Friday, January 11, 2019

"Wealth-Based Penal Disenfranchisement"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article now on SSRN authored by Beth Colgan. Here is its abstract:

This Article offers the first comprehensive examination of the way in which the inability to pay economic sanctions—fines, fees, surcharges, and restitution — may prevent people of limited means from voting.  The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of penal disenfranchisement upon conviction, and all but two states revoke the right to vote for at least some offenses. The remaining jurisdictions allow for re-enfranchisement for most or all offenses under certain conditions.  One often overlooked condition is payment of economic sanctions regardless of whether the would-be voter has the ability to pay before an election registration deadline.  The scope of wealth-based penal disenfranchisement is grossly underestimated, with commentators typically stating that nine states sanction such practices.  Through an in-depth examination of a tangle of statutes, administrative rules, and policies related to elections, clemency, parole, and probation, as well as responses from public disclosure requests and discussions with elections and corrections officials and other relevant actors, this Article reveals that wealth-based penal disenfranchisement is authorized in forty-eight states and the District of Columbia.

After describing the mechanisms for wealth-based penal disenfranchisement, this Article offers a doctrinal intervention for dismantling them.  There has been limited, and to date unsuccessful, litigation challenging these practices as violative of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses.  Because voting eligibility is stripped of its fundamental nature for those convicted of a crime, wealth-based penal disenfranchisement has been subject to the lowest level of scrutiny, rational basis review, leading lower courts to uphold the practice.  This Article posits that these courts have approached the validity of wealth-based penal disenfranchisement through the wrong frame — the right to vote — when the proper frame is through the lens of punishment.  This Article examines a line of cases in which the Court restricted governmental action that would result in disparate treatment between rich and poor in criminal justice practices, juxtaposing the cases against the Court’s treatment of wealth-based discrimination in the Fourteenth Amendment doctrine and the constitutional relevance of indigency in the criminal justice system broadly.  Doing so supports the conclusion that the Court has departed from the traditional tiers of scrutiny.  The resulting test operates as a flat prohibition against the use of the government’s prosecutorial power in ways that effectively punish one’s financial circumstances unless no other alternative response could satisfy the government’s interest in punishing the disenfranchising offense.  Because such alternatives are available, wealth-based penal disenfranchisement would violate the Fourteenth Amendment under this approach.

January 11, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Spotlighting criminal-justice debt and its profound impact on the poorest Americans

The New York Times magazine has this lengthy new article about criminal justice debt under this full headline: "How Cities Make Money by Fining the Poor: In many parts of America, like Corinth, Miss., judges are locking up defendants who can’t pay — sometimes for months at a time." I recommend the piece in full, and here is a snippet:

No government agency comprehensively tracks the extent of criminal-justice debt owed by poor defendants, but experts estimate that those fines and fees total tens of billions of dollars.  That number is likely to grow in coming years, and significantly: National Public Radio, in a survey conducted with the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Center for State Courts, found that 48 states increased their civil and criminal court fees from 2010 to 2014.  And because wealthy and middle-class Americans can typically afford either the initial fee or the services of an attorney, it will be the poor who shoulder the bulk of the burden....

In areas hit by recession or falling tax revenue, fines and fees help pay the bills.  (The costs of housing and feeding inmates can be subsidized by the state.)  As the Fines and Fees Justice Center, an advocacy organization based in New York, has documented, financial penalties on the poor are now a leading source of revenue for municipalities around the country.  In Alabama, for example, the Southern Poverty Law Center took up the case of a woman who was jailed for missing a court date related to an unpaid utility bill.  In Oregon, courts have issued hefty fines to the parents of truant schoolchildren. Many counties around the country engage in civil forfeiture, the seizure of vehicles and cash from people suspected (but not necessarily proven in court) of having broken the law.  In Louisiana, pretrial diversion laws empower the police to offer traffic offenders a choice: Pay up quickly, and the ticket won’t go on your record; fight the ticket in court, and you’ll face additional fees.

“What we’ve seen in our research is that the mechanisms vary, depending on the region,” says Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.  “But they have one thing in common: They use the justice system to wring revenue out of the poorest Americans — the people who can afford it the least.”  Aside from taxes, she says, “criminal-justice debt is now a de facto way of funding a lot of American cities.”

The jailing of poor defendants who cannot pay fines — a particularly insidious version of this revenue machine — has been ruled unconstitutional since a trio of Supreme Court cases spanning the 1970s and early 1980s....  Still, decades after those cases were decided, the practice of jailing people who cannot pay persists, not least because Supreme Court decisions do not always make their way to local courts.  “Precedent is one thing,” says Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of Civil Rights Corps, a Washington-based nonprofit.  “The way a law is written is one thing. The way a law is actually experienced by poor people and people of color is another.”...

In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union detailed evidence of what it calls “modern-day ‘debtors’ prisons’ ” — essentially, courts operating in the same way as Judge Ross’s in Corinth — in Georgia, Michigan, Louisiana, Ohio and Washington State.  “If you spent a few weeks driving from coast to coast, you might not find similar policies in place in every single county,” Sam Brooke, the deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s economic-justice program, told me.  “But every other county? Probably.  This is a massive problem, and it’s not confined to the South.  It’s national.”...

In recent years, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other organizations, including the A.C.L.U. and Karakatsanis’s Civil Rights Corps, have been filing class-action lawsuits against dozens of courts across the South and Midwest and West, arguing that local courts, in jailing indigent defendants, are violating the Supreme Court rulings laid down in Williams, Tate and Bearden.  The lawsuits work: As a settlement is negotiated, a judge typically agrees to stop jailing new inmates for unpaid fines or fees.  “No one wants to admit they’ve knowingly acted in this manner,” says Brooke, who partnered with Karakatsanis on lawsuits in Alabama and filed several elsewhere in the South. “So they tend to settle quickly.” The trouble is locating the offending courts.

January 8, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 07, 2019

Purported SCOTUS originalists and liberals, showing yet again that they are faint-hearted, refuse to consider extending jury trial rights to restitution punishments

I noted in this post the array of per curiam rulings and statements that the Supreme Court released today to get 2019 off to an interesting criminal justice start.  Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that one particular decision, namely the decision to deny certiorari in Hester v. US, has me revved up.  Hester involves a claim that the Sixth Amendment jury trial right recognized in Apprendi, Blakely, Booker and Southern Union is applicable to cases in which findings are essential for the imposition of criminal restitution.  Dissenting from the denial of cert in a this lovely little opinion, Justice Gorsuch explains why this is only logical and is consistent with an originalist approach to the Constitution:

[T]he government argues that the Sixth Amendment doesn’t apply to restitution orders because the amount of restitution is dictated only by the extent of the victim’s loss and thus has no “statutory maximum.”  But the government’s argument misunderstands the teaching of our cases.  We’ve used the term “statutory maximum” to refer to the harshest sentence the law allows a court to impose based on facts a jury has found or the defendant has admitted.  Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 303 (2004).  In that sense, the statutory maximum for restitution is usually zero, because a court can’t award any restitution without finding additional facts about the victim’s loss.  And just as a jury must find any facts necessary to authorize a steeper prison sentence or fine, it would seem to follow that a jury must find any facts necessary to support a (nonzero) restitution order.

The government is not without a backup argument, but it appears to bear problems of its own.  The government suggests that the Sixth Amendment doesn’t apply to restitution orders because restitution isn’t a criminal penalty, only a civil remedy that “compensates victims for [their] economic losses.”  Brief in Opposition 8 (internal quotation marks omitted).  But the Sixth Amendment’s jury trial right expressly applies “[i]n all criminal prosecutions,” and the government concedes that “restitution is imposed as part of a defendant’s criminal conviction.”  Ibid.  Federal statutes, too, describe restitution as a “penalty” imposed on the defendant as part of his criminal sentence, as do our cases.  18 U.S.C. §§ 3663(a)(1)(A), 3663A(a)(1), 3572(d)(1); see Paroline v. United States, 572 U.S. 434, 456 (2014); Pasquantino v. United States, 544 U.S. 349, 365 (2005).  Besides, if restitution really fell beyond the reach of the Sixth Amendment’s protections in criminal prosecutions, we would then have to consider the Seventh Amendment and its independent protection of the right to a jury trial in civil cases.

If the government’s arguments appear less than convincing, maybe it’s because they’re difficult to reconcile with the Constitution’s original meaning.  The Sixth Amendment was understood as preserving the “‘historical role of the jury at common law.’” Southern Union, 567 U. S., at 353.  And as long ago as the time of Henry VIII, an English statute entitling victims to the restitution of stolen goods allowed courts to order the return only of those goods mentioned in the indictment and found stolen by a jury.  1 J. Chitty, Criminal Law 817–820 (2d ed. 1816); 1 M. Hale, Pleas of the Crown 545 (1736).  In America, too, courts held that in prosecutions for larceny, the jury usually had to find the value of the stolen property before restitution to the victim could be ordered.  See, e.g., Schoonover v. State, 17 Ohio St. 294 (1867); Jones v. State, 13 Ala. 153 (1848); State v. Somerville, 21 Me. 20 (1842); Commonwealth v. Smith, 1 Mass. 245 (1804).  See also Barta, Guarding the Rights of the Accused and Accuser: The Jury’s Role in Awarding Criminal Restitution Under the Sixth Amendment, 51 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 463, 472–476 (2014).  And it’s hard to see why the right to a jury trial should mean less to the people today than it did to those at the time of the Sixth and Seventh Amendments’ adoption.

Students of the Apprendi-Blakely line of cases have long known that there were not very good arguments to preclude the application of jury trial rights to criminal restitution awards, and those arguments got even weaker when the Supreme Court ruled in Southern Union that the jury trial right also applied to findings needed to impose criminal fines.  And notably, Southern Union was a 6-3 ruling with only the traditional Apprendi haters, Justices Alito, Breyer and Kennedy, in dissent.

So why does the jury trial still mean less to the people today facing restitution punishments than it did to those at the time of the Sixth and Seventh Amendments’ adoption?  The only answer I can provide is hinted in the title of post.  Supposed SCOTUS originalists like Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh apparently do not want to here follow originalist principles to what would appear to be their logical conclusion.  Supposed SCOTUS liberals like Justices Ginsburg and Kagan do not want to here protect a certain type of right of a certain type of criminal defendant. (Justice Sotomayor, who never shrinks from following constitutional rights wherever she thinks they must extend, joined Justice Gorsuch's dissent here). 

When push comes to shove — or rather, when criminal defendants make a serious claim that a serious constitutional right should be given serious meaning — still too many justices seem to become faint-hearted in the application of their purported principles and commitments.  Drat. 

January 7, 2019 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Supreme Court order list full of (state-friendly) criminal justice per curiams and notable cert denial with statements

The Supreme Court is full back in action for the New Year, beginning with this new long order list with the always-expected long list of denials of certiorari and denials of rehearing. But the list also includes these two notable per curiam rulings:

City of Escondido v. Emmons, No. 17-1660, which summarily reverses/vacates a Ninth Circuit ruling that two officers were not entitled to qualified immunity in a excessive force case.

Shoop v. Hill, No. 18-56, which summarily vacates a Sixth Circuit ruling that an Ohio capital defendant was entitled to habeas relief because the state courts misapplied precedents concerning an Eighth Amendment intellectual disability claim.

In addition, the SCOTUS order list includes these two cert denials that prompted notable statements from the Justices:

Hester v. US, No. 17-9082, concerned whether the Sixth Amendment requires jury findings in support of restitution orders and Justice Alito issued a concurrence in the cert denial, largely in response to Justice Gorsuch's extended dissent which was joined by Justice Sotomayor.

Lance v. Sellers, No. 17-1382, concerned a Georgia capital defendant's claim that his lawyer was constitutionally ineffective and Justice Sotomayor issued a lengthy dissent from the cert denial which was joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan.

In a separate post, I may have more to say about some of these rulings, particularly Justice Gorsuch's dissenting opinion in Hester.

UPDATE:  I now do have a new post on the Hester case here under the title "Purported SCOTUS originalists and liberals, showing yet again that they are faint-hearted, refuse to consider extending jury trial rights to restitution punishments."  And Amy Howe here at SCOTUSblog has a review of all the action today in the first big SCOTUS order list for 2019.

January 7, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 10, 2018

Congress finally enacts "Paroline fix" that should improve victim restitution in federal child porn cases

Long-time readers may recall regularly blogging here about federal district and circuit opinions struggling to figure out whether and how courts could impose restitution awards/punishments on federal offenders convicted only of downloading child pornography images.  Because the child porn restitution questions produced various splits in the lower courts, the Supreme Court took up and "resolved" these issues in Paroline v. US, No. 12-8561 (Apr. 23, 2014) (available here).  But because Paroline required federal judges, in the words of one district court, to make "essentially a wild-ass guess" when trying to determine the appropriate level of restitution for a victim in a child porn downloading case, this issue continued to cry out for a legislative fix in the wake of the Paroline ruling.

A few days after the Supreme Court ruled in Paroline, I asked in a post "Will Congress fix (quickly? ever? wisely?) the "puzzle of paying Amy" after Paroline?".  And a few years after the Supreme Court ruled in Paroline, victim advocates Paul Cassell and James Marsh talking through these issues in a law review article "Full Restitution for Child Pornography Victims: The Supreme Court's Paroline Decision and the Need for a Congressional Response".  Now, a little more than 55 months after the Supreme Court ruled in Paroline, Congress managed to get a Paroline fix done in a bipartisan fashion. 

Specifically, Congress used its lame duck session to finalize a long-discussed Paroline fix in the form of an amendment to federal restitution statutes called the "Amy, Vicky, and Andy Child Pornography Victim Assistance Act of 2018."   President Trump, as reported in this press release, on Friday signed this legislation into law.  Senator Orrin Hatch, who played a leading role in getting this enacted, released this press statement celebrating and explaining this new legislation:

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the senior Republican and President Pro Tempore of the US Senate, released the following statement after the President signed the Amy, Vicky, and Andy Child Pornography Victim Assistance Act into law. Senator Hatch introduced the legislation alongside Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Pat Toomey (R-PA). This bill recognizes the unique kind of harm caused by child pornography and requires restitution in a manner that will support victims.

“I’m thrilled the President has signed the Amy, Vicky, and Andy Act into law. This is a momentous day and many years in the making.” Hatch said. “This bipartisan legislation will provide meaningful assistance for child pornography victims to support their recovery and allow them to reclaim their lives. I am proud of this legislation and look forward to seeing it change the world for good.” The legislation establishes more relevant standards for child pornography victims who seek restitution from defendants and gives victims the alternative of a one-time fixed compensation payment from the existing Crime Victims Fund. The bill also allows victims access to the images depicting them, which can be important for victim identification, expert testimony, forensic review, and treatment.

The bill passed in the Senate by unanimous consent in January. With the help of Congressman Trey Gowdy (R-SC), the House sponsor of the bill, and House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), the House of Representatives passed an amended version of the bill by unanimous consent. In November, the Senate passed the amended bill by unanimous consent, and ... was signed by the President into law.

The bill is named after victims depicted in some of the most widely circulated child pornography series in the world. “Amy,” “Vicky,” and “Andy” all strongly support the bill.

The Amy, Vicky, and Andy Child Pornography Victim Assistance Act includes the following provisions:

  • Findings that focus on the unique nature of child pornography crime and how it harms victims
  • A more relevant and predictable definition of “full amount of a victim’s losses”
  • Restitution: --- Child pornography production: victims receive full amount of their total losses; ----Child pornography trafficking: victims receive from each defendant a minimum of $3,000
  • Compensation: --- Victims of child pornography trafficking are entitled to receive a one-time payment of $35,000 in defined monetary assistance (which is indexed to inflation) from a Child Pornography Victims Reserve (CPVR) within the federal Crime Victims Fund (CVF); --- Caps fees for attorneys representing a victim seeking defined monetary assistance at 15%; --- The court must assess defendants in child pornography cases to contribute to the CPVR: up to $17,000 for possession, up to $35,000 for distribution, and up to $50,000 for production crimes; --- The CPVR will be capped at $10 million
  • Victims of child pornography trafficking will enjoy the same priority in restitution payments as victims in other restitution statutes
  • Child pornography victims have equal rights with criminal defendants to review the child pornography depicting them at a government facility or court for the purposes of furnishing expert testimony
  • The Department of Justice must deliver a report to Congress within two years after passage about the Act’s implementation including an assessment of the funding levels for the Child Pornography Victims Reserve

I have long been a support of more effective and predictable restitution mechanisms in these  kinds of cases and others, so I welcome this overdue development.  Because few have been reporting consistently on the impact of the Paroline ruling in federal cases, I am especially glad this legislation give the Justice Department a responsibility to report on this new legislation's effectiveness.

A few (of many) prior posts on Paroline and child porn restitution issues mostly from some years ago:

December 10, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

"What the Feds Can Do to Rein in Local Mercenary Criminal Justice"

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

Although physical and psychological harms caused by local police are the most common bases for federal intervention and reform efforts, this Article focuses on the financial harms local police can cause.  As the U.S. Department of Justice’s Ferguson Report and numerous other studies highlight, local police departments are front-line players in a broader governmental strategy to generate revenue from individuals ensnared in the criminal justice system.  The strategy is problematic for a variety of reasons, including the skewing effect it has on enforcement priorities and the major negative personal impact it has on those targeted (very often, people of color and economically disadvantaged individuals).  Aggravating matters, the mercenary practices of local criminal justice system actors are complemented by private business entities that secure significant profits from the business local governments send their way.  This Article surveys the adverse consequences of local mercenary criminal justice for governance, residents and their communities; the many, quite distinct obstacles that federal reform efforts face; and the several possible avenues for reform and their likelihood of success.

December 4, 2018 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

SCOTUS argument in Timbs suggest agreement on incorporation of Excessive Fines Clause and perhaps little else

In this post yesterday previewing today's SCOTUS oral argument in Timbs v. Indiana, I confidently predicted that the Justices will decide that the Excessive Fines Clause applies to the states, and further suggested that the Court may be too divided to say much more about the application of the EFC.   My prediction was not especially bold, but reports on the argument suggest that it is on the right track.

From SCOTUSblog: Argument analysis: Court appears ready to rule that Constitution’s bar on excessive fines applies to the states:

Although the only question before the justices in Timbs’ case was whether the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause applies to the states, the justices spent very little time on that question, because there appeared to be broad agreement on the court that it does....

There seemed to be significantly less agreement among the justices on the scope of the right – that is, whether fines like the forfeiture of Timbs’ car do indeed violate the excessive fines clause. Chief Justice John Roberts was unsympathetic, telling attorney Wesley Hottot, who represented Timbs, that Timbs’ Land Rover “was an instrumentality of the crime. This is how he got to the deal place and how he carried the drugs.” If a defendant was carrying the drugs in his car, Roberts stressed, “I think it’s pretty well-established” that the car can be forfeited....

Given the near consensus on the Supreme Court that the excessive fines clause applies to the states, the justices are likely to say so, but without much more. That could still be good news for Timbs, because two lower courts agreed with him that the forfeiture of the Land Rover was excessive; the Indiana Supreme Court ruled only that the excessive fines clause does not apply to the states at all.

From The Volokh Conspiracy: Today's Supreme Court Oral Argument in Timbs v. Indiana Suggests Justices are Likely to Apply Excessive Fines Clause to State Asset Forfeitures:

Today's oral argument makes clear that the Court will almost certainly rule that the Excessive Fines Clause does indeed apply to the states.  The justices also seem likely to rule that at least some state asset forfeitures violate the Clause.  Both liberal and conservative justices seemed to support Timbs on these two issues, especially incorporation.  It is hard to say, however, what — if anything — the Court will do on the question of how to define "excessive."  The justices could well decide to leave it to the lower courts, at least for the time being.

The full transcript of oral argument in Timbs v. Indiana is available at this link.

Prior (somewhat) related posts:

November 28, 2018 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Previewing SCOTUS consideration of civil forfeiture in Timbs v. Indiana from many sources

On Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Timbs v. Indiana to consider whether the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of excessive fines applies to the states.  I am reasonably confident that the Justices will decide that the Excessive Fines Clause does apply to the states, but I am not so confident about what more the Court will say about the application of the EFC to the interesting (and fairly simple) facts surrounding the forefeiture of Tyson Timbs' Land Rover. 

Because there is a whole lot worth saying about the facts and law surrounding Timbs, I figured I would link to a whole bunch of folks from a whole bunch of sources discussing this case.  So:

Prior (somewhat) related posts:

November 27, 2018 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 12, 2018

"Predatory Public Finance and the Evolution of the War on Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Bruce Benson and Brian Meehan now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

US drug policy has a long history of providing revenue for federal, state, and local governments.  Before the War on Drugs, opium and cocaine were legal and medical professionals who prescribed these substances had to pay extra taxes to do so.  This chapter explains how, as the federal government began enforcing outright bans on drugs, law enforcement agencies took advantage of their newly acquired authority to profit.

Today, civil asset forfeiture related to drug crimes provides officers with incentives to use and abuse their authority and increase their revenue by making more drug arrests.  Key takeaways: (1) Drug policy has a long history of providing law enforcement with increased revenues and authority over time. (2) Law enforcement agencies may be targeting the crimes that present the opportunity to raise revenue for their departments rather than the most serious public safety threats.

May 12, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

SCOTUS examining reach of restitution awards under MVRA in Lagos v. United States 

A somewhat non-traditional sentencing issue is the subject of Supreme Court oral argument this morning.  SCOTUSblog has this argument preview authored by Cortney Lollar which started and ends this way:

Next week, the Supreme Court has another opportunity to consider the scope of criminal restitution. Lagos v. United States raises the question of whether private investigation costs and a victim’s attorney’s fees are considered compensable losses under 18 U.S.C. §3663A, the Mandatory Victim Restitution Act....

In recent years, both Congress and the Supreme Court have taken an increasingly expansive approach toward criminal restitution.  Although the MVRA’s language is undoubtedly distinct from that in other restitution statutes, the court may yet again take this opportunity to interpret the language capaciously, requiring a defendant to reimburse increasingly attenuated costs through restitution.

April 18, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

"Will the Supreme Court Rein in Civil Forfeiture?"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece by Matt Ford at The Atlantic, and the question it poses strikes me as particularly timely in light of the notable discussion of civil sanctions by Justice Gorsuch in a concurring opinion this morning in Dimaya.  Here is part of the piece:

The state of Indiana really wants to take Tyson Timbs’s Land Rover, as punishment for dealing just a few hundred dollars’ worth of drugs. He’s now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to let him keep it.

Stories about civil forfeiture injustices are unfortunately common. What sets Timbs’s case apart is his legal argument: that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines should shield his property from confiscation at the state level. If the Supreme Court takes up the case and agrees, the justices could impose some much-needed barriers on state and local governments’ voracious appetites for fees, fines, and forfeitures....

Undercover officers solicited from Timbs, buying just under four grams of heroin for less than $400. He was arrested and charged with dealing a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft. Timbs pleaded guilty and received a six-year sentence to be served outside prison walls. The state also tried to seize his Land Rover, kicking off the legal battle that ultimately brought him to the Supreme Court.

The trial court refused to authorize the seizure. Indiana law only allowed a $10,000 fine for Timbs’s sentence, and the court concluded that seizing a vehicle worth four times as much as that threshold would be “grossly disproportionate” relative to Timbs’s crime. The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the decision after their own review of the circumstances. But the Indiana Supreme Court intervened and approved the seizure.

The judges’ unanimous opinion rested on a precedent, or lack thereof: The U.S. Supreme Court has never applied the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause to the states. Other lower courts have chosen to do so without waiting for the top justices, but Indiana’s Supreme Court was uninterested in following that path for Timbs’s benefit. “Indiana is a sovereign state within our federal system, and we elect not to impose federal obligations on the State that the federal government itself has not mandated,” the court declared. Timbs, with his petition in January, is now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn that ruling.... But the Excessive Fines Clause is ripe for consideration in the age of mass incarceration. Impoverished Americans often lack the resources to pay off the fines and fees that can come from even a casual brush with the criminal-justice system. In a cruel twist, the inability to pay these costs can result in jail time itself. Keeping oneself out of trouble is also no guarantee of immunity: A 2014 Washington Post investigation, for example, found that police in multiple states use “highway interdiction” to target thousands of motorists for seizures of cash and property....

Civil-asset forfeiture, though still common, has come under increasing scrutiny across the political spectrum. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s push last year to revive the practice at the federal level drew harsh rebukes from the ACLU and congressional Republicans alike. Justice Clarence Thomas set off a signal flare of sorts last April suggesting he had doubts about the practice’s constitutionality.

The Indiana case revolves around different legal questions that the ones Thomas was asking last year, but the underlying injustices are the same. Taking up the issue would give the justices a chance to set new limits on excessive fines and forfeitures for cash-hungry counties and cities. For Timbs and thousands of other Americans, that intervention would be a welcome relief.

April 17, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

"Privatizing Criminal Procedure"

The title of this post is the title of this newly posted article appearing on SSRN authored by J.D. King. Here is the abstract:

As the staggering costs of the criminal justice system continue to rise, many states have begun to look for non traditional ways to pay for criminal prosecutions and to shift these costs onto criminal defendants.  Many states now impose a surcharge on defendants who exercise their constitutional rights to counsel, confrontation, and trial by jury.  As these “user fees” proliferate, they have the potential to fundamentally change the nature of criminal prosecutions and the way we think of constitutional rights.  The shift from government funding of criminal litigation to user funding constitutes a privatization of criminal procedure.  This intrusion of market ideology into the world of fundamental constitutional rights has at least two broad problems: it exacerbates structural unfairness in a system that already disadvantages poor people, and it degrades how we conceive of those rights.  This Article proposes solutions to ameliorate the harshest effects of these rights-based user fees but also argues for the importance of resisting the trend of the privatization of constitutional trial rights.

April 11, 2018 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, March 29, 2018

"The Excessive Fines Clause: Challenging the Modern Debtors' Prison"

The title of this post is the title of this new article by Beth Colgan now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

In recent years, the use of economic sanctions-statutory fines, surcharges, administrative fees, and restitution-has exploded in courts across the country.  Economic sanctions are imposed for violations as minor as jaywalking and as serious as homicide, and can range from a few dollars to millions.  When a person is unable to immediately pay off economic sanctions, "poverty penalties" are often imposed, including interest and collections fees and probation.  Failure to pay economic sanctions can result in serious consequences, including prohibitions on obtaining or suspensions of driver's and occupational licenses, restrictions on public benefits, and even incarceration.  Even when poverty penalties are not employed, an inability to pay off criminal debt means that the punishment imposed, even for very minor offenses, can effectively be perpetual. Desperate to avoid these repercussions, people go to extremes to pay. In an alarming number of cases people report having to forego basic necessities like food, housing, hygiene, or medicine, in order to pay what little they can, even if just a few dollars at a time.  These and countless other stories of people trapped in persistent debt are becoming ubiquitous, and have raised the specter that current practices amount to modern day debtors' prisons.

Constitutional challenges to such practices have primarily focused on the narrow window of the post-sentencing collections context, relying on a series of Fourteenth Amendment cases prohibiting the automatic conversion of economic sanctions to incarceration where a debtor has no meaningful ability to pay.  While these challenges can provide an important post hoc protection against the use of incarceration as a penalty for the failure to pay, they do not address the financial instability exacerbated by and ongoing threat of incarceration raised by debt from unmanageable economic sanctions.

A separate, albeit underdeveloped, constitutional provision that may be better suited to addressing the debtors' prison crisis lies in the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause, which provides protection at sentencing.  To date, the United States Supreme Court has only determined that criminal and civil forfeitures constitute fines.  This Article examines the key concerns underlying those determinations, explicating the Court's interest in treating economic sanctions as fines where they are used by the government to punish-evidenced by a link to prohibited conduct or treatment of economic sanctions like other recognized forms of punishment-as well as the Court's desire that the Clause serve as a bulwark against the risk that the prosecutorial power will be abused due to the revenue generating capacity of economic sanctions.  Applying these core concerns supports the conclusion that common forms of economic sanction (including statutory fines, surcharges, administrative fees, and restitution) constitute fines for purposes of the Clause.

In addition, this Article examines the meaning of excessiveness, arguing that one's ability to pay is relevant to the question of whether a fine is constitutional.  The Court has adopted the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause's gross disproportionality test for measuring excessiveness.  Attending to financial circumstances in the excessiveness inquiry is in harmony with key principles animating the proportionality doctrine: equality in sentencing, comparative proportionality between offenses of different seriousness, the expressive value of punishment, concern for the criminogenic effect of and other social harms caused by punishment, and the prohibition on punishments that unreasonably infringe on human dignity.

March 29, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Federal prosecutors seeking (way-below-guideline) sentence of 15 years for "Pharma Bro" Martin Shkreli

As reported in this new Reuters piece, "U.S. prosecutors on Tuesday said former drug company executive Martin Shkreli should spend at least 15 years in prison after being convicted of fraud, saying his lack of remorse and respect for the law justified a long time behind bars." Here is more, with a final point stressed for commentary:

The request by the Department of Justice came three days before Shkreli’s scheduled sentencing by U.S. District Judge Kiyo Matsumoto in Brooklyn federal court. Prosecutors called Shkreli “a man who stands before this court without any showing of genuine remorse, a man who has consistently chosen to put profit and the cultivation of a public image before all else, and a man who believes the ends always justify the means.”

Shkreli, 34, had requested a 12-to-18-month term following his conviction last August for lying to investors about the performance of his hedge funds MSMB Capital and MSMB Healthcare, and conspiring to manipulate the stock price of the drug company Retrophin Inc. Known as “Pharma Bro,” in part for his ability to attract attention, Shkreli is perhaps best known for raising the price of the anti-parasitic drug Daraprim by more than 5,000 percent in 2015, while serving as chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals, now called Vyera Pharmaceuticals....

Shkreli has been in jail since September, when Matsumoto revoked his bail after he offered social media followers $5,000 for a hair from former U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. On Monday, Matsumoto ordered Shkreli to forfeit $7.36 million of ill-gotten gains. She said he may be forced to give up assets such as a Picasso painting and a one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang Clan album if he cannot find the money....

In a letter to the judge last week, Shkreli said he accepted that he had made “serious mistakes,” but still considered himself “a good person with much potential.”

But prosecutors said that while in jail, Shkreli has privately expressed disdain for his conviction and the judicial process, providing further evidence he does not deserve mercy. It cited a January email conversation where Shkreli allegedly wrote “fuck the feds” and expressed hope for a big tax refund because only his “liquid money” was affected by the forfeiture. “Shkreli’s email communications confirm that any remorse he may express publicly is a carefully constructed facade,” prosecutors said.

A 15-year term is shorter than the minimum 27 years recommended under federal guidelines. Brafman has called that length “draconian and offensive.”

There is much in this story and in this high-profile sentencing that merits commentary, but I am especially struck by the decision by federal prosecutors to request a sentence here that is more than a decade below the advisory guideline range.  Recall that the May 2017 Sessions Memo said federal prosecutors "should in all cases seek a reasonable sentence under the factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553. In most cases, recommending a sentence within the advisory guideline range will be appropriate."  This high-profile case is still more proof that federal prosecutors recognize that the applicable federal sentencing guidelines for at least some fraud offenses are not reasonable and can be unreasonable extreme by more than a decade.

Prior related posts:

March 6, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 22, 2018

"A Pound of Flesh: The Criminalization of Private Debt"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new big ACLU report. Here part of its executive summary:

An estimated 77 million Americans — one in three adults — have a debt that has been turned over to a private collection agency. Thousands of these debtors are arrested and jailed each year because they owe money. Millions more are threatened with jail. The debts owed can be as small as a few dollars and can involve every kind of consumer debt, from car payments to utility bills to student loans to medical fees.  These trends devastate communities across the country as unmanageable debt and household financial crisis become ubiquitous, and they impact Black and Latino communities most harshly due to longstanding racial and ethnic gaps in poverty and wealth.

Debtors’ prisons were abolished by Congress in 1833 and are thought to be a relic of the Dickensian past.  In reality, private debt collectors — empowered by the courts and prosecutors’ offices — are using the criminal justice system to punish debtors and terrorize them into paying even when a debt is in dispute or when a debtor has no ability to pay.

The criminalization of private debt happens when judges, at the request of collection agencies, issue arrest warrants for people who failed to appear in court to deal with unpaid civil debt judgments. In many cases, the debtors were unaware they were sued or had not received notice to show up in court.  Tens of thousands of these warrants are issued annually, but the total number is unknown because states and local courts do not typically track these orders as a category of arrest warrants.

In a review of court records, the ACLU examined more than 1,000 cases in which civil court judges issued arrest warrants for debtors, sometimes to collect amounts as small as $28.  These cases took place in 26 states — Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin — and Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Even without arrest warrants, the mere threat of jail can be effective in extracting payment — even if that threat is legally unfounded. In the case of debts involving bounced checks, private collection companies now have contracts with more than 200 district attorneys’ offices that allow them to use the prosecutor’s seal and signature on repayment demand letters.  It’s estimated that more than 1 million consumers each year receive such letters threatening criminal prosecution and jail time if they do not pay up.  But review of company practices has documented that letters often falsely misrepresent the threat of prosecution as a means of coercing payments from unknowing consumers.

February 22, 2018 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, February 19, 2018

Spotlighting disparities in jail stays over unpaid court fines in Pennsylvania

A helpful reader made sure I saw this impressive piece of reporting from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette under the headline "Modern-day debtors’ prisons? The system that sends Pennsylvanians to jail over unpaid court costs and fines."  I have probably not given as much attention here as I should to reporting and complaints about persons being incarcerated for failure to pay certain fines and fees, and this story caught my attention in its discussion of disparities in how judges justify sending folks to jail for failures to pay.  Here is an excerpt for that discussion:

U.S. Supreme Court and state court precedents forbid the government from locking up defendants too poor to pay.  District judges are supposed to jail only defendants who can afford to pay but “willfully” do not.  “The Constitution is very clear, the law is very clear, you cannot be jailed for failing to pay when you can’t pay,” said David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

But data show that is not always what happens.

People picked up on warrants for not paying court fees are brought before a district judge, who can hold an immediate payment determination hearing or postpone the proceeding. If the hearing is delayed, the district judge can set an amount that must be paid as collateral in order to allow the defendant to go free; that is supposed to ensure that the defendant will return for the hearing.  In many cases, that collateral equals the total payments owed.  Defendants who do not pay can be jailed until the first business day after 72 hours have passed.

District judges must fill out a Determination of Collateral form indicating why collateral is necessary and why the defendant can afford to pay it.

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review of more than 4,500 cases covering everyone jailed in 2016 in Pennsylvania for failure to post collateral (about 2,500 individuals) shows that in fewer than one in five cases, district judges appear to meet the standard in explaining why payment can be made.  They use statements such as “defendant has bank account” or “defendant has been working” or “gainfully employed.”

But in over 10 percent of cases involving more than 200 people, the district judges’ explanations for why a defendant can pay collateral seem to indicate just the opposite — that they don’t have the wherewithal.  Among the rationales: “defendant has no income; “defendant is homeless unable to pay; and “defendant has been evicted.”

The data show the system for meting out jail stays over unpaid court fines is wildly inconsistent among the state’s 67 counties and varies from one district judge to another....

The ACLU has been taking up cases around the state where it believes the law is not being followed in regard to payment determination hearings. It also has reached out to judges and district judges in an effort to make systemic changes.  “[M]any judges on both the courts of Common Pleas and magisterial district courts fundamentally misunderstand what constitutes a defendant’s ability to pay,” Andrew Christy, an ACLU of Pennsylvania attorney wrote regarding payment determination hearings last year for a legal publication.  A “lack of clear and uniform standards on what constitutes ability to pay” has been problematic and has driven the system to be unconstitutional, he wrote.

In many cases, the district judge offers rationales that the ACLU claims do not pass legal muster as to why a defendant should be able to post collateral.  The explanations include that the defendant’s family can pay; that the defendant receives public benefits; or that they have spent money on other expenses, such as tattoos.  “Has money for cigarettes, cell phone and to drink in bars,” read one form.  “Has cell phone, smokes cigarettes and has an I pad [sic],” read another.

February 19, 2018 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, December 11, 2017

"Graduating Economic Sanctions According to Ability to Pay"

The title of this post is the the title of this new and timely article authored by Beth Colgan now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

There is growing recognition that economic sanctions — fines, surcharges, fees, and restitution — are routinely imposed at rates many people have no meaningful ability to pay, which can exacerbate financial instability and lead to the perception that economic sanctions are unfairly punitive to people of limited means.  Concerns triggered primarily by highly punitive tactics, including incarceration and long-term probation of low-income debtors for the failure to pay, have led to increasing calls for reform.  While much attention is now being paid to the back-end of the system, and particularly limitations on punitive responses for the failure to pay due to poverty, this Article considers the problem from the front-end.  In particular, this Article focuses on a potential reform with increasing bipartisan support: the graduation of economic sanctions according to a person’s financial circumstances.

To that end, this Article explores several key considerations essential to designing a system of graduation, relying heavily on a largely-forgotten experiment in seven geographically, demographically, and politically diverse jurisdictions in the United States with the “day-fine.”  A day-fine is calculated using a penalty unit assigned based on the seriousness of the offense of conviction.  The penalty unit is then multiplied by the defendant’s adjusted daily income to determine the day-fine amount.  The result is an economic sanction adjusted to offense seriousness and simultaneously graduated to the defendant’s financial condition.  This Article mines the historical record of the American day-fines experiments — complemented by recent interviews with people involved in the design and implementation of the projects and experiences with means-adjustment in the consumer bankruptcy, tax, and public benefits contexts — for lessons on the design of graduating economic sanctions.  What emerges from this review is promising evidence that a properly designed and implemented system for graduation is consistent with efficient court administration, revenue generation, and equality in sentencing. 

December 11, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Federal district judge finds due process problems with Indiana's forfeiture procedures

As reported in this local article, a "federal judge has issued an order that partially halts the police seizure of vehicles in Indiana drug cases and other related crimes, calling the seizure of vehicles before an official forfeiture action unconstitutional." Here are the basics and the context of the ruling:

U.S. District Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson ruled that Indiana's forfeiture law violates the due process clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. "The Court concludes that the statutory provisions allowing for the seizure and retention of vehicles without providing an opportunity for an individual to challenge the pre-forfeiture deprivation are unconstitutional," Stinson ruled

The order comes as the Indiana legislature reexamines the state's forfeiture laws in an interim study committee. Under Indiana law, law enforcement can hold a vehicle for up to six months. If the state decides to file a forfeiture claim against the vehicle within the first 180 days, the vehicle is held indefinitely until the case is concluded, which can often be several additional months, according to court documents. ​

The full 35-page opinion in this matter is available at this link, and it gets started this way:

This matter involves a challenge to Indiana’s civil forfeiture statute, specifically as it applies to the seizure and pre-forfeiture retention of vehicles.  Plaintiff Leroy Washington, on behalf of himself and a putative class of plaintiffs, contends that Indiana’s statute violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.  Mr. Washington argues that the statute allows law enforcement officers to seize and hold vehicles based on an officer’s probable cause determination for up to six months without judicial oversight and without allowing individuals the opportunity to challenge that seizure and deprivation -- in other words without a post-seizure, pre-forfeiture hearing. In his Motion for Summary Judgment, Mr. Washington requests a declaratory judgment that the statute is unconstitutional, and a permanent injunction enjoining Defendants from enforcing the statute.  For the reasons that follow, the Court concludes that Indiana Code Section 34-24-1-1(a)(1), as read in conjunction with the statutory provisions of the same chapter, violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court therefore permanently enjoins Defendants from enforcing that statutory provision.

August 23, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Details emerging on new Trump Administration approach to asset forfeiture ... UPDATED with new DOJ memo

As noted in this prior post, on Monday Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a speech in which he indicated that a "new directive on asset forfeiture" was forthcoming that, "especially for drug traffickers," sought "to increase forfeitures."  This new AP article, headlined "US restoring asset seizures - with safeguards," reports on what this new directive is going to include. Here are excerpts from the AP piece:

The Trump administration will soon restore the ability of police to seize suspects’ money and property with federal help, but The Associated Press has learned the policy will come with a series of new provisions aimed at preventing the types of abuse that led the Obama Justice Department to severely curtail the practice.

At issue is asset forfeiture, which has been criticized because it allows law enforcement to take possessions without criminal convictions or, in some cases, indictments. The policy to be rolled out Wednesday targets so-called adoptive forfeiture, which lets local authorities circumvent more-restrictive state laws to seize property under federal law. The proceeds are then shared with federal counterparts.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder significantly limited the practice in response to criticism that it was ripe for abuse, particularly with police seizures of small amounts of cash. Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to ease those restrictions, but also impose new requirements on when federal law can be used, a senior Justice Department official briefed on the policy said Tuesday. The official, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, was not authorized to discuss the changes before their unveiling.

Key changes include requiring more detail from police agencies about probable cause justifying a seizure before federal authorities get involved. Also, the Justice Department will have to decide more quickly whether to take on local seizures and also let property owners know their rights and the status of their belongings within 45 days of the seizure, faster than federal law requires.

Another key change will make it harder for police to seize less than $10,000 unless they have a state warrant, have made an arrest related to the seizure, have taken other contraband, such as drugs, along with the money, or the owner has confessed to a crime. Without at least one of those conditions, authorities will need a federal prosecutor’s approval to seize it under federal law.

Old rules set that threshold at $5,000, the official said. The old process rarely required a federal prosecutor’s sign-off, said Stefan Cassella, a former federal prosecutor and expert on asset forfeiture and money laundering law.

Sessions’ support for asset forfeiture is in keeping with his tough-on-crime agenda and aligns with his oft-stated view that the Justice Department’s top priority should be helping local law enforcement fight violent crime. Police departments use the seizures for expenses, and some agencies felt Holder’s restrictions left them without a critical funding source. When he forecast the rollback of the Holder provision at a conference of district attorneys, the announcement drew applause.

But an embrace of asset forfeiture follows bipartisan efforts to overhaul the practice, and as a growing number of states have made their own laws limiting its use. Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, who sponsored legislation this year to tightly regulate asset forfeiture, told the AP that Sessions’ move is “a troubling step backward” that would “bring back a loophole that’s become one of the most flagrantly abused provisions of this policy.”

“I’m glad that at least some safeguards will be put in place, but their plan to expand civil forfeiture is, really, just as concerning as it was before,” Issa said. “Criminals shouldn’t be able to keep the proceeds of their crime, but innocent Americans shouldn’t lose their right to due process, or their private property rights, in order to make that happen.”

UPDATE Here now is the official US Department of Justice news release, headlined "Attorney General Sessions Issues Policy and Guidelines on Federal Adoptions of Assets Seized by State or Local Law Enforcement." And here is the associated one-page order.

July 19, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, July 08, 2017

"Criminal justice reform starts before the trial and sentence"

The title of this post is the title of this new commentary at The Hill authored by Marc Levin and Ed Chung. Here are excerpts (with links from the original): 

Recent media stories have speculated on the future of federal efforts to reform the criminal justice system. Much of the discussion surrounds the possibility of rekindling bipartisan sentencing and corrections reform legislation that was on the cusp of being enacted in the previous Congress.

While comprehensive reforms to lower federal mandatory minimum sentences remain aspirational, there are other policies on which the right and left agree that could have as much, if not more, impact in reducing the nation’s incarcerated population while maintaining public safety. 

Every day, approximately 450,000 people who have not been convicted of a crime are currently behind bars while they await adjudication of their case.  This is more than double the number of people in federal prison and two and half times the total jail population in 1980.  According to a recent analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, “99 percent of the growth in jails over the last 15 years has been a result of increases in the pre-trial population.”  This increase was not due to a more criminalized or violent society but rather stemmed from discretionary criminal justice policies that increasingly conditioned release from jail on whether they could pay for bail. 

Money bail systems, however, are neither the most effective nor fairest way to achieve the goals of the justice system prior to trial.  For those whom a court determines to be a danger to society, allowing them to pay for their release seems like an illogical remedy where a rich dangerous person is freed but a poor dangerous person remains in jail. And, to ensure a person returns for court appearances, more effective methods have developed in recent years that combine an objective assessment of a person’s risks with appropriate human supervision and electronic monitoring.

The harms and inequities associated with money bail systems — especially when it comes to nonviolent, low-risk poor defendants — are well documented.  According to an analysis by the Arnold Foundation, keeping low-risk defendants in jail for even two or three days increases the likelihood that they will commit a new crime by 40 percent.  The impact also is felt disproportionately by those who cannot pay for even relatively modest bail and thus remain locked up.

The movement to reform bail systems has taken root in a small but growing number of both conservative and progressive states.  Connecticut last month enacted a statute that bars the imposition of financial conditions for pretrial release for most misdemeanors.  Earlier this year, New Jersey passed legislation that eliminated bail for minor crimes and instituted the use of a risk assessment tool to help courts determine pretrial supervision conditions.  Kentucky, which instituted the same risk assessment tool in 2013, will now automatically release people determined to be low-risk if they meet certain criteria.  And Washington, D.C., releases 90 percent of those arrested with conditions to report to a pretrial agency and comply with drug testing and other requirements. 

While state and local policy change is the primary means of achieving bail reform, given that pretrial detention implicates the guarantees of equal protection and due process found in the U.S. Constitution, the federal government can play a collaborative role, even if most of the people in jail awaiting trial are in local facilities.  Through its technical assistance efforts, the Department of Justice (DOJ) shares advancements made in a small number of states with a national audience and provides valuable data that reveals the impact of pretrial practices across the nation. From issuing statements of interest on bail in pending federal litigation to providing guidance on the proper use of risk assessment instruments, the DOJ must remain committed to pretrial policies that prioritize public safety over a person’s ability to pay.

Congress also has an important voice that can exemplify the bipartisan support for bail reform across the country.  The legislative branch’s bully pulpit is especially effective when emphasizing points of agreement across the political spectrum....

There is still much work to be done to reform the criminal justice system.  Fortunately, this remains a priority that transcends partisanship, even in the current political climate. It is time for our national leaders to act on the consensus developed among states, local communities, advocates, and think tanks representing different ideological perspectives like ours. 

July 8, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Wondering about judicial "wild-ass guesses" when considering child-porn restitution since Paroline

Long-time readers may recall a period about five year back when I was regularly blogging about notable federal district and circuit opinions struggling in various ways to figure out whether and how federal courts could impose restitution awards/punishments on federal offenders convicted only of downloading illegal images.  (As blogged here, a New York Times Magazine cover story in January 2013 nicely covered the legal and social issues involved in what was ultimately a sentencing question.)   Because the issue produced various splits in the lower courts, the Supreme Court took up and resolved the question in Paroline v. US, No. 12-8561 (Apr. 23, 2014) (available here).  

But while Paroline resolved some measure of legal uncertainty surrounding this child-porn restitution issue, it did so in a way that largely punted a host of factual challenges back to district courts at the time of sentencing.  This new local article in my local paper, headlined "Judge doesn’t want to guess on child-porn restitution," reminds me that Paroline did not really end the messy questions surrounding child-porn restitution determinations, it just made the litigation here much lower profile.  Here are excerpts from the local article:

U.S. District Judge Michael H. Watson doesn’t like “wild-ass guesses,” according to federal courts Reporter Earl Rinehart.

Watson presided over a restitution hearing last week during which a civil attorney representing a child pornography victim called “Andy” had petitioned Watson for $58,415 in damages.  The attorney’s client wasn’t the underage teen the defendant had photographed nude and was convicted for, but Andy’s picture was on the defendant’s computer.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that child-pornography defendants could be liable to pay victims an amount proximate to the harm caused by having and/or distributing the image. Watson has said Congress needs to set standards to help judges calculate how much restitution to approve.  A bill that would set those minimum amounts was passed by the U.S. Senate but has languished in the House Judiciary Committee since February 2015.

Although he commended Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather Hill for her “valiant effort” in arguing for restitution, he agreed with Assistant Federal Public Defender Rasheeda Khan, who argued there was no evidence the defendant had shared Andy’s image and there was no way to accurately figure how much he owed now and for the victim’s future therapy costs. Another 158 defendants have either agreed to pay restitution to Andy or were ordered to do so.

Watson said the petition was based on a 2014 report that’s “not subject to cross examination” and “would not be admissible in a civil litigation.”

“There is no evidence Andy is a victim of this offense,” the judge said. He called again on Congress “to give us some direction.”

“It’s essentially a wild-ass guess for me to figure the appropriate restitution,” Watson said before denying any to Andy.

A few (of many) prior posts on Paroline and child porn restitution issues from years ago:

June 20, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

"Whom Should We Punish, and How? Rational Incentives and Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this paper authored by Keith Hylton recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This essay sets out a comprehensive account of rational punishment theory and examines its implications for criminal law reform.  Specifically, what offenses should be subjected to criminal punishment, and how should we punish?  Should we use prison sentences or fines, and where should we use them?  Should some conduct be left to a form of market punishment through private lawsuits?  Should fines be used to fund the criminal justice system?

The answers I offer address some of the most important public policy issues of the moment, such as mass incarceration and the use of fines to finance law enforcement.  The framework of this paper is firmly grounded in rational deterrence policy, and yet points toward reforms that would soften or reduce the scope of criminal punishment. 

June 13, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

"Kinds of Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this essay by Douglas Husak now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Contemporary states execute, imprison, fine, place on probation, conditionally discharge, caution, and do a great deal more to the persons they convict.  What general principles govern how retributivists should choose between the foregoing responses to culpable wrongdoing — or select an altogether different type of sanction?  If my subsequent reasoning is sound, it is easy to understand why retributivists have tended to neglect this issue.  They have neglected it because they have little to contribute to its resolution.  In what follows, I will support this conclusion and discuss a few of the somewhat controversial positions on which it rests.  I hope to make some headway on this topic by defending what I call the deferential view about kinds of punishment (or deferential view for short).

June 6, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, June 05, 2017

Supreme Court unanimously limits reach of federal drug-offense forfeiture statute

The US Supreme Court this morning handed down a unanimous opinion in Honeycutt v. United States, No. 16-142 (S. Ct. June 5, 2017) (available here), a case concerning the reach of the federal criminal forfeiture statute. The opinion for the Court was authored by Justice Sotomayor, and it starts and ends this way:

A federal statute — 21 U.S.C. § 853 — mandates forfeiture of “any property constituting, or derived from, any proceeds the person obtained, directly or indirectly, as the result of” certain drug crimes.  This case concerns how § 853 operates when two or more defendants act as part of a conspiracy. Specifically, the issue is whether, under § 853, a defendant may be held jointly and severally liable for property that his co-conspirator derived from the crime but that the defendant himself did not acquire. The Court holds that such liability is inconsistent with the statute’s text and structure....

Forfeiture pursuant to § 853(a)(1) is limited to property the defendant himself actually acquired as the result of the crime.  In this case, the Government has conceded that Terry Honeycutt had no ownership interest in his brother’s store and did not personally benefit from the Polar Pure sales.  App. to Pet. for Cert. 60a.  The District Court agreed. Id., at 40a.  Because Honeycutt never obtained tainted property as a result of the crime, § 853 does not require any forfeiture.

The opinion's first footnote indicates that a majority of circuit courts embraced a broader view of the federal forfeiture statute, which in turns further reinforces my long-standing view that SCOTUS these days is generally more pro-defendant on a wide range of sentencing issues than most lower federal courts.

June 5, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, May 21, 2017

"Fighting Fines & Fees: Borrowing from Consumer Law to Combat Criminal Justice Debt Abuses"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper authored by Neil Sobol and now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Although media and academic sources often describe mass incarceration as the primary challenge facing the American criminal justice system, the imposition of criminal justice debt may be a more pervasive problem.  On March 14, 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) requested that state chief justices forward a letter to all judges in their jurisdictions describing the constitutional violations associated with the illegal assessment and enforcement of fines and fees.  The DOJ’s concerns include the incarceration of indigent individuals without determining whether the failure to pay is willful and the use of bail practices that result in impoverished defendants remaining in jail merely because they are unable to afford bail.

Criminal justice debt, also known as legal financial obligations (LFOs), impacts not only those incarcerated but also millions of others who receive economic sanctions for low-level offenses, including misdemeanors and ordinance violations. LFOs, which include bail, fines, and fees, are imposed at every stage in the justice process, including pre-conviction, sentencing, incarceration, and post-release supervision.

For those who are unable to pay criminal justice debt, “poverty penalties” are often added in the form of charges for interest, payment plans, late payments, and collection.  As incarceration rates and local budgetary concerns have increased, so too has the imposition of LFOs. Moreover, while authorities are trying to reduce incarceration, criminal justice debt may become an even greater concern, as one popular alternative is decriminalization and the imposition of monetary charges.

Often the financial charges are unrelated to the traditional notions of punishment or protection of public safety and instead, reflect a desire to maximize revenue collection. Many municipalities outsource services to private probation companies and collectors, which are often unsupervised and use collection procedures not authorized for private parties.  Moreover, new technologies allow for additional collection abuses.

To date, states and municipalities have been ineffective in preventing abuses associated with criminal justice debt. Relying on the approach used for consumer debt collection, I propose a federal solution.  The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) provide the foundation for a federal framework for addressing problems with the collection of consumer debts. I contend that the justifications that supported the federal statutory and administrative solution for consumer debts are at least as significant, if not greater, for a similar framework to combat abusive criminal justice debt practices.

Not only do individuals with criminal justice debt encounter the same abuses and consequences that consumer debtors face — including harassment, negative credit reports, and the adverse impact on financing and employment prospects — but they also face denial of welfare benefits, suspension of driver’s’ licenses, arrest, and incarceration.  In practice, the imposition of criminal justice debt reflects actual discrimination and creates distrust in the system. Accordingly, I advocate the adoption of a federal act and the use of the DOJ to coordinate enforcement and outreach activities to attack abuses in the collection of criminal justice debt.

May 21, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Notable recent work from the Prison Policy Initiative on prison wages and medical co-pays in prisons

LOGO_OnBlack_260s_400x400A helpful reader made sure I did not miss some recent pieces from the Prison Policy Initiative on prison wages and medical co-pays in prisons that ought to be of interest to readers.

The piece on wages, "How much do incarcerated people earn in each state?," provides a 50-state survey of wages paid to incarcerated people. Here is a snippet:

One major surprise: prisons appear to be paying incarcerated people less today than they were in 2001.  The average of the minimum daily wages paid to incarcerated workers for non-industry prison jobs is now 87 cents, down from 93 cents reported in 2001.  The average maximum daily wage for the same prison jobs has declined more significantly, from $4.73 in 2001 to $3.39 today.  What changed?  At least seven states appear to have lowered their maximum wages, and South Carolina no longer pays wages for most regular prison jobs -- assignments that paid up to $4.80 per day in 2001.  With a few rare exceptions, regular prison jobs are still unpaid in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.

The piece on medical co-pays, "The steep cost of medical co-pays in prison puts health at risk," highlights the hours it would take a low-paid incarcerated worker to earn enough for one co-pay. Here is an excerpt:

The excessive burden of medical fees and co-pays is most obvious in states where many or all incarcerated people are paid nothing for their work: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas.  Texas is the most extreme example, with a flat $100 yearly health services fee, which some officials are actually trying to double to $200.  People incarcerated in these states must rely on deposits into their personal accounts -- typically from family -- to pay medical fees. In most places, funds are automatically withdrawn from these accounts until the balance is paid, creating a debt that can follow them even after release.

Co-pays that take a large portion of prison wages make seeking medical attention a costly choice.  Co-pays in the hundreds of dollars would be unthinkable for non-incarcerated minimum wage earners.  So why do states think it’s acceptable to charge people making pennies per hour such a large portion of their earnings?  Some might argue that incarcerated people have nothing better to spend wages on than medical care.  But wages allow incarcerated people to buy things they need that the prison does not provide: toiletries, over-the-counter medicine, additional clothes and shoes, as well as phone cards, stamps, and paper to help them maintain contact with loved ones.  Co-pays that take a large portion of prison wages make seeking medical attention a costly choice.

April 23, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

SCOTUS rules 7-1 that due process precludes requiring defendant to prove innocence by clear and convincing evidence to recover assessments after invalidated conviction

The Supreme Court this morning handed down a notable due process decision in Nelson v. Colorado, No. 15–1256 (S. Ct. April 19, 2017) (available here). Here is how Justice Ginsburg's opinion for the Court gets started and concludes:

When a criminal conviction is invalidated by a reviewing court and no retrial will occur, is the State obliged to refund fees, court costs, and restitution exacted from the defendant upon, and as a consequence of, the conviction?  Our answer is yes.  Absent conviction of a crime, one is presumed innocent. Under the Colorado law before us in these cases, however, the State retains conviction-related assessments unless and until the prevailing defendant institutes a discrete civil proceeding and proves her innocence by clear and convincing evidence.  This scheme, we hold, offends the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process....

Colorado’s scheme fails due process measurement because defendants’ interest in regaining their funds is high, the risk of erroneous deprivation of those funds under the Exoneration Act is unacceptable, and the State has shown no countervailing interests in retaining the amounts in question. To comport with due process, a State may not impose anything more than minimal procedures on the refund of exactions dependent upon a conviction subsequently invalidated.

Justice Alito concurs separately, because in his view "Medina’s historical inquiry, not Mathews [the modern due process balancing test applied by the majority], provides the proper framework for use in these cases." Justice Alito's extended opinion provides a distinct account of the problem with Colorado's procedures.

Justice Thomas dissents in an opinion that is founded on the view that "petitioners have not demonstrated that defendants whose convictions have been reversed possess a substantive entitlement, under either state law or the Constitution, to recover money they paid to the State pursuant to their convictions. "

April 19, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, April 17, 2017

"Should NC sex offenders pay to be on registry?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this local article, which gets started this way:

Sex offenders would have to pay an annual fine to be listed on the state’s sex offender registry under a bill proposed by N.C. Rep. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover.  “There is a cost to continuing to have them on that registry,” Davis said. “The point of this is to get revenue to keep these people on the sex offender registry.”

House Bill 684 calls for sex offenders to pay an initial and annual fee of $90 to be on the registry.  The money would be directed to county sheriff’s offices to offset the costs associated with registering sex offenders, according to the bill.  Failure to pay the fee does not mean a registered sex offender isn’t listed on the registry -- the state attorney general’s office could sue to collect unpaid fees, according to the bill.

Many states require fees to be listed on the registry. In Tennessee, for example, the fee is $150 per year.

Cristina Becker, criminal justice debt fellow for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina (ACLU), said the bill could amount to adding an additional burden to someone who has served their jail term, serves on probation, lives under the restriction of the sex offender registry and is already facing a host of other fees associated with their conviction.  “It can become a perpetual form of punishment,” she said of an annual fee.  Becker said that because many released offenders “are indigent, their probationary periods can be extended for as long as they owe money.”

April 17, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (18)

Monday, April 10, 2017

"Day Fines: Reviving the Idea and Reversing the (Costly) Punitive Trend"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Elena Kantorowicz-Reznichenko now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Fines have numerous advantages as a criminal sanction.  They impose minor costs on the society and compliance leads to an increase of the state revenue.  Furthermore, fines have no criminogenic effect as prisons do. However, the potential of this sanction is not fully exploited due to income variation among offenders. Sanctions must impose an equal burden on offenders who commit similar crimes.  Yet in practice, low fines are insufficiently punitive to deter and punish wealthy offenders. And high fines are unaffordable for low-income offenders.  As a result, fines are imposed only for minor offenses.

On the contrary, day-fines allow imposing an equal relative burden of punishment, while assuring the offender is capable of complying with the pecuniary sanction.  This is possible due to the special structure of day-fines, which separates the decision on the severity of the crime and the financial state of the offender.  Such structure enables expanding the categories of offenses that can be dealt with pecuniary sanctions.  Day-fines can offer a partial solution for the American prison-overcrowding problem.

Therefore, the aim of this article is twofold.  First, to provide a comparative analysis of day-fines in Europe. This analysis includes an exhaustive depiction of all the day-fine models that are currently implemented in Europe.  Second, this article examines for the first time some of the challenges in transplanting day-fines into the U.S. criminal justice system, i.e. the constitutional restriction on Excessive Fines and the suitability of this model of fines to the American ‘uniformity revolution in sentencing’.

April 10, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Prez Trump in sheriffs meeting expresses support for broad civil forfeiture police powers

This Washington Post report details the notable joke Prez Trump made regarding a state legislator who apparently wants to limit police civil forfeiture powers, and highlights the broader issues raised by the surrounding discussion.  Here are the details:

At a meeting on Tuesday with sheriffs from across the country, President Trump joked about destroying the career of an unnamed Texas state senator who supported curtailing a controversial police practice for seizing people's property....

Sheriff Harold Eavenson of Rockwall County, Tex., brought up the issue of civil asset forfeiture, which allows authorities to seize cash and property from people suspected, but in some cases never convicted or even charged, with a crime. Eavenson told Trump of a “state senator in Texas that was talking about legislation to require conviction before we could receive that forfeiture money.”

“Can you believe that?” Trump interjected. “And,” Eavenson went on, “I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation passed.”

“Who's the state senator?” Trump asked. “Do you want to give his name? We'll destroy his career,” he joked, to laughter from the law enforcement officials in the room....

While many people are unfamiliar with the practice, asset forfeiture is widespread. In 2014, federal authorities alone seized over $5 billion from suspected criminals, more than the total losses to burglary that year. That number doesn't even count seizures conducted by state and local law enforcement. Critics of asset forfeiture policies say the broad leeway afforded to law enforcement officers in most states creates a system ripe for abuse....

A 2015 ACLU investigation found that Philadelphia police routinely seized what amounted to “pocket change” from some of the city's poorest residents. A 2014 Washington Post investigation found that police seized $2.5 billion in cash from motorists not charged with crimes as part of a federal program.

When told of the practice, a large majority of Americans are opposed to it. A December 2016 survey by YouGov and the libertarian Cato Institute found that 84 percent of Americans oppose taking “a person’s money or property that is suspected to have been involved in a drug crime before the person is convicted of a crime.”...

But law enforcement groups have been resolute in their support for the practice. They say seizing money from people not charged with crimes is sometimes necessary to protect public safety, particularly in cases where it may be hard to obtain a criminal conviction against a suspect.

Law enforcement groups often cast asset forfeiture as a tool for fighting drug kingpins and foreign drug cartels, as Sheriff Eavenson implied at the White House meeting. But reports of asset forfeiture abuse suffered by American citizens have become more common. Nonetheless, police have had great success in convincing state and federal lawmakers to uphold the practice.

President Trump has not spoken much about the practice, and the White House did not immediately return a request for comment. But Trump's nominee to lead the Justice Department, Sen. Jeff Sessions, has been an enthusiastic proponent of civil asset forfeiture. In a 2015 Senate hearing, Sessions said that “95 percent” of forfeitures involve suspects who have “done nothing in their lives but sell dope.”

February 7, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, January 08, 2017

SCOTUS back in action with booking fee process as first notable criminal case of 2017

The Supreme Court returns to action tomorrow morning, and the Court's January sitting only has a couple cases that should be of serious interest to criminal justice fans.  But the very first case slated for the very first 2017 oral argument is one of procedural note, Nelson v. Colorado.  The folks over at SCOTUSblog have provided this preview by Steve Vladeck, which starts and ends this way:

Every jurisdiction in the United States requires at least some criminal defendants to make certain payments to the government tied to their convictions.  And if a defendant’s conviction is subsequently vacated — whether on appeal or through collateral post-conviction proceedings — virtually every jurisdiction directly returns those funds to the acquitted individual.  Colorado does not.  Instead, according to the Colorado Supreme Court, criminal defendants seeking a return of funds paid in conjunction with a later-vacated conviction must bring a separate civil suit under a Colorado statute — the Exoneration Act — in which, among other burdens, plaintiffs apparently have to prove their actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence in order to recover.  The very first argument the justices will hear in 2017 — Nelson v. Colorado — raises the question whether this seemingly unique scheme violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment....

Although it is often difficult to predict from an oral argument how the justices are likely to rule, the sharp distinctions in how the parties have framed the issue in this case may allow for more than the usual tea-leaf reading at next Monday’s argument.  The more the questioning focuses on distinctions between the different types of payments made by Nelson and Madden, and the state’s interest in collecting and preserving those funds, the more it may bode well for Colorado.  But the more the justices’ attention appears drawn to how poor a fit the Exoneration Act actually is for defendants like these, the more likely the court will be to reverse.  After all, as Nelson and Madden conclude in their reply brief, Colorado appears to be the first and only jurisdiction in the United States “to require successful appellants to prove their innocence by any standard to get their money back when their convictions are reversed.”  If that fact seems to trouble enough of the justices during their first argument of the new year, then a reversal may well be in the offing.

January 8, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, January 02, 2017

Great report on Texas justice reviewing why Lone Star State is a "leader in criminal justice reform"

Images (4)Via this local press article, headlined "Report: Don't cut funding for inmate rehabilitation," I came across this terrific new report from the Texas House of Representatives Committee on Corrections.  These excerpts from the press piece provides a partial summary of the report:

When lawmakers return to Austin in 10 days to begin grappling with what appears will be a bare-bones state budget, a legislative panel that oversees the Texas prison system is urging them to resist cutting funding for programs that help former inmates and probationers adjust to free-world life.

“As (the prison system) cannot cut back on the security and public safety components of their mission, it is likely that many of the programs that are making a real difference will face the axe,” says a report released over the holidays by the Texas House Corrections Committee.

“The state that leads the nation in executions also leads the nation in providing alternatives to incarceration,” the report adds. “An American state that used to be infamous for its ‘lock 'em up and throw away the key’ approach to crime is now providing an unlikely inspiration to other states and countries.”

The 68-page report that the panel will likely use as a blueprint for legislative initiatives once 2017 session begins Jan. 10 makes several recommendations, include lowering the fees that probationers must pay, opting out of a federal program that requires the suspension of a driver’s license for anyone convicted of possessing even a small amount of marijuana and sealing the criminal records for qualifying former inmates who remain out of trouble for a specified period of time.

The report comes some 20 years after Texas leaders frustrated by rising crime rates completed a massive prison building program that tripled the system’s capacity. It even uses a phrase once thought to be politically toxic is describing the state’s approach for helping lawbreakers return to society. “Texas is a leader by being ‘softer on crime,’ although we prefer the word ‘smarter,’” it says. “It's something to think about as we head into the next legislative session.”....

The committee report says probation revocations, while still relatively high, have been steadily dropping for about a decade as lawmakers began devoting more resources to programs aimed at reducing inmates’ and probationers’ substance addictions and arming them with job skills. During that period, the report says, Texas’ crime rate has dropped about 20 percent while recidivism rates declined from 28 percent to 21 percent.

During a hearing in February, Corrections Committee Chairman Jim Murphy said it’s important that inmates and probationers believe that the state is committed to programs aimed at minimizing the chance that they’ll be back behind bars. “I am thinking about the dynamic of someone being in the system, wanting to improve themselves, and being told ‘you're not a priority,’” said Murphy, a Houston Republican. “If we're trying to get someone not to recidivate, that's exactly opposite of what I think the intended result would be.”

According to the report, which Murphy signed in early December before its release last week, the fees associated with being on probation can be insurmountable for offenders struggling to find employment. Probationers are charged upward of $60 a month to help cover the cost of supervision. Many are required to take and pay for classes aimed at fighting addiction or controlling anger and violence. Probationers who lose driving privileges can be required to take a class to have the license reinstated and pay up to $325 before being allowed to drive, even if it’s just to and from work.

The list goes on. “There are fees for records management, for juries, for judicial support, for court security, and for indigent defense,” the committee’s report says. “Pages and pages of fees. It boggles the mind to read it. Think of what it must be like to live it.” Often, the report continues, judges who impose the costs have little information regarding an offender’s ability to pay them. “In an era when you can find out your credit score for free on the internet, would it be that difficult to determine if a person is indigent prior to appearing before a judge?” the report asks.

The committee’s report points out that in April 2016, Pennsylvania enacted legislation, allowing criminal records of qualified nonviolent offenders to be sealed for offenders who remain free of legal trouble for 10 years. The records of those charged but not convicted of a crime can be sealed after 60 days.

As this partial summary should highlight, any and everyone interested in state or national criminal justice reform ought to have this across this important new Texas government report high on their New Year's reading list.

January 2, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, December 10, 2016

U.S. Supreme Court adds federal drug-offense forfeiture case to its docket

As reported here at SCOTUSblog, on Friday afternoon "the justices issued orders from [their] private conference, adding one new case to their merits docket for the term."  That new case concerns a criminal justice/sentencing issue, forfeiture, that has been a focal point of concerns for reform activists across the political spectrum.  Here are the details from SCOTUSblog about the forfeiture case now before the Justices on the merits:

They agreed to review the case of Terry Honeycutt, who worked as a salaried employee at a hardware store owned by his brother, Tony.  The two brothers were charged with federal drug crimes for the store’s sale of an iodine-based water disinfectant -- which can also be used to make methamphetamines.  Tony pleaded guilty and forfeited $200,000 to account for the proceeds of the illegal sales.  After Terry went to trial and was convicted, the government argued that he should have to forfeit the rest of the proceeds, approximately $70,000.

Terry countered that he should not have to forfeit the remaining proceeds because he did not own the store and therefore did not receive them.  The district court agreed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit reversed. It ruled that Terry could be held independently liable for the store’s proceeds from the sales even if the funds never actually reached him.

The federal government acknowledged that the courts of appeals are divided on the question presented by Terry’s appeal. It nonetheless urged the justices to deny review, explaining that the split among the circuits is “lopsided and recent.”  And in any event, it contended, Terry’s case is not a good one in which to consider that question, because he would also be liable for the forfeiture under the conflicting rule adopted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Despite the government’s objections, the justices granted certiorari [and] Honeycutt v. United States will likely be argued in the spring, with a decision by the end of June.

December 10, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

"Nickel and Dimed into Incarceration: Cash-Register Justice in the Criminal System"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing article authored by Laura Appleman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Criminal justice debt has aggressively metastasized throughout the criminal system.  A bewildering array of fees, fines, court costs, non-payment penalties, and high interest rates have turned criminal process into a booming revenue center for state courts and corrections.  As criminal justice administrative costs have skyrocketed, the burden to fund the system has fallen largely on the system’s users, primarily poor or indigent, who often cannot pay their burden.

Unpaid criminal justice debt often leads to actual incarceration or substantial punitive fines, which turns rapidly into “punishment.” Such punishment at the hands of a court, bureaucracy, or private entity compromises the Sixth Amendment right to have all punishment imposed by a jury.  This Article explores the netherworld of criminal justice debt and analyzes implications for the Sixth Amendment jury trial right, offering a new way to attack the problem.  The specter of “cash-register justice,” which overwhelmingly affects the poor and dispossessed, perpetuates hidden inequities within the criminal justice system. I offer solutions rooted in Sixth Amendment jurisprudence.

September 15, 2016 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

New York Times editorial spotlights "The Injustice of Making Kids Pay"

This new editorial from the Gray Lady highlights a new report that laments the imposition of economic sanctions on juve offenders and their families.  Here are excerpts (with links from the original):

It takes a lot these days to surprise anyone with the irrationalities of the American criminal justice system, rife as it is with harsh and counterproductive practices that do little or nothing to improve lives or keep the public safe.  But a new report, published by the Juvenile Law Center, shocks nonetheless. It illustrates the destructive results of charging court fees and fines to juveniles, many of whom come from impoverished families.

Courts impose costs on defendants in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to cover all sorts of expenses — day-to-day courtroom operations, drug and mental-health tests, even public defenders, who exist solely to represent people who can’t afford a lawyer.  These charges, which mount quickly, are disruptive enough for lower-income adults who are trying to get their lives back on track. They can be an even heavier burden on juveniles, one million of whom find themselves in court each year.

When these young people or their families fail to pay, they may end up behind bars, be forced to return to court over and over again, or have their driver’s licenses suspended, making it harder for them to go to school or work.  Families that are already struggling to get by may have to decide between paying the courts or buying food and clothing.

Absurdly, 11 states even charge to expunge a juvenile record, which is a major obstacle to a young person’s ability to get into college, land a job or find a place to live.

In general, the report found, these burdens — many ostensibly aimed at deterring crime — have the opposite effect: By saddling young people with piles of debt they cannot pay, they increase the likelihood that juveniles will wind up in trouble with the law again. And like so much else about the criminal justice system, these costs fall most heavily on poor and nonwhite juveniles.  As one of the report’s authors put it, “Asking people to pay what they don’t have doesn’t help anyone.”

September 6, 2016 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, September 03, 2016

"State Bans on Debtors' Prisons and Criminal Justice Debt"

The title of this post is the title of this article by Christopher Hampson recently posted to SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Since the 1990s, and increasingly in the wake of the Great Recession, many municipalities, forced to operate under tight budgetary constraints, have turned to the criminal justice system as an untapped revenue stream.  Raising the specter of the “debtors’ prisons” once prevalent in the United States, imprisonment for failure to pay debts owed to the state has provoked growing concern in recent years.  Existing approaches have failed to recognize an alternate potential font of authority: state bans on debtors’ prisons, enacted over several decades in the first half of the nineteenth century, as a backlash against imprisonment for commercial debt swept the nation.  This Note takes a first pass at this missing constitutional argument.

September 3, 2016 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, June 13, 2016

Intriguing Ninth Circuit ruling about restitution and forfeiture and the Excessive Fines Clause

The Ninth Circuit handed down an interesting new opinion dealing with various challenges to various financial sanctions in US v. Beecroft, No. 12-10175 (9th Cir. June 13, 2016) (available here). Here are snippets from the start and heart of the extended ruling:

Following her convictions for participating in an extensive mortgage-fraud conspiracy, a defendant was ordered to pay more than $2 million in restitution and to forfeit more than $100 million. We must decide whether either amount was erroneously calculated or unconstitutionally excessive....

As noted, Beecroft has not demonstrated error in the district court’s calculation of the amount of losses suffered by the banks injured by Beecroft’s actions. Without error in the loss calculation, Beecroft cannot show that requiring her to pay that amount back to the victims was somehow excessive or grossly disproportional to her crimes, which caused the loss in the first place. And we reiterate that Beecroft was not ordered to pay anything approaching the full amount of the banks’ losses. Uncontroverted evidence was presented to the district court showing that the scheme in which Beecroft participated caused losses in excess of $50 million; requiring her to pay slightly more than $2 million of that back is not an unconstitutional and excessive punishment....

The $107 million Beecroft was ordered to forfeit for the conspiracy (Count 1) stands apart. As with the other counts of conviction, for Count 1 Beecroft could be fined no more than $1 million (with a Guidelines range beginning as low as $20,000). In other words, for Count 1, Beecroft was ordered to forfeit a sum more than 100 times greater than the maximum fine allowable and more than 5,000 times greater than the lower-end of the Guidelines range. Even accounting for the fact that Beecroft faced potentially significant prison time as well, see Mackby, 339 F.3d at 1018, this is a tremendous disconnect between the forfeiture amount and Beecroft’s legally available fine. Indeed, such a disconnect stands out even among forfeiture orders which have previously been held grossly disproportional....

The government cites no case upholding a forfeiture order with a disparity similar to the one here, and it has not attempted to argue that the $107 million otherwise corresponds to injuries sustained by the government or the banks....

We have little doubt that the Eighth Amendment allows Beecroft to be ordered to forfeit a substantial sum of money for her participation in such an extensive and damaging conspiracy. But difficulty remains with the exceptional amount of forfeiture the court did impose. Without even an argument supporting the propriety of the $107 million forfeiture, we have no choice but to conclude that an order which so vastly outpaces the otherwise available penalties for Beecroft’s criminal activity runs afoul of the Excessive Fines Clause. Even on plain-error review, we must vacate the forfeiture order with respect to Count 1 and remand to the district court for reconsideration of that amount in light of the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause.

June 13, 2016 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Examining the high costs of expungement process in some jurisdictions

The Marshall Project has this effective new piece highlighting the ugly economics behind how some jurisdictions handle the expungement processes.  The piece is headlined "Want to Clear Your Record? It’ll Cost You $450: In Tennessee and other states, former felons can’t always afford it." Here are excerpts:

Many states charge $150 or less to apply for expungement, the legal term for clearing a criminal record, and some states offer a waiver if the applicant is too poor to pay.  But the Tennessee legislature wanted money for the state’s general fund, so it set the fee much higher.

While a gun permit may be discretionary, a decent job or money for an education are crucial, and for many people once convicted of a crime, Tennessee’s high fee has put expungement out of the reach.  In Tennessee, there are 958 restrictions based on a criminal record, including disqualification for any state-funded student loan or grant. A record also bars employment in a number of fields and any job that involves working with children.

In recent years, increased attention to the connection between these restrictions, which make it difficult to lead a stable life, and recidivism has spurred lawmakers in states across the country to pass legislation affording those with a conviction or an arrest a clean slate, according to a Vera Institute report.  Between 2009 and 2014, 31 states and Washington, D.C., established or expanded expungement laws. Most laws only included misdemeanor convictions or arrest records. A growing number of states are including some low-level, non-violent felonies.  Of the 17 states that do so, the application fee is generally in line with standard court fees. But three states are charging far more. Tennessee’s $450 is trumped by Louisiana's $550 fee, and as of July, Kentucky will charge $500.

Louisiana’s high fee results from inefficiencies that make processing an application arduous — the state’s jurisdictions are largely autonomous, with no central storehouse for information, said Adrienne Wheeler, executive director of the Justice & Accountability Center of Louisiana, a group that has worked to make expungement more accessible.  Further, the justice system — from the state police to sheriffs’ departments as well as district attorneys and court clerks — are underfunded and depend on fines to make up for the tax dollars they don’t receive.  “We were pretty vocal that this was an impossible cost,” said Wheeler of recent reform discussions. But, she said, “These agencies are not getting the funding that they need to function, so it’s hard to ask them to bring it down.”

In Tennessee and Kentucky, bloated prices have little to do with processing the application, but rather the state revenue they were designed to produce.  Fifty-five percent of the cash collected in Tennessee goes into the state’s general fund.  In Kentucky, it will be a full 90 percent. The prospect of revenue is exactly why Tennessee lawmakers were persuaded to pass felony expungement legislation in 2012, said State Representative Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat.  At the time, the official estimate was that the law would raise $7 million for the state annually. In reality, it has generated only about $130,000 each year according to an analysis by a criminal justice nonprofit, Just City. The lack of income is tied to the fact that few would-be applicants can afford to apply, Akbari said.

Public awareness of the issue is gaining momentum in Tennessee. At a fundraising event in February, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland raised $55,000 in private donations to cover the cost of expungement for indigent applicants.

June 1, 2016 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, April 22, 2016

"Why I refuse to send people to jail for failure to pay fines"

ImagesThe title of this post is the headline of this lengthy recent Washington Post commentary authored by Ed Spillane, the presiding judge of the College Station Municipal Court and president of the Texas Municipal Courts Association. Here are excerpts:

As a municipal judge in College Station, Tex., I see 10 to 12 defendants each day who were arrested on fine-only charges: things like public intoxication, shoplifting, disorderly conduct and traffic offenses.  Many of these people, like Melissa, have no money to pay their fines, let alone hire a lawyer.

What to do with these cases?  In Tate v. Short, a 1971 Supreme Court decision, the justices held that jail time is not a proper punishment for fine-only criminal cases, citing the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.  But in many jurisdictions, municipal judges — whether they’re overworked, under pressure to generate revenue through fees, skeptical of defendants’ claims to poverty or simply ignorant of the law — are not following the rules.  As a result, far too many indigent defendants are cited for contempt of court and land behind bars for inability to pay.

There’s another way, and I’ve been experimenting with it in my own courtroom.

There are no firm numbers nationally on how many fine-only cases end with the defendants in jail, but figures from particular jurisdictions around the country are grim, if partial.  A 2014 survey by NPR, New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice and the National Center for State Courts showed that in Benton County, Wash., a quarter of people in jail for misdemeanors on a typical day were there for nonpayment of fines and court fees.  (The study also found that civil and criminal fees and fines had increased in 48 states since 2010.)  The percentage of jail bookings in Tulsa involving inmates who had failed to pay court fines and fees more than tripled, from 8 to 29 percent of 1,200 inmates, between 2004 and 2013, according to reporting by the Tulsa World.  Eighteen percent of all defendants sent to jail in Rhode Island between 2005 and 2007 were incarcerated because of court debt; in 2005 and 2006, that amounted to 24 people per day....

Fortunately, courts and judges are not powerless to fix the system.

First, defendants must be allowed to argue economic hardship in an indigency hearing, which is Constitutionally required if a defendant says he or she can’t pay.  It’s unclear how many judges skip these hearings, and practices vary from one jurisdiction to another, but Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel at the Brennan Center, says there’s no question that some judges aren’t holding them.  “Sometimes it’s not always nefarious,” Eisen says. “They have very full dockets. . . . It can require overtime just to finish their docket for the day. It’s not always a deliberate decision to not hold those hearings.”...

Once a defendant proves indigency, we can also be much more creative in our sentencing than “fine or jail” (or a suspended driver’s license, a popular measure that disproportionately hurts low-income workers who can’t get to their jobs without driving).  Community service at a nonprofit or government entity is one of the strongest tools judges have at their disposal; in my experience, it boosts defendants’ self-esteem and provides valuable assistance to organizations that need the help....

Judges can also sentence defendants to anger-management training, classes for first-time offenders or drunk-driving-impact panels. National research shows that alternative sentencing like teen court can reduce recidivism, and my time on the bench confirms this.  One defendant in an alcohol-related case, Jeff Schiefelbein, was sent to a Mothers Against Drunk Driving victim-impact panel in 1997.  He was so moved by the experience that he decided to create a designated-driver program for anyone who is intoxicated and needs a ride home.  Since 1999, his organization, Carpool, has provided on average 650 rides each weekend in College Station.

And occasionally, as a judge, you can choose mercy.  Roger S. was facing an $800 fine for speeding, driving without insurance or registration and driving with defective equipment.  He also had terminal cancer.  He wrote to me, explaining that he could not afford his treatments, much less what he owed the court. I picked up the phone and called him from court.  He was a little surprised but pleased to be talking to the judge.  After discussing his medical treatment and all of those costs in detail, I waived his fines because of indigency and inability to perform community service, much to his and his family’s relief....

Of course, no matter how many great alternatives judges can provide instead of jail time, if a defendant fails to come to court, he or she won’t be able to hear about them.  Courts must be as accessible as possible, and that starts with allowing children to accompany their parents.  One of the revelations in the Justice Department’s report on Ferguson was that children weren’t allowed in municipal court, which explains why many defendants were unable to appear. Several courts in Texas limit or don’t allow parents bringing their children, even though kids don’t present a problem in my court — maybe because we provide coloring books and toys for them to play with while their parents take care of their cases....

I used to prosecute felonies as an assistant district attorney in Brazos County. During that time, I worked for a year in the intake division.  This drove home a lesson that my boss, the district attorney, had been trying to instill in me: Every case file is an individual whose rights are as important and sacred as mine or those of my family.  The decision to charge or dismiss demands empathy and vigilance. Misdemeanor criminal cases provide an opportunity for a much happier outcome than most felonies because there is a genuine chance for a defendant to learn from a mistake and never set foot in a courtroom again — and keeping someone out of jail is a good way to ensure that happens.  In these cases, it should be possible for defendants to resolve their cases without losing their liberty.

All judges want to uphold the rule of law in the communities we serve, but too often we can get lost in the day-to-day business of running a court; we ignore the consequences of what we do.  An arrest can cost a citizen his or her job, dignity and security.  Alternative sentencing is a way to achieve what we should all want: an end to criminal behavior.

April 22, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Former coal exec gets maximum misdemeanor sentence for conspiracy to evade mine safety regulations

As reported in this AP piece, a federal "judge sentenced former coal executive Don Blankenship to a year in prison Wednesday for his role in the deadliest U.S. mine explosion in four decades, saying he was part of a 'dangerous conspiracy'."  Here is more on a high profile federal misdemeanor white-collar sentencing result:

One day after the sixth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, which killed 29 men, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger gave the ex-Massey Energy CEO the maximum prison time and fine of $250,000. A federal jury convicted Blankenship on Dec. 3 of a misdemeanor conspiracy to violate mine safety standards at Upper Big Branch. MOBlankenship's attorneys contended he should receive probation and a fine, at most. The judge denied their motion for Blankenship to remain free as he appeals. It's not clear when he must report to prison.

As Blankenship left the courthouse, a few family members of miners who were killed started yelling at him while he and his attorneys spoke with reporters. "We buried our kid because of you," said Robert Atkins, whose son Jason died in the explosion.  "That's all I got is a goddamn tombstone."  Asked by a reporter what he had to say to the shouting family members, Blankenship said: "Well, just that the coal miners didn't cause the accident."...

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez echoed prosecutors in saying the maximum punishment didn't fit the crime.  "This administration continues to support efforts in Congress to strengthen those penalties, and we stand ready to work with members who believe that no worker should lose their life for a paycheck," Perez said in a news release.

At Upper Big Branch, four investigations found worn and broken cutting equipment created a spark that ignited accumulations of coal dust and methane gas. Broken and clogged water sprayers then allowed what should have been a minor flare-up to become an inferno.  Blankenship disputes those reports.  He believes natural gas in the mine, and not methane gas and excess coal dust, was at the root of the explosion.

Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito and the United Mine Workers of America spoke favorably about the decision.  The sentencing capped a wide-spanning investigation into Massey following the explosion. Four other workers in the corporate chain were convicted of crimes including faking a foreman's license, lying to federal investigators and conspiring in an illegal scheme to warn miners and other subsidiaries of surprise safety inspections.  Their sentences ranged from less than a year to more than three years in prison.

The judge described Blankenship's rise from a meager, single-mother Appalachian household to one of the wealthiest, most influential figures in the region and in the coal industry. "Instead of being to be able to tout you as a success story, we are here as a result of your part in a dangerous conspiracy," she said.

During the trial, prosecutors called Blankenship a bullish micromanager who meddled in the smallest details of Upper Big Branch.  They said Massey's safety programs were just a facade — never backed by more money to hire additional miners or take more time on safety tasks. Blankenship was acquitted of felonies that could have stretched his sentence to 30 years....

In 2011, Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey after the explosion, agreed to pay $210 million to compensate grieving families, bankroll cutting-edge safety improvements and pay for years of violations by Massey Energy.  Under the deal with federal prosecutors, Alpha wasn't criminally charged.  The judge already ruled that Blankenship won't have to pay $28 million in restitution to Alpha Natural Resources, helping him avoid a serious blow to his personal fortune.  Berger also ruled that Blankenship would not have to pay restitution to about 100 people, including former miners and family members.

April 6, 2016 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, April 04, 2016

"Summary Injustice: A Look at Constitutional Deficiencies in South Carolina’s Summary Courts"

The title of this post is the title of this new report produced by National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) about low-level (in)justice in the low country. Here is a summary account via this press release of Summary Injustice:

In South Carolina, the bulk of criminal cases are low-level offenses heard in municipal and magistrate courts, collectively referred to as summary courts.  These courts often fail to inform defendants of the right to counsel, refuse to provide counsel to the poor at all stages of the criminal process, and force defendants who can’t afford to pay fines to instead serve time in jail.

“When you go to a summary court in South Carolina, you find yourself in a judicial netherworld where the police officer who made the arrest acts as the prosecutor, the judge may not have a law degree, and there are no lawyers in sight,” said Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU of South Carolina.  “By operating as if the Sixth Amendment doesn’t exist, these courts weigh the scales of justice so heavily against defendants that they often receive fines and jail time they don’t deserve.”

This report documents the constitutional violations observed by attorneys with NACDL and the ACLU in 27 different courts throughout the state during several weeks between December 2014 and July 2015, including multiple stories from defendants.  The U.S. Constitution guarantees that a person accused of a crime and who faces loss of life or liberty as punishment has the right to a lawyer even if he or she can’t afford one.

“Many, if not most, people will read this report and be shocked by the numerous and profound constitutional deficiencies in South Carolina’s summary courts as observed by NACDL and the ACLU since they began this research in 2014,” said longtime Rock Hill, South Carolina, criminal defense lawyer and NACDL Treasurer Chris Wellborn. “Sadly, as someone who has spent my career representing the criminally accused in South Carolina, I am only able to underscore how pervasively these courts have been disregarding the rights of the people of South Carolina, and that it’s been like this for decades.”

NACDL President E.G. “Gerry” Morris said: “While this important report, and a forthcoming second report to be released later this year, is focused on South Carolina, it is part of a larger initiative to study state level public defense delivery systems across the nation.  The ultimate goal is to identify and document weaknesses in different public defense delivery systems that must be remedied as well as to highlight strengths and successes in systems that can and should be replicated elsewhere.  More than 50 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, the people of America are entitled to nothing less than to have their courts respect the very rights recognized and protected by the Constitution.  NACDL will not waver in its mission to shine the light brightly on systems where that is not happening, and to offer policymakers effective solutions to what is quite clearly a widespread problem of constitutional dimensions.”

April 4, 2016 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 28, 2016

NY Times laments "A Modern System of Debtor Prisons"

The New York Times today ran this editorial headlined "A Modern System of Debtor Prisons." Here are excerpts:

Court systems commonly raise revenue by punishing people who commit minor offenses with fines, fees and penalties that can pile up, driving them into poverty. Worse still, state and local governments often jail people illegally for nonpayment, putting them at risk of losing their jobs and homes.

The Justice Department responded forcefully to this problem in Ferguson, Mo. This month, the racially troubled town agreed to a federal plan to root out racist and unconstitutional practices in its Police Department and courts. The case put other state and local governments on notice that they, too, could be held accountable for operating court systems that violate the constitutional rights of people charged with nonpayment of fines.

The guidelines issued by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division explain in detail what courts can and cannot do when enforcing fine collections. The department says state and local courts have an obligation to inquire about a person’s ability to pay fines and fees before jailing them for nonpayment. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that imprisoning a person because he or she is too poor to pay a fee amounts to “punishing a person for his poverty” and violates equal protection under the 14th Amendment....

The danger of unjust practices is magnified when courts hire private companies to collect court fines. These companies often operate without oversight, which leaves them free to adopt abusive tactics and bleed people with fees and penalties. The Justice Department makes clear that courts can be held accountable for constitutional violations committed by the firms they hire. The Ferguson reform plan is a reminder of how far state and local courts have strayed from the law in this area, and it provides a clear route to restoring lost justice for the indigent.

March 28, 2016 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

"Of Systems and Persons: The Ability and Responsibility of Corporate Law to Improve Criminal Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting-looking new paper available via SSRN authored by W. Robert Thomas. Here is the abstract:

The federal government has used criminal fines to punish corporations for as long as it has been punishing corporations.  Yet to this day, with more than a century in which to get the punishment right, corporate-criminal fines fail to satisfy virtually any standard justification that underlies criminal punishment.

Attempts to address the failure of corporate-criminal fines founder on two shoals.  First, there is a deep and abiding ambiguity about what it means to designate corporate fines as a failed punishment.  Second, there is a tendency to see the failure of punishment as a problem for criminal law to solve, and in doing so to treat corporate law as a fixed, immutable feature of the legal background.  This particularly is a profound mistake: the failure of corporate-criminal fines is as much a corporate-law problem as it is a criminal-law problem.

Corporate punishment stands at the vanguard of the conceptual and regulatory interplay between corporate and criminal law.  At the heart of this conflict is an interaction between drastically different regulatory functions that operate on the basis of conflicting conceptions of the corporation: corporations as persons for criminal law, and corporations as systems for corporate law.  While pluralism about the nature of corporation works well when cabined to specific legal do-mains, corporate-criminal punishment forces these domains, and their competing conception of the corporation, to reconcile or give way.

This Article explores the intimate connections between corporate law and criminal punishment — specifically, how corporate law creates the conditions for, makes necessary, and yet at the same time undermines criminal law’s efforts to punish corporations.  Appreciating these interconnections requires understanding not just the conceptual frames implicit to each area of law, but also the historical contingency of associating certain conceptions of the corporation with particular legal domains.  To be sure, this project is reform-minded: I consider what it would mean to improve criminal fines through corporate law reforms designed to redistribute the harms attendant to criminal fines in a manner that better aligns the punishment with standard penological aims.  That said, the ambition first and foremost is to reveal a blind spot in current discussions of corporate-criminal punishment by drawing attention to the conceptual intricacies that attend a practice — corporate-criminal punishment — that stitches together diametrically opposed conceptions of the corporation.

February 17, 2016 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Offender Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 07, 2016

"Restitution and the Excessive Fines Clause"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Kevin Bennardo now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Restitution is a component of many criminal sentences.  There is little agreement, however, upon whether and how the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution limits restitution orders in criminal cases.  Courts have long been divided over whether the Excessive Fines Clause applies to restitution orders at all, whether to apply the “grossly disproportional” test to restitution orders or some other causation-based test, and how to measure gross disproportionality in the restitution context.

First, the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment should be read as a limit on restitution orders in criminal cases.  The Eighth Amendment applies because these monetary payments are partially punitive.  And, although restitution payments are not made to the sovereign, the concept of “fines” for purposes of the Excessive Fines Clause is properly understood to encompass payments to third parties that result from government-initiated action.

Second, the same “grossly disproportional” test that has been applied to criminal fines and forfeitures should apply to restitution orders as well.  Indeed, all monetary sanctions should be pooled together for purposes of a single Excessive Fines Clause proportionality analysis.  The constitutionally-relevant question should be whether an offender’s total monetary sanction is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the offense.  Although causation between the offense conduct and the victim’s loss is generally a statutory requirement of restitution orders, it is not a constitutional one. The causation requirement furthers restitution’s remedial purpose; it is not relevant to the Eighth Amendment’s excessiveness inquiry, which functions to limit the punitive severity of monetary sanctions.

Lastly, the question of gross disproportionality is largely an exercise of judgment that should be left to the judiciary. Some courts have inappropriately wholly relied on analyzing whether the monetary sanction was authorized by the legislature in assessing the constitutionality of the penalty.  This approach inappropriately collapses the constitutional inquiry into the statutory one. Although the statutory restitution or fine range may be a useful input in the constitutional analysis, it cannot be the sole component.  In the end, the judiciary's independent judgment must be trusted to weigh proportionality and detect unconstitutionally excessive monetary sanctions.

February 7, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, January 08, 2016

"Full Restitution for Child Pornography Victims: The Supreme Court's Paroline Decision and the Need for a Congressional Response"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper authored by Paul Cassell and James Marsh now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In this article, we have reviewed the legal issues surrounding restitution for child pornography victims.  In our view, the Supreme Court’s Paroline decision failed to fully implement the congressional mandate that victims receive restitution for the “full amount” of their losses.  Congress should move swiftly to ensure full restitution for child pornography victims by enacting the proposed Amy and Vicky Act — a more rational scheme for awarding restitution.

After the Supreme Court's Paroline ruling in April 2014, a number of reasonable folks reasonably predicted that Congress could and would move quickly to pass legislation to remedy the victim-oriented concerns stressed in this article. But, now nearly two years later, "Paroline fix" legislation seems stuck in Congress while victims like Amy and Vicky and others wait and wait for statutory reforms that, in the words of this article, would create "a more rational scheme for awarding restitution."

January 8, 2016 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, December 21, 2015

Federal judge enjoins Tennessee county's privatized probation system operating like debtors' prison

As reported in this local article, "Judge's order frees 13 held for not paying probation fees," a group of probationers got a holiday gift in the form of a significant federal judicial order preventing a locality for jailing low-level offenders for failing to pay fines or court costs. Here are the basics:

Heather Keller is looking forward to spending Christmas with her children after a federal judge's order set her free from the Rutherford County Detention Center Friday afternoon. A day earlier, a federal judge in Nashville granted an injunction that prevented officials and probation supervisors in Rutherford County from holding people in jail for certain violations or only because they could not pay fees. It also said that anyone being held for those reasons should be let go.

Keller, 35, was one of 13 inmates released from the jail in Murfreesboro who were held there because they could not pay fees to the private company contracted to oversee the Rutherford County misdemeanor probation system. The injunction that won Keller’s release was part of a lawsuit filed against Providence Community Corrections, which has changed its name to Pathways Community Corrections.

The suit was filed in October and accuses Rutherford County and PCC of working together to extort people on probation there by charging excessive fees. Many of the seven people named in the lawsuit rely on government assistance and have said in court testimony or documents that PCC's excessive fees leave them struggling to pay bills and facing extended probation terms because they cannot pay court costs.

It is a practice Alec Karakatsanis, attorney for the plaintiffs, likens to the operation of a debtors' prison. Karakatsanis said Sharp's order is only the beginning of possible probation reform in Rutherford County.

“We will fight to end permanently what we believe to be the rise of a modern debtors' prison system in which the poor and destitute are jailed and threatened with jail solely because of their inability to make monetary payments to a private company and their local government,” Karakatsanis said. “This is a very important ruling for impoverished people in Tennessee.”

The injunction was granted by Chief District Judge Kevin Sharp in Nashville. In addition to freeing these prisoners, Sharp also ordered PCC immediately stop the practice of violating probationers solely for non-payment of fees.

Keller was originally arrested for driving on a suspended license and since has been jailed twice for non-payment of probation fees, she said. “I’ve spent more time in jail for non-payment than the original charge,” Keller said.

And Sharp ordered Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold to free any inmates held on violation of probation charges stemming solely from non-payment of fees and fines.

The federal district judge's 20-page injunction order in Rodriguez v. Providence Community Corrections is available for download here:  Download Opinion Granting Injunction

December 21, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, December 07, 2015

"Are debtors' prisons returning?"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent lengthy CNN commentary authored by Van Jones and Jessica Jackson. Here are excerpts:

Debtors' prison is supposed to be illegal in the United States. But in too many American cities, it has made a shocking return.  This [past] week, a bipartisan group of leaders, and a few A-list celebrities, gathered at the White House to do something about it.

The problem: Faced with ballooning costs of America's massive incarceration industry, local jurisdictions have started billing people for time they spend behind bars.  They are also charging them for electronic supervision services. Not to mention DNA collection, juries and constitutionally mandated public defenders.

The trouble here is obvious: Recently incarcerated people often do not have jobs.  Therefore, they cannot possibly keep up with an increasingly aggressive list of fees and fines.

So believe it or not: Cities are throwing them BACK into jail -- for not being able to pay!  From Detroit to Dallas, America's criminal justice system is trapping poor people in a perpetual cycle of prisons and poverty....

On top of the stated fees and fines, many jurisdictions are adopting practices employed by shady payday lenders, not public safety agencies.  For example, Washington state charges a 12% interest rate on all its criminal debt.  Florida adds a 40% fee that goes into the pockets of a private collections agency.  And in Arizona, an 83% surcharge turns a $500 fee into a $915 bill.  A portion of those proceeds go to finance electoral campaigns, creating a strong incentive to preserve the status quo.

One study revealed that most people with a felony conviction can expect to be saddled with an average $11,000 in debt.  In total, about 10 million Americans collectively owe more than $50 billion in outstanding fines and fees. Repaying this debt would be challenging for the average American family, half of whom would have trouble finding $400 on short notice.  But for those already struggling to get on their feet after prison, the debt from fees and fines often carry carries with it an air of impossibility.

The current system has dire consequences for millions of Americans that can be permanently debilitating and perpetuates a cycle of poverty and incarceration.  Failure to pay fines can result in lost income, depressed credit ratings, housing instability, suspended drivers' licenses, arrest warrants, loss of Social Security benefits or further incarceration.  These consequences can permanently affect an individual's life and reduce the ability ever to get his or her life back on track.

The system is not supposed to work this way.  A Supreme Court ruling in 1983 prohibited putting people in prison for failure to pay their fines and fees without an indigency hearing.  And yet at least 15 states have found ways to ignore this mandate.  They have made this a standard practice....

The Sunlight Foundation is supporting the collection of data so we can understand the scope of the problem and how we can better address the issue.  The Laura and John Arnold Foundation is funding a comprehensive research and litigation-based approach to reform.  And #cut50 is dedicated to highlighting this injustice and amplifying leadership from around the country.

Together, we can roll back these policies that ultimately have little to do with public safety.  Our challenge strikes at the heart of our criminal justice system: Are we a nation of second chances, or will we sit by and watch a perpetual punishment machine run wild?  Let us ensure our elected representatives and government agencies live up to the highest values of our society.

This ABC News column authored by Lz Ganderson, headlined "To Be Poor, Black and Jailed," discusses similar issues and concerns.

December 7, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

"For Offenders Who Can’t Pay, It’s a Pint of Blood or Jail Time"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times story of a remarkable local sentencing story out of Alabama.  Here is how the article starts:

Judge Marvin Wiggins’s courtroom was packed on a September morning. The docket listed hundreds of offenders who owed fines or fees for a wide variety of crimes — hunting after dark, assault, drug possession and passing bad checks among them.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” began Judge Wiggins, a circuit judge here in rural Alabama since 1999. “For your consideration, there’s a blood drive outside,” he continued, according to a recording of the hearing. “If you don’t have any money, go out there and give blood and bring in a receipt indicating you gave blood.”

For those who had no money or did not want to give blood, the judge concluded: “The sheriff has enough handcuffs.”

Efforts by courts and local governments to generate revenue by imposing fines for minor offenses, particularly from poor and working­class people, have attracted widespread attention and condemnation in recent months. But legal and health experts said they could not think of another modern example of a court all but ordering offenders to give blood in lieu of payment, or face jail time. They all agreed that it was improper.

October 20, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Charles Koch Institute produces great set of short videos urging crimnal justice reforms

I am really intrigued, and really impressed, by this new set of one-minute videos created by the the Charles Koch Institute under the banner "Criminal Justice and Policing Reform Explainer."   Here are the topics and links to the videos, and I have embedded the one on mandatory minimums below: 

October 14, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 02, 2015

"How to Fight Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons? Sue the Courts."

EJUL-slide-3The title of this post is the headline of this Marshall Project report on recent litigation brought by Alex Karakatsanis and his Equal Justice Under Law non-profit. Here is the start of the report (with links from original):

A young civil-rights attorney in Washington, D.C., is suing courts across the country for jailing defendants unable to afford their bail, court fines, and probation fees.  As a result, cities in Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi, and Louisiana have recently done away with bail for misdemeanors and traffic violations.

The lawyer, 31-year-old Alec Karakatsanis, has now filed a federal lawsuit against Rutherford County, Tenn. and the private company it contracts with to collect court debts. According to the lawsuit, that company, Providence Community Corrections, ran “an extortion scheme” that “conspired to extract as much money as possible” from people who were threatened with jail time if they couldn’t pay court fees and fines.

PCC is “user funded,” which means the company does not charge the county for its services but depends solely on fees paid for by people on probation.  Some of those fees include “supervision fees,” costs for drug tests and classes, and even a $25 fee for those applying for fee reductions. Before Rutherford County outsourced its probation services to PCC in 1996, the county was only collecting a fraction of fees, PCC State Director Sean Hollis told the Daily News Journal in 2014.

PCC collected over $17 million from probationers in Rutherford County between 2009 and 2014, according to the Daily News Journal. Rutherford County Judge Ben Hall McFarlin told the paper at that time: “The county didn't pay for anyone to get that money," adding that he had never sentenced anyone to jail if their only violation was a failure to pay. "I don't see where the taxpayers would disagree with that.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of seven plaintiffs and alleges that indigent defendants in Rutherford County have lost their jobs, houses, cars, and even sold their own blood plasma to make payments and avoid jail time.

“Everything about this scheme is in flagrant violation of U.S. constitutional law, federal law, and even specific Tennessee law,” Karakatsanis told The Marshall Project. In Tennessee, it’s illegal to imprison a person over court debt.  

The suit was brought under a federal anti-corruption law accusing PCC and Rutherford County of operating a “racketeering enterprise” that misuses “the probation supervision process for profit.” A spokesman for PCC, Jeff Hahn, wrote in a statement that PCC's "mission is to encourage people to complete their probation successfully per the terms set by the courts." He added that "in each of the states we serve, we steadfastly comply with the laws governing the probation system."

It’s just the latest salvo from Karakatsanis, who helped start Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit civil-rights organization. Karakatsanis and co-founder Phil Telfeyan, 32, started their organization in 2014 with a grant from their alma mater, Harvard Law School, in order to challenge inequalities in the criminal justice system. The organization often works in partnership with local attorneys and nonprofits.

In November 2014, the city of Montgomery, Ala., agreed to terminate its contract with a private probation company as part of a settlement with Equal Justice Under Law.  The lawsuit alleged that indigent people in Montgomery were being jailed over their inability to pay their court debts.  Similar lawsuits were filed in 2015 against municipal courts in Ferguson, Mo., Jennings, Mo. and New Orleans, La., although those cities do not rely on private probation companies to collect debts.

Equal Justice Under Law has also sued six jurisdictions over their bail systems, and all six no longer require defendants to pay bail as a condition of their release. The organization filed a seventh lawsuit, in Calhoun, Ga., in early September.

October 2, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)