Saturday, December 26, 2020

"Trump pardoned us. But pardons don’t replace criminal justice reform."

The title of this post is the title of this Washington Post commentary authored by Christopher 2X and Topeka K. Sam.  Here are excerpts:

In this holiday season, in a year of racial unrest, record gun violence in our cities, and a devastating pandemic, we received a blessing — a presidential pardon for our drug convictions.

We are extremely grateful. We’re fortunate to have many friends who have supported our work for justice, second chances and nonviolence since we left prison.  They vouched for us even though a pardon wasn’t something we requested for ourselves.

The blessing of a pardon, however, comes with a stark reminder of so many thousands who are not as fortunate as we are.  They are still stuck in a still flawed justice system that prizes the punitive over the rehabilitative — and they should not be.  For every one of us, there are thousands who are powerless and voiceless, who do not deserve the harsh punishment and treatment they’ve received in our criminal justice system, and whose names will never appear before a president for a pardon.

Because pardons alone can’t solve what needs fixing....  We incarcerate too many Black people, with horrible impacts on Black communities and families that last for generations — including distrust of government and police, and an inability for many to see the humanity in each other, even at early ages.  To young Black people, understandably, and tragically, the government is the demon.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and if we want safer, more just communities, it’s unsustainable.  But if we are ever going to coexist in peace so all children can reach their potential, we must reverse our history of racial injustice — a history, and a present, in which Black and Brown people have been excluded from the economy and society....

We’re grateful to be pardoned for our convictions.  We strived, when we left prison, to atone for the pain we inflicted on our family and friends, which gave us the motivation to work for justice and peace.

We plan to use our pardons as an example to others that there is such a thing as redemption in this country.  But we intend to keep fighting for change, in our laws and across society.  We must keep working intentionally and with determination to build a more equitable, just society, one in which everyone is treated with dignity and respect.

I am hopeful (though not optimistic) that Prez-elect Joe Biden will have the good sense to nominate to the US Sentencing Commission at least on person with direct expereince with the federal criminal justice system as a defendant. The commentary has me thinking that it could be especially meaningful and valuable for Biden to nominate to the uSSC persons like Christopher 2X and Topeka K. Sam who received pardons from Prez Trump.

December 26, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 24, 2020

A challenge for those troubled by Trump's final month clemencies: identify dozens, hundreds of comparable cases for Biden's first month

It is hardly surprising that Prez Trump has kicked off his final weeks in office with sets of clemency grants that include all sorts of friends and family and politically-charged defendants (basics here and here).  It is perhaps even less surprising that Trump's latest flourish of clemency grants is garnering lots and lots of criticisms from lots and lots of quarters (just a few examples are here and here and here and here and here). 

But particularly notable in the first wave of reaction was US Senator Chris Murphy tweeting here that "It’s time to remove the pardon power from the Constitution."  Many tweeters have pushed back, and Rachel Barkow's tweet thread here is especially effective and I wanted to highlight some of what she says.  I recommend the whole thread, but these portions (with my bolding) partially motivated the title of this post:

[T]he Congress of which he is a part has established no functioning second-look mechanisms for shortening sentences or expunging convictions, commutations and pardons are the only mechanisms for correcting injustices in the federal system.  And it's not as if those injustices are rare.

Go to any federal correctional facility, and take time to learn who is there and about their cases, and you find literally thousands of people whose sentences were grossly excessive given their offenses.  Those people need commutations as a corrective because there is no parole or other second look in place to address that....

Pardons are essential as well because the collateral consequences of convictions can be devastating for people trying to get housing, employment, and education after being convicted. There is no other way to clear a federal conviction than a pardon....

The solution to what's happening now is to get a better leader, which we've done.  And my hope is that leader will see that the pardon power's utility is critical, and he'll show everyone what a real leader does when wielding it.

While I fully understand frustrations with how Prez Trump has been using his pardon power, I think much energy now should go to urging Prez-elect to do better and to do better right away! Among the many problems with the modern exercise of the federal clemency power is the modern tendency for Presidents to entirely ignore this power until late in their terms.  Notably, as detailed in this DOJ data, Prez Trump at least thought to use his clemency power, and did so nearly a dozen times, during his first couple years in office.  Neither Barack Obama nor George W. Bush nor Bill Clinton bothered to pick up their clemency pen for a single individual during their first two calendar years in office. 

As regular readers likely know, I think disuse of clemency powers is always a much bigger problem than the misuse of this power.  And disuse, not misuse, has defined the start of modern presidencies.  So this post presents my suggestion for what those troubled by Trump's final month clemencies ought to do — namely help identify for the incoming Biden Administration persons currently in federal prison and/or burdened by a federal conviction who should get a clemency grant during Biden's first month in office because they are at least as worthy as some of Trump's final-month clemency recipients.  Helpfully, Jack Goldsmith and Matthew Gluck have this current list of all Trump clemency recipients, and I would urge advocates to demand that Prez Biden grant many "good" clemencies as he gets situated in the Oval Office to balance Trump's "bad" use of this power on his way out the door.

I will start this process by flagging a group of federal prisoners that should be easy first cases for a Biden Administration, namely the "Life for Pot" crowd.  I do not think it is entirely misguided to describe persons still serving extreme federal terms for marijuana offenses as political prisoners, especially now that so many states have fully legalized marijuana and the US House has likewise voted to do so.  The Life for Pot website spotlights those Serving Sentences of Life without Parole in Federal Prison for Marijuana and those Serving De Facto Life.  I hope Senator Murphy will become an advocate for some of these kinds of prisoners and the thousands more who need the historic clemency power used more and better rather than needing it removed from the Constitution.

December 24, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, December 21, 2020

Pondering next steps in federal sentencing reform on the second anniversary of the FIRST STEP Act

The FIRST STEP Act, which is fully titled the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act, was signed by Prez Trump into law on Dec. 21, 2018.  That means today is the second anniversary of what many have rightly called the biggest federal criminal justice reform legislation in a generation — while others have also rightly called this law a relatively small modification to the federal criminal justice system.  Because I consider the FIRST STEP Act a very big deal and also a very small start of needed federal sentencing reform, I am inclined to ponder today just what could and should be the next steps after the FIRST STEP.

I am not quite sure if future big federal reform bills should be called the NEXT STEP or the SECOND STEP, but I am quite sure some of the criminal justice reform recommendations from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force (available here pp. 56-62) would make a good starting point for the next Congress.  Here are just a few proposals that I would be eager to prioritize:

Mandatory Minimums: Empower judges to determine appropriate sentences, by fighting to repeal mandatory minimums at the federal level and give states incentives to repeal their mandatory minimums.

Retroactive Reforms: Make all sentencing reforms retroactive to allow for individualized resentencing.

Crack/Cocaine Sentencing Disparity: End the federal crack and powder cocaine disparity in sentences, and make the change retroactive.

Bureau of Prisons Oversight: Create a Bureau of Prisons ombudsman position for people who are incarcerated and their families to make complaints and get prompt redress.

Removing barriers to reentry: Remove restrictions on access to public housing, employment, occupational licenses, driver’s licenses, and public benefits.  Create a U.S. Reentry Commission to conduct a comprehensive review of barriers to reentry, with the goal of taking executive action and proposing legislation to remove as many as possible.

Juvenile Sentencing Reform: Abolish life without parole for juveniles.

There are lots of other good ideas in the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force recommendations, but I have highlighted a few proposals which would largely require action by Congress (rather than reforms that might be achieved just though executive action or other means).  I am sure readers may have other ideas for legislative sentencing reforms that the next Congress should prioritize.

Though the FIRST STEP Act is now two years old, and though I do not think it is too early to think about the NEXT STEP or the SECOND STEP, I also think it critical that the next Congress and the Biden Adminstration keep working hard on robust application of the FIRST STEP Act.  Helpfully, the implementation picture is informed by the US Sentencing Commission's recent intricate data report (and this infographic) on “First Step Year One,” and the federal Bureau of Prisons and the National Institute of Justice have useful webpages about various other aspect of the Act.  But there is much more work still to do to ensure the FIRST STEP Act fulfills its full potential and has its maximum impact; I hope in 2021 that FIRST STEP work can move forward while another reform bill gets going.

A few of many, many prior related FIRST STEP Act posts:

December 21, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Lots of recommendations for criminal justice reform for the incoming Biden Administration

The PBS News Hour has this recent piece headlined "What a Biden administration could mean for criminal justice reform," and it does a nice job providing a broad overview of the wide array of issues of concern to criminal justice reform advocates.  Here is the first paragraph of the extended piece:

President-elect Joe Biden will face pressure when he takes office to make swift changes to the Department of Justice.  But while he’ll be able to implement some reforms on his own, expected pushback from Congress and legal fights could make it hard for Biden to deliver many of the sweeping criminal justice reforms that advocates say are necessary.

I recommend the PBS piece for a quick and summary account of "the sweeping criminal justice reforms that advocates say are necessary."  But anyone interested in a fuller accounting of criminal justice issues of interest and concern on the eve of a new administration, be sure to check out these three big recent reports from prominent reform organizations setting forth ideas and recommendations for the incoming Biden Administration:

There reports collectively run well over a hundred pages, which serves to highlight just how robust and agenda some groups have for criminal justice reform as we anticipate a new administration and Congress.  I would welcome reader input and feedback (in the comments or via email) about whether any particular pieces of advice and specifics recommendations in these reports seem especially astute (or especially misguided).

December 17, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Reviewing CJUTF Recommendations: how might the Biden Administration seek to abolish the death penalty?

Right after the election, I blogged a bit (here and here) about some criminal justice reform recommendations from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force (available here pp. 56-62, called the CJUTF hereinafter).  A few weeks ago, as explained here, I decided to start a series of posts to spotlight and amplify some recommendations from the CJUTF that ought to be of particular interest to sentencing fans.  In the wake of two more notable federal executions last week (noted here and here), this post will focus on a recommendation that speaks of abolition, and here it is:

Death Penalty: Abolish the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.

This new CNN article, headlined "Dozens of members of Congress call on Biden to end the federal death penalty," reports that a number of members of Congress (but surely not a majority) are eager to see Prez-elect Biden operationalize this recommendations:

More than three dozen members of Congress are calling on Joe Biden's incoming administration to prioritize abolishing the death penalty in all jurisdictions, according to a letter sent Tuesday to the transition team for the President-elect and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.  While Biden has pledged to abolish the federal death penalty and to give incentives to states to stop seeking death sentences as a part of his criminal justice reform plan, 40 members of Congress and three congresspersons-elect want to make sure the practice ends on his first day in office.

"The current administration has weaponized capital punishment with callous disregard for human life. In the middle of our current public health crisis, the Department of Justice resumed federal executions and executed more people in six months than the total number executed over the previous six decades," Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley wrote in a letter first obtained by CNN.

The letter was authored by Pressley less than a week after calling for President Donald Trump to stop pending federal executions that are scheduled to take place during his lame duck period.  She specifically joined celebrities, bipartisan politicians and anti-death penalty advocates' call to stop Brandon Bernard's execution as his trial had allegations of prosecutorial misconduct that only surfaced two years ago.

Pressley, a Democrat, introduced legislation on July 25, 2019 -- the same day Attorney General William Barr announced federal executions, which had been stalled since 2003, would resume -- to rid the federal level of the practice and require resentencing for those currently on death row.  The bill has not had any action in the House since August 2019....

"With a stroke of your pen, you can stop all federal executions, prohibit United States Attorneys from seeking the death penalty, dismantle death row at FCC Terre Haute, and call for the resentencing of people who are currently sentenced to death," wrote Pressley.  "Each of these elements are critical to help prevent greater harm and further loss of life."

Executive Director of the Fair and Just Prosecution Miriam Krinsky told CNN after a meeting with the Justice Department's transition team earlier this month that stopping federal executions "doesn't really require congressional action."...

To date, there are 52 people on federal death row and 18 pending state executions, according to the Death Row Information Center.

This CNN piece rightly suggests that Prez-elect Joe Biden could clear out the federal death row on January 20, 2021, by commuting the death sentences (presumably to life without parole) of all persons still on federal death row on his first afternoon in office.  Because there are three pending federal execution scheduled for January that seem likely to go forward, there may only be 49 persons left on federal death row by January 20.  But that number will include, inter alia, mass killers like the Boston Marathon bomber and the Charleston Church shooter.

Of course, commuting all of federal death row, and even instructing his Justice Department not to seek any new death sentences, does not fulfill a commitment to "abolish the death penalty at the federal level."  Doing that will take legislation passed by Congress, and that would seem to be a long-shot in the near-term.  Prez-elect Biden likely could try to include death penalty abolition in a bigger bill about many criminal justice reforms, but doing so would likely generate extra opposition because most Republicans (and still many modern Democrats) strongly  support the death penalty in extreme cases.  I doubt Prez-elect Biden will be eager to use his political capital on this issue in the early days of his presidency, and I wonder if he will want to focus on this issue at all.

Perhaps even more interesting is to imagine how a Biden Administration might seek to "incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example."  Will a Prez Biden really try to encourage states to abolish the death penalty if he does not himself work actively to do so at the federal level?  More generally, would a Prez Biden really seek to condition or restrict funding to states — which is the most obvious way to "incentivize" them — based on whether they abolish the death penalty?  He might need help from Congress to tie federal funding to state capital punishment practices, and I am disinclined to expect Congress to be keen on such a project.

That all said, I sense that death penalty abolition is a high-profile and high-priority concern for many progressive activists and policy-makers.  As such, this issue is one worth watching closely as an indication of how much energy and political capital a Biden Administration may be willing to spend on controversial matters to appease the left flank of his party.

Prior related posts:

UPDATE: Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger highlights in this post that a high-profile federal case presents a high-profile opportunity for the incoming Biden Administration to show a commitment to capital abolition.  Kent's post is titled "The Marathon Bomber, the Death Penalty, and the Biden Administration," and it ends this way:

Are you really opposed to the death penalty in all cases, Mr. President-elect?  If so, this is the case to take the action. This is the case that poses the question in its starkest terms.  Don’t chicken out and announce it in some borderline case on the ragged edge of deserving the death penalty.  Man up and announce it in the case that screams for it.  Direct the Solicitor General to stipulate to the dismissal of the certiorari petition, and announce to the nation that you will not seek a new death sentence for Tsarnaev on remand.

Let’s see what kind of reaction you get.

December 15, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Is Alabama Senator Doug Jones now the front-runner to be Joe Biden's pick for Attorney General?

In this post a few week ago, I asked "Is Sally Yates on track to be the next US Attorney General?," and until tonight I was still thinking she was the front-runner for this key Cabinet position.  But this new AP piece, headlined "Biden's attorney general search is focused on Jones, Garland," suggests that confirmation concerns may be driving Prez-elect Biden in another direction.  Here are the details:

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones and federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland are emerging as the leading contenders to be nominated as President-elect Joe Biden’s attorney general, three people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press.  A decision hasn’t been finalized and the dynamics could shift in the coming days as Biden builds out his Cabinet with an eye to ensuring diverse leadership in the top ranks of his administration.

But Jones, who lost reelection last month, and Garland, whose Supreme Court nomination was snubbed by Republicans, appear increasingly well positioned ahead of other rivals. Democrats are particularly concerned about the prospect of Biden nominating former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, fearing she could face a difficult confirmation in the Senate because of her role in issues related to the Russia investigation.

Biden’s thinking was described by people with knowledge of the presidential transition’s internal thinking who were not authorized to speak publicly.  Andrew Bates, a representative for the transition, did not comment for this story.  The president-elect is facing pressure to ensure that Black and Latino leaders are prominently positioned in his administration. He selected retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin this week to become the first Black secretary of defense.

Jones, who is white, has had a long-standing personal relationship with Biden dating back to Biden’s first presidential campaign in 1988. The former U.S. attorney prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan who were responsible for a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, and later served as the U.S. attorney there from 1997 until 2001.

Biden met with civil rights activists on Tuesday to discuss diversity in his Cabinet.  The Rev. Al Sharpton, who attended the meeting, encouraged Biden to select a Black attorney general but gave him room to select someone of another race as long as they had a background in civil rights. “I said the least we could have is someone that has a proven civil rights background that’s someone that’s going to handle this heightened racist bigoted atmosphere,” Sharpton told reporters.

It’s unclear whether Garland would fit that standard as easily.  He is an experienced judge with a reputation for moderation who held senior positions at the Justice Department decades ago, including as a supervisor of the prosecution of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.  Garland was put forward by President Barack Obama for a seat on the Supreme Court in 2016 following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, but Republicans refused to hold hearings in the final year of Obama’s term.  The vacancy was later filled by Justice Neil Gorsuch during the Trump administration.

The incoming attorney general would inherit a Justice Department that has endured a tumultuous four years and would likely need to focus on not only civil rights issues and an overhaul of national policing policies after months of mass protests over the deaths of Black Americans at the hand of law enforcement, but also on concerns from Democrats about politicization of the department in the Trump administration....

Supporters of Yates view her nearly 30-year Justice Department career in both Democratic and Republican administrations, and experience ranging from civil rights cases to national security matters, as making her uniquely qualified to lead the department as it looks to move on from the Trump era.  Still, Republican senators would be likely to focus a Yates confirmation hearing on her final year at the department, when the FBI closed out the Hillary Clinton email investigation and opened an investigation into whether the Trump campaign was coordinating with Russia, which later morphed into special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation....

Jones would not comment Tuesday on the possibility of a nomination as attorney general.  “They have a process and we’ll let that process play,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill.

The Biden team has also been considering a number of other potential candidates for the post, including former Justice Department official Lisa Monaco.

December 8, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Interesting advocacy for Senator Durbin to take over top Dem spot on Senate Judiciary Committee

In my upper-level sentencing class, I spend a lot of time highlighting for students how many different system players have an impact on sentencing law, policy and practice.  Too often, a cursory discussion of sentencing looks only at trial judges and judicial decision-making.  But at the case-specific level, decisions by victims and police and prosecutors and defense attorneys can often have a profound and even controlling impact on sentencing outcomes.  System-wide, players inside and around all levels of legislative, executive and judicial branches can directly and subtly impact sentencing law and policy.  These realities are on my mind upon seeing this recent Hill piece headlined "Criminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot."  Here are the details:

A coalition of criminal justice groups is signaling support for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in his bid to take over the top Democratic spot on the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Justice Roundtable, a coalition of more than 100 groups, sent a letter to Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), obtained exclusively by The Hill, signaling support for Durbin, citing his previous work on criminal justice reform.

"At this inflection point in the nation’s history, particularly as we confront a devastating pandemic and systemic racial inequality, we are comforted to know Senator Durbin’s long-standing commitment to human rights, fairness and justice will guide him at this critical time.  He is a trusted and experienced leader, and we welcome his ascension in the Judiciary Committee," Justice Roundtable leadership wrote to Schumer.

Durbin, who was recently reelected to serve as the Senate Democratic whip in the next Congress, has worked for years on criminal justice legislation.  Most recently he teamed up with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who was then the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act and the First Step Act.  The First Step Act, which incorporated provisions of the first bill, was passed in 2018 after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agreed to give it a vote amid pressure from the White House and a bipartisan group of senators.

"If not for Dick Durbin sentencing reform would not be a part of the First STEP Act. He was very much an ally of the criminal justice groups and the liberal groups," Inimai Chettiar, the federal legislative and policy director for the Justice Action Network, told The Hill, crediting Durbin with "holding people's feet to the fire."

Durbin and Grassley, who will chair the Judiciary Committee if Republicans keep the majority, have also teamed up this year on legislation reforming compassionate release for federal prisoners amid the coronavirus.

Durbin, who is serving in the No. 2 spot as party whip, announced that he would seek the party's top position on the panel after Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she would step down from the spot. Some progressives, however, have signaled support for Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who has also been active on criminal justice and prison reform and has been a leading voice in the caucus on issues like campaign finance reform and the judiciary....

"Anyone who cares about criminal justice reform and its impact on racial justice should want [Durbin] to be the top Democrat on Senate Judiciary," Kevin Ring, the head of the FAAM Foundation, tweeted amid the progressive pushback against Durbin. He added on Monday that "this is madness. You don’t pass over Michael Jordan to shake things up. Dems should pick Durbin if they want to pass bolder criminal justice reform."...

The offers of support for Durbin comes as criminal justice groups are gearing up to try to get additional legislation passed under the incoming Biden administration. Biden, during the White House race, vowed to end the government's use of private prisons, end cash bail and work to end the use of the death penalty.

If Durbin or Whitehouse would be chair or ranking member of the Judiciary Committee remains unclear because which party will control the Senate will come down to the two Georgia runoff elections on January 5. "I think it is critically important who the leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee is going to be and I think Dick Durbin has a very proven record of being able to fight for criminal justice reforms," Chettiar said.

It is so interesting to see criminal justice reform advocates advocating to a Senate leader about who should ge given a leadership role in the chamber.  These advocates fully understand the importance of having a vocal proponent for criminal justice reform serving in a key Senate role (although how key that role is to be awaits the run-off results next month in Georgia).  As I explained in this post last month, I am cautiously optimistic that some form of sentencing reform will be an arena for important bipartisan discussion and work in the next Congress no matter who is in charge.  But who is in charge still matters a lot, so it will be interesting to see how the new Senate Judiciary Committee takes shape. 

December 2, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Reviewing CJUTF Recommendations: will the Biden Administration go all in with progressive prosecutors?

Right after the election, I blogged a bit (here and here) about some criminal justice reform recommendations from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force (available here pp. 56-62).  And last week, as explained here, I decided to start a series of posts to spotlight and amplify some recommendations from the CJUTF that ought to be of particular interest to sentencing fans.  This post will focus on prosecutors, and  begin by noting this recent Hill commentary by Miriam Krinsky headlined "Biden can rebuild trust in our justice system by prioritizing prosecutorial reform."  I recommend this piece in full, and here are a few choice passages:

[P]rosecutors wield vast power to determine whether someone comes into the justice system and the course of their case thereafter.  They control which charges to bring and make the high-stakes determination of whether to seek to keep people in jail as they await trial — which, in turn, makes them four times more likely to be sentenced to prison than if released pre-trial....

[T]he new administration’s ability to impact the criminal justice system will depend, in significant part, on its ability to support and work alongside local prosecutors.  To start, a robust task force on “21st Century Prosecution” can propel a new national vision of what it means to be a fair and just prosecutor — and a strategy for how to get there.

In other words, prosecutors are arguably the most consequential players in the criminal justice system, and reform advocates are eager to see the Biden Administration advance a "new national vision of what it means to be a fair and just prosecutor."   So, here is some of what the CJUTF has to say on this front:  

Task Force on Prosecutorial DiscretionCreate a new task force, placed outside of the U.S. Department of Justice, to make recommendations for tackling discrimination and other problems in our justice system that result from arrest and charging decisions....

Federal Prosecutorial Guidelines: Immediately withdraw the Trump Administration’s guidance advising prosecutors to pursue the harshest penalties possible, even for low-level offenses.  Reinstate the Obama-Biden Administration's Smart on Crime Initiative, and issue new federal guidelines that advise prosecutors not to overcharge cases in order to coerce plea deals, or to pursue harsher sentences in order to penalize citizens for exercising their right to a jury trial....

Appointing Prosecutors:  Appoint people committed to criminal justice reform to key prosecutorial positions, including AG, DAG, and U.S. Attorneys.

Transparency & Data Collection: Direct DOJ to collect data on federal prosecution practices and make it public. Include opening investigations, charging, pretrial detention and release, plea offers, and sentence recommendations. Include data on racial disparities....

Support Progressive Prosecutors: Support new state prosecutors through funding and technical support in their efforts to ensure public safety while reducing incarceration.

The commitment to reinstate the Obama-Biden Administration's Smart on Crime Initiative strikes me as notable, though not quite game-changing.  A serious commitment to require DOJ to collect comprehensive data about its practices could be a bigger deal than any particular substantive policy change, though it is unclear just how this data might be collected and used.  Perhaps an independent task force on prosecutorial discretion can and will figure out how to effectively gather and operationalize federal prosecutorial data. 

In the end, the biggest game-changer could be if the Biden Administration were really to go all in with the progressive prosecutors movement.  Directing special federal funding and support to local progessive prosecutors could add momentum to an already significant local movement.  And the commitment to appoint reform-minded folks to all "key prosecutorial positions, including AG to DAG, and U.S. Attorneys" sounds like a commitment to having progressive prosecutors throughout the federal criminal justice system.

In the end, I suspect we will see a broad definition of "people committed to criminal justice reform" in key Biden appointments, and I do not think anyone should expect dramatic change in this arena right away.  But I do think there is reason to be hopeful that in coming years the US Department of Justice could become more of an ally, rathen than a persistent opponent, of at least some progressive criminal justice reforms.

Prior related posts:

November 29, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 27, 2020

Exploring what Prez-elect Biden might (or might not) get done for criminal justice reforms

NBC News has this new piece discussing, mostly in vague terms, what criminal justice reform might look like under a Biden Administration. The piece is headlined "Biden was pilloried for his criminal justice record. During his presidency, advocates expect change," and here are excerpts:

Experts told NBC News that now as both political parties appear to have common ground on the issue and significant steps have been made over the past decade, a Biden administration needs to make criminal justice reform more than a talking point.

“The chief cornerstone has already been laid, the groundwork has already been done, the foundation has already been built.  The only thing that he has to go in and do is continue to capitalize off of the momentum,” said Louis L. Reed, the director of organizing and partnerships at #Cut50, a bipartisan criminal justice reform nonprofit.  “Biden needs to hit the ground running on legislation and executive action.”

The Biden transition team did not respond to a request for comment on their plans.  But as a presidential candidate, he proposed sweeping reforms, including ending private prisons, cash bail, and mandatory-minimum sentencing.  He has also been a vocal opponent of the death penalty and police reform.  He has floated, for example, tying federal funds given to police departments to diversity initiatives and community policing, among other areas — rebuffing calls from progressive activists to defund police departments....

Biden’s legislative hopes also hinge on the Democrats winning the majority in the Senate in January.  He has promised a flurry of executive orders on Day 1 in the White House to unwind a number of Trump administration policies and may opt to continue doing so if Republicans obstruct his legislative efforts.  But the effectiveness of executive orders can be limited when it comes to criminal justice reform, which would not affect state and local prisons.

Tackling police reform will be an especially delicate issue after a year in which the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement prompted worldwide protests and national reckoning.  Balancing the concerns of police officers and progressive activists looking to slash their budgets and re-imagining policing is one illustration experts say will be one of the hurdles he could face. Biden during the campaign rejected calls to defund the police, angering some progressive activists.  At the same time, he also lost support from police unions, who largely supported Trump.

Adam Gelb, the founder of the Council on Criminal Justice, a bipartisan criminal justice nonprofit, is a former Senate Judiciary staffer who worked with Biden on the 1994 crime bill.  He said that he believes Biden’s promise to be a coalition builder is genuine but that he may not be fully prepared to restructure the nation’s sprawling criminal justice system.

“I don't think he sees crime control and justice as a zero-sum game, but will focus on policies that can produce win-wins,” he said, adding that Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris recognize that "many of the policies of the 80s and 90s overshot the mark, and are now way out of step with public sentiment, as well as research about what actually works."...

Gelb said he believes Biden understands that there are social inequalities but does not fully grasp the extent to which the system itself is the root of the problem.  "My sense is that he understands that the criminal justice system is deeply flawed and needs to be fixed, but that he sees the system as a source of solutions, not a fundamental cause of the problems,” he said.  “And that means a balanced strengthening of the systems of enforcement, and prevention, and treatment, and corrections, and the courts."

A few of many prior related posts:

November 27, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

"Here's One Thing Republicans and Democrats Agree on: Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is one headline that I have seen for this new New York Times article (which echoes some themes I have stressed in a few posts here and here from election week). I recommend the article in full, and here are some excerpts:

In a video presenting his closing argument for maintaining Republican dominance of the Senate, the majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, chose three issues — tax cuts, judicial appointments and criminal justice reform.

Mr. McConnell had resisted bringing the First Step Act, which expanded release opportunities for federal prisoners, to the floor under former President Barack Obama and did so during the Trump administration only under extreme pressure.  Its passage firmly established the allure of reform and is now widely cited as President Trump’s most significant bipartisan achievement....

[C]riminal justice reform offers something for just about everyone: social justice crusaders who point to yawning racial disparities, fiscal conservatives who decry the extravagant cost of incarceration, libertarians who think the government has criminalized too many aspects of life and Christian groups who see virtue in mercy and redemption.

At the federal level, both parties have proposed police accountability bills.  Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has recently signaled that he is open to reinstating parole for federal prisoners, which was eliminated during the tough-on-crime 1980s.  President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has promised to reduce incarceration and supports abolishing mandatory minimum sentences and expanding mental health and drug treatment.

Relatively few voters ranked the criminal justice system at the top of their list of concerns, even after the killing of George Floyd in May thrust policing into the national spotlight.  But patient work by advocates, buy-in from conservative groups and the United States’s position as a global leader in incarceration have gradually spread the message that the system is broken, and made fixing it a cause with broad appeal. 

A wide array of criminal justice measures did well on the ballot, including increasing police oversight, legalizing drugs and restoring voting rights to those with felony records.

Fewer Americans than ever believe the system is “not tough enough,” according to a recent Gallup poll.  And in a sign of how much attitudes have changed since lawmakers boasted of locking people up and throwing away the key, Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden sparred over who had let more people out of prison.

The fact that it is a niche issue may serve to increase its chances of breaking partisan gridlock....

The pandemic, in which prisons and jails have become some of the biggest viral hot spots, presents an opportunity for advocates, who hope that Covid-19 relief measures like expanded medical release and early parole will outlast the spread of the coronavirus.

Pandemic-related budget shortfalls represent another opportunity. The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a progressive group, has called its legislative agenda for next year “Spend Your Values, Cut Your Losses,” arguing that measures like lowering drug penalties and making it harder to revoke probation and parole will save millions of dollars....

Robert Blizzard, a Republican pollster, said that criminal justice reform proposals garner support across the board, and help Republicans reach outside their base to groups like suburban women and people of color.

I am pleased to see this article and like many of its themes.  But amidst generations of mass incarceration and criminalization, data showing a third of US adults has a criminal record, and nationwide 2020 protests focused on racial (in)justice, I am still struck and troubled by the blasé statement that criminal justice reform is just a "niche issue."  (Since I read nine of the first ten Amendments to the US Constitution as setting forth formal or informal safeguards against extreme uses of the police power, I suppose I should be grateful the Framers did not view as "niche" the operation of American criminal justice systems.)

This NY Times piece, coming right after a big transition election, leads me to recall this online article I penned for the Harvard Law & Policy Review almost exactly 12 years ago under the title "Reorienting Progressive Perspectives for Twenty-First Century Punishment Realities."  Among other points, I urged progressives to seek to forge bipartisan coalitions for reform in this way:

[P]rogressives can and should be aggressively reaching out to modern conservatives and libertarians in order to forge new coalitions to attack the many political and social forces that contribute to mass incarceration....  If truly committed to their espoused principles of human liberty and small government, modern conservatives and libertarians should be willing and eager to join a serious campaign committed to reversing the incarceration explosion.  Progressives, rather than categorically resisting calls for smaller government, should encourage modern conservatives and libertarians to turn their concerns and energies toward improving America’s criminal justice systems.  Areas where harsh criminal laws appear to be driven by government efforts to hyper-regulate often intangible harms, such as extreme mandatory sentencing statutes related to drug crimes and gun possession, seem especially likely settings for a convergence of views and new alliances for advocacy efforts.  Specific, issue-based advocacy may allow progressives to forge coalitions with unexpected allies in order to work against some of the most unjust modern sentencing laws and policies.

Though a lot of progress has been made in since I wrote these words back in 2008, there is still a whole lot more that needs to get done. I hope political leaders at the federal, state and local levels will continue to keep working together (on this "niche" issue) to continue to move forward aggressively and effectively.

November 25, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 23, 2020

Reviewing Criminal Justice Unity Task Force Recommendations: a new series to welcome a new President

Since the 2020 federal election results became clear a few weeks ago, I have already blogged a bit (here and here) about some of the the notable criminal justice reform recommendations [available here pp. 56-62] from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force (first discussed here).  With Prez-elect Biden now starting to announce his planned cabinet appointments, I have decided it is now time to start a new series of posts that spotlight and amplify some  recommendations from the Criminal Justice Unity Task Force that ought to get sentencing fans especially excited. 

I have never been quite sure if Prez-elect Joe Biden views the recommendations that emerged from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force as part of his official avowed agenda.  But I am quite sure that I am going to be eager to persistently judge the work of the Biden Adminstraton against the backdrop of what the Criminal Justice Unity Task Force (CJUTF) recommended.  And because soooooo much is recommended by the CJUTF, everyone should be prepared for a lot of coming posts in this series.

With that set up, let me start this series by spotlighting arguably the most exciting and challenging of all the CJUTF recommendations:

Sentence Length and Early Release: Task the U.S. Sentencing Commission with conducting a comprehensive review of existing sentencing guidelines and statutory sentencing ranges, with the goal of generating legislative recommendations, promulgating new guidelines, and issuing formal guidance to reduce unreasonably long sentences and promote rehabilitation.  The Commission should make recommendations regarding early release options, including expanding good time credits, reinstating federal parole, and creating a “second look” mechanism permitting federal judges to reevaluate sentences after a certain amount of time served.  Any such options should use a systematic, evidence-based approach that reduces risks to public safety, prevents racially disparate implementation, reduces the total number of people under federal custody and supervision, and limits the duration and conditions of supervision.

This recommendation is so exciting and challenging because it essentialy calls for a top-to-bottom "comprehensive" review of the federal sentencing system.  It is also exciting and challenging because it presupposes a functioning and functional US Sentencing Commission, which has not existed for the better part of two years because of USSC vacancies. 

I have flagged this issue in this first post in this series not only because it is arguably the most far-reaching of the CJUTF recommendations, but also because the incoming Biden Administration needs to be working now on appointments to the US Sentencing Commission if it really wants to hit the ground running.  Sadly, there is a long history of US Sentencing Commission not getting the attention it deserves and that it critically needs if and whenever federal policymakers are seriously committed to federal sentencing reform.  At a time when there is finally sustained bipartisan commitment to continued federal sentencing reforms, the new President and his team should be trying to get all the key players on the field ASAP.  All the other proposed CJUTF sentencing reforms that I will discuss in coming posts can and should be more effectively advanced if and when the Biden Administration does this critical initital appointing work.  

Prior related posts:

November 23, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 20, 2020

Is Sally Yates on track to be the next US Attorney General?

E204c9e0-0c25-11eb-a040-3d8028d863aa_1200_630The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Reuters piece headlined "Biden's possible attorney general pick has moderate track record: progressive critics."  Here are excerpts:

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to end the federal death penalty and eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, but some progressives say a potential pick for attorney general to carry out those reforms may not be the one to enact bold changes.

Sally Yates, 60, is a leading candidate for the job, according to sources.  The Atlanta native is perhaps best known for being fired from her position as acting attorney general by Republican President Donald Trump in his first month in office when she refused to enforce his first attempt at banning travelers from Muslim-majority nations.

Her history at the Department of Justice (DOJ) — where Democratic President Barack Obama appointed her as deputy attorney general in 2015, and before that as Atlanta’s top federal prosecutor for about five years — make the adviser to the Biden transition team a safe pick for a role subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate, which may still be under Republican control next year.

Asked for comment, a Yates spokeswoman provided a lengthy list of opinion articles, testimony and other records she said demonstrate Yates’ strong commitment to criminal justice reform.  A Biden transition team spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Yates has expressed a measured approach on some criminal justice reforms, including previously voicing some support for the mandatory minimum sentences Biden wants to end — a position some progressives worry may not go far enough at a time of reckoning for the criminal justice system.  “She has done courageous things, but she is a career prosecutor,” said Rachel Barkow, a New York University law professor who previously served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets federal sentencing guidelines.  “The question will be, if Sally Yates comes in a second time, does she do a better job reading the moment or is she still coming with that DOJ insider lens?”...

Yates, during her 2015 confirmation hearing for deputy attorney general, called mandatory minimum sentences “an important tool for prosecutors,” which could nevertheless be used more judiciously due to the “fiscal reality” facing U.S. prisons.  While she was U.S. attorney in Atlanta, her office also sought the death penalty in some cases, and she testified on the Justice Department’s behalf to urge the U.S. Sentencing Commission to narrowly limit who could qualify to apply retroactively for a drug sentence reduction.

She was also involved in a controversy surrounding a 2014 clemency project, after Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff resigned in protest due to a backlog of 1,000 recommendations sitting in Yates’ office, 100 of which were urging clemency be granted.  In her January 2016 resignation letter, Leff said Yates had blocked her access to the White House, including on cases where Yates had reversed Leff’s clemency determinations.  Yates’ defenders say she was passionate about clemency, and personally reviewed every petition herself.

Some former colleagues say Yates deserves credit for important work that began during the Obama administration, much of which has since largely been undone during Trump’s term.  Yates spearheaded efforts to scale back the federal government’s use of private prisons, revamped the Bureau of Prisons’ education program to better prepare inmates for release and urged limits on solitary confinement.  She also persuaded Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder to expand on his new policy scaling back the use of mandatory minimums and later publicly rebuked Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, after he reversed these policies in 2017.

“Somebody like Sally is very attuned to what has been happening in the country after George Floyd’s murder,” said Vanita Gupta, who headed the DOJ’s civil rights division during Yates’ tenure and now heads the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human rights.  “She is very personally committed to civil rights and criminal justice reform, and I would fully expect that commitment would actually only deepen.”

I sense that Yates' long history as a federal prosecutor and her moderate approach to many reform issues leads some progressives to be rooting against her for the Attorney General position in a Biden Administration.  But I am inclined to view Yates' past criminal justice record somewhat like I view VP-elect Harris' record: I sense they have always been highly attuned to, and quite effective within, the felt legal and political needs of the time, which would suggest at least some ability to step up to the needs of our current criminal-justice-reform-focused times.

I am eager to note here that Sally Yates has recently been actively involved in the Council of Criminal Justice, serving as Co-Chair of the CCJ Board of Trustees and as a member of its federal priorities task force.  As highlighted in this post from May, I was especially impressed with the agenda for reform that the CCJ federal priorities task force produced.   This impressive report, titled "Next Steps: An Agenda for Federal Action on Safety and Justice," included 15 thoughtful recommendations, and I would be thrilled to have a new Attorney General committed to making these particular proposals a reality ASAP:

If the next Attorney General would be able to get even half of these priorities completed in the coming years, that would be quite a set of accomplishments.

November 20, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

So much great data and analysis from the Prison Policy Initiative

I have been behind on reading and blogging on various fronts, particularly with respect to a number of notable new items from the Prison Policy Initiative.  I will "catch up" poorly through this set of links to recent PPI works:

November 17, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Data on sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 09, 2020

After Tennessee Gov postpones last scheduled state execution of year, will all three scheduled federal 2020 executions still go forward?

As reported in this local article, "Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has granted death row inmate Pervis Payne a temporary reprieve due to the COVID-19 pandemic."  Here is more:

Payne's execution was scheduled for Dec. 3, 2020. The reprieve lasts until April 9, 2021. Lee said in a written statement that the reprieve was issued "due to the challenges and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic," but did not elaborate further.

Payne, who is being held on death row in Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, is convicted of the 1987 deaths of Millington woman Charisse Christopher, 28, and her 2-year-old daughter, Lacie.  Christopher’s 3-year-old son, Nicholas, survived multiple stab wounds in the brutal attack that took place in Christopher’s apartment.

“This additional time will also allow us to investigate Mr. Payne’s strong innocence claim, together with the Innocence Project," said Kelley Henry, Payne's attorney.  "We are grateful to the 150 faith, legal, legislative, and community groups in Memphis and across the state that support clemency for Mr. Payne. Together with Mr. Payne’s family, we will continue the fight to prove Mr. Payne’s innocence.”

The reprieve also allows time for the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators to potentially pass legislation that would allow a defendant already sentenced to the death penalty and whose conviction is final to still bring a petition regarding a claim of intellectual disability. Although members of the caucus filed the bill Wednesday, it cannot be passed until January at the earliest, initially after Payne's scheduled execution.

Payne has maintained his innocence, and his attorneys have said that he is intellectually disabled, but have been unable to litigate the claim in Tennessee due to procedural reasons. In federal court, Payne’s attorneys have filed a petition asking the court to prevent his execution until hearing his claim that he is intellectually disabled....

During his 1988 trial, Payne said he discovered the gruesome crime scene after hearing calls for help through the open door of the apartment. He said he bent down to try to help, getting blood on his clothes and pulling at the knife still lodged in Christopher's throat. When a white police officer arrived, Payne, who is Black, said he panicked and ran, fearing he would be seen as the prime suspect.

The Shelby County District Attorney's Office has maintained that regardless of what DNA testing shows, the evidence to convict Payne of the crimes was overwhelming. An officer saw him leaving the scene of the crime drenched in blood, and Payne admitted to being there.  His baseball cap was found looped around the 2-year-old victim's arm, and his fingerprints were found inside the apartment.

Payne’s case has drawn the support of a large coalition of advocates, led by the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association, urging for the DNA testing.  The coalition includes the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, Memphis Chapter of the NAACP, the Memphis Bar Association, 100 Black Men of Memphis, National Council of Negro Women (Memphis Chapter), Stand for Children Tennessee, Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH) and several leaders in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), of which Payne is a member.

It strikes me as quite notable and ultimately disturbing that, for a crime that took place 33 years ago(!), it seems that a global pandemic was needed to justify a short reprieve to provide time "to investigate Mr. Payne’s strong innocence claim."  Also, if Payne is actually intellectually disabled and thereby categorically ineligible for execution under the Eighth Amendment, it seems quite problematic to preclude him from properly litigating this constitutional issue fully for mere procedural reasons.

These case specifics aside, this Death Penalty Information Center page details that this planned Tennessee execution had been the last state execution scheduled for 2020.  So, due to lots COVID disruptions as well as other factors, it appears the total number of state executions in 2020 will be only seven individuals, marking the lowest yearly total of state executions in almost 40 years.  But, of course, the federal government really revved up its machinery of death in 2020, and there have already been seven federal executions in 2020.  Moreover, there are three more federal executions still scheduled for 2020: as this BOP page details, one execution is scheduled for next Thursday, and two more are scheduled for the second week of December.

Even if we did not have a consequential federal election this month, the federal defendants scheduled for execution in the coming weeks would surely be seeking a reprieve based on COVID concerns and perhaps on other grounds as well.  But, especially given that the Joe Biden campaign talked about seek to abolish the federal death penalty, if these condemned defendants can find a way to get their executions postponed until after January 20, 2021, they might benefit from a new Administration eager to now completely turn off the entire federal machinery of death.

November 9, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 08, 2020

So who are you rooting for to be the next US Attorney General?

I would be eager to hear from readers about who they would like to to see nominated by Joe Biden to be the next US Attorney General.  This Politico article, headlined "Meet the contenders for Biden’s Cabinet," discusses these purported front-runners:

With Tommy Tuberville’s defeat of Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) on Tuesday, Jones will be unemployed come January and available to join Biden’s cabinet. Jones wouldn’t add to the Cabinet’s diversity, but the former U.S. attorney in Alabama has credibility when it comes to civil rights: He led the successful prosecutions of two members of the Ku Klux Klan involved in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, nearly 40 years later. Jones also happens to be a friend of Biden’s, dating back to his work on Biden’s first presidential campaign in 1988.

Jones, however, is likely to have competition for the Attorney General post, including from Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez. Perez is “in the mix,” said Oscar Ramirez, a Democratic lobbyist who worked in the Obama administration and is active in Latino Democratic circles. Another person who’s tracked the early jockeying for attorney general said allies of Perez have floated his name.

Perez has Justice Department experience: He served as assistant attorney general for civil rights in President Barack Obama’s administration before Obama tapped him as Labor secretary. But he also faces a potential obstacle with Republicans likely to remain in control of the Senate: No Republicans voted to confirm him as Labor secretary in 2013, and it’s unlikely that his years leading the DNC have endeared him to the GOP.

Another name being mentioned is Sally Yates, a former deputy attorney general in the Obama administration, who became a progressive cause célèbre when President Donald Trump fired her in the early days of his presidency for refusing to defend his executive order barring entry to people several Muslim countries. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is another potential candidate, Ramirez said, although he’s also been mentioned as a possible Homeland Security secretary. California Gov. Gavin Newsom might also tap Becerra, a former congressman, to fill the Senate seat that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will vacate in January. (Becerra previously succeeded Harris as California attorney general in 2017 following Harris’ election to the Senate.)

This USA Today article, headlined "President-elect Joe Biden seeks diverse Cabinet to 'look like America' in leading federal departments," throws out these additional names:

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a white member of the Senate Judiciary Committee where she has been harshly critical of Attorney General William Barr. She dropped her presidential campaign after the South Carolina primary and endorsed Biden....

Stacey Abrams, a Black former member of the Georgia Legislature who was among those considered as Biden’s running mate.  Abrams has been a fierce advocate for voting rights after running an unsuccessful but high-profile campaign for governor of Georgia, a state that was surprisingly competitive for Biden.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., a Black member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and presidential candidate, was a key sponsor of sweeping criminal justice legislation aimed at cutting mandatory minimum sentences and reducing the federal prison population.

Preet Bharara, who was born in India, a former chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan’s Southern District of New York, was fired by Trump after the then-newly elected president had asked him to remain on the job.  Bharara subsequently described a series of contacts with Trump before his firing that he said threatened the Justice Department’s independence from the White House.

I have always been a big Cory Booker fan, in part because he has long been a vocal advocate for a range of federal sentencing reforms.  So I think he is the candidate I am rooting for, though I sense he may be a relative long shot.  And I am genuinely eager to hear from readers about their thoughts about people on this list or anyone else who might become our nation's next "top law enforcement officer" for the United States.

November 8, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

"What Biden’s Win Means for the Future of Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the headline of this extended new piece from The Marshall Project, which begins this way:

During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised to end private prisons, cash bail, mandatory-minimum sentencing and the death penalty.  Candidate Biden also said the U.S. could reduce its prison population by more than half.  While he didn’t put forward as progressive or as detailed a platform as many of his competitors for the Democratic nomination (including his running mate Kamala Harris), Biden has nevertheless, quietly, been elected on the most progressive criminal justice platform of any major party candidate in generations.  So what can he actually do?

Biden will face the same constraints as all incoming presidents after a campaign of big promises.  Government moves slowly, time and political capital are limited, and his administration will likely need to prioritize the pandemic and the related economic fallout in the early days.  But if he’s serious about tackling criminal justice, here’s what experts say to expect from the Biden administration on key issues.

I recommend checking out the full lengthy discussion, and here are snippets from a few of its sentencing pieces:

The Death Penalty

Biden can’t unilaterally end the death penalty, but he can speed up its demise and use symbolism to signal a new era.  Ultimately, the death penalty is symbolic. It has never been used to punish more than a tiny fraction of the most serious murders, but it makes very long prison sentences appear lenient by comparison.

On the campaign trail, Biden said he’d work to end the federal government’s use of the death penalty.  His record is mixed.... Although only Congress can fully abolish the federal death penalty, the president can do a great deal to speed its yearslong decline across the country.  Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, oversaw the most federal executions of any presidential administration since Eisenhower.  A new attorney general could stop them immediately, and return to the Obama-era practice of seeking no executions. A new attorney general could tell U.S. attorneys to only seek new death sentences for rare crimes like terrorism and mass shootings, which would still apply to defendants like Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev.... — Maurice Chammah

Mandatory Minimums

Biden has said he wants to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, a legacy of the tough-on-crime ’80s.  To make this happen at the federal level, he’d need to appoint a range of officials who share this view, and get buy-in from Congress....

Biden’s criminal justice platform pledges to eliminate federal mandatory minimums.  Biden hasn’t specified which ones, but advocates say if he does tackle them, he will likely focus on drug crimes.  There are more than 60,000 people currently serving mandatory minimum sentences in federal prison, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. 10,000 entered the system last year alone.  A broad clemency effort or a law change, if it were retroactive, could reduce the federal prison population by a quarter almost overnight.

Repealing mandatory minimums — or passing a “safety valve” law that doesn’t repeal them but gives judges the discretion to sidestep them — would require an act of Congress. Part of the problem, say scholars who study the issue, are the Attorney General and the Department of Justice, whose opinions carry a lot of weight with Congress.  So the first step a President Biden could take to signal his commitment to repealing mandatory minimums is to appoint officials who share his view, says Rachel Barkow, a law professor at NYU and a former member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which helps draft federal sentencing guidelines.  An Attorney General who is skeptical of mandatory minimums could also instruct federal prosecutors to use them judiciously, as Eric Holder did in 2013.... — Beth Schwartzapfel

Clemency

Biden has lots of power to revamp and supercharge the clemency process — but he hasn’t given much indication that he intends to use it. Clemency, which includes reversing criminal convictions (pardons) and shortening sentences (commutations), is the president’s most direct means to reduce incarceration. Biden made no bold promises on these topics during the campaign. He has promised to “broadly use his clemency power for certain non-violent and drug crimes,” as Obama did at the end of his administration....

Biden could ask Harris to take the lead on clemency since she laid out a more detailed plan than his own during the Democratic primary. Harris said she would remove clemency decisions from the Department of Justice and open a federal sentence review unit, where a team of lawyers would be exclusively tasked with reviewing old sentences and considering reductions.... — Jamiles Lartey

Private Prisons

Biden can move the 14,000 federal prisoners currently held in private facilities without too much struggle. After that it gets harder.  Biden and Harris both pledged to end the federal government’s use of private prisons during the 2020 campaign, a position that is extremely popular among Democrats partywide.  Experts say the incoming administration is likely to build on guidance issued under the Obama administration in 2016, rescinded by Trump, that encourages the director of the Bureau of Prisons to stop renewing contracts with private facilities when they expire, in an effort to ultimately phase out their use.... — Jamiles Lartey

Reducing The Prison Population

Biden can’t implement new programs or rewrite outdated sentencing laws at the state level.  But he can use federal funding to send a message.  Crime prevention is a central feature of Biden’s criminal justice plan.  He has pledged to set aside $20 billion in federal funding to states that adopt evidence-based crime prevention programs and that opt for diversion programs over incarceration....

Under Biden’s plan, states would have access to federal funding if they agreed to implement programs designed to keep people out of prison.  The funding comes with some stipulations: States must eliminate mandatory minimums and they must create earned credit programs for people currently serving time.  It’s unclear what kinds of programs states could or should adopt in order to get the funding.  Biden has emphasized the need for states to invest in programs that address several underlying drivers of crime such as illiteracy and limited early education.  Congress would have to enact Biden’s plan.  — Nicole Lewis

Though indirectly mentioned in the Mandatory Minimum section, I am a bit disappointed that appointments to the US Sentencing Commission is not mentioned. The USSC, with the right appointees, could provide to be a particularly important and consequential agency at a moment in which implementation of the FIRST STEP Act is really still just getting started and during which other legislative reforms are being widely discussed.

November 8, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tomorrow can be today for some Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force criminal justice recommendations

Now that former VP Joe Biden is starting to begin work as Prez Elect Joe Biden, I started thinking about some of Dr. Martin Luther King's famous words about the persistent and pressing need for urgent action to advance justice.  As MLK put it in one 1967 speech:

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today.  We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.  Procrastination is still the thief of time.

With the fierce urgency of now in mind, I looked through the criminal justice reform recommendations [available here] from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force (discussed here) to see which ones might be acted upon ASAP.  Many of the recommendations involve matters that will require congressional action (e.g., "End the federal crack and powder cocaine disparity in sentences") or that must await Prez Elect Biden officially taking office (e.g., "Direct DOJ to collect data on federal prosecution practices").  But there are at least two notable recommendations involving the creation of an independent task force or board which could begin work right away: 

Task Force on Prosecutorial Discretion: Create a new task force, placed outside of the U.S. Department of Justice, to make recommendations for tackling discrimination and other problems in our justice system that result from arrest and charging decisions.

Clemency Board: To avoid possible institutional bias and ensure people have a fair and independent evaluation, establish an independent clemency board, composed and staffed by people with diverse backgrounds. Expand Obama-era criteria for proactive clemency initiative to address individuals serving excess sentences.

Notably, Prez Elect Biden has now promised to announce on Monday a COVID task force. I am pleased he is acting fast on this critical front; but in this unfolding conundrum of life and history, I am always going to be urging leaders to treat tomorrow as today with regard to criminal justice reforms.

November 8, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)