clinton is a Drug Warrior"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable commentary authored by Romain Bonilla that I just came across on the Marijuana Politics website.  Here are excerpts:

Hillary Clinton’s record on the War on Drugs sets her apart from other the other candidates — and not in a good way.  From her criminal justice agenda as First Lady to her foreign policies as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has proven herself to be one of the greatest drug warriors of our generation.  At a time when two-thirds of Americans support ending the War on Drugs, it’s crucial for her record on the issue to be brought to light.

Over the course of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Hillary Clinton publicly supported tough-on-crime criminal justice reforms that escalated and emboldened the War on Drugs. As First Lady, Hillary Clinton pushed for the largest crime bill in the history of the United States: the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.  This 1994 crime bill called for 100,000 more police officers, provided billions of dollars of funding to prison construction, and ramped up the use of mandatory minimum sentences. This law became a signature accomplishment of Bill Clinton’s presidency....

Hillary Clinton’s involvement with the War on Drugs didn’t stop there.  As Secretary of State, Clinton waged the War on Drugs abroad. Under Hillary Clinton’s leadership, the State Department fueled the Mexican Drug War by funding efforts to combat drug trafficking.  Through its Mérida Initiative, Clinton’s State Department hired American defense contractors to take part in the conflict and sold billions worth of weapons to Mexico — leading it to become one of the world’s top purchasers of U.S. military arms and equipment.  Over the course of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, the Mexican Drug War spiraled into chaos, killing over 160,000 people and displacing millions of others.

Worse still: As Clinton’s State Department gave billions in drug war aid to Mexico, it turned a blind eye to the widespread human rights abuses perpetrated by the country’s government. Even as the United Nations acknowledged that Mexican authorities were involved in kidnappings and disappearances, Clinton’s State Department continued to support the offensive.

Now aiming for the presidency, in the Democratic race against Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton describes herself as a progressive leader who will end mass incarceration. As she campaigns for the Democratic nomination, Clinton appears to have “evolved” on issues of drug policy, and gives lip-service to some of the things drug policy reformers have been saying for years.  In a January debate, for instance, she stressed the importance of treating addiction as a health issue rather than a crime, hinting at an understanding of the failures of the drug war.

While Hillary Clinton is willing to speak vaguely against the War on Drugs, she refuses to embrace meaningful reforms to current drug policies.  While most Americans agree that marijuana should be legal, Clinton supports rescheduling it to Schedule II, the same category as cocaine and methamphetamine.  This proposal would do little to end the War on Drugs, but would facilitate research on medical marijuana and allow pharmaceutical companies to sell cannabinoid drugs.

Hillary Clinton’s drug policies are completely in line with those of the wealthy special interests that fund her campaign, like the private prison lobby and Big Pharma.  Under Clinton’s marijuana policy, users would still be prosecuted for mere possession (as is the case for cocaine and methamphetamine users), but drug companies would get a free pass to profit off of marijuana’s medicinal value.

This position on marijuana policy is certainly not enough to redeem Clinton’s record of tough-on-crime legislation and drug warmongering abroad. Though she didn’t declare it, Hillary Clinton has been a champion of the War on Drugs.  Her policies have sacrificed millions of lives to the failed ideal of a drug-free America and her contribution to mass incarceration haunts this nation to this day.  Viewed as a whole, Hillary Clinton’s record reveals her to be a staunch drug warrior — and if she won’t push for meaningful reforms now, it’s unlikely she’ll ever get around to it.

March 10, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Are Senators Mike Lee and Ted Cruz now back on the same page with respect to sentencing reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this GOP Prez race news today via Politico: "Cruz to land first Senate endorsement: Mike Lee."  Beyond the obvious political significance of this (e.g., another body blow to Senator Rubio), I cannot resist thinking about this in federal sentencing reform terms because Senator Mike Lee has been one of the most vocal GOP advocates for federal sentencing reform. 

Of course, as noted in this prior post from last year, Senator Ted Cruz was himself a vocal sentencing reform supported when only drug sentencing reform was the focal point on Senate reform effort.  But, as this press article from a few months ago highlights, the two had a vocal and visible parting of ways when sentencing reform started including violent offenders.  I doubt sentencing reform was the first concern when Senator Lee was thinking about who to endorse, but this interesting history still has me pondering the question in the title of this post.

March 10, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Vetting Judge Jane Kelly: should sentencing fans be rooting for her to be Prez Obama's SCOTUS nominee?

48415631EBecause I always look at big legal issues through the lens of sentencing, and especially because the last four US Supreme Court appointments have been filled by persons who previously worked as a prosecutor and/or the US Department of Justice, I keep being drawn to one name on all the SCOTUS short-list stories because of her extended service as a federal public defender: Jane Louise Kelly.

I am pretty sure I have never met Judge Kelly, and I am very sure that I have no firm basis to predict what kind of Justice she would likely develop into over the course of he service on the Court.  But because professional choices and experiences always shape jurisprudential perspectives, and especially because Judge Kelly's two decades as a public defender would surely gave her an especially keen understanding of the doctrines and practicalities of federal criminal law, I keep thinking she should be a top choice for sentencing fans.

There also would seem to be possible political advantages to Prez Obama nominating Judge Kelly.  Most notably, she was unanimously (and quickly) confirmed by the Senate three years ago wth the backing of Senate Judicary Chair Charles Grassley.  (This Blog of Legal Times article provides the back-story on how that became a reality.)   Her Indiana birthplace and Iowa-based career would help diversify the Supreme Court geographically (and would enable Prez Obama to make much of an interest in ensuring "mainstream midwestern values" are represented on the Court).  In addition, the only apparently newsworthy aspect of her personal background that I could find, apart from her educational and professional history, was that she was violently attacked while jogging in Cedar Rapids back in 2004.  Her status as a crime victim could perhaps blunt any GOP criticisms that as a Justice she might be problematically biased toward criminals rather than victims.

This all said, because I have no direct experience with Judge Kelly and have not yet even taken time to try to review all of her recent work on the Eighth Circuit, perhaps I am much too quick to assume that her profesional background should make her a top choice for sentencing fans.  Thus the title of this post:  I would be eager and grateful to hear from readers (either via the comments or some other means) with any informed assessments of Judge Kelly.  I assume there are dozens, if not hundreds, of Iowa lawyers who have regularly encountered Judge Kelly professionally, and I am hopeful some of this number will chime in to provide a fuller picture of this notable short-lister.

Prior related posts on new SCOTUS nominee possibilities:

February 16, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (45)

Friday, February 12, 2016

At debate, Bernie Sanders promises that "at the end of my first term as president we will not have more people in jail than any other country"

The-possibles-bernie-sanderv02I have lost interest not only in blogging before for every Presidential debate, but also in watching most of them.  But, perhaps not surprisingingly as the Prez campaign marches forward to more diverse states than Iowa and New Hampshire, last night's Democratic debate saw Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders talking about modern policing, racial disparities in our criminal justice system and mass incarceration.  Of particular note was Sanders making the promise highlighted in the title of this post.  Here is a little bit more of what Senator Sanders had to say on these fronts:

This mandatory sentencing, a very bad idea. It takes away discretion from judges.  We have got to demilitarize local police departments so they do not look like occupying armies.  We have got to make sure that local police departments look like the communities they serve in their diversity.

And, where we are failing abysmally is in the very high rate of recidivism we see. People are being released from jail without the education, without the job training, without the resources that they need to get their lives together, then they end up -- we're shocked that they end up back in jail again.  So, we have a lot of work to do.

But, here is a pledge I've made throughout this campaign, and it's really not a very radical pledge.  When we have more people in jail, disproportionately African American and Latino, than China does, a communist authoritarian society four times our size.  Here's my promise, at the end of my first term as president we will not have more people in jail than any other country. We will invest in education, and jobs for our kids, not incarceration and more jails.

Helpfully, Leon Neyfakh not only noticed this significant promise, but also quickly authored this Slate commentary about it. The headline of the post provides a flavor of its themes: "Sanders Is Delusional if He Thinks He Can Keep His Promise on Mass Incarceration."  Here is the heart of is effective commentary:

What Sanders means by this is that under just four years of his magical leadership, the U.S. will bring down its jail and prison population by about 600,000 people.  Where does that figure come from?  Consider that the No. 2 spot on the list of countries with the most prisoners in the world right now is China, and it has about 1.66 million people behind bars.  The U.S., by comparison, has about 2.3 million.

Sanders did not mention during his remarks how he plans to make the leap from 2.3 million to fewer than 1.66 million. But regardless of what he has in mind, it’s pure fantasy for several reasons. Chief among them is that the president of the United States has no direct control over most of the nation’s correctional facilities.  This is because jails, which currently hold fewer than 745,000 people, are under local control, and state prisons, which hold about 1.35 million, are under state control. That leaves the federal prison system — the only one that the federal government is actually in charge of — with 210,000 people, or about 10 percent of the pie.

It’s true that the president has a “bully pulpit” from which he can say inspiring things that set the tone for officials working at all levels of government.  It’s also true that in theory, the federal government could try to bribe state governments to rely less on incarceration.  But the bottom line is that the feds can only set policy for their own prison system and that means there’s a very low ceiling on the amount of progress that a president, no matter how ambitious he or she is, can do to reduce the prison population....

This would be a good time to remember, also, that Congress’ current efforts to bring down the prison population by enacting very modest sentencing reforms appear to be falling apart in slow motion because there are enough lawmakers in Washington who think it’s too dangerous to set anyone free, ever.  And this is at a time when there’s supposed to be a historic bipartisan consensus over the need for reform.

If Sanders wants to release more than 500,000 people by 2020, he’s going to have to break them out personally.  If he has a more efficient approach in mind, he needs to share it before he makes this ridiculous promise again.

February 12, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

A few notable sentencing stories from the campaign trail

As we all today await official results from the first-in-the-nation Presidential primary, I thought it might be useful to assemble here a few of the news and commentary pieces concerning some of the candidates I have seen recently:

February 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Is there any chance any domestic criminal justice issue gets any attention during tonight's GOP debate?

The first big Prez debate of this big Prez election year takes place in South Carolina, and I am already assuming that any number of notable and important domestic criminal justice issues will be largely forgotten as GOP candidates spar again over the now-standard debate topics of immigration, ISIS and terrorism, and economic development.  Still, as this new Marshall Project piece highlights, the location of the GOP debate tonight was the site of a high-profile mass shooting, and that reality might perhaps enhance the (slim) odds we get a question or two about the death penalty or gun violence or the racial dynamics of crime, policing and punishment.  The MP piece is titled "Republican Candidates on Criminal Justice: A Primer," and here is how it sets up a review of what the GOP candidates in the prime-time debate have said so far on the campaign trail about these issues:

Race. Guns. The Death Penalty.

If these issues resounded anywhere in the past year, it was in Charleston, S.C., where Dylann Roof shot and killed nine parishioners in a Bible study class in one of the oldest black churches in the South.  The June massacre, apparently propelled by the gunman’s white supremacist views and coming amid a spate of killings of blacks by the police around the country, underscored a plaintive question being asked more and more: Do black lives matter?

Thursday night, Republicans seeking the party’s nomination for president gather in Charleston for their sixth televised debate, less than three weeks before their first big contest, the Iowa caucuses.  In the weeks after the killings at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, the South Carolina Legislature finally confronted the racially divisive symbol of secession, the Confederate battle flag, and ordered it removed from the state house grounds.  But questions of race, guns and the death penalty have only intensified nationally since then.  Here’s how the candidates (listed in alphabetical order) stand on some of those issues, as reviewed by The Marshall Project.

January 14, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Gun policy and sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (25)

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Hoping Californians get crisp "mend it or end it" capital initiative votes in 2016

This local article, headlined "Death penalty supporters seek to speed up executions," reports on efforts in California to give voters a chance to mend the state's broken capital punishment system by initiative.  Here are the basics:

Death penalty supporters got the state’s go-ahead Thursday to collect signatures for a November 2016 ballot measure aimed at speeding up executions, raising the prospect that voters will be asked to choose between toughening California’s death penalty law and repealing it.

The new initiative would require the state Supreme Court to rule on capital cases within five years. It would also limit death penalty appeals, set strict deadlines for filing appeals and seek to expand the pool of death penalty lawyers. Any attorney who now accepts court appointments to represent impoverished defendants in criminal cases would also have to take on capital cases, regardless of experience.

Another provision would eliminate the currently required public comment period before the state can approve a new single-drug execution method, which officials have proposed to replace the current three-drug executions.  Supporters of the measure say it would reduce by at least half the period, typically 25 years or more, needed to resolve death penalty appeals in California.  Opponents disagree, noting that the initiative would not add funding for death penalty lawyers or court staff.

A rival initiative to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without parole was cleared for circulation last month. A similar repeal measure was defeated by four percentage points in November 2012.  Both initiatives need 365,880 signatures of registered voters in 180 days to qualify for the ballot.  Sponsors of the new initiative have raised more than $1 million so far and expect to collect the needed signatures, said Charles Bell, a lawyer for the campaign.

This article also notes that California has not carried out an execution in a decade thanks to lethal injection litigation, while still having the nation's largest death row with nearly 750 condemned murderers waiting to receive their jury-imposed death sentence. As readers may recall, the remarkable size and delay that has come to define California's dysfunctional capital system itself led to a (temporary) ruling of unconstitutionality in federal courts in recent years.

As the title of this post highlights, I am hopeful that both proposals to deal with California's capital system come before voters in 2016. If both do, voters will likely have a crisp "mend it or end it" set of policy choices, and there will also likely be considerable funding (both local and national) devoted to informing voters about what votes on these proposals would mean in an election year likely to be marked by high turnout. Through such a process, we should get some really good insights concerning what voters in a huge (left-leaning) state really want to do about the death penalty circa 2016.

Prior related post:

December 26, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, December 14, 2015

Will Senate leader ever bring latest federal sentencing reform bill up for a full Senate vote?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable inside-the-Beltway report from the New York Times headlined "Mitch McConnell Demurs on Prospects of Criminal Justice Overhaul."  Here are excerpts:

Despite a concerted push from a broad right-left coalition, Senator Mitch McConnell said he had not determined whether he would bring a bipartisan criminal justice overhaul to the Senate floor next year.  “I haven’t decided yet,” Mr. McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and majority leader, said in an interview on Thursday as he began looking toward 2016.

The Senate leader definitely seemed open to the idea.  He said the proposal, which would reduce some mandatory minimum sentences, lead to early release for thousands of nonviolent offenders and set up new programs to help them adjust to life after prison, seemed to meet his criteria for allocating precious Senate floor time.

“It seems to have pretty broad bipartisan support,” Mr. McConnell said of the criminal justice legislation approved by the Judiciary Committee in October.  “This is the kind of thing, when you look at it, you have principals on both sides who are interested in it.  That makes it worthy of floor time.”

However, the legislation, while endorsed by both conservative and progressive interest groups, could present a sticky election-year vote for some Republicans who typically see themselves as law-and-order politicians.  And the issue could get very complicated should Senator Ted Cruz of Texas become the Republican presidential nominee.  Mr. Cruz voted against the plan in the Judiciary Committee and was outspoken in his criticism.  So if the Republican-led Senate moved forward, it could conceivably be pushing legislation opposed by its candidate for the White House.

It is critical to recall that just a few years ago when Democrats still controlled the Senate, then-Senate leader Harry Reid never brought the Smarter Sentencing Act up for a full Senate vote ever after the SSA passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support and even though there was good reason to believe the SSA would have garnered majority support from the full Senate.  Thus, as this article spotlights, the passage of the Sentencing and Correction Reform Act through the Senate Judiciary Committee provides no certainty that even the full Senate will get a chance to vote of this reform bill.

As reported earlier, it is clear that the first few months of 2016 now constitute the next critical period for federal statutory sentencing reform.  I remain cautiously optimistic that the broader political and social forces that have so far propelled bipartisan support for reform to this point will help carry some bill through both houses of Congress in some form in 2016.  But I am not counting any sentencing reform chickens anytime before they completely hatch out of Congress and find their way to the desk of the President.

December 14, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)