Wednesday, September 21, 2022

House Judiciary Committee advances a number of federal criminal justice bills

As well reported in this lengthy new Marijuana Moment piece, "Congressional Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Record Sealing And Other Drug Policy Bills In Key Committee," today brought some notable action in the US House of Representatives on some criminal justice matters.  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts :

A key House committee has approved a series of criminal justice reform bills—including bipartisan proposals to clear records for prior federal marijuana convictions, provide funding for states that implement systems of automatic expungements and codify retroactive relief for people incarcerated due to on crack-cocaine sentencing disparities.

The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), advanced the measures, as well as other bills unrelated to drug policy, during a hearing on Wednesday.... Nadler, speaking about a bill to provide funding to states for expungement purposes, stressed that “even just an arrest can present lifetime barriers to obtaining jobs, housing, education and put other opportunities out of reach.”

“Criminal record expungement and sealing is a pathway to employment opportunities for individuals with a criminal record and enable them to participate fully in their communities at a time when many industries continue to face labor shortages,” the chairman said. “These pathways that desperately needed.”

The congressman also voiced support for the federal cannabis record sealing bill, saying it is “critical in helping those with non-violent criminal records to rebuild their lives.” He added that the public is on board with the reform, as well as major employers who’ve endorsed the legislation such as J.P. Morgan Chase and Walmart.

Here’s a rundown of what the committee-approved bills would accomplish:

HR 2864: The “Clean Slate Act” from Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) would mandate the automatic sealing of criminal records for certain non-violent, federal marijuana convictions. It would also provide relief to people who have been arrested for other offenses that did not result in a conviction....

HR 5651: The “Fresh Start Act” sponsored by Rep. David Trone (D-MD) would provide federal funding to states that create their own systems of automated expungements.  Though it does not specify the types of crimes that would warrant relief, a growing number of states are taking steps to implement systems of automatic expungement for marijuana convictions, and those states would benefit from the new funding....

HR 5455: The “Terry Technical Correction Act” from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) is responsive to a 2021 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held that a law reducing the federal crack-cocaine sentencing disparity did not apply retroactively in cases that did not trigger a mandatory minimum sentence.

It would amend the law by clarifying that the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act was intended to provide individuals in those cases with relief, and so any motion that was denied on the basis of a court’s interpretation of eligibility under the statute “shall not be considered a denial after a complete review of the motion on the merits within the meaning of this section.”...

The crack-cocaine sentencing bill from Jackson Lee enjoyed some bipartisan support in the committee, with Ranking Member Jim Jordan (R-OH) speaking in favor of the legislation ahead of the vote. He stressed that it was a necessary reform to align the law with congressional intent.

Republican members generally balked at the state expungements and federal record sealing proposals, however, arguing that they amount to “soft on crime” policies.

September 21, 2022 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Is Criminal Law Unlawful?"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Paul Gowder and available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

A legal theorist reading contemporary criminal justice scholarship is confronted with a troubling sense of dissonance. Foundational to modern accounts of the concept of law are rules, and the chief modality of law’s operation in ordinary peoples’ lives is said to be in enforcing those (primary) rules.  Normative theories by philosophers of law typically deploy this rule- oriented character as a key virtue of legal systems, whether in Fullerian theories of the moral value of law itself in terms of their facilitation of autonomous self-application of rules, or in theories of the rule of law according to which one of the key criteria of good legal systems is that they only coerce individuals pursuant to rules.

Yet criminal justice scholars have known for decades that rule-enforcement is at best incidental to vast swathes of criminal justice.  Even before the advent of “broken windows” policing, a large portion of police work was focused on coercively organizing public space, with minimal regard to the rules of substantive law.  Scholars of misdemeanor adjudication — the judicial destination of the arrests that result from this mode of policing — have described a process in which the ultimate disposition of defendants is unconnected to any serious effort to determine whether some law has been violated.  This lawlessness of criminal justice is exacerbated by, and itself exacerbates, America’s underlying system of race and class hierarchy.  In short, instead of a system of law enforcement, American criminal justice is a key exemplar of what critical race scholars have called “structural racism,” in which individual and organizational incentives reproduce racially unjust outcomes even in the absence of individual racial malice.

Legal philosophers must reconcile their theories with reality by confronting the fact that a sector of American “law” with immense practical significance does not, in fact, constitute an application of law (for conceptual theorists) or the rule of law (for normative theorists) at all.

In this context, some lessons may be drawn from an analogous juridical context.  A handful of scholars have suggested that the system of criminal justice is more administrative than legal.  Moreover, advocates and scholars have long articulated severe critiques of the federal administrative state on rule of law grounds.  Thus, the discourse around the administrative state can serve as a model for how legal theorists should confront the criminal justice state.

While some scholars appear to have supposed that the notion of legality simply does not apply to the administrative state, others have propounded radical challenges to that state which have reflected a willingness to sacrifice other important interests in the pursuit of legal fidelity.  Results such as the recent Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v. E.P.A. have suggested that even the pursuit of existential policy goals like combatting climate change must give way to the concept of legality underneath challenges to the administrative state.  If such challenges are any model to follow, then rule of law advocates and scholars must at least consider similar radical challenges to the criminal justice system, such as police abolition, to be on the table.

September 21, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

District Court declares § 922(n), which criminalizes a person under indictment from receiving a firearm, to be unconstitutional

A few months ago, in a series of posts right after the Supreme Court's big Second Amendment decision Bruen (basics here), I suggested that a number of broad federal criminal firearm prohibitions might be subject to new constitutional challenges.  Specifically, I focused on how the Bruen court's recasting of Second Amendment analysis might impact the federal felon-in-possession statute, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) and the federal drug-user-in-possession statute, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3) (see posts linked below).  Interestingly, I did not even think about how Bruen might impact another federal firearm prohibition provision, 18 U.S.C. § 922(n), which criminalizes a person under indictment from receiving a firearm. Yesterday, as detailed in this AP article, a federal district court in Texas decided that Bruen renders § 922(n) unconstitutional:

A U.S. law banning those under felony indictments from buying guns is unconstitutional, a federal judge in West Texas ruled Monday.  U.S. District Judge David Counts, whom then-President Donald Trump appointed to the federal bench, dismissed a federal indictment against Jose Gomez Quiroz that had charged him under the federal ban....

In a 25-page opinion filed in Pecos, Texas, Counts acknowledged “this case’s real-world consequences — certainly valid public policy and safety concerns exist.”  However, he said a Supreme Court ruling this summer in a challenge brought by the New York Rifle & Pistol Association “framed those concerns solely as a historical analysis.”

“Although not exhaustive, the Court’s historical survey finds little evidence that ... (the federal ban) — which prohibits those under felony indictment from obtaining a firearm — aligns with this Nation’s historical tradition.”

Hence, he ruled the ban unconstitutional as the “Second Amendment is not a ’second class right,” as noted in a 2008 Supreme Court ruling.  ”No longer can courts balance away a constitutional right,” Counts wrote.  After the New York case, “the Government must prove that laws regulating conduct covered by the Second Amendment’s plain text align with this Nation’s historical tradition.  The Government does not meet that burden.”

The full 25-page ruling in US v. Quiroz, PE:22-CR-00104-DC (W.D. Tex. Sept. 19, 2022), is available at this link.  The full opinion is worth a full read, in part for a bits of west Texas flair such as this line: "Some feel that a grand jury could indict a [burrito] if asked to do so." 

Some prior related posts:

September 20, 2022 in Collateral consequences, Gun policy and sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (15)

Noting that the Biden Administration in a high-profile case "has decided to continue to seek the death penalty"

Chris Geidner has this new Substack posting, titled "The Biden administration supports the death penalty," that effectively flags a notable new capital case filing by the Biden Administration's Department of Justice.  The subheadline of the piece summarizes the key points:  "Although Biden's campaign promised to 'eliminate the death penalty,' his administration told a court in a case last week that AG Merrick Garland 'has decided to continue to seek the death penalty'."  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

On Friday, Sept. 16, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York filed a one-page notice in a pending capital case for Sayfullo Saipov, the man accused in the October 2017 terror attack along a bike path in Manhattan that killed 8 and injured many more. In its key sentence, the DOJ notice stated: “We were notified today that the Attorney General has decided to continue to seek the death penalty.”...

[I]n July 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a moratorium on executions pending a review of execution procedures — echoing a DOJ policy during then-President Barrack Obama’s administration. The administration has done little since to “eliminate the death penalty,” and Garland’s decision in Saipov’s case does the opposite....

One of the people who most closely tracks the death penalty across the country, Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told Law Dork that this news shows — at the least — a disconnect between the White House and Justice Department. “The Department of Justice’s pursuit of the death penalty in this case — along with the its continued defense of the death penalty in other cases on appeal — indicates that, if the White House has a policy of working to end the federal death penalty, the Department of Justice certainly isn’t acting on it,” Dunham told Law Dork.

Garland — in cases involving Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s 2013 Boston Marathon bombing death sentence and Dylann Roof’s death sentence for 2015 murder of nine Black people at a Charleston church — has supported previously issued death sentences in court, but Saipov’s case would be the first trial of the Biden administration where the federal government is seeking to impose a new death sentence.

To be clear, Garland did not initially make the decision to seek death in this case. That was done in the Trump administration, under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But, in the aftermath of Biden’s election and Garland’s execution moratorium, there was a request from Saipov that DOJ withdraw its intent to seek the death penalty in his case.

September 20, 2022 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, September 19, 2022

"What’s Dangerous Is America’s Lack of Crime Data"

The title of this post is the headline of this new opinion piece by Matthew Yglesias.  I recommend the full piece and here are excerpts:

Crime is on the political agenda in a big way this year, with Republicans zeroing in on it as their favorite topic now that gasoline prices are moderating.  Which naturally raises the question: Is crime rising?  To which the shocking answer is — nobody knows.  Not because anything unusual is happening, but simply because the usual state of America’s information on crime and policing is incredibly poor.

Contrast this state of affairs with the amount of data available on the US economy.  There are monthly updates on job creation, the unemployment rate and multiple indexes of inflation.  Commodity prices are publicized on a daily basis. Reports on gross national product come out quarterly, with timely revisions as more data comes in.  Policymakers benefit from a deeply informed debate, enriched by commentary from academics and other observers.

But on crime the US is, to a shocking extent, flying blind.  As a July report from the Brennan Center for Justice noted: “More than six months into 2022, national-level data on crime in 2021 remains unavailable.”...

The dearth of information is a problem not only for rigor-minded policymakers.  It also leaves the political arena open for manipulation by demagogues.  Since nobody actually knows in real time what’s happening, anecdotes can just stand in for made-up fears.  Since the very real murder surge of 2020 now has people primed to believe “crime is out of control” narratives, any particular instance of violence can be used to support that story....

By the same token, when murder really was soaring in 2020, it was easy for progressives to stay in ideologically convenient denial for far too long, since it was genuinely impossible to actually prove that it was happening until much later.  The people who dismissed the anecdotal evidence of rising crime were, in that case, mistaken. But the Republicans who are stoking fears of rising crime right now also appear to be mistaken.  And the lack of information about geographical patterns in murder trends means no one has much ability to assess what social or policy factors may be in play.

What makes this all especially maddening is that collecting this information in a timely manner shouldn’t be that difficult. Police departments know how many murders are committed in their jurisdiction. That information is stored on computers. It doesn’t need to be delivered to the Department of Justice via carrier pigeon. The DOJ should be given some money to create a system that can be easily updated by law enforcement agencies, and actually filing that information in a timely way should be a condition of receiving federal police grants.  A small team at the Bureau of Justice Statistics could have the job of phoning up departments who haven’t done it and “reminding” them to update the numbers.  And then the data could be released on a regular basis in a machine-readable form — the same way numbers for jobs, inflation, and other major economic statistics are.

Knowing what’s actually happening would not, by itself, solve America’s crime problems.  But successful efforts to reduce violence, such as the one in New York City in the 1990s, were driven by a commitment to rigorous measurement.  A serious federal investment in crime data collection is no panacea, and it’s not exactly a winning political slogan.  But it would be a huge boost to all kinds of crime-control efforts.

September 19, 2022 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Interesting report on the echoes of the Supreme Court's recent Ruan decision

As noted in this post last week, the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law has this great panel discussion scheduled for tomorrow to discuss various aspects of the Supreme Court's work last term in Ruan v. United States.  (Folks can and should register here for this event.)  Coincidently, CBS News has this lengthy new piece discussing the case's impact under the headline "Doctors rush to use Supreme Court ruling to escape opioid charges."  Here are excerpts:

Dr. Nelson Onaro conceded last summer that he'd written illegal prescriptions, although he said he was thinking only of his patients. From a tiny, brick clinic in Oklahoma, he doled out hundreds of opioid pills and dozens of fentanyl patches with no legitimate medical purpose. "Those medications were prescribed to help my patients, from my own point of view," Onaro said in court, as he reluctantly pleaded guilty to six counts of drug dealing. Because he confessed, the doctor was likely to get a reduced sentence of three years or less in prison.

But Onaro changed his mind in July. In the days before his sentencing, he asked a federal judge to throw out his plea deal, sending his case toward a trial. For a chance at exoneration, he'd face four times the charges and the possibility of a harsher sentence.

Why take the risk? A Supreme Court ruling has raised the bar to convict in a case like Onaro's. In a June decision, the court said prosecutors must not only prove a prescription was not medically justified ― possibly because it was too large or dangerous, or simply unnecessary ― but also that the prescriber knew as much. Suddenly, Onaro's state of mind carries more weight in court. Prosecutors have not opposed the doctor withdrawing his plea to most of his charges, conceding in a court filing that he faces "a different legal calculus" after the Supreme Court decision.

The court's unanimous ruling complicates the Department of Justice's ongoing efforts to hold irresponsible prescribers criminally liable for fueling the opioid crisis. Previously, lower courts had not considered a prescriber's intention. Until now, doctors on trial largely could not defend themselves by arguing they were acting in good faith when they wrote bad prescriptions. Now they can, attorneys say, although it is not necessarily a get-out-of-jail-free card. "Essentially, the doctors were handcuffed," said Zach Enlow, Onaro's attorney. "Now they can take off their handcuffs. But it doesn't mean they are going to win the fight."

The Supreme Court's decision in Ruan v. United States, issued June 27, was overshadowed by the nation-shaking controversy ignited three days earlier, when the court erased federal abortion rights. But the lesser-known ruling is now quietly percolating through federal courthouses, where it has emboldened defendants in overprescribing cases and may have a chilling effect on future prosecutions of doctors under the Controlled Substances Act.

In the three months since it was issued, the Ruan decision has been invoked in at least 15 ongoing prosecutions across 10 states, according to a KHN review of federal court records. Doctors cited the decision in post-conviction appeals, motions for acquittals, new trials, plea reversals, and a failed attempt to exclude the testimony of a prescribing expert, arguing their opinion was now irrelevant. Other defendants have successfully petitioned to delay their cases so the Ruan decision could be folded into their arguments at upcoming trials or sentencing hearings.

David Rivera, a former Obama-era U.S. attorney who once led overprescribing prosecutions in Middle Tennessee, said he believes doctors have a "great chance" of overturning convictions if they were prohibited from arguing a good faith defense or a jury was instructed to ignore one. Rivera said defendants who ran true pill mills would still be convicted, even if a second trial was ultimately required. But the Supreme Court has extended a "lifeline" to a narrow group of defendants who "dispensed with their heart, not their mind," he said.

"What the Supreme Court is trying to do is divide between a bad doctor and a person who might have a license to practice medicine but is not acting as a doctor at all and is a drug dealer," Rivera said. "A doctor who is acting under a sincerely held belief that he is doing the right thing, even if he may be horrible at his job and should not be trusted with human lives ― that's still not criminal."...

To defense attorneys, the unanimous ruling sent an unambiguous message. "This is a hyperpolarized time in America, and particularly on the court," Enlow said. "And yet this was a 9-0 ruling saying that the mens rea ― or the mental state of the doctor ― it matters."

Some prior related posts:

September 19, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Notable developments as defense rests in capital trial of Parkland school shooter

I have been following the capital sentencing trial of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz somewhat more closely than I follow other capital trials in part because the case involves such competing extremes.  This case is the deadliest U.S. mass shooting to ever reach trial, involves no question about guilt and the 17 victims were mostly students with many as young as 14.  And yet Nikolas Cruz's defense team has presented a considerable mitigation case highlighting his damaged upbringing and considerable mental health issues.

The Cruz defense team rested its case in mitigation last week sooner than had been expected, and that led to a reaction by the presiding trial judge which has now produced a defense motion to remove the judge.   Here are some headlines and ledes from a few stories covering these latest developments:

"Parkland school shooter's defense team demands judge be removed after heated exchange"

The attorneys representing the Parkland school shooter filed a motion Friday asking for the judge overseeing his sentencing trial to be replaced.  The motion comes after the judge and the defense attorneys had an unusually heated exchange on Wednesday, in which the judge accused the attorneys of a lack of professionalism.

The motion alleges that Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer's conduct during the Wednesday exchange revealed "long-held" animosity toward the defense counsel that has "infected" the proceedings and will prevent their client from getting a fair trial.

"Parkland defense has convinced some that killer deserves mercy"

The sudden end of the defense case in the Parkland mass shooting trial this week drew criticism of and from the presiding judge, temporarily overshadowing the biggest question at issue — was enough evidence presented to convince a jury to spare the defendant’s life?

It’s impossible to say for sure — juries are notoriously unpredictable.  But at least one expert, and some trial observers, say they would not be surprised if the jury in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas mass shooting case were to show mercy toward confessed gunman Nikolas Cruz.

Some prior related posts:

September 18, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 17, 2022

"The Prison Pleading Trap"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper on SSRN authored by Tiffany Yang.  Here is its abstract:

The prison is an epicenter of dominance — it is where state-sanctioned abuses are most forcefully expressed and legitimized without being seen. Incarcerated people have increasingly turned to civil prisoners’ rights litigation to expose the injustices hidden behind prison walls.  But rather than safeguarding incarcerated people’s access to courts, Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act to obstruct their pathways to judicial relief.  A centerpiece of this effort is the Act’s exhaustion provision, which mandates proper completion of the prison grievance process before challenging any condition of prison life in federal court.

Prisons design demanding grievance pleading standards to make exhaustion more difficult for the people they confine. When a federal court disagrees with the prison’s interpretation of a pleading rule and permits an incarcerated plaintiff’s claim to move forward, the decision is seen as a victory that safeguards incarcerated people’s right to judicial redress.  It is tempting to perceive the plaintiff’s success as the prison’s defeat.  But when we peer behind the curtain and interrogate what follows, a dangerous manipulation of power emerges.  Prisons have responded to litigation “defeats” by amending their grievance rules to impose a more onerous pleading standard that forecloses the short-lived victory.  What appears at first glance to be a welcome exercise of judicial intervention functionally becomes an invitation — indeed, a blueprint — for the prison to raise its grievance pleading bar and immunize itself from liability.

This reactive process — what I call the “prison pleading trap” — creates an untenable and perilous regime.  And its harms are heightened for people of color, who are disproportionately incarcerated and, while confined, disproportionately subject to prison abuses requiring redress.  This article investigates the trap’s operations and impacts, and upon considering a range of potential solutions, it ends by recognizing the merits of transformative change.  Congress created PLRA exhaustion to reduce the quantity of prison litigation, but this reform addressed a symptom (the volume of litigation) while ignoring the disease (growing prison populations and persisting abuses). Discrete procedural solutions to prison grievance pleading will have meaningful impacts, but they are ultimately incomplete without a concurrent commitment to decarceration.

September 17, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, September 16, 2022

Federal judge orders Philly prosecutors to send written apologies to victim family members for poor behavior in capital habeas case

This ABA Journal article, headlined "Federal judge orders district attorney to write apology letters to families of murder victims," reports on a notable federal court order from earlier this week. Here are the highlights:

A federal judge has ordered Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner to write apology letters to the families of the victims of a double murder after concluding that supervisors in his office made misleading statements to the court.

U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania scolded prosecutors for being “vague” and “unclear” about whether they consulted with victims’ families before supporting efforts to overturn the death penalty in the case against Robert Wharton.  In reality, prosecutors communicated with just one person — the family member who survived the attack, Lisa Hart-Newman.  The district attorney’s office had written in a court notice that it decided to concede an ineffective counsel claim following a review by its capital case review committee and “communication with the victims’ family,” wrote Goldberg in a Sept. 12 opinion.

Wharton was convicted for killing Bradley and Ferne Hart in 1984 in retaliation for failure to pay for construction work.  Working with an accomplice, he then shut off the heat to the couple’s home, leaving their 7-month-old daughter, Lisa, “to fend for herself,” according to a 2018 opinion by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Philadelphia.  A relative found the baby still alive three days later.

The 3rd Circuit ordered the death penalty review to determine whether Wharton’s trial lawyer was ineffective by failing to present evidence about the defendant’s positive adjustment to prison.  The district attorney’s office agreed that Wharton’s Sixth Amendment rights had been violated and asserted that a full review by the judge was unnecessary, according to Goldberg’s opinion.  But precedent “plainly holds that a jury’s death sentence verdict cannot be undone until all facts are placed on the table so that a fully informed judge, not the district attorney, can make the decision as to whether a decades-old verdict should be set aside,” Goldberg said.

Although the 3rd Circuit required a review of evidence in favor and in opposition to the death penalty, the district attorney’s office failed to advise the court about Wharton’s “violent escape from a city hall courtroom” and subsequent escape conviction, Goldberg said.  That’s “possibly the worst type of prison adjustment,” he observed.

Department supervisors on the capital case review committee said they recommended conceding Wharton’s habeas petition without knowing about the escape attempt. But that admission “was curiously contrary” to an assistant supervisor’s assertion in court that the office was aware of Wharton’s escape conviction, Goldberg said.... Goldberg said the district attorney’s office “continues to misunderstand its role” in collateral review proceedings in death penalty cases.  “If the district attorney’s office files its concession on a misleading presentation of the facts, it attempts to misuse the court’s power,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg directed Krasner to send separate written apologies to Hart-Newman and three family members for representing that the office had communicated with the victims’ family.

The full and interesting 28-page ruling in Wharton v. Vaughn is available at this link.

September 16, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, September 15, 2022

"Lemonade: A Racial Justice Reframing of The Roberts Court’s Criminal Jurisprudence"

The title of this post is the title of this recent article authored by Daniel Harawa available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.  When it comes to the Supreme Court’s criminal jurisprudence and its relationship to racial (in)equity, progressive scholars often focus on the tartness of the lemons. In particular, they have studied how the Court often ignores race in its criminal decisions, a move that in turn reifies a racially subordinating criminalization system.

However, the Court has recently issued a series of decisions addressing racism in the criminal legal system: Buck v. Davis, Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, Timbs v. Indiana, Flowers v. Mississippi, and Ramos v. Louisiana.  On their face, the cases teach that history matters. Government actors who discriminate must be held to account.  Accepted institutional practices can no longer perpetuate racism. And courts must assume an active role in addressing the racism endemic to the criminal legal system.  At least tonally, these cases are a marked shift for the notoriously post-racial Roberts Court

But if you dig a little deeper, it is clear that the cases have severe shortcomings.  The cases reflect that the Court acknowledges only the most egregious examples of racism, and it fails to see the invidious ways race taints the criminal legal system.  The cases also demonstrate the Court’s failure to connect past racial practices with present racial disparities, a failure that in turn paints a false picture of discontinuity of the past from the present.  When viewed critically, these seemingly race-aware cases fall neatly in line with the post-racial critiques of the Roberts Court. From a racial justice perspective, the cases could be viewed as lemons.

Even so, this Article attempts to make lemonade. The Article shifts the narrative about the Court’s criminal jurisprudence by arguing that these recent cases can be helpful tools in the fight for racial justice.  This Article asserts that the cases can be deployed not only to make specific antiracist legal arguments, but also to push for policy changes and to encourage more open discussions about racism in the criminal legal system.  In the end, the Article urges a reclaiming of the case law to help unwind the corrosive relationship between race, crime, and punishment in America.  This intervention is necessary now, for the millions of Black and Brown people shuffled through the system each year. 

September 15, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

US organizations file complaint at United Nations stating LWOP and other extreme prison terms "are cruel in violation of the international prohibition on torture"

As reported in this new Guardian piece, headlined "US civil rights groups file complaint against ‘death by incarceration’ to UN," a coalition of organizations today filed a notable broadside against all extreme prison terms in the US.  Here are the basics:

A coalition of civil and human rights organizations on Thursday filed a complaint urging United Nations special rapporteurs to declare the United States’ longstanding practice of subjecting people to life sentences, including without possible release, “cruel, racially discriminatory” and “an arbitrary deprivation of liberty” that violates incarcerated people’s rights.

They argued that “death by incarceration”— a term describing life sentences without parole coined by [Terrell] Carter and other members of the Right to Redemption Committee, a group of incarcerated people seeking the abolition of the practice — amounted to torture.  In their complaint, the civil rights organizations asked the international watchdogs to pressure the United States, who leads the world in sentencing people to life imprisonment, to abolish the extreme practice altogether.  They proposed instead to impose maximum sentencing laws that would eliminate the practice of “virtual life” sentences — those longer than a person’s remaining years of life expectancy, often more than 50 years....

Dozens of testimonies from incarcerated people sentenced to life detail the horrific toll so-called “death by incarceration” has not just on their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing but also the lasting impact separation has on their family members.  Carlos Ruiz Paz, who is serving a life sentence in California, wrote in a testimonial that a life sentence without parole signaled a person was “irreparably damaged without hope of redemption”, adding: “Extreme sentences affect the kids who grow up without us and the parents that will die without us at their side.”

The complaint noted that the United States’ use of virtual life sentences increased exponentially since the 1970s, particularly after the supreme court abolished the death penalty in 1972, prompting states to strengthen life sentencing laws for offenders.  Even after the supreme court reversed course in 1976, extreme sentencing practices continued.  By the 1980s and 90s, as the federal government incentivized states to impose harsher sentencing practices in an effort to curtail perceived rises in crime, more and more people were imprisoned for longer.

The toll of that suffering has disproportionately upended the lives of Black and brown people who have been subjected to over-policing throughout time, exposing them to the US carceral system and led to escalating mass incarceration.  Organizers argue that that violates international human rights law prohibiting racial discrimination. “This systemic deprivation of resources, including education, healthcare and other social support and services, is coupled with the entry of more police and prisons in these communities and exposure to the criminal legal system,” the complaint noted.

The US is the only country that sentences children under 18 to life without parole, a practice that the United Nations has already singled out. And the US accounted for more than 80% of people worldwide serving life sentences without parole.

The full complaint is available at this link, and it runs 160 pages in total (though 3/4 of the document is comprised of an Appendix with testimonials from persons serving extreme sentences). Here is a paragraph from the complaint's introduction:

The United States’ use of DBI sentences violates a range of international human rights.  First, the disproportionate imposition of DBI sentences on racial minorities, in particular Black and Latinx people, violates the prohibition against racial discrimination.  Second, by arbitrarily and permanently sentencing individuals to prison terms that result in their premature death, DBI sentences violate individuals’ right to life.  Third, as recognized by numerous international human rights bodies, by depriving individuals of their right to hope and to rehabilitation, DBI sentences violate the international prohibition against torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.  The devastating consequences on an individual’s right to family life further exacerbate the cruelty of DBI sentences.  Finally, the failure of DBI sentences to serve any legitimate purpose further demonstrates that such sentences are an impermissibly arbitrary deprivation of liberty.  To comply with international human rights standards, the United States must abolish DBI and restore incarcerated individuals’ right to hope.

September 15, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Where Black Lives Matter Less: Understanding the Impact of Black Victims on Sentencing Outcomes in Texas Capital Murder Cases from 1973 to 2018"

The title of this post is the title of this recent article published in the Saint Louis University Law Journal authored by Jelani Jefferson Exum and David Niven.  Here is part of its abstract:

Scholars and advocates have long acknowledged that the death penalty is disproportionately applied to Black offenders.  It is also well known that the race of a victim is a leading factor in a capital defendant’s risk of receiving the death penalty, with those convicted of murdering whites significantly more likely to receive the death penalty than those convicted of murdering Blacks.  This Article takes an in-depth look at statistics covering the sentencing outcomes in capital murder cases in Texas from 1973 to 2018, revealing the clear evidence that race matters in the imposition of the death penalty.  However, this Article does not simply join the chorus of voices that have recognized the racial disparity in the death penalty.  Rather, the authors argue that the lesson from the Black victim effect on the death penalty decision fits into the broader, historic, and present-day context of devaluing Black lives. As the Texas example provides, the devaluing effect of Blackness is apparent.  This is not simply a failure to recognize the value of Black lives — as the Black Lives Matter movement exposes — but a reflection of the societal view that Blackness actually reduces the value and importance of all things — from property to community spaces to ultimate humanity. In life, Black people are vastly under-protected by the law, and the same is true for Black people even in a system designed to exact retribution for death.  When we accept the fact that the death penalty reveals that Black deaths do not matter, then it becomes apparent that there is not an antiracist fix for the death penalty other than its abolition.

In this Article, the authors present the most comprehensive data ever assembled on capital murder cases in Texas to affirm that the scope of the race of victim difference is jarring.  This data shows how pervasive race is in death penalty outcomes.  In every single comparison the racial disparity was statistically significant, and harsher punishment was associated with white victims than with African American victims, who clearly mattered less.  The truth, of course, is that Black victims matter as much as any, even if the legal system and society haven’t recognized their value. Within a database of thousands of cases there are thousands of tragic stories of lives upended by acts of an almost unspeakable nature.  The details differ from case to case, but across all those thousands of cases the race of victim disparity persists.  The math is straightforward.  Indeed, the odds against the patterns seen here — emerging by chance — are truly astronomical.  The race of the victim matters in the Texas criminal justice system.

As a matter of jurisprudence and policy making, however, the meaning of this data is uncertain.  When legislators debate the death penalty, racial disparities are among the most frequently cited concerns of opponents of the death penalty.  Supporters of the death penalty, however, dispute both the math and the meaning of findings of racial disparities, taking particular offense at the suggestion that race influences sentencing or influences their own views. These authors argue that abolition is the only corrective approach.  We must make the radical choice to uproot systems, like the death penalty, that allow the anti-Black biases in our national consciousness to not only thrive, but to be just.  To do otherwise is to perpetuate a system where Black lives matter less.

September 15, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Ninth Circuit panel holds non-retroactive sentencing changes can be considered in compassionate release motions

Weighing in on an issue that has split circuits, a Ninth Circuit panel today in US v. Chen, No. 20-50333 (9th Cir. Sept. 14, 2022) (available here), held that "a district court may consider the First Step Act’s non-retroactive changes to sentencing law, in combination with other factors particular to the individual defendant, when determining whether extraordinary and compelling reasons exist for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)."  The Chen opinion explains how "other circuits are split concerning this issue," but ultimately decides to "join the First, Fourth, and Tenth circuits and conclude that district courts may consider non-retroactive changes in sentencing law, in combination with other factors particular to the individual defendant, when analyzing extraordinary and compelling reasons for purposes of § 3582(c)(1)(A)."  Here is a portion of the panel's explanation for its ruling:

Congress has only placed two limitations directly on extraordinary and compelling reasons: the requirement that district courts are bound by the Sentencing Commission’s policy statement, which does not apply here, and the requirement that “[r]ehabilitation . . . alone” is not extraordinary and compelling.... To hold that district courts cannot consider nonretroactive changes in sentencing law would be to create a categorical bar against a particular factor, which Congress itself has not done. In fact, such a categorical bar would seemingly contravene the original intent behind the compassionate release statute, which was created to provide the “need for a ‘safety valve’ with respect to situations in which a defendant’s circumstances had changed such that the length of continued incarceration no longer remained equitable.” Ruvalcaba, 26 F.4th at 26 (citing S. Rep. No. 98225, 55–56, 121 (1983)....

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Concepcion confirms that, in the context of modifying a sentence under the First Step Act, “[i]t is only when Congress or the Constitution limits the scope of information that a district court may consider in deciding whether, and to what extent, to modify a sentence, that a district court’s discretion to consider information is restrained.” 142 S. Ct. at 2396.  Since Congress has not legislated to create a third limitation on extraordinary and compelling reasons prohibiting district courts from considering non-retroactive changes in sentencing law, we decline to create one now....

Through § 3582(c)(1)(A) and § 994(t), Congress has demonstrated that it can, and will, directly limit what constitutes extraordinary and compelling reasons.  It is therefore hard to reconcile the argument that we should infer a categorical bar on extraordinary and compelling reasons with Congress’s prior decisions not to create such stark limitations on a district court’s discretion.

September 14, 2022 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Rounding up lots of notable headlines and stories

Busy times means I sometimes need to cover a lot of stories of interest through a round-up post.  This is one of those posts:

From AL.com, "‘We have to do something’: Alabama lawmaker pitches increased penalties for fentanyl traffickers as overdoses mount"

From Bloomberg Law, "Ninth Circuit Standard Sentencing Terms Ruling Highlights Split"

From CBS News, "Minnesota man sentenced to life in prison for selling fentanyl in 11 fatal overdoses: 'Your disregard for human life is terrifying'"

From the Chicago Tribune, "An Illinois man is serving a life sentence for 6 grams of cocaine. He is fighting to be freed."

From Florida Politics, "Not so deadly DeSantis — law and order Governor has signed fewer death warrants than predecessors"

From The Guardian, "‘My emancipation proclamation’: the man fighting to free millions from their criminal records"

From NPR, "110 people once sentenced to life in prison as juveniles convene for 'freedom party'"

From Politico, "Arrests in New Jersey for small-time cannabis dealing plummet post-legalization"

From Time, "People Age Out of Crime. Prison Sentences Should Reflect That"

From WGHP, "Why do some of NC’s convicted killers get parole and others don’t?"

From WHYY, "Sentencing reform, or getting tough on crime? Oz and Fetterman on criminal justice"

September 14, 2022 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Hoping and pushing for SCOTUS finally taking up acquitted conduct sentencing enhancements

Long-time readers know I have long bemoaned the use of so-called "acquitted conduct" to enhance sentences in the federal system.  My moans have sometimes found expression in amicus briefs in support of efforts to get the Supreme Court to take up this issue, and I surmise any number of defendants have brought this issue to SCOTUS in cert petitions over the last two decades.  But the Justices have persistently declined to take up this issue (though, back in the 2014 Jones case, Justice Scalia joined by Justices Ginsburg and Thomas dissented from the denial of cert on this topic). 

But hope springs eternal, and this month I had the pleasure of working with great lawyers at Squire Patton Boggs to file another amicus brief on this issue, this one in support of petitioner Dayonta McClinton.  I blogged here about McClinton's case after the Seventh Circuit affirmed his 19-year sentence that was based heavily on the judge's determination that McClinton was to be held responsible for a murder even after a jury had acquitted him of that killing.  As detailed in this SCOTUS docket sheet, a number of notable interest groups have also filed amicus briefs in support of cert in this case.

Excitingly, Michael Pepson and Jeremiah Mosteller have this new Bloomberg Law commentary, headlined "US Supreme Court Should Tackle Acquitted Conduct Sentencing," which focuses on the McClinton cert petition and makes this notable assertion: "Taking up the issue of acquitted conduct sentencing this next term will give the court another opportunity to tackle a criminal justice issue that unites people from across the spectrum."  Here is more from the piece that I recommend in full (with links from the original):

This practice allows judges to use conduct a defendant was acquitted of by a jury to increase a defendant’s sentence or punishment for a separate crime.  This tool essentially allows judges to veto a jury’s decision when they merely disagreed with their conclusion.

At least three current justices have questioned or called for an end to this unjust practice. And they do not stand alone, as other recent members of the court have also noted this issue demands action, including former justices Antonin ScaliaRuth Bader Ginsburg, and Anthony Kennedy.

There is reason to hope other members of the court would also agree acquitted conduct sentencing is unconstitutional given their professional backgrounds and experience on the front lines working in the criminal justice system.

The justices are not alone.  For years, many lower federal court judges have also forcefully argued that acquitted conduct sentencing is unconstitutional.  And a growing number of state courts have also broken ranks with the federal courts, calling this sentencing practice what it is: unconstitutional.

This broad criticism underscores the appalling nature of this practice.  It is not only unjust to defendants but also undermines the legitimacy of our criminal justice system and eviscerates the role of juries as a check on government abuse and overreach.

We both frequently have conversations with friends, advocates, and partners who have no idea this practice occurs.  The response is always shock and confusion about how such a practice can exist in America.  This horrified reaction mirrors our own, which is why we continue to advocate for the end of this practice.

The Supreme Court has a perfect opportunity to reconsider this practice by accepting a case called McClinton v. United States

A few recent of many, many prior related posts:

September 14, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"'Take the Motherless Children off the Street': Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Michael Perlin and Heather Cucolo now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Remarkably, there has been minimal academic legal literature about the interplay between fetal alcohol syndrome disorder (FASD) and critical aspects of many criminal trials, including issues related to the role of experts, quality of counsel, competency to stand trial, the insanity defense, and sentencing and the death penalty.  Nor has there been any literature about the interplay between FASD-related issues and the legal school of thought known as therapeutic jurisprudence.

In this article, the co-authors will first define fetal alcohol syndrome and explain its significance to the criminal justice system.  We will then look at the specific role of experts in cases involving defendants with FASD and consider adequacy of counsel.  Next, we will discuss how the impact of FASD on the major fundamentals of criminal law and procedure, especially as it relates to questions of culpability. Under this broad umbrella of topics, we consider questions that may arise in the criminal trial process, such as those related to competency to stand trial (and, to a limited extent, other criminal competencies), the insanity defense, sentencing, and the death penalty.  We look carefully at the way that courts all too often dismiss effectiveness-of-counsel claims in such cases, and the implications of this case law.

Finally, we investigate why it is so significant that the caselaw in this area has totally ignored the teachings of therapeutic jurisprudence, and offer some conclusions and recommendations (based on therapeutic jurisprudence principles) that, we hope, can (at least partially) ameliorate this situation.

This article strikes me as especially timely given that the capital defense of Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland school shooter, has been particularly focused on FASD.  This new article, headlined "Nikolas Cruz trial: FASD expert has ‘never seen’ pregnant woman abuse alcohol as much as shooter’s mother," provides a partial account of the evidence being developed during his on-going capital sentencing proceeding.

September 14, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Is Alabama going to pioneer using nitrogen as a method of execution soon?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP article headlined "State: Alabama nearly ready with untried execution method."  Here are the details:

Alabama could be ready to use a new, untried execution method called nitrogen hypoxia to carry out a death sentence as soon as next week, a state attorney told a federal judge Monday.

James Houts, a deputy state attorney general, told U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker Jr. that it is “very likely” the method could be available for the execution of Alan Eugene Miller, currently set for Sept. 22, if the judge blocks the use of lethal injection.  Houts said the protocol “is there,” but said the final decision on when to use the new method is up to Corrections Commissioner John Hamm.

Nitrogen hypoxia, which is supposed to cause death by replacing oxygen with nitrogen, has been authorized by Alabama and two other states for executions but has never used by a state.  The disclosure about the possibility of using the new method came during a court hearing on Miller’s request for a preliminary injunction to block his execution by lethal injection.  Miller maintains prison staff lost paperwork he returned in 2018 that requested nitrogen as his execution method rather than lethal injection.  The Alabama attorney general’s office argued there is no corroborating evidence that Miller returned the form.

Huffaker heard testimony and arguments during an evidentiary hearing in Montgomery federal court.  He noted the “high stakes” involved with a looming execution date, but did not immediately rule on the request to block the lethal injection.  When Alabama approved nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative execution method in 2018, state law gave inmates a brief window to designate it as their execution method.  Wearing a maroon shirt and with his hands shackled in front of him, Miller testified that he returned a state form selecting nitrogen on the same day it was distributed to inmates by a prison worker....

Miller described how he disliked needles because of painful attempts at drawing blood. He said nitrogen gas sounded like the nitrous oxide gas used at dentist offices, and that seemed better than lethal injection. “I did not want to be stabbed with a needle,” Miller said....

Alabama told a federal judge last year that it has finished construction of a “system” to put condemned inmates to death using nitrogen gas, but did not give an estimate of when it would be put to use.  Miller’s lawyer, Mara Klebaner, said the state had asked if Miller would waive his claims if nitrogen was ready, but she said they need more information about the nitrogen process. Miller’s lawyers don’t want him to be the test case for an untried execution method, she said.

Klebaner said the Alabama attorney general’s office recently withdrew an execution date request for another inmate after his lawyers provided proof that the inmate had selected nitrogen hypoxia.  She said Miller should be treated the same.

The state argued Miller was trying to delay his execution. Houts told the judge the state had gone as far as to see if Miller would agree to be fitted with a mask for use of nitrogen, but the inmate declined. Miller’s attorney said the state presented the gas mask during a deposition and that Miller was understandably upset.

Miller, a delivery truck driver, was convicted in workplace shootings that killed Lee Holdbrooks, Scott Yancy and Terry Jarvis in suburban Birmingham. Miller shot Holdbrooks and Yancy at one business and then drove to another location to shoot Jarvis, evidence showed.

Long-time readers likely know that nitrogen gas has long been discusses as a possible alternative execution method to lethal injection.  Just some of many prior posts on the topic are noted below:

September 13, 2022 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Pandemic Rules: COVID-19 and the Prison Litigation Reform Act's Exhaustion Requirement"

The title of post is the title of this new paper authored by Margo Schlanger and Betsy Ginsberg now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

For over twenty-five years, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) has undermined the constitutional rights of incarcerated people.  For people behind bars and their allies, the PLRA makes civil rights cases harder to bring and harder to win — regardless of merit.  We have seen the result in the wave of litigation relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Beginning March 2020, incarcerated people facing a high risk of infection because of their incarceration, and a high risk of harm because of their medical status, began to bring lawsuits seeking changes to the policies and practices augmenting the danger to them.  Time and again, courts have thrown cases out based on the PLRA —especially, on the PLRA’s instruction to dismiss civil rights cases unless “such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted” (that is, unless the incarcerated plaintiff worked the complaint all the way through the prison’s or jail’s grievance system).

The pandemic has exposed a particularly egregious problem: the mismatch between a mandate to use internal grievance systems and those grievance systems’ systemic inability to address emergency situations. Here, we propose three solutions.  First, incarcerated plaintiffs should be allowed to proceed with their federal lawsuits if the press of an emergency renders a prison’s or jail’s grievance system “unavailable” because it is unable to process their complaint quickly enough to offer any relief.  As we describe below, this is already the right answer under existing case law — but so far, many district courts have declined to follow this path.  The second proposal focuses on possible actions at the state and local levels, because it is corrections agencies, not the PLRA, that determine what procedures must be exhausted or whether the defense is raised in litigation.  Any prison or jail unhappy with allowing incarcerated plaintiffs to proceed in federal court or amenable to allowing them to access court quickly in emergency circumstances could implement working emergency grievance systems.  We provide some parameters to guide any such system. In addition, state legislatures could enact legislation forfeiting or waiving the exhaustion defense in cases seeking emergency relief.  The third solution addresses the reluctance of district judges to excuse non-exhaustion when they should; we propose that the PLRA be amended to pretermit the “availability” inquiry by eliminating the statutory exhaustion requirement in emergency situations.  We offer suggested legislative text to accomplish this end.

September 13, 2022 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, September 12, 2022

US Sentencing Commission releases latest "Compassionate Release Data Report" with detailed data through March 2022

I just noticed that the US Sentencing Commission late last week published this updated compassionate release data report, which includes data on all "motions decided by the courts during fiscal years 2020, 2021, and the first half of 2022 (October 1, 2019 – March 31, 2022)."   As I have noted with prior data runs, there are lots and lots of interesting data points throughout this report covering the period just before, during and after the heights of the COVID pandemic.  

As I also have noted before, perhaps most striking data points are the dramatic variations in grant rates from various districts.  As but one of many remarkable examples, I must note again the stark disparities in the three districts of Georgia: the Southern District of Georgia granted only 6 out of 272 sentence reduction motions for a 2.2% grant rate; the Middle District of Georgia granted only 4 out of 238 sentence reduction motions for a 1.7% grant rate; but the Northern District of Georgia granted 80 out of 174 sentence reduction motions for a 46% grant rate.  And the District of Maryland — with a total of 244 sentencing reduction motions granted (though "only" a grant rate of 33%) — granted more of these motions than all the courts of five different circuits (and circuit grant rates ranged from a low of 9.8% in the Fifth Circuit to a high of 29.6% in the First Circuit).

I expect the newly confirmed Sentencing Commission will be giving these data a good luck as the consider revisions to the out-of-data guideline that is supposed to help courts considering sentencing revision motions brought under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).  

September 12, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Ruan v. United States: Implications for Criminal Law, Health Care, and Beyond"

606e9d1f-2ef6-49f0-bbd7-fcb1b4ce9f73The title of this post is the title of this great panel discussion hosted by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law which is scheduled for midday on Tuesday, September 20.  Folks can and should register here for this event, which is described this way on this event page:

What must prosecutors prove about a defendant’s mental state in order to convict them of unauthorized distribution of controlled substances under federal drug laws?  In the case of Ruan v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the Government must prove the defendant knowingly or intentionally acted in an unauthorized manner.  But because the defendants in this case were medical doctors involved in questionable opioid prescribing practices, the case has generated an array of public policy questions.  The Government, stressing opioid overdose deaths and the broad harms of the opioid epidemic, argued the law should be interpreted to apply an objective standard for criminal liability.  The doctors, and many amici briefs, argued that an objective standard could criminalize merely careless prescribing and could deter responsible doctors from trying any novel medical therapies that had not yet been accepted by traditional medical practice.

Join the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center and our panel of experts as they discuss the doctrines and broader policies involved in the Ruan case and the implications for criminal law and beyond.

Panelists:

  • Douglas A. Berman, Newton D. Baker-Baker & Hostetler Chair in Law; Executive Director of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center
  • Kelly Dineen, Associate Professor of Law, Director of the Health Law Program, Creighton University School of Law
  • Martin Fried, Clinical Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine, Wexner Medical Center, The Ohio State University
  • Jennifer Oliva, Professor of Law, UC Hastings Law

Moderator:

Patricia Zettler, Associate Professor of Law, Ohio State University Moritz College of Law

September 12, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Noting opaque SCOTUS rulings, split Ninth Circuit panel rejects habeas Eighth Amendment claim against 292-year prison term

Being sentenced to serve in 292 years in prison for a bunch of non-violent offenses certainly seems pretty "cruel."  And such an extreme prison term is still somewhat "unusual" in modern times, and surely would have been entirely unknown to the Founders. (Remarkably, were someone sentenced to 292 years in prison in 1790, he would still have 60 years left to serve circa 2022.)  But, despite textualist and originalist turns in other areas, modern Eighth Amendment jurisprudence does not (yet?) focus on the text and original understanding of this provision.  Indeed, because there have been so few modern cases about application of the Eighth Amendment to extreme adult prison sentences, it remains unclear just whether and how the Eighth Amendment still serves to limit extreme adult prison terms at all.

I flag these issues in the wake of a notable recent split Ninth Circuit panel decision in Patsalis v. Shinn, No. 20-16800 (9th Cir. Sept. 6, 2022) (available here), in which the very opaqueness of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence provided the basis for rejecting a habeas challenge to a 292-year state prison term. Here is the start of the majority opinion in Patsalis providing context as well as passages from the discussion:

Petitioner-Appellant Atdom Patsalis seeks federal habeas relief, arguing that his 292-year total sentence imposed by an Arizona state court is grossly disproportionate to his crimes and, therefore, cruel and unusual in violation of the Federal and Arizona Constitutions. Patsalis was convicted of 25 felonies (mostly residential burglaries) committed against multiple victims over a three-month period. These were not his first crimes. The trial court imposed consecutive sentences on all but two of the 25 counts, resulting in an overall sentence of 292 years imprisonment.

The Arizona Court of Appeals rejected Patsalis’s constitutional claim concluding that proportionality should be assessed based on each individual conviction and sentence, not the cumulative effect of consecutive sentences, and that none of Patsalis’s individual sentences were disproportionate. Patsalis sought habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He argued that the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s (AEDPA) deferential standard of review does not apply to the Arizona Court of Appeals’ decision because that court did not consider the cumulative impact of his sentence. Instead, he argued that he was entitled to de novo review on this claim. The district court disagreed, afforded AEDPA deference to the Arizona court, and concluded that Patsalis is not entitled to relief. We affirm....

There is no clearly established law from the Supreme Court on whether Eighth Amendment sentence proportionality must be analyzed on a cumulative or individual basis when a defendant is sentenced on multiple offenses.... Lockyer is instructive....  The Court noted that its sentence-proportionality precedents “have not been a model of clarity.” Id. at 72. It further recognized that it has “not established a clear or consistent path for courts to follow” in analyzing proportionality of a sentence to a term of years. Id. Nor has it been clear about “what factors may indicate gross disproportionality” or provided “clear objective standards to distinguish between sentences for different terms of years.” Id. (cleaned up). Other than the basic principle of proportionality, the only thing that the Court has established is that the rule against grossly disproportionate sentences is violated “only in the exceedingly rare and extreme case.” Id. at 73 (cleaned up)....

To grant Patsalis’s habeas petition, we must conclude that “there is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree” that the Arizona Court of Appeals’ decision conflicts with the Supreme Court’s clearly established precedents. Harrington, 562 U.S. at 102.  This we cannot do given the limited Supreme Court precedent regarding the prohibition against disproportionality of a sentence to a term of years.

Judge Christen penned a lengthy dissent, and here are parts of its opening and analysis:

Atdom Patsalis was convicted of various non-violent theft-related crimes committed over a three-month period when he was twenty-one years old. The total value of the property was about $5,000. Pre-trial, the State of Arizona made two plea offers of twenty years or less. Patsalis rejected both offers and was convicted of the charged offenses after a jury trial. The longest sentence imposed for any of his crimes was 15 years, but the court specified that his multiple sentences would run consecutively. The net result was a cumulative sentence of 292 years....

On appeal, my colleagues agree that AEDPA deference applies and they affirm on that basis. The majority acknowledges that the state court did not address Patsalis’s cumulative sentence — yet it asserts that the state court rejected Patsalis’s federal claim on the merits. The state court’s opinion is clear: it affirmed Patsalis’s individual sentences while expressly declining to consider whether his 292-year sentence was grossly disproportionate. Because the state court did not reach the merits of the claim Patsalis actually presented, there is no state-court decision to which we can defer and de novo review is the proper standard. Reviewing Patsalis’s claim de novo, I conclude that his cumulative sentence violates the Eighth Amendment. Accordingly, I respectfully dissent....

The facts and circumstances in the Supreme Court’s Solem and Graham opinions inescapably point to the conclusion that Patsalis’s 292-year sentence is one of the extremely rare cases that gives rise to an inference of disproportionality at the first step of the Eighth Amendment analysis. Patsalis was just 21 years old when he committed his offenses so he did not have a track record that had accumulated over the course of even the eleven years at issue in Solem. (Indeed, he had only been an adult for three years.) His offenses were non-violent and theft-related, and he stole random items (e.g., a drill, a flashlight, a telescope) with a total value of roughly $5,000. While four of his offenses involved entering private residences — admittedly serious conduct — eighteen of the twenty-two burglaries for which Patsalis received consecutive sentences did not involve entry into a home, but into a garage, a vehicle, and a detached shed. All of them were deemed “non-dangerous” by the trial court. As was the case in Graham, the sentence Patsalis received was multiples of the sentences imposed for murderers or rapists, yet Patsalis did not injure anyone and there is no indication that any violence or weapons were involved in any of his offenses.

Remarkably, in an era in which life sentences and lengthy term-of-years sentences keep reaching historic new levels (see reports discussed here and here), it has now been nearly two full decades since the Supreme Court has addressed an Eighth Amendment challenge to an adult term of years sentences.  Lockyer and Andrade were decided way back in 2003, and Justice Thomas is now the only member of SCOTUS who remains on the Court since those rulings were handed down. 

With SCOTUS transitions and the recent textualist and originalist turns in other jurisprudence, I would like to imagine Patsalis as the kind of case in which certorari might be granted and the Justices might look to finally clean up precedents that have not been a "model of clarity" and that seem quite inconsistent with the text and original understanding of the Eighth Amendment.  But, I should probably know better than to hope and expect that people sentenced to live in a cage for nearly three centuries will garner the kind of constitutional attention as praying football coaches and college admissions officers.

September 12, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Should pardon enable pharmacist convicted of federal fraud to claw back restitution already paid?

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this interesting news story from Georgia regarding the uncertain aftermath of a presidential pardon.  The piece is headlined, "Trump pardoned him; now Ga. man sues state, insurer for half-million," and here are in the details:

In his final days in the White House, then-President Donald Trump pardoned dozens of people, including former Augusta pharmacist John Duncan Fordham who was convicted of defrauding the state of Georgia and ordered to pay $1 million in restitution.

Fordham spent four years in prison after his 2005 health care fraud conviction, and his assets were seized and liquidated to help make whole the state and a private insurance company he had defrauded. At the time of his January 2021 pardon, Fordham had made good on $531,000 in restitution payments.

And while the pardon erased the nearly half million he and company still owed, that wasn’t good enough for Fordham. On Thursday, he took the unusual step of suing the state and the insurance company to pay him the hundreds of thousands he had already paid in restitution, claiming that Trump’s pardon had entitled him to recover the funds — plus interest.

“I’m not sure that I’ve heard of a case of reimbursement,” said Michigan State University law professor Brian Kalt, an expert on presidential pardons.

Fordham was convicted of taking part in a fraud scheme in which former state Rep. Robin Williams, R-Augusta, steered a lucrative contract with the East Georgia Community Mental Health Center to Fordham, in exchange for generous kick backs to the former lawmaker. Williams was also convicted and sentenced to federal prison....

In addition to the nearly $500,000 that were seized following his conviction, Fordham had continued to make monthly payments totaling $46,000 until Trump’s pardon, the complaint says. He paid roughly $259,000 to the Georgia Department of Administrative Services, an agency that provides financial services to state and local government entities and a defendant in Fordham’s suit. Fordham paid Great American Insurance Company, the other defendant in his suit, $272,000 in restitution, records show.

Kalt said that the presidential pardon cleared Fordham of responsibility to continue to pay restitution, but it seems unlikely that a federal court will agree that the pardon entitles him to claw back payments he had already made. “It’s unclear, but it seems doubtful to me that he’ll be able to get the money back,” Kalt said.

I understand Professor Kalt's first instinct that this pardoned individual should not be able to get back restitution already paid; after all, this individual cannot "get back" the four years he already served in prison.  But, of course, money can be returned whereas time cannot.  And, if one concludes that the pardon here serves to wipe out the remaining restitution owed that had not yet been paid, I am not sure why logic does not suggest that the pardon also serves to wipe out the already paid restitution.

Notably, Prez Trump's grant of clemency provided for a "full and unconditional pardon" for Fordham's conviction and it mentioned the entire full restitution amount that was part of the sentence imposed.  I find myself somewhat drawn to the notion that the law should aspire to give as much effect to a clemency grant as possible, including enabling Fordham to claw back even restitution already paid.  But perhaps we ought to view clemency as a classic example of equity over law, and so perhaps we best achieve equity by wiping out only future restitution still owed without returning restitution already paid.

September 11, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Making the case for jury nullification in response to criminalization of abortion

LawProfs Peter Sali and Guha Krishnamurthi have this notable new Inquest piece talking up jury nullification as having "a role to play in securing reproductive rights" in the wake of the Supreme Court reversal of Roe.  The piece is fully titled "Nullifying Dobbs: Jurors’ conscientious refusal to convict people charged for violating abortion bans is perfectly legal — and what justice demands." (The Inquest piece is a shorter exposition of this essay on SSRN titled "Nullification in Abortion Prosecutions: An Equilibrium Theory.")  Here is an excerpt:

[W]e expect the effect of nullification on abortion prosecutions to be twofold.  First, it will reduce the range of cases that will be brought.  Prosecutors fearing the possibility of objectors on the jury will avoid bringing the most unpopular charges.  Second, when instances where prosecutors do bring charges, nullification may change the outcome of some cases.  This becomes more likely as criminal penalties become more obviously unjust.

There is some evidence beyond idle speculation of the above potential for nullification.  Marijuana prosecutions are a relevant precedent.  In roughly the past decade, public support for the criminal prohibition of marijuana has cratered — dropping by nearly half.  Today, only about a third of Americans approve of such laws.  Over the same period, federal prosecutions of marijuana cases likewise collapsed — dropping by over 86%.  We think that this was not a coincidence.  As with abortions, most of the possible prosecutions for marijuana possession simply became extremely unpopular.  Perhaps understanding this, prosecutors chose to devote their resources elsewhere, rather than risk losing factually solid cases because of the jury’s hostility to the law itself....

Nullification cannot and will not fix everything.  Nullification itself comes at the end of the criminal process.  The stress, anxiety, and fear of the criminal process can be overwhelming for defendants, and the consequences of being investigated and prosecuted — such as stigmatization and financial stress — can be devastating.  Nullification cannot directly alleviate those harms.  Thus, in some instances, prosecutors may bring charges despite the potential for nullification precisely to send a message through the harsh criminal process.  But we think that the equilibrium effect of nullification will be to reduce the number of cases prosecutors bring. And when unpopular cases are brought, nullification can avert the harshest part of the criminal process — the punishment....

Nullification is, at best, a shield against the most outrageous state actions — a way for the community to stand in the way of punishment.  The case of abortion is no different. Yet in this arena, unlike in other areas of criminal law, state lawmakers seem committed to outrageous acts — as evaluated by the standards of ordinary Americans.  Here, then, nullification may make a difference, at least until law moderates to reflect the values of the governed.

I have flagged the passage here discussing declining federal marijuana prosecutions in part because I co-wrote an article last year on this topic, "How State Reforms Have Mellowed Federal Enforcement of Marijuana Prohibition."   As explained in that article, a sharp decline in marijuana seizures at the southern US border (as states have legalized local grows) likely most directly explains the sharp decline of federal marijuana prosecutions.  Still, the disinclination of federal prosecutors to go after state-legalized marijuana activities — especially during the Trump Administration when many DOJ officials were clearly not so keen on marijuana reform — likely has reflected the reality that more and more citizens may be less and less likely to support using criminal laws to punish "responsible" marijuana activity.

A few prior related posts:

September 11, 2022 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, September 10, 2022

"Irrational Collateral Sanctions"

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

In the modern era, a criminal sentence is rarely truly over just because someone has served their time.  Instead, both legal and social barriers continue to haunt most people who have been convicted of crimes for years.  These barriers often persist long past the point of making good sense.

While social barriers like stigma are not always easy for lawyers and lawmakers to address, legal barriers like so-called “collateral sanctions” (also known as “collateral consequences”) are their bread-and-butter.  In Part I of this Essay, I tell an anonymized client story that illustrates many of the existing efforts to blunt the effects of collateral sanctions in Ohio.  In Part II, I discuss in more depth both the problem of collateral sanctions and both the challenges and opportunities posed by existing remedial efforts.  In Part III, I discuss the opportunity for rational-basis challenges to irrational collateral sanctions when other remedial opportunities are unavailing. 

September 10, 2022 in Collateral consequences, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 9, 2022

Split Washington Supreme Court revisits its limits on long prison terms for juvenile offenders

As explained in this AP article, a "year after saying virtual life sentences are unconstitutional for teenage killers, the Washington Supreme Court changed course Thursday in a split ruling that drew irate dissents from four justices.  The 5-4 decision was a striking departure for a court that in recent years has steadily embraced research showing that juveniles’ brain development typically makes them less culpable than adults, and which has made significant efforts to undo the impact of racial bias in the criminal justice system."  The majority opinion in Washington v. Anderson, No. 97890-5 (Wash. Sept. 8, 2028) (available here), starts this way:

Tonelli Anderson is serving a 61-year sentence for two first degree murders he committed at age 17. Anderson asks us to hold that his sentence is unconstitutionally cruel in violation of article I, section 14 of Washington’s constitution.  He argues that this court’s recent decision in State v. Haag announced a bright line rule that no juvenile offender can ever receive a sentence of 46 years or longer — no matter how serious or numerous their crimes may be — and so his sentence is unconstitutional because it is longer than 46 years.  We disagree with Anderson’s interpretation of Haag.

Haag is properly understood as announcing that article I, section 14 of Washington’s constitution limits the category of juvenile offenders who can receive de facto life without parole (LWOP) sentences, the harshest punishments possible for juvenile offenders under Washington law.  In Haag, we determined that a particular juvenile offender could not receive such a harsh punishment because his crime reflected youthful immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. But when, as here, a juvenile offender’s crimes do not reflect those mitigating qualities of youth, Washington’s constitution does not bar a de facto LWOP sentence.

The King County Superior Court properly considered all of Anderson’s evidence regarding the mitigating qualities of his youth and his rehabilitation while in prison.  In light of that evidence and the trial record, the court appropriately determined that Anderson’s crimes do not reflect youthful immaturity, impetuosity, or failure to appreciate risks and consequences. Article I, section 14 of Washington’s constitution therefore does not prohibit Anderson’s 61-year sentence. We affirm.

A dissent by Chief Justice Gonzalez starts this way:

Even if I could join the majority’s repudiation of our recent constitutional jurisprudence, I could not join it in affirming the trial court’s resentencing decision here. The resentencing judge abused her discretion by failing to meaningfully consider how juveniles are different from adults, by failing to meaningfully consider how those differences applied to Tonelli Anderson, by failing to consider whether Anderson’s case was one of the few where a life without parole sentence is constitutionally permissible, by failing to give meaningful weight to the significant evidence that Tonelli Anderson had rehabilitated himself while in prison, and by improperly allocating the burden of proof to him at resentencing. For all these reasons, I respectfully dissent.

Another dissent from Justice Yu starts this way:

I agree with the dissent that Tonelli Anderson is entitled to resentencing pursuant to this court’s precedent, which recognizes “that life is more than just life expectancy and that a juvenile must have a meaningful opportunity to rejoin society after leaving prison.” State v. Haag, 198 Wn.2d 309, 328, 495 P.3d 241 (2021). I write separately to elaborate on the ways in which the majority undermines our precedent, ignores fundamental principles of stare decisis, and disregards this court’s own call to “recognize the role we have played in devaluing [B]lack lives.” Letter from Wash. State Sup. Ct. to Members of Judiciary & Legal Cmty. at 1 (June 4, 2020), https://www.courts.wa.gov/content/publicUpload/Supreme%20Court%20 News/Judiciary%20Legal%20Community%20SIGNED%20060420.pdf [https://perma.cc/QNT4-H5P7]. Today’s decision is contrary to both longestablished principles of law and newly recognized principles of justice. I therefore respectfully concur in the dissent.

September 9, 2022 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fascinating data and transparency project from Colorado district attorneys

The Denver Post has this lengthy and interesting account of a remarkable new data project in Colorado involving numerous district attorneys.  The piece should be read in full and is headlined "Eight Colorado DAs unveil detailed data about prosecutions, racial disparities; Public dashboards show racial disparities, offer unprecedented detail."  Here is how the article gets started:

Eight Colorado district attorneys released detailed data about their operations Thursday in an attempt to be more transparent with the public amid broader criticism of racial disparities in and distrust of the U.S. criminal justice system.

The data offers a look at the inner workings of Colorado’s prosecutors in unprecedented detail, with researchers tracking 55 different aspects of prosecution, ranging from charging and bond decisions to sentencing to how long cases take to be resolved

“For too long and too often, the justice system feels like a black box of information,” 18th Judicial District Attorney John Kellner said during a news conference Thursday. “…That changes today.”

The data is presented publicly in online dashboards — collected at data.dacolorado.org — for each of the eight offices that participated in the research project, which was funded by an $882,000 grant from the Microsoft Justice Reform Institute. The research was carried out by the University of Denver’s Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab and by the Prosecutorial Performance Indicators project.

September 9, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Spotlighting disparities in voter fraud prosecutions and punishments

The New York Times has this lengthy new piece highlighting that the uneven application of justice around the country when it comes to cases of voter fraud.  The full headline of this piece highlights its themes: "In Voter Fraud, Penalties Often Depend on Who’s Voting: Cases in Florida and a survey of prosecutions nationally indicate that despite the furor over voter fraud, prosecutions remain exceedingly rare and penalties vary wildly."  Here is how this piece starts:

After 15 years of scrapes with the police, the last thing that 33-year-old Therris L. Conney needed was another run-in with the law. He got one anyway two years ago, after election officials held a presentation on voting rights for inmates of the county jail in Gainesville, Fla.  Apparently satisfied that he could vote, Mr. Conney registered after the session, and cast a ballot in 2020.  In May, he was arrested for breaking a state law banning voting by people serving felony sentences — and he was sentenced to almost another full year in jail.

That show-no-mercy approach to voter fraud is what Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has encouraged this year during his re-election campaign.  “That was against the law,” he said last month about charges against 20 other felons who voted in Florida, “and they’re going to pay a price for it.”

But many of those cases seem to already be falling apart, because, like Mr. Conney, the former felons did not intend to vote illegally.  And the more typical kind of voter-fraud case in Florida has long exacted punishment at a steep discount.

Last winter, four residents of the Republican-leaning retirement community The Villages were arrested for voting twice — once in Florida, and again in other states where they had also lived. Despite being charged with third-degree felonies, the same as Mr. Conney, two of the Villages residents who pleaded guilty escaped having a criminal record entirely by taking a 24-hour civics class. Trials are pending for the other two.

Florida is an exaggerated version of America as a whole.  A review by The New York Times of some 400 voting-fraud charges filed nationwide since 2017 underscores what critics of fraud crackdowns have long said: Actual prosecutions are blue-moon events, and often netted people who didn’t realize they were breaking the law.

Punishment can be wildly inconsistent: Most violations draw wrist-slaps, while a few high-profile prosecutions produce draconian sentences.  Penalties often fall heaviest on those least able to mount a defense.  Those who are poor and Black are more likely to be sent to jail than comfortable retirees facing similar charges.

September 8, 2022 in Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

New Sentencing Project report addresses "How Many People Are Spending Over a Decade in Prison?"

The Sentencing Project has long done a lot of great work on long sentences, especially through various reports on life sentences (examples here and here).  Today, The Sentencing Project has a notable new publication looking at persons serving sentences of a decade or longer.  This new report is titled with a question: "How Many People Are Spending Over a Decade in Prison?".  But the subtitle of the report provides this answer: "In 2019, over half of the people in U.S. prisons — amounting to more than 770,000 people — were serving sentences of 10 years or longer — a huge jump from 2000."  Here are other "key findings" from the start of the report:

September 8, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Should workers who are incarcerated at least be paid minimum wage?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Stateline piece headlined "Advocates Seek to Make Prison Work Voluntary," and also by the recent ALCU report, Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers.  Here are excerpts from the Stateline piece:

Prisoners making license plates is a popular stereotype, but most of the nation’s 800,000 incarcerated workers hold jobs more similar to those on the outside: They cook and serve food, mop floors, mow lawns and cut hair.

Unlike other workers, though, the incarcerated have little say, if any, in what jobs they do. They face punishment if they refuse to work and are paid pennies per hour — if that.

The nation’s racial reckoning of the past few years has prompted a reevaluation of penal labor as a legacy of slavery, spurring people to question whether incarcerated people should be required to work in 2022. Activists are pressing for an end to work requirements or, if they continue, for higher wages....

In March, Colorado enacted a law that will pay the state minimum wage of $12.56 an hour to inmates who are within a year of their release date and work for private companies through the state-run Take TWO (for Transitional Work Opportunity) program.   “This is actually a very conservative approach,” Colorado state Rep. Matt Soper, the Republican sponsor of the bipartisan measure, said in an interview. “We need workers, and they need to gain skills before release.”

To pass the bill, though, Soper first had to explain why paying prisoners the minimum wage was a good idea.  “Some victims and victims’ advocacy groups opposed the idea at first, and then they wanted every dollar to come back in restitution,” he said. “But that’s not a good system, because we want [the former offenders] to have savings as seed money to restart their lives. My goal is to disrupt the current model of recidivism.”

But no Colorado inmates are participating right now.  Take TWO, which began in 2019 and reportedly had about 100 participants in March, is “on a pause while we review and update logistics and criteria and address some of our immediate staffing shortages,” the Colorado Department of Corrections said in an email.

Prison minimum wage bills are pending in New York and Illinois.  Since 2019, bills have failed in Arizona, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, according to the ACLU....

Proponents of making prison work more remunerative and meaningful also argue it’s not productive for society to keep incarcerated workers in dead-end jobs that fail to prepare them for employment outside the prison walls or allow them to accumulate some savings for when they are released.  Studies show poverty and unemployment lead to recidivism.

Some crime victims groups also support raising prison wages, said Lenore Anderson, founder and president of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, an Oakland, California-based group that works to end mass incarceration, reduce crime and support survivors of violent crime.  The public assumes that people hurt by crime and violence would want the worst possible prison experience for those who committed the crimes, Anderson said.  “But that’s not what we find. People want them to succeed,” she said. “How do we know after someone has served time they’re prepared for living in society? That’s what rehabilitation, work and education programs do. Wages are part of that. It would be very consistent with smart rehabilitation to align prison wages with wages on the outside.”

The average wage nationwide for incarcerated workers who maintain prison facilities ranges from 13 cents to 52 cents an hour, according to the ACLU and Global Human Rights Clinic.  In seven Southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas — almost all work by prisoners goes unpaid. “It’s not hard to imagine that’s a vestige of slavery,” said Jennifer Turner, the ACLU’s principal human rights researcher and primary author of the report, “Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers.”

Prior recent related post:

September 7, 2022 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Policing Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this recent article available via SSRN authored by Fred O. Smith, Jr.  Here is its abstract:

In Presumed Guilty: How the Supreme Court Empowered the Police and Subverted Civil Rights, Dean Erwin Chemerinsky issues an indictment of the Supreme Court, charging that institution with facilitating undue state violence, wrongful convictions, invasions of dignity, and racial inequality.  The Supreme Court has produced these consequences by offering needlessly narrow remedies for constitutional wrongs and by issuing crabbed constructions of criminal procedural rights.  Chemerinsky’s indictment is written with clarity, comprehensiveness, and humanity.

This Book Review argues that mass incarceration presents an immense barrier to the author’s goals of producing less violent, more accurate, less invasive, and less racist policing.  First, many of Chemerinsky’s proposals for police reform assume a system of criminal trials.  In our system of mass incarceration, the overwhelming majority of incarcerated persons never receive a trial.  If the criminal legal system did attempt to rely on trials instead of coerced guilty pleas, the system would collapse under the weight of the sheer number of people we prosecute.  Second, Chemerinsky argues that we should revisit and raise the requisite standard for police to search a suspect from reasonable suspicion to probable cause.  But in a system of mass incarceration, probable cause is not hard to come by. The more things we label “crime,” the more reasonable it is to believe that someone is likely committing one.  Third, mass incarceration feeds on legal reforms that are not aimed at decarceration.  A “criminal caste” is more tolerable if the government gives the caste members “rights” before stripping them of humanity and core dimensions of citizenship.

It is imperative to reverse and control mass incarceration to achieve lasting transformation of the police.  There is no equitable way to police in a world of mass incarceration. 

September 7, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

South Carolina state judge declares execution by firing squad and electric chair to be unconstitutional

As reported in this AP piece, a "South Carolina judge ruled Tuesday that the state's newly created execution firing squad, as well as its use of the electric chair, are unconstitutional, siding with four death row inmates in a decision sure to be swiftly appealed as the state struggles to implement its new execution protocols." Here is more:

“In 2021, South Carolina turned back the clock and became the only state in the country in which a person may be forced into the electric chair if he refuses to elect how he will die," Judge Jocelyn Newman wrote in a case brought by the inmates against the state. "In doing so, the General Assembly ignored advances in scientific research and evolving standards of humanity and decency.”

Last month, Newman heard arguments from lawyers for four men on the state's death row, who said that the prisoners would feel terrible pain whether their bodies were “cooking” by electricity or heart stopped by a marksman’s bullet — assuming they are on target.

Attorneys for the state countered with their own experts who said death by the yet-to-be-used firing squad or the rarely used electric chair would be instantaneous and the condemned would not feel any pain. The state Supreme Court had ordered Newman to issue her decision within 30 days, with further appeals all but certain. Officials with the state Corrections Department told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the agency was “assessing the ruling.”

From 1995 to 2011 — when the state’s last execution was performed — South Carolina carried out the death penalty with lethal injections on 36 prisoners. But, as the state’s supply of lethal injection drugs expired in 2013, an involuntary pause in executions resulted from pharmaceutical companies' refusal to sell the state more. Condemned inmates technically had the choice between injection and electrocution, meaning that opting for the former would in essence leave the state unable to carry out the sentence.

Prison officials sought help from state lawmakers, who for several years had considered adding the firing squad as an option to approved methods, but debate never advanced. Last year, Democratic Sen. Dick Harpootlian and GOP Sen. Greg Hembree, both of whom previously served as prosecutors, again argued in favor of adding the firing squad option....

The ultimately approved measure, signed into law by Republican Gov. Henry McMaster last year, made South Carolina the fourth state in the country to allow use of a firing squad, and made the state's electric chair — built in 1912 — the default method for executions, thereby giving prisoners a new choice.

During last month's trial, a Corrections Department official said he devised the firing squad protocols after consulting a prison official in Utah, location of the only three inmates to die by firing squad since 1977. Colie Rushton, the department’s security director, testified the .308 Winchester ammunition to be used is designed to fragment and split up in the heart to make death as fast as possible. Much of the rest of the trial was each side calling its own experts to detail whether inmates feel any pain before they die.

In her ruling, Newman relied on this testimony, including two physicians who said that an inmate “is likely to be conscious for a minimum of ten seconds after impact.” During that time, the judge wrote, “he will feel excruciating pain resulting from the gunshot wounds and broken bones,” sensation that “constitutes torture” as it is “exacerbated by any movement he makes, such as flinching or breathing.”

September 6, 2022 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Have American jails become the inferior replacement for mental hospitals?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new Salon piece.  Here are a few excerpts:

London's Bedlam psychiatric hospital is infamous today for how its staff brutally abused their patients....

Things are arguably better for mentally ill people in 21st century America.  Yet a new study by George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government, and published in the medical journal BMC Health Services Research, suggests that any improvement may not be as great as we'd like to think.  At present, there are 10 times as many people with mental illnesses in jails and prisons than in state psychiatric hospitals.  In other words, we've substituted jails for treatment facilities. 

Niloofar Ramezani, assistant professor of statistics at George Mason University and corresponding author of the study ... believes that the study's "most important finding," is that "one should focus on building up the community's capacity to provide mental health services."  Ramezani pointed out that their study also found that "after accounting for the availability of mental health care services, the size of the violent crime problem no longer has an effect to how the jail is used."  American society is filling up its jails with mentally ill individuals in a way that, quantifiably, cannot be plausibly linked to any kind of meaningful violent crime problem....

"We've known for some time that this country's chief response to serious mental illness is incarceration, a fact that stands out because prisons are so clearly unsuited to treating mental illness," Wanda Bertram, Communications Strategist at Prison Policy Initiative, told Salon by email.  "Our organization recently found that even though 43% of people in state prisons have been diagnosed with a mental disorder, only 26% have received some form of mental health treatment, and only 6% are currently receiving treatment."...

Ramezani and the study's other co-authors ultimately argue, as Ramezani put it to Salon, that "more research needs to be done on the type of individuals with mental health issues who are incarcerated and how they are handled.  Once we know more about them, their mental health journey, and how their mental health condition is changing over time while incarcerated, we can find better solutions to provide helpful support to them if they end up in jail."

In addition to doing more research, American policymakers need to exercise the "political will" necessary to address mental health issues in a humane and effective way.

September 6, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (7)

Formerly incarcerated and advocacy groups write to new head of federal BOP

This webpage at the Sentencing Project has the full text of this letter from formerly incarcerated individuals and advocacy organizations to new Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters advocating for various reforms.  The full letter is worth a full read, and here are a few excerpts:

As people formerly incarcerated in US Bureau of Prisons facilities and organizations dedicated to civil rights and justice, we know well the challenges that await you and hope to share with you our concerns and advice for advancing the systemic reform you have pledged to achieve.  We have all witnessed the Bureau’s failure to provide adequate medical care, safe conditions, and rehabilitative programs.  We ask you to bring the Bureau into compliance with federal law and to lead the Bureau toward a more humane future grounded in transparency and accountability....

Federal prisons are plagued by inadequate medical care, overcrowding, staff shortages, unsanitary conditions, violence, and abuse.  These conditions are well-documented in media coverage, Office of Inspector General and Bureau reports, and congressional testimony.  Following a recent oversight hearing on July 26, Senator Ossoff observed within FCI Atlanta that “conditions for inmates were abusive and inhumane” and that “stunning failures of federal prison administration” “likely contributed to the loss of life.”5) FCI Atlanta is not unique; all federal prisons urgently need reform....

Compassionate release can save the lives of medically vulnerable people, ease staff shortages by reducing the prison population, and provide mercy.  Yet the Bureau rarely uses its power to file motions for compassionate release in extraordinary or compelling circumstances.... [O]ver the first 13 months of the pandemic, the Bureau only ultimately approved 36 compassionate release requests, fewer than in 2019.  You have the power to change that.  We urge you to normalize the use of compassionate release to save lives, reunite families, and make federal prisons safer....

In 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act, a vital piece of legislation that gave many people hope.  Congress recognized that people grow and change, and that it was in the interest of the American people and public safety to allow individuals to earn the ability to come home sooner by completing rehabilitative programs.  But today, almost five years later, the Bureau has still failed to fully implement the First Step Act....

Abuse, corruption, and misconduct have been apparent within the Bureau for decades, but leadership has too often failed to act. In 2019, the House Subcommittee on National Security found that misconduct in the federal prison system is widespread and routinely covered up or ignored, including by senior officials.  The recent oversight hearing on FCI Atlanta highlighted decades of corruption and abuse and inaction by the Bureau Director.  We urge you to set a new standard and lead the Bureau towards transparency and accountability.

September 6, 2022 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 5, 2022

"Condemning Those with Multiple Disabilities to Die: Dual Diagnosis of Substance Abuse and Intellectual Disability in Capital Sentencing Proceedings"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Aliya Sternstein and John R. Mills now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

While the execution of defendants who score significantly low on intelligence tests, struggle to adapt their behavior to their environment, and experience these deficits during the developmental years is unconstitutional -- some courts have imposed or upheld death sentences because they find the defendant also has a drug addiction.

These courts misread the no longer used technical phrase “related to” in the above medical criteria for an intellectual disability (ID) diagnosis.  The criteria stated that shortfalls in adaptive behavior must be “related to” low intellectual functioning.  The long-settled medical community consensus is that there is no requirement to identify the psychological causes of these adaptive deficits.  But the misinformed courts have improperly held that related to means “caused by” instead of “co-existing with,” requiring proof of a negative: that the accused’s deficits in behavior are not caused by a substance use disorder.  This legal and medical error is common in some jurisdictions.  That is so, even in light of U.S. Supreme Court instructions to be informed by the medical consensus when assessing ID.

Although a great deal has been written about the exemption of those with ID from execution, little legal scholarship has addressed the intersection of substance abuse, Supreme Court reliance on the medical consensus in death eligibility decisions, and a misunderstanding or disregard of the consensus that addiction may and often do co-exist with ID.  Limited social skills and a self-perception of being different from others can foster loneliness and an urge to fit in that defendants with ID overcome by abusing drugs and alcohol.  The high Court has explicitly recognized the same: because people with ID often have other psychological impairments, the “existence of a personality disorder or mental-health issue, in short, is not evidence that a person does not also have intellectual disability.”

Judges and jurors perhaps deny protection to defendants with addictions and ID because of a misperception that those with substance use disorders are more blameworthy for their plight than defendants with additional psychological disorders or those with only ID.  But neither the medical consensus nor the Supreme Court has ever suggested that addiction changes the level of culpability of an offender with ID.  Quite the opposite: ID may heighten the risk of developing a substance use disorder.

This paper makes the straightforward case that a defendant, who otherwise meets the ID criteria, cannot be excluded from the constitutional prohibition on executing those with ID simply because of a dual diagnosis of substance abuse. Accordingly, courts must not require a defendant asserting ineligibility for execution to show that their deficits in adaptive behavior are “related to” an intellectual impairment and not related to substance abuse or some other psychological impairment.

September 5, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)

Noticing surprisingly low federal guideline range for sexual abuse of prisoners

For a variety of reasons, it can be all too easy to conclude that all of the federal sentencing guidelines are set way too high.  After all, federal judges impose sentences below the guidelines in more than half of all cases (see Table 8), and they do so even more frequently in certain child porn, drug and economic cases (see Table 10).  But this AP report on a notable recent federal sentencing in California highlights that there can be cases in which federal judges conclude the applicable guideline is way too low.  The piece is headlined "Chaplain who sexually abused inmates gets 7 years in prison," and here are just some of the details:

Behind a closed chapel office door inside a federal women’s prison in California, a chaplain forced inmates seeking his spiritual guidance to have sex with him, exploiting their faith and their powerlessness behind bars for his own gratification, prosecutors said.

James Theodore Highhouse was sentenced Wednesday to seven years in prison — more than double the recommended punishment in federal sentencing guidelines.  U.S. District Judge Haywood S. Gilliam Jr. said the guidelines, which call for a sentence of less than three years, “seriously underestimate the seriousness” of Highhouse’s conduct. “It’s hard to come up with the right words to describe how egregious an abuse of these victims this was,” Gilliam said.

Highhouse is among five workers charged in the last 14 months with sexually abusing inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California, and the first to reach the sentencing phase of his case.... Highhouse must register as a sex offender once he’s released from prison, Gilliam said.

Highhouse, who was arrested in January and pleaded guilty in February, would tell women he abused at the Bay Area lockup, that everyone in the Bible had sex and that God wanted them to be together, prosecutors said.  An Army veteran, he pressured one inmate into intercourse on Veterans Day by telling her she needed to serve her country and on Thanksgiving by telling her she needed to show her gratitude for him, prosecutors said.

While Highhouse, 49, was charged only with abusing one inmate and lying to authorities, prosecutors say he engaged in predatory conduct with at least six women from 2014 to 2019 — including one he counseled at a veterans hospital where he worked before joining the federal Bureau of Prisons, where allegations were routinely ignored.  “Highhouse ruined my life — he truly did,” one inmate said in a victim impact statement. “I don’t even go to Church anymore because of him.  I have no trust in the Church and really, I don’t trust anyone because of what he did.”

Highhouse, enabled by a toxic culture of abuse and coverups at the prison, warned victims not to report him, telling one of them “no one will believe you because you’re an inmate, and I’m a chaplain,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum. At the same time, prosecutors wrote, a prison counselor would rail about inmates “snitching” on employees, suggesting they instead “tell Trump about it,” referring to then-President Donald Trump.

Prosecutors had sought a 10-year prison sentence.  His lawyers asked for two years, the low end of the federal guidelines, which called for a sentence of 24 to 30 months.  Gilliam’s seven-year sentence matched the recommendation of probation officers who conducted Highhouse’s pre-sentence investigation....

All sexual activity between a prison worker and an inmate is illegal. Correctional employees enjoy substantial power over inmates, controlling every aspect of their lives from mealtime to lights out, and there is no scenario in which an inmate can give consent.... Highhouse pleaded guilty on Feb. 23 to two counts of sexual abuse of a ward, two counts of abusive sexual contact and one count of making false statements to federal agents.

All of the charges stem from allegations Highhouse repeatedly abused a female prisoner over a nine-month span in 2018 and 2019. That woman said in a victim impact statement that she cried herself to sleep after testifying before a grand jury about Highhouse’s abuse....

Other allegations against Highhouse, previously kept quiet by Dublin officials, came to light during the investigation, prosecutors said....  In May, an inmate now incarcerated at another federal prison facility reported that Highhouse raped her multiple times in his chapel office after she sought him out for counseling, prosecutors said.

There are many disconcerting and notable aspects of this story, but I am still struck that a prison official/chaplain can sexually abuse a prisoner repeatedly and yet only face a guideline sentencing range of 24 to 30 months.  That range is, generally speaking, well below the guideline ranges typically facing lower-level drug offenders and lower-level fraudsters.

September 5, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10)

Saturday, September 3, 2022

Lots of notable new briefings and other interesting items from the Prison Policy Initiative

The start of a new semester and other matters have left me behind on reading and blogging on various fronts, particularly with respect to a number of notable new items from the Prison Policy Initiative.  In an effort to catch up, here is a reprinting of links to notable recent PPI works:

September 3, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, September 2, 2022

"The Miseducation of Carceral Reform"

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

Public education looms large in criminal law reform.  As states debate what to invest in — other than criminal law enforcement — to provide safety and security to the public, public schools have emerged as a popular answer.  Today, legislatures move money from prisons to public education, arguing that this reinvestment can address the root causes of mass incarceration.  This Article analyzes this reinvestment trend from the perspective of public schools.  It takes seriously the possibility that diverting money from incarceration to public education can help address the root causes of mass incarceration and it argues that realizing this possibility requires a more expansive approach to reinvestment than is demonstrated in current legal reforms.  This expansive approach to reinvestment situates the provision of education within a constellation of interconnected needs, increases power over diverted funds for those who have historically been excluded from educational decisions, and confronts the underlying race, class, and gender resentments used to justify asymmetrical spending on incarceration and public education.  By analyzing reinvestment approaches to carceral reform from the perspective of public schools, this Article underscores the contested nature of the reinvestment movement.  It maps both the restrictive and transformative directions carceral reinvestment can take, and it points to several promising efforts that make use of a more transformative approach to reconfigure the relationship between public welfare and the carceral state.

September 2, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, September 1, 2022

First Circuit panel reiterates district courts' "broad discretion" and "holistic review" when resolving compassionate release motions

Today seems to be my day for catching up with circuit rulings regarding federal compassionate release decision-making.  My prior post today here about the Second Circuit's panel rulings limiting the consideration of certain arguments prompted a helpful reader to make sure I saw the recent First Circuit panel ruling running the other way.  In US v. Trenkler,  No. 21-1441 (1st Cir. Aug. 29, 2022) (available here), the panel stressed and reiterated a prior ruling setting out compassionate release rules:

Ruvalcaba convincingly set the standard for a district court reviewing a prisoner's proposed reasons for compassionate release, making it clear that district courts have the discretion to review prisoner-initiated motions by taking the holistic, any complex-of-circumstances approach we discussed earlier.  Indeed, this approach makes sense.  After all, it is possible that the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts, and reasons that might not do the trick on their own may combine to constitute circumstances that warrant a finding that the reasons proposed are, in the aggregate, extraordinary and compelling.  This is not to say that a district court must find a certain number of extraordinary and compelling reasons.  Rather, in conducting their reviews, district courts should be mindful of the holistic context of a defendant's individual case when deciding whether the defendant's circumstances satisfy the "extraordinary and compelling" standard -- "any complex of circumstances" contemplates that any number of reasons may suffice on a case-by-case basis, whether it's one, two, or ten.

I noted here the remarkable district court opinion last year in Trexler, and this case and so many others serve as a remarkable reminder of just how many different federal prisoners can cite to so many different circumstances when seeking a sentence modification.  A huge federal prison system necessarily creates a huge number of questions in the wake of the First Step Act's change to the compassionate release rules. 

September 1, 2022 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Longest prison term yet — 10 years — given to Jan 6 rioter who assaulted police officer

As reported in this Politico piece, a " federal judge on Thursday sentenced former New York cop Thomas Webster to 10 years in prison for assaulting a police officer outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the longest sentence handed down yet in cases that arise from the attack."  Here is more:

U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta described Webster’s assault on D.C. police officer Noah Rathbun as one of the most haunting and shocking images from that violent day.

“I do wish you hadn’t come to Washington D.C. I do wish you had stayed home in New York, that you had not come out to the Capitol that day,” Mehta said. “Because all of us would be far better off. Not just you, your family, country. We’d all be far better off. Yet here we are.”

Mehta said he viewed Webster’s conduct as among the most egregious of any defendant sentenced so far. Until Thursday, the lengthiest sentences had been given to Texas militia member Guy Reffitt and local Virginia police officer Thomas Robertson, who were convicted by juries of attempting to obstruct congressional proceedings.

It’s the latest in a string of steeper sentences that have been issued as rioters facing felony charges — some of whom have taken their cases to trial — learn their fate from the judges who have presided over their cases for more than a year.

Images of Webster attempting to rip the gas mask off of Rathbun’s face amid broader chaos at the Capitol are among the most indelible images to emerge from the Jan. 6 attack. Mehta expressed incredulity that Webster took the stand in his own defense and attempted to argue that his effort to rip the officer’s gas mask off was really just to show him his hands and prove he wasn’t a threat.

Notably, though this case represents the longest sentencing to date for a Jan 6 rioter, the sentence of 10 years is still a full 7+ years below what the federal sentencing guidelines recommended (and what the federal prosecutors requested).

Some of many prior related posts:

September 1, 2022 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Second Circuit panel rules evidence attacking underlying conviction "cannot be raised in a § 3582 motion" for compassionate release ... and reiterates point after Concepcion

UPDATE/Clarification:  A helpful reader flagged for me that on Aug 31, the Second Circuit actually reissued its Orena opinion after having issued its original opinion on June 15.  I have now corrected/amended this post accordingly.

---- 

Just today I saw a second version of a panel opinion from the Second Circuit issued which expressly invents another non-textual limit on what factors can be considered by district courts when deciding whether to grant a motion for compassionate release.  The per curiam opinion in US v. Orena, No. 21-2747 (2d Cir. June 15, amended Aug. 31, 2022) (original available here), get started this way:

As part of the First Step Act of 2018, Congress authorized courts to reduce a term of imprisonment upon motion by a defendant. See Pub. L. No. 115-391, § 603(b), 132 Stat. 5194, 5239 (amending 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)).  Section 3582(c)(1), colloquially known as the “compassionate release” provision, permits a district court to reduce a previously imposed sentence “after considering the factors set forth in [18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)] to the extent that they are applicable, if it finds that . . . extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction.”  Appellant Victor Orena contends primarily that the district court erred in denying his motion pursuant to § 3582 by refusing to consider new evidence that he says calls into question the validity of his conviction.

We conclude that when considering a motion for sentence reduction pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), a district court does not have discretion to consider new evidence proffered for the purpose of attacking the validity of the underlying conviction in its balancing of the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors. Facts and arguments that purport to undermine the validity of a federal conviction must be brought on direct appeal or pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 or § 2241. Because the district court properly refused to consider such evidence here as to the § 3553(a) factors and otherwise did not abuse its discretion in denying Orena’s motion for compassionate release, we affirm.

Here is a key paragraph from the opinion:

Orena primarily contends that the district court erred by assuming the PSR’s accuracy and refusing to weigh his new evidence as part of the § 3553(a) factors.  We disagree. Section 3582(c)(1)(A) directs courts to “consider[] the factors set forth in section 3553(a).”  Section 3553 in turn provides “[f]actors to be considered in imposing a sentence.” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) (emphasis added).  To impose a sentence, there must necessarily be a valid conviction.  If a defendant contends his conviction by a federal court is invalid, Congress has provided a vehicle to raise such a challenge through a motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, which imposes particular procedural limitations.  A defendant cannot evade this collateral review structure by attacking the validity of his conviction through § 3582.  Accordingly, we conclude, arguments challenging the validity of an underlying conviction cannot be raised in a § 3582 motion as part of the § 3553(a) sentencing factors.  Rather, such arguments are properly raised on direct appeal or collateral review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255.  Other courts have reached the same conclusion. See e.g., United States v. Bard, No. 21-3265, 2022 WL 843485, at *2 (3d Cir. March 22, 2022) (unpublished per curiam); United States v. Miller, 855 F. App’x 949, 950 (5th Cir. 2021) (unpublished per curiam)

I get the logic of courts wanting to channel efforts to invalidate a conviction into 2255 or 2241 motions. But in some cases prisoners may be eager to highlight problems with the validity of an underlying conviction to bolster their arguments under § 3553(a) that a sentence reduction would produce a sentence that better "promote[s} respect for the law" or would help "avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct."  Because there is no express text in § 3582(c)(1)(A) that would seem clearly to bar this kind of evidence and argument, and because there is text in § 3553(a) that would seem potentially to invite this kind of evidence and argument, I think it problematic — at least for those of us concerned about textualist limits of judicial policy-making — to see another circuit court inventing another non-textual limit on what factors can be considered by district courts when deciding whether to grant a motion for compassionate release.

As I blogged here back in June, the Supreme Court's ruling in Concepcion seem to clearly indicated that circuit courts should not be creating extra-textual limits on the discretion that Congress has given to sentencing judges.  And the defendant in this Second Circuit cases sought reconsideration based on Concepcion, which led to the reissued opinion linked below.  Here is a key added footnote in the amended opinion:

The Supreme Court’s decision in Concepcion does not conflict with our decision in this case.  In Concepcion, the Court emphasized a “longstanding tradition” of discretion afforded to courts consider changes in law or fact when sentencing or resentencing a defendant. 142 S. Ct. at 2395.  However, the Court acknowledged that that discretion is subject to constraints imposed by Congress and the Constitution. Id. at 2400–01.  One such constraint is 28 U.S.C. § 2255, which provides the procedural mechanism for Orena’s arguments regarding actual innocence and the legality of his conviction.

Download Orena Aug 31 2022

This footnote makes my head hurt, because there is absolutely no language in 28 U.S.C. § 2255 which can be fairly read as a "constraint" on what may be valid considerations in the exercise of § 3582/3553(a) discretion.  There is language in § 2255 which limits when and how § 2255 motions are to be resolved, but nothing in that provision places any express or implicit "constraint" on what should be part of compassionate release considerations.  Sigh... Cf. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass (1871) ("'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less'.")

September 1, 2022 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

"The Coherence of Prison Law"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN authored by Sharon Dolovich. Here is its abstract:

In this essay, I explore the mechanisms by which, despite what is known about the reality on the ground in American prisons, courts hearing constitutional challenges brought by prisoners so persistently find in favor of the state.  In terms of doctrine, I show that, especially during the Rehnquist Court, the Supreme Court systematically deployed a set of maneuvers to construct doctrinal standards for prison law cases that strongly incline courts to rule for defendants.  Yet skewed doctrinal standards alone cannot explain prison law’s strong pro-state bent, since courts hearing prison law cases will often side with defendants even when plaintiffs’ claims are strong on the merits and even when defendants’ arguments strain credulity.  To achieve this effect also requires a judicial readiness to see the state’s case through an especially sympathetic lens and to exhibit a studied indifference to plaintiffs’ constitutional rights and lived experience. 

As I show, the Court’s prison law opinions persistently exhibit this orientation, which I term dispositional favoritism.  When federal courts hearing prison cases follow this lead, as they frequently do, they can wind up favoring defendant prison officials in any number of ways hard to square with either the record or the relevant legal rules.  These dynamics, hidden in plain sight, had been present in the prison law doctrine for decades.  Then came Covid-19.  As this essay shows, the methods courts used to deny the COVID claims of incarcerated plaintiffs were the same that have been used for years to deflect prisoners’ constitutional claims more generally.  COVID, in short, definitively confirmed the terrible coherence of prison law: it is consistently and predictably pro-state, highly deferential to prison officials’ decision-making, and largely insensitive to the harms people experience while incarcerated.  These features collectively embody the plainly divergent normative inclinations the Supreme Court routinely displays toward the parties in prison law cases.

August 31, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

En banc Eight Circuit reverses ruling that Missouri must improve its parole process to comply with Miller

In this post from three years ago, I noted a federal district court ruling finding that the Missouri's parole policies and practices failed to give juveniles subject to life terms a meaningful opportunity to obtain release as required by Eighth Amendment doctrines.  An in this post last year, I noted that a split Eighth Circuit panel upheld the bulk of this ruling over a dissent by Judge Colloton.  Yesterday, Judge Colloton got to turn the tables by writing a new majority opinion for the en banc Eighth Circuit that starts this way:

In 2016, in light of Supreme Court decisions interpreting the Eighth Amendment’s proscription on cruel and unusual punishment, the Missouri legislature modified state law regarding parole. The legislature enacted a statute permitting a juvenile homicide offender to petition for parole if he had been sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment without parole. A class of inmates who were juvenile offenders sued the state officials responsible for administering the parole process.  The inmates alleged that the policies and practices of the parole officials violated their rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and to due process of law under the federal and Missouri constitutions. The district court determined that the parole review practices were constitutionally deficient, and ordered the State to implement an elaborate remedial plan. The State appeals, and we conclude that there is no constitutional violation. We therefore reverse the judgment of the district court.

Here is a key concluding passage from the majority opinion:

In sum, the Supreme Court’s juvenile-specific jurisprudence under the Eighth Amendment does not warrant declaring a constitutional violation and imposing on the State the elaborate set of parole procedures endorsed by the district court.  A requirement to allow “some meaningful opportunity” for release, even if applicable to these juvenile homicide offenders, is satisfied here.  The juvenile homicide offenders in Missouri received more process than offenders under the regular parole process: they presented more documentary evidence than adult offenders, received longer hearings than the average parole hearing, and were entitled to consideration of statutory factors that apply only to juveniles who were formerly sentenced to life without parole.  Of course, a “meaningful opportunity” does not imply that every juvenile homicide offender must be released immediately upon eligibility for parole.  We do not believe the Court intended through its decisions in Graham, Miller, and Montgomery to judicialize the parole process in the manner urged by the inmates.

The dissent is authored by Judge Kelly and joined by Chief Judge Smith and Judge Arnold and it concludes this way:

Missouri’s parole policies and practices, when considered in combination as implemented, work to deprive Plaintiffs of their Eighth Amendment right to a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based upon demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.  See Miller, 567 U.S. at 479. The Supreme Court has clearly stated that juvenile offenders are “constitutionally different” than adult offenders, id. at 471, and “should not be deprived of the opportunity to achieve maturity of judgment and self-recognition of human worth and potential,” Graham, 560 U.S. at 79.  Because the parole review process in place under SB 590 fails to adequately “ensure[] that juveniles whose crimes reflect[] only transient immaturity — and who have since matured — will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence,” Montgomery, 577 U.S. at 212, it violates the Eighth Amendment.

Prior related posts:

August 31, 2022 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

New Sentencing Project report highlights court diversion as a means to reduce juvenile justice disparities

The Sentencing Project today released a big new report authored by Richard Mendel titled "Diversion: A Hidden Key to Combating Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Juvenile Justice."  Here are parts of the report's executive summary:

Diverting youth from juvenile court involvement should be a central focus in efforts to reduce racial and ethnic disparities and improve outcomes in our nation’s youth justice systems.

Clear evidence shows that getting arrested in adolescence or having a delinquency case filed in juvenile court damages young people’s futures and increases their subsequent involvement in the justice system.  Compared with youth who are diverted, youth who are arrested and formally petitioned in court have far higher likelihood of subsequent arrests and school failure.  Pre-arrest and pre-court diversion can avert these bad outcomes.

Research shows that Black youth are far more likely to be arrested than their white peers and far less likely to be diverted from court following arrest.  Other youth of color — including Latinx youth, Tribal youth, and Asian/Pacific Islander youth — are also less likely than their white peers to be diverted.  The lack of diversion opportunities for youth of color is pivotal, because greater likelihood of formal processing in court means that youth of color accumulate longer court histories, leading to harsher consequences for any subsequent arrest.

Expanding diversion opportunities for youth of color therefore represents a crucial, untapped opportunity to address continuing disproportionality in juvenile justice....

For most youth, diversion is more effective and developmentally appropriate than court.  Compelling research finds that formal involvement in the justice system tends to undermine rather than enhance public safety and to reduce young people’s future success....

Diversion is vastly underutilized in the United States.  Of the youth referred to juvenile or family courts for delinquency each year, just 7% are accused of serious violent offenses.  Therefore, a large majority of youth accused of delinquency should be diverted rather than arrested and formally processed in a juvenile court.  Yet the use of diversion remains limited....

The diversion stage of the juvenile court process should be a top priority for youth justice reform.  Advocates should push for and system leaders must take aggressive action to address racial and ethnic disparities in diversion.  Combined, reforms to expand and improve the use of diversion offer perhaps the most important and promising avenue currently available to reduce disparities and to improve youth justice systems nationwide.

August 30, 2022 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Racial equity in eligibility for a clean slate under automatic criminal record relief laws"

The title of this post is the title of this new article published in Law & Society Review authored Alyssa C. Mooney, Alissa Skog and Amy E. Lerman. Here is its abstract:

States have begun to pass legislation to provide automatic relief for eligible criminal records, potentially reducing the lifelong collateral consequences of criminal justice involvement.  Yet numerous historical examples suggest that racially neutral policies can have profoundly disparate effects across racial groups.  In the case of criminal record relief, racial equity in eligibility for a clean slate has not yet been examined.  We find that in California, one in five people with convictions met criteria for full conviction relief under the state's automatic relief laws.  Yet the share of Black Americans eligible for relief was lower than White Americans, reproducing racial disparities in criminal records.

We identify two policy amendments that would reduce the share of Black men in California with convictions on their criminal records from 22% to 9%, thereby narrowing the difference compared to White men from 15 to seven percentage points.  Put another way, an additional one in seven Black men currently has a conviction record, compared to their White counterparts.  This would decline to an additional one in 14 if both hypothetical policy amendments were incorporated.  We close with discussion of criminal history data quality limitations, which pose a second key challenge to equitable implementation of automatic criminal record relief reforms nationwide.

August 30, 2022 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 29, 2022

DC sniper Lee Boyd Malvo makes still more law as top Maryland court says he must be resentenced in light of Miller

Though Lee Boyd Malvo is now 37 years old and serving a life prison term in Virginia, he was only 17 years old when he (with John Allen Muhammad) killed multiple people in Virginia, Maryland and Washington over a few weeks in 2002.  Malvo's juvenile status at the time of his awful crimes means that the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence limiting juvenile LWOP sentencing has been applicable to him.

The Supreme Court had granted cert to considering Malvo's Virginia sentencing, until Virginia changed its sentencing law and mooted that case.  And late last week, as reported in this AP article, Malvo's Maryland sentencing generated a notable ruling:

Maryland’s highest court has ruled that Washington, D.C.-area sniper Lee Boyd Malvo must be resentenced, because of U.S. Supreme Court decisions relating to constitutional protections for juveniles made after Malvo was sentenced to six life sentences without the possibility of parole

In its 4-3 ruling, however, the Maryland Court of Appeals said it’s very unlikely Malvo would ever be released from custody, because he is also serving separate life sentences for murders in Virginia.

“As a practical matter, this may be an academic question in Mr. Malvo’s case, as he would first have to be granted parole in Virginia before his consecutive life sentences in Maryland even begin,” Judge Robert McDonald wrote in the majority opinion released Friday.

McDonald wrote that it’s ultimately not up to the Court of Appeals to decide the appropriate sentence for Malvo, or whether he should ever be released from his Maryland sentences.

“We hold only that the Eighth Amendment requires that he receive a new sentencing hearing at which the sentencing court, now cognizant of the principles elucidated by the Supreme Court, is able to consider whether or not he is constitutionally eligible for life without parole under those decisions,” McDonald wrote....

Judges Jonathan Biran, Brynja Booth and Joseph Getty joined McDonald in the majority. Judges Shirley Watts, Michele Hotten and Steven Gould dissented.  Watts wrote that the sentencing court took Malvo’s status as a juvenile into account.

“The record demonstrates that Mr. Malvo received a personalized sentencing procedure at which his youth and its attendant characteristics were considered, and the circuit court was aware that it had the discretion to impose a lesser sentence,” Watts wrote.

The full 108-page opinion in Malvo v. Maryland is available at this link.

August 29, 2022 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

US Sentencing Commission releases big new report on "The Organizational Sentencing Guidelines: Thirty Years of Innovation and Influence"

Though a full new US Sentencing Commission was confirmed earlier this month, the outgoing folks are continuing to release notable new research reports as we await new action from the newbies.  The latest USSC report runs nearly 100 pages under the title "The Organizational Sentencing Guidelines: Thirty Years of Innovation and Influence." This USSC webpage provides this background with key findings:

This publication summarizes the history of Chapter Eight’s development and discusses the two substantive changes made to the elements of an effective compliance and ethics program. It then provides policymakers and researchers a snapshot of corporate sentencing over the last 30 years. Finally, the publication describes Chapter Eight’s impact beyond federal sentencing.

Key Findings:

  • The major innovations of the organizational guidelines are (1) incentivizing organizations to self-police their behavior; (2) providing guidance on effective compliance and ethics programs that organizations can implement to demonstrate efforts to self-police; and (3) holding organizations accountable based on specific factors of culpability.
  • The most significant achievement of Chapter Eight has been the widespread acceptance of the organizational guidelines' criteria for developing and maintaining effective compliance and ethics programs to prevent, detect, and report criminal conduct.
  • During the 30-year period since promulgation of the organizational guidelines, 4,946 organizational offenders have been sentenced in the 94 federal judicial districts. The majority of organizational offenders are domestic (88.1%), private (92.2%), and smaller organizations with fewer than 50 employees (70.4%).
  • Six offense types accounted for 80.4 percent of all organizational offenders from fiscal years 1992 through 2021.
    • Fraud (30.1%) and environmental (24.0%) offenses, accounted for more than half (54.1%) of all organizational offenses.
    • Other common offense types were antitrust (8.4%), food and drug (6.6%), money laundering (6.1%), and import and export crimes (5.2%).
  • Commission data suggests that the lack of an effective compliance and ethics program may be a contributing factor to criminal prosecutions against organizations.
    • Since fiscal year 1992, the overwhelming majority of organizational offenders (89.6%) did not have any compliance and ethics program.
    • Only 11 of the 4,946 organizational offenders sentenced since fiscal year 1992 received a culpability score reduction for having an effective compliance and ethics program.
    • More than half (58.3%) of the organizational offenders sentenced under the fine guidelines received a culpability score increase for the involvement in or tolerance of criminal activity.
    • Few organizational offenders (1.5% overall) received the five-point culpability score reduction for disclosing the offense to appropriate authorities prior to a government investigation in addition to their full cooperation and acceptance of responsibility.
    • Since fiscal year 2000, courts ordered one-fifth (19.5%) of organizational offenders to implement an effective compliance and ethics program.
  • Since fiscal year 1992, the courts have imposed nearly $33 billion in fines on organizational offenders. The average fine imposed was over $9 million and the median amount was $100,000.
  • Since fiscal year 1992, courts sentenced over two-thirds of organizational offenders (69.1%) to a term of probation and the average length of the term of probation imposed was 39 months.

August 29, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Feds seeking (within-guideline) sentence of 17+ years for former NYPD Jan 6 defendant

As detailed in this Insider article, headlined "DOJ seeks the longest Capitol riot prison term yet — 17 years for 'eye-gouging' ex-NYPD officer who swung a flagpole at police," late last week federal prosecutors filed another notable sentencing memorandum for another notable Jan 6 defendant who was convicted after a trial.  Here are excerpts:

Federal prosecutors are seeking the longest sentence yet for a Capitol rioter, asking the judge to give a former NYPD officer 210 months — seventeen and a half years — in prison.

Thomas Webster was found guilty on all six charges in May, including assaulting an officer and entering restricted grounds.  His sentencing is set for September 1.

In a statement arguing for a shorter sentence, Webster's lawyer said that he had been under "an extraordinary amount of influence" from former President Donald Trump's election falsehoods on January 6, 2021.

The criminal complaint describes Webster elbowing his way through the mob to be among those leading the charge against the Capitol police barricade, shouting at one officer: "You fucking piece of shit," and "you fucking commie fuck." Webster also wielded a metal flagpole at the riot. The DOJ later released body camera footage of him repeatedly hitting the metal barrier next to the officer with it until it broke, the complaint said. The footage then shows him tackling the officer to the ground and appearing to gouge the officer's eyes.

The jury rejected Webster's argument at trial that he acted in self-defense. Webster's status as a former member of law enforcement — he had served as part of former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg's security detail — was at odds with his conduct towards the Capitol police, his defense conceded in court documents seen by Insider.

Nonetheless, lawyer James Monroe asked the judge to consider a shorter sentence on the grounds of Webster's later remorse and the notion that former President Donald Trump misled him.  Election-fraud lies "championed by former President Donald Trump exerted an extraordinary amount of influence" over people like Webster, who had received "relentless disinformation" from Trump's supporters, Monroe said....

That 17 years and six months recommended by the DOJ stretches far beyond the longest sentence handed down to Capitol rioters so far, more than seven years given to rioter Guy Reffitt.  In that case, prosecutors sought a much longer sentence of 15 years, closer to what is being asked for Webster.

Here is a link to the Government's sentencing memo in US v. Webster.

UPDATE: I helpful commenter flagged this sentencing memorandum from the defense which makes this pitch for a much lower sentence:

Mr. Webster's Guideline range, as calculated by Probation, falls at a total offense level 37 and a criminal history category I.  At this range, the recommended sentence is 210 to 240 months.  Presumably, recognizing the disparity of imposing such a sentence, Probation has recommended a sentence of 120 months.  Mr. Webster was arrested on February 22, 2021 and remanded to Federal custody until his release on June 29, 2021, totaling 127 days of incarceration.  Upon being released by the Court on personal recognizance, Defendant has remained on a strict home confinement under the supervision of pre-trial services' High Intensity Supervision Program without incident for the last 421 days.  Regardless of the recommended range, Mr. Webster respectfully proposes a downward variance to time served together with a term of supervised release as a sufficient sentence, which is not greater than necessary, to satisfy the statutory criteria set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).

August 29, 2022 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Grappling with parole possibilities a quarter-century after horrific school shooting by young teen

The Washington Post has this compelling new piece on what would appear to be the first modern teen school shooter now about to get parole consideration 25 years after his crime.  I recommend the article in full, and it is headlined "A school shooting shattered a town in 1997. Now the gunman could get parole."  Here are excerpts:

At first, Missy Jenkins Smith thought the sound of gunfire at her Kentucky high school was a bad joke.  Her prayer group had just said, “Amen,” and their day was about to begin.  Then one of her classmates fell to the floor, shot in the head. Another student was hit. Then another.  And suddenly, the 14-year-old boy wielding a Ruger .22 fired seven bullets indiscriminately toward the teens gathered inside Heath High School on Dec. 1, 1997, the Monday morning after Thanksgiving break....

The attack upended the small town of West Paducah, in what was then a rarity in the United States: a school shooting. Three students — Nicole Hadley, 14; Jessica James, 17; and Kayce Steger, 15 — were killed and five others wounded. Michael Carneal pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.  But under Kentucky law, the teenager who claimed to have been bullied was given the possibility of parole in 25 years....

Carneal is up for a hearing next month in what family members of the deceased, survivors and experts say is among the first instances that an assailant in a school shooting has a chance at being released.  The proceeding will be held Sept. 19 and 20 over Zoom to determine whether Carneal, now 39, will be released in November.

The prospect of Carneal potentially getting released has reopened wounds for those who still carry the pain from a shooting largely forgotten by America.  The case also presents a unique question as school shootings continue to afflict the nation: What should happen to child assailants who decades later become eligible for release?

Privately, survivors and families of the victims in Kentucky have grappled with whether and how to forgive him — and if the pain he has caused makes that even possible....

The West Paducah attack was among the first school shootings to rock the country — unfolding 16 months before the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado changed the perception of classroom safety. “When Carneal did what he did, he ripped the veil off that feeling of security in school,” said Assistant McCracken County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jamie Mills, “and, obviously, we have not been able to get that back.”...

In Kentucky, the state passed a juvenile code in 1986 that allows for life sentences as long as parole is considered after 25 years.  At the time, Kentucky prosecutors were given leeway from the state to try teens between the ages of 14 and 17 as adults for serious crimes. But Carneal was charged as a minor.  And in October 1998, he pleaded guilty but mentally ill — requiring him to receive mental health care while in prison.  He was later diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Carneal has repeatedly challenged his guilty plea, arguing in 2007 that he was too mentally ill to submit the plea and pushing for it to be withdrawn altogether in 2012.  Both efforts were rejected....

Dan Boaz, the commonwealth’s attorney for McCracken County, said his goal is to make sure Carneal remains “incarcerated for as long as he lives.”  Although it’s unclear how the Kentucky Parole Board — a mix of appointees from former Republican governor Matt Bevin and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear — will act, the bar for giving a school shooter parole is much harder, given the regularity of shootings in America.

“We have seen a bit of momentum in America in acknowledging that young people tried with crimes should be given another opportunity, but a school shooting case is going to be the hardest one for a parole board,” said Rachel Barkow, a professor of law at New York University and an expert on parole.  “It’s not supposed to be based on the crime itself, but, realistically speaking, it’s very hard for any parole board not to take into account the nature of the initial crime.”

August 28, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Noting the punishing reality of persistent prison debt

With a certain type of debt (and forgiveness) now a hot topic, this new AP article provides a window into another type of debt that persistently punishes.  The piece is headlined, "At $249 per day, prison stays leave ex-inmates deep in debt," and here are excerpts:

Two decades after her release from prison, Teresa Beatty feels she is still being punished.  When her mother died two years ago, the state of Connecticut put a lien on the Stamford home she and her siblings inherited.  It said she owed $83,762 to cover the cost of her 2 1/2 year imprisonment for drug crimes.

Now, she’s afraid she’ll have to sell her home of 51 years, where she lives with two adult children, a grandchild and her disabled brother.  “I’m about to be homeless,” said Beatty, 58, who in March became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the state law that charges prisoners $249 a day for the cost of their incarceration.  “I just don’t think it’s right, because I feel I already paid my debt to society.  I just don’t think it’s fair for me to be paying twice.”

All but two states have so-called “pay-to-stay” laws that make prisoners pay for their time behind bars, though not every state actually pursues people for the money.  Supporters say the collections are a legitimate way for states to recoup millions of taxpayer dollars spent on prisons and jails.  Critics say it’s an unfair second penalty that hinders rehabilitation by putting former inmates in debt for life.

Efforts have been underway in some places to scale back or eliminate such policies.  Two states — Illinois and New Hampshire — have repealed their laws since 2019.  Connecticut also overhauled its statute this year, keeping it in place only for the most serious crimes, such as murder, and exempting prisoners from having to pay the first $50,000 of their incarceration costs....

Beatty acknowledges she was guilty of selling and possessing drugs, but said nobody told her when she went to jail that every day behind bars would cost her more than a night at a fine hotel.  “It just drags you back to despair,” said Beatty, who has had other brushes with the law over drug possession since her release from jail, but has also become a certified nursing assistant. “That’s where I feel like I’m at. I feel like no hope. Where do I go? All of this work and it feels like I’ve done it in vain.”

Pay-to-stay laws were put into place in many areas during the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and ’90s, said Brittany Friedman, an assistant professor of sociology at University of Southern California who is leading a study of the practice. As prison populations ballooned, Friedman said, policymakers questioned how to pay for incarceration costs. “So, instead of raising taxes, the solution was to shift the cost burden from the state and the taxpayers onto the incarcerated.”

Laws vary from state to state.  Many, like Connecticut, only go after inmates for the cost of incarceration if they come into money after leaving prison.  A few, such as North Carolina, have laws on the books but almost never use them, Friedman said.

August 28, 2022 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, August 27, 2022

"The Injustice of Under-Policing in America"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Christopher Lewis and Adaner Usmani and published in the American Journal of Law and Equality. Here is part of its introduction:

Since 2014, viral images of Black people being killed at the hands of the police — Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, and many, many others  — have convinced much of the public that the American criminal legal system is broken. In the summer of 2020, nationwide protests against police racism and violence in the wake of George Floyd’s murder were, according to some analysts, the largest social movement in the history of the United States.  Activists and academics have demanded defunding the police and reallocating the funds to substitutes or alternatives. And others have called for abolishing the police altogether.  It has become common knowledge that the police do not solve serious crime, they focus far too much on petty offenses, and they are far too heavy-handed and brutal in their treatment of Americans — especially poor, Black people.  This is the so-called paradox of under-protection and over-policing that has characterized American law enforcement since emancipation.

The American criminal legal system is unjust and inefficient.  But, as we argue in this essay, over-policing is not the problem.  In fact, the American criminal legal system is characterized by an exceptional kind of under-policing, and a heavy reliance on long prison sentences, compared to other developed nations . In this country, roughly three people are incarcerated per police officer employed.  The rest of the developed world strikes a diametrically opposite balance between these twin arms of the penal state, employing roughly three and a half times more police officers than the number of people they incarcerate.  We argue that the United States has it backward.  Justice and efficiency demand that we strike a balance between policing and incarceration more like that of the rest of the developed world.  We call this the “First World Balance.”

We defend this idea in much more detail in a forthcoming book titled What’s Wrong with Mass Incarceration.  This essay offers a preliminary sketch of some of the arguments in the book.  In the spirit of conversation and debate, in this essay we err deliberately on the side of comprehensiveness rather than argumentative rigor.  One of us is a social scientist, and the other is a philosopher and legal scholar.  Our primary goal for this research project, and especially in this essay, is not to convince readers that we are correct — but rather to encourage a more explicit discussion of the empirical and normative bases of some pressing debates about the American criminal legal system.  Even if our answers prove unsound, we hope that the combination of empirical social science and analytic moral and political philosophy we contribute can help illuminate what alternative answers to those questions might have to look like to be sound.  In fact, because much of this essay (and the underlying book project) strikes a pessimistic tone, we would be quite happy to be wrong about much of what we argue here.

August 27, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)