Wednesday, August 05, 2020

By 5–4 vote, Supreme Court stays Orange County jail to implement certain COVID safety measures

This evening the Supreme Court, voting 5-4 along the "usual" lines, issued a stay to block an order requiring a local jail in California to implement certain safety measures to provide greater COVID protection to inmates.  The majority's order is just a paragraph and includes no reasoning, but Justice Sotomayor's eight-page dissent has a lot to say.  Here is how it starts and ends:

Today, this Court steps in to stay a preliminary injunction requiring Sheriff Don Barnes and Orange County (collectively, the Orange County Jail, or Jail) to implement certain safety measures to protect their inmates during the unprecedented COVID–19 pandemic.  The injunction’s requirements are not remarkable.  In fact, the Jail initially claimed that it had already implemented each and every one of them.  Yet, apparently disregarding the District Court’s detailed factual findings, its application of established law, and the fact that the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has twice denied a stay pending its review of the District Court’s order, this Court again intervenes to grant a stay before the Circuit below has heard and decided the case on the merits....  The Jail’s application does not warrant such extraordinary intervention.  Indeed, this Court stays the District Court’s preliminary injunction even though the Jail recently reported 15 new cases of COVID– 19 in a single week (even with the injunction in place), even though the Jail misrepresented under oath to the District Court the measures it was taking to combat the virus’ spread, and even though the Jail’s central rationale for a stay (that the injunction goes beyond federal guidelines) ignores the lower courts’ conclusion that the Jail’s measures fell “well short” of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Guidelines...

At the time of the injunction, there were nearly 3,000 inmates still in the Jail’s care, 488 of whom were medically vulnerable to COVID–19.  “[H]aving stripped them of virtually every means of self-protection and foreclosed their access to outside aid, the government and its officials” must “‘take reasonable measures to guarantee the[ir] safety.’”  Farmer, 511 U.S., at 832–833; see also Valentine v. Collier, 590 U.S. ___, ___–___ (2020) (statement of SOTOMAYOR, J.) (slip op., at 6–7) (“It has long been said that a society’s worth can be judged by taking stock of its prisons. That is all the truer in this pandemic, where inmates everywhere have been rendered vulnerable and often powerless to protect themselves from harm”).  The District Court found that, despite knowing the severe threat posed by COVID–19 and contrary to its own apparent policies, the Jail exposed its inmates to significant risks from a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease.  Yet this Court now intervenes, leaving to its own devices a jail that has misrepresented its actions to the District Court and failed to safeguard the health of the inmates in its care.  I respectfully dissent.

August 5, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Noting some of McGirt's early and uncertain echoes

Just under a month ago, the Supreme Court, via a 5-4 vote, decided in McGirt v. Oklahoma, No. 18–9526 (S. Ct. July 9, 2020) (available here), that a huge part of the state of Oklahoma "remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law."  The start of Chief Justice Roberts' dissent expressed concern about the potential fall-out from this ruling, and a number of recent press pieces are starting to address this story in detail.  Here is a recent round-up:

From the ABA Journal, "After SCOTUS tribal decision, inmates file appeals, prosecutors hand off cases"

From the Marshall Project, "Half of Oklahoma Is Now Indian Territory.  What Does That Mean for Criminal Justice There? Tribal courts and federal prosecutors face a flood of new cases after the Supreme Court ruling."

From the McAlester News-Capital, "Batton: 'More questions than answers' after McGirt ruling"

From the New York Times, "A Historic Supreme Court Ruling Upends Courts in Oklahoma. Local prosecutors are referring criminal cases to the federal and tribal courts, which are now flooded with new cases."

From the Tulsa World, "McGirt ruling 'not a get out of prison free card,' Oklahoma AG says in request for court's guidance"

August 4, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 03, 2020

"Is Death Different to Federal Judges?"

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

Legal commentators have long believed that federal judges treat capital appeals more favorably than noncapital appeals.  However, due to the bifurcated nature of capital trials and the complexity of the ensuing appeals, no empirical research to date has proven that the guilt-phase claims of capital defendants are more likely to succeed on federal habeas review than the claims of other defendants. 

This Note addresses that gap in the literature.  The Author analyzed 1,368 votes cast by federal appellate judges between 2013 and 2017 in murder cases heard on habeas review.  In each of those cases, the defendant was under a sentence of either death or life in prison. Exploiting this unique dataset, this Note finds that federal appellate judges are significantly more likely to grant guilt-phase relief to capital defendants than they are to similarly situated noncapital defendants.  It then rules out alternative explanations for this finding of a “sentencing effect,” such as differential attorney investment or dissimilarity between capital and noncapital defendants.  After establishing that federal appellate judges do in fact behave differently in capital cases, the Note considers the normative implications of this finding.  It ultimately concludes that the behavior of federal judges on habeas review is consistent with a generally shared principle of capital jurisprudence: preventing the execution of innocents.

August 3, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Study details how Georgia execution rate is "substantially greater" for those convicted of killing white victims than for those convicted of killing black victims

This New York Times article, headlined "A Vast Racial Gap in Death Penalty Cases, New Study Finds," highlights new research on the intersection of race and the death penalty.  Here are excerpts from the press piece with a few of the original links to the original research:

Black lives do not matter nearly as much as white ones when it comes to the death penalty, a new study has found.  Building on data at the heart of a landmark 1987 Supreme Court decision, the study concluded that defendants convicted of killing white victims were executed at a rate 17 times greater than those convicted of killing Black victims.

There is little chance that the new findings would alter the current Supreme Court’s support for the death penalty. Its conservative majority has expressed impatience with efforts to block executions, and last month it issued a pair of 5-to-4 rulings in the middle of the night that allowed federal executions to resume after a 17-year hiatus.

But the court came within one vote of addressing racial bias in the administration of the death penalty in the 1987 decision, McCleskey v. Kemp. By a 5-to-4 vote, the court ruled that even solid statistical evidence of race discrimination in the capital justice system did not offend the Constitution....

The McCleskey decision considered a study conducted by David C. Baldus, a law professor who died in 2011.  It looked at death sentences rather than executions, and it made two basic points.  The first was that the race of the defendant does not predict the likelihood of a death sentence.  The second was that the race of the victim does.  Killers of white people were more than four times as likely to be sentenced to death as killers of Black people, Professor Baldus found.

The new study, published in The Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, examined not only death sentences but also whether defendants sentenced to death were eventually executed. “The problematic sentencing disparity discovered by Baldus is exacerbated at the execution stage,” wrote the study’s authors, Scott Phillips and Justin Marceau of the University of Denver. Professor Baldus’s study examined more than 2,000 murders in Georgia from 1973 to 1979, controlling for some 230 variables.

Though some have argued that Professor Baldus did not consider every possible variable, few question his bottom-line conclusion, and other studies have confirmed it. In 1990, the General Accounting Office, now called the Government Accountability Office, reviewed 28 studies and determined that 23 of them found that the race of the victim influenced “the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving a death sentence.” “This finding was remarkably consistent across data sets, states, data collection methods and analytic techniques,” the report said. A 2014 update came to a similar conclusion.

One factor Professor Baldus could not analyze, given the decades that often pass between sentencings and executions, was whether the race of the victim correlated to the likelihood of the defendant being put to death. The new study, the product of exhaustive research, supplied the missing information. It found that 22 of the 972 defendants convicted of killing a white victim were executed, as compared with two of the 1,503 defendants convicted of killing a Black victim.

The new study also confirmed just how rare executions are. Of the 127 men sentenced to death in the Baldus study, 95 left death row thanks to judicial action or executive clemency; five died of natural causes; one was executed in another state; one escaped (and was soon beaten to death in a bar fight); and one remains on death row.

A more general and less granular 2017 study compared two sets of nationwide data: homicides from 1975 to 2005 and executions from 1976 to 2015. Its conclusions were similarly striking. About half of the victims were white, that study found, but three-quarters of defendants put to death had killed a white person. About 46 percent of the victims were Black, but only 15 percent of defendants who were executed had killed a Black person.

Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra, said courts and lawmakers had failed to confront the question of racial bias in the administration of capital punishment. “The continuing adherence of the Supreme Court to McCleskey is a continuing statement that Black lives do not matter,” he said. “The continuing failure of Congress and the state legislatures to remedy the situation is a continuing admission that the states are unable to run racially unbiased death penalty systems.”

I always find in-depth exploration of the Baldus study and McClesky so interesting and important, in part because David Baldus discovered that even in Georgia in the 1970s, it appears that the race of the defendant had relatively little or no impact on who was ultimately sentenced to death.  That strikes me as itself a remarkable and encouraging finding, even though he reached the corresponding and discouraging finding that the race of the victim did have a huge impact on who was ultimately sentenced to death.  But, as Prof Randall Kennedy astutely explored in this terrific article published right after the McClesky decision, one logical response to these kinds of race-of-the-victim disparity studies is to call for far more executions of persons who kill black victims to signal in this context that black lives matter as much as white ones.

According to my quick searching using the DPIC database, it appears that only 3 of 25 persons executed in the United States in 2018 had black victims, whereas in 2019 there were 6 of 22 persons executed in the US who had black victims.  Should we be "celebrating" that black lives mattered more than twice as much in the operation of the US machinery of death in 2019 than in 2018?  Circa 2020 when the feds are now poised to be the most active of executioners, should we all be urging Attorney General Barr, as he continues adding names to the list of condemned to now be marched into the federal death chamber, to be working harder to pick from federal death row those killers with black victims?

My point here is just to recall in this context Prof Kennedy's important insight that the most ready response to these kinds of race-of-the-victim disparities may be to encourage more (capital) punishment, especially if we end up talking about these disparities in terms of certain victims not getting equal justice.   I would also add that I wish there was a lot more of this kind of race-of-the-victim sentencing disparity conducted concerning non-capital crimes.  I suspect and fear that there may be even more pernicious individual and community harms resulting from persistently unequal sentencing for those who commit sexual or property offenses with black victims.  

August 3, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Noticing problems with crack sentence reduction retroactivity, especially when certain judges are discretionarily disinclined

The New York Times has this effective new article highlighting the ugly underbelly of the FRIST STEP Act's efforts to make sure the Fair Sentencing Act's reduction of crack sentences was fully retroactive.  The headline and subheadline of the piece serves as a summary: "Law to Reduce Crack Cocaine Sentences Leaves Some Imprisoned: Critics say the First Step Act is being applied too arbitrarily by judges who are taking a hard line when it comes to revisiting nonviolent drug sentences."  Here are excerpts from a piece worth reading in full:

By and large, the First Step Act has met its goal of reducing federal sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, addressing a longstanding disparity in which crack cocaine convictions in particular led to far harsher penalties than other drug offenses and disproportionately increased imprisonment of Black men.

Thousands of inmates across the country, predominantly people of color, have been released or resentenced under a provision of the new law that allowed changes to the sentencing provisions to be applied retroactively.  As of January, 2,387 inmates had their sentences reduced under the provision that allows some crack cocaine offenders to be resentenced, out of 2,660 that the United States Sentencing Commission estimated in May 2018 were eligible.

But the law gives judges discretion in reducing sentences, leaving some inmates like Mr. Maxwell without much recourse when their applications are rejected. In those cases, activists and defense lawyers worry that the First Step Act gives too much authority to judges to determine who does and does not deserve early release.  “It’s like the luck of the draw,” said Sarah Ryan, a professor at Wesleyan University who has analyzed hundreds of First Step Act resentencing cases.  “You’ve got people sitting in prison during a pandemic, and it’s not supposed to come down to who your judge is.  It’s supposed to come down to the law.”

The simple enactment of the bill was no guarantee for inmates.  This provision of the bill did not mandate that the judges must resentence eligible offenders; Congress specified that “nothing in this section shall be construed to require a court to reduce any sentence.”...

The section of the act that governs resentencing for crack cocaine convictions is just four sentences long.  It made retroactive the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine.  Courts have been relatively slow to determine some of the ambiguities of the act, including whether to consider behavior behind bars or other concurrent charges as factors in the decision.

Many public defenders — who handle most of these applications — in the toughest districts declined to speak on the record for fear of upsetting the judges who oversee their cases. Parks Small, a federal public defender in Columbia, S.C., said an imperfect First Step Act was still better than nothing, calling the bill a “godsend” for many inmates.  He added that judges varied as to the importance they placed on the original offense or the inmate’s behavior behind bars.  “You give it to different judges, they’re going to come up with different opinions,” Mr. Small said.  “It’s frustrating.”

August 1, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, July 31, 2020

First Circuit panel reverses death sentence of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Roughly five years after a jury handed down a death sentence to the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev back in May 2015, today a First Circuit panel reversed the sentence while affirming his convictions.  This local NPR piece provides the basics and some context:

A federal appeals court has overturned the death sentence of admitted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, saying the trial judge didn't do enough to ensure an unbiased jury.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals Friday ordered a new penalty phase of the trial, where a new set of jurors would decide whether to sentence Tsarnaev to life or death.  "A core promise of our criminal-justice system is that even the very worst among us deserves to be fairly tried and lawfully punished," Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson wrote in her 182-page opinion.

The federal appeals court said that Judge George O'Toole didn't do enough to make sure jurors were not tainted by pretrial publicity.... "But as to 9 of the 12 seated jurors, the judge fell short on this front," Thompson wrote. "The judge qualified jurors who had already formed an opinion that Dzhokhar was guilty — and he did so in large part because they answered 'yes' to the question whether they could decide this high-profile case based on the evidence."

But by not having the jurors identify exactly what they already knew about the case, the judge couldn’t determine whether they were actually fit to serve. The First Circuit Court of appeals issued its decision Friday, after hearing arguments in the case in December 2019.

Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan killed three and injured more than 260 people near the finish line of the marathon in 2013, then murdered a police officer several days later. Tamerlan was killed during the manhunt for the brothers. In 2015, a jury convicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of all 30 counts against him, and then handed down six death sentences.

Liz Norden, whose two sons J.P. and Paul each lost their right leg in the bombing, supported the death penalty for Tsarnaev. In an interview with WBUR Friday, she said the appeals court decision made her “sick to her stomach.” She said she’s sad at the prospect of a new penalty phase of the trial, but having sat through the first trial, is willing to do it again....

Bombing survivor Michelle L’Heureux said she was "sad and frustrated" by the decision. "We had closure. And now that’s gone," she said. "This is going to take a toll on so many of the survivors and the families of those who never made it home. I, fortunately, through my own recovery, have gained strength and have found ways to cope with the trauma of what I and so many suffered on that fateful day in April 2013. This is a step back for many. And that is a disgrace."

The family of Martin Richard, the youngest victim of the bombing at 8 years old, declined to comment. But they pointed to a letter they wrote in 2015, just after Tsarnaev was convicted but before he was sentenced. "To end the anguish, drop the death penalty," they wrote.

Instead of another sentencing phase, prosecutors and defense attorneys could agree to life in prison for Tsarnaev, avoiding another high-profile, weeks-long session in front of a new jury. Tsarnaev's attorneys admitted his guilt at the start of the trial in 2015, and sought a plea deal before going to trial....

Among the factors at play in what happens next is a new U.S. Attorney, Andrew Lelling, who replaced Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney who oversaw the Tsarnaev trial. Lelling on Friday said his office was reviewing the decision. Tsarnaev's federal public defenders said in a statement they were grateful for the court's straightforward and fair decision....

Tsarnaev is now 27 and remains at the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. Thompson noted twice in her decision that the court's ruling does not mean Tsarnaev will ever be released from prison. "Make no mistake: Dzhokhar will spend his remaining days locked up in prison, with the only matter remaining being whether he will die by execution," she wrote. With another trial, however, he will be back in a Massachusetts courtroom.

The full opinion in this case is available at this link, and I welcome help from readers to identify the good, the bad and the ugly of this notable and very lengthy ruling.  I am especially interested in speculation about whether the feds will seek review with the full First Circuit or SCOTUS.  If they do, it could be years before we even know if there will be a need for a retrial.

July 31, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Big new ACLU and HRW report details "How Probation and Parole Feed Mass Incarceration in the United States"

The quoted portion of the title of this post is part of the title of this huge new report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union fully titled "Revoked: How Probation and Parole Feed Mass Incarceration in the United States." This important 200+ page report includes these passages in its "summary":

Probation, parole, and other forms of supervision are marketed as alternatives to incarceration in the United States. Supervision, it is claimed, will keep people out of prison and help them get back on their feet.

Throughout the past 50 years, the use of probation (a sentence often imposed just after conviction) and parole (served after incarceration) has soared alongside jail and prison populations. As of 2016, the last year for which supervision data is available, 2.2 million people were incarcerated in United States jails and prisons, but more than twice as many, 4.5 million people — or one in every 55 — were under supervision.  Supervision rates vary vastly by state, from one in every 168 people in New Hampshire, to one in every 18 in Georgia.

Over the past several decades,arbitrary and overly harsh supervision regimes have led people back into US jails and prisons — feeding mass incarceration.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), in the late 1970s, 16 percent of US state and federal prison admissions stemmed from violations of parole and some types of probation.  This number climbed to a high of 36 percent in 2008, and, in 2018, the last year for which data is available, was 28 percent.  A different set of data for the previous year from the Council of State Governments, which includes all types of probation violations — but is limited to state prison populations — shows that 45 percent of all US state prison admissions stemmed from probation and parole violations.  These figures do not include people locked up for supervision violations in jails, for which there is little nationwide data.  Black and brown people are both disproportionately subjected to supervision and incarcerated for violations.

This report documents how and why supervision winds up landing many people in jail and prison — feeding mass incarceration rather than curtailing it.  The extent of the problem varies among states, and in recent years multiple jurisdictions have enacted reforms to limit incarceration for supervision violations.  This report focuses on three states where our initial research indicated that — despite some reforms — the issue remains particularly acute: Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Drawing on data provided by or obtained from these states, presented here for the first time, and interviews with 164 people incarcerated for supervision violations, family members, government officials, practitioners, advocates, and experts, we document the tripwires in these states leading to incarceration.  These include burdensome conditions imposed without providing resources; violations for minor slip-ups; lengthy incarceration while alleged violations are adjudicated; flawed procedures; and disproportionately harsh sentences for violations.  The report shows that, nationwide,most people locked up for supervision violations were not convicted of new offenses — rather, they were incarcerated for breaking the rules of their supervision, such as for using drugs or alcohol, failing to report address changes, or not following the rules of supervision-mandated programs.  Of those who were incarcerated for new offenses, in our focus states, many were for conduct like possessing drugs; public order offenses such as disorderly conduct or resisting arrest; misdemeanor assaultive conduct; or shoplifting....

The root causes of these violations, the report documents, are often a lack of resources and services, unmet health needs, and racial bias.The report also draws attention to marked racial disparities in who is subjected to supervision and how authorities enforce it. In practice, supervision in many parts of the US has become a system to control and warehouse people who are struggling with an array of economic and health-related challenges, without offering meaningful solutions to those underlying problems.

July 31, 2020 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

US Sentencing Commission publishes "Federal Probation and Supervised Release Violations"

Cover_violations-report-2020The US Sentencing Commission today released this lengthy notable new report titled simply "Federal Probation and Supervised Release Violations." This USSC webpage provides a summary and a extended account of "key findings":

Summary

Federal Probation and Supervised Release Violations presents data on approximately 108,000 violation hearings that occurred between 2013 and 2017.  The report examines the prevalence, types, and locations of federal supervision violations as well as the characteristics of more than 82,000 violators. The report also compares supervision violators to the population of federal offenders originally sentenced to probation or a sentence including a term of supervised release during the same time period. (Published July 28, 2020)

Key Findings
  • Nationally, the number of individuals under supervision was relatively stable during the study period, ranging from 130,224 to 136,156 during the five years. Half of the individuals under supervision, however, were concentrated in only 21 of the 94 federal judicial districts.
  • Nationally, the rate of violation hearings for individuals on supervision also was relatively stable, ranging from 16.2 to 18.4 percent during the five years, with an overall rate of 16.9 percent.  The prevalence of supervision violations, however, varied considerably among the federal judicial districts.
    • Violations accounted for more than one-third of individuals on supervision in the Southern District of California (42.1%), District of Minnesota (37.4%), Western District of Missouri (34.3%), District of Arizona (33.7%), and District of New Mexico (33.4%).  In contrast, violations accounted for less than five percent of individuals on supervision in the Districts of Connecticut (4.5%) and Maryland (4.7%).
  • Supervision violators tended to have committed more serious original offenses than federal offenders whose original sentence was probation or included a term of supervised release during the same time period.
    • For example, the rates of supervision violators originally sentenced for violent and firearms offenses (7.9% and 20.4%, respectively) were approximately twice as high compared to offenders originally sentenced during the study period (3.7% and 12.8%, respectively), a finding which is consistent with prior Commission recidivism research.
  • Drug offenses were the most common primary offense type for both supervision violators and federal offenders whose original sentence was probation or included a term of supervised release during the same time period.  There were, however, notable variations by drug type.
    • For example, crack cocaine offenders accounted for only 9.9 percent of drug offenders whose original sentence was probation or included a term of supervised release, but they accounted for almost one-third (32.1%) of supervision violators, a greater proportion than any other drug type.  The disproportional representation of crack cocaine offenders among supervision violators is consistent with prior Commission recidivism research.  On the other hand, drug offenders who received the safety valve at their original sentencing were underrepresented among supervision violators (19.1% compared to 30.7%), a finding that also is consistent with prior Commission recidivism research.
  • Supervision violators tended to have more serious criminal histories than federal offenders whose original sentence was probation or included a term of supervised release.
    • Approximately one-quarter (24.6%) of offenders with supervision violations were in the lowest Criminal History Category (CHC I) at the time of their original sentencing compared to almost half (44.9%) of offenders whose original sentence was probation or included a term of supervised release during the study period. On the other end of the spectrum, 18.3 percent of offenders with supervision violations were in the highest Criminal History Category (CHC VI) at the time of their original sentencing compared to 9.9 percent of offenders whose original sentence was probation or included a term of supervised release during the study period. This pattern is consistent with prior Commission recidivism research.
  • The majority of supervision violations were based on the commission of an offense punishable by a term of one year or less or a violation of another condition of supervision not constituting a federal, state or local offense (Grade C Violation).
    • More than half (54.9%) of violations were Grade C (the least serious classification), nearly one-third (31.5%) were Grade B, and 13.6 percent were Grade A (the most serious classification).
  • Offenders who were originally sentenced for more serious offenses tended to commit more serious supervision violations.
    • For example, over four-fifths of the Grade A violations were committed by offenders originally sentenced for drug offenses (52.0%), firearms offenses (24.5%), or violent offenses (6.3%).
  • Offenders who violated their conditions of supervision typically did so within the first two years.
    • On average, 22 months elapsed from the time supervision commenced to the commission of the supervision violation, but the elapsed time was notably longer for Grade A violations (the most serious) at 33 months.
  • The majority of supervision violators were sentenced in accordance with the Chapter Seven Revocation Table.
    • More than half (59.8%) were within the applicable range, just over one-quarter (29.1%) were below the range, and 11.1 percent were above the range. Courts tended to impose sentences within the applicable guideline range less often for more serious supervision violations. For example, for Grade A violations (the most serious classification), 39.4 percent were sentenced within the applicable range, and 54.2 percent were sentenced below the range. In contrast, for Grade C violations (the least serious classification), 63.6 percent were sentenced within the range, and 22.1 percent were sentenced below the range.

July 28, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6)

At resentencing, Senator Rand Paul's attacker gets additional 13 months (eight to be served in federal prison, six in home confinement)

This local article, headline "KY man who tackled U.S. Sen. Rand Paul sentenced to another 13 months confinement," provides some details from a high-profile resentencing that took place yesterday and included a number of interesting elements:

The neighbor who lost his temper and attacked Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul in 2017, breaking six of his ribs, has been sentenced to an additional 13 months confinement.  A federal judge initially sentenced Rene Boucher to 30 days in jail for the November 2017 attack, along with 100 hours of community service and a $10,000 fine.

During a video hearing Monday, U.S. District Judge Matthew F. Leitman handed down the new sentence against Boucher — eight months in prison and six months on home confinement.  However, Leitman gave Boucher credit for the 30 days he already served, so he will have seven more months behind bars.

Prosecutors had appealed the initial sentence for Boucher, arguing it was unreasonably light, and won the right to try to get a longer sentence.  That led to Monday’s hearing.  The new sentence for Boucher still wasn’t as long as the government wanted.  Assistant U.S. Attorney Brad Shepard objected to the sentence, which could lead to yet another appeal by the government for stiffer sentence for Boucher.

The attack made national news because of Paul’s position, but prosecutors have acknowledged it had nothing to do with politics.  Rather, Boucher, who lived next door to Paul in a gated community in Bowling Green, attacked Paul because he got angry over Paul stacking limbs and other yard waste near their shared property line, according to the court record....

Police first charged Boucher with misdemeanor assault in state court, but the federal government stepped in and prosecuted him under a law barring assaults on members of Congress.  Under advisory guidelines, Boucher faced a potential sentence of 21 to 27 months. Federal judges can impost sentences below those guidelines.

In handing down a lower sentence, U.S. District Judge Marianne O. Battani cited Boucher’s military service, his involvement in his church and her belief that the attack was out of character for Boucher.  However, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Battani didn’t give sufficient weight to the seriousness of Paul’s injuries or the need for deterrence, and didn’t sufficiently address the issue of the big difference in Boucher’s sentence and others involving federal assault cases.

Shepard renewed a call for a 21-month sentence for Boucher because of the severity of Paul’s injuries.  The punishment also should to be tough enough deter similar attacks, Shepard said.  “The court I think needs to send the message . . . that we cannot continue as a society to resort to violence,” Shepard said.

Paul and his wife, Kelly, submitted written statements about the attack the first time Boucher was sentenced, but spoke in person during the video hearing Monday.  Paul said he’d never had cross words with Boucher and so had no idea he was unhappy before Boucher blindsided him.  Paul described the intense pain and his struggles to breathe after the attack, as well as the history of physical problems since, including bouts with pneumonia, night sweats and fever; coughing up blood; surgery to remove part of his scarred lung; and still more surgery to drain infected fluid.  Paul said his lung capacity will likely be reduced the rest of his life, and he has chronic pain.  “I don’t know what a night without pain is like, or a day without pain,” Paul said....

Boucher’s attorney, Matthew J. Baker, said Boucher is “profoundly sorry” for the attack, but argued against any additional time for Boucher, a physician.  Baker said Boucher’s initial sentence was appropriate, and that he had faced additional punishment by way of a judgment of more than $600,000 in a state civil lawsuit Paul filed against him over the attack.  That judgment included $375,000 in punitive damages, which by definition are to punish a defendant....

Lietman said it was heartbreaking to hear Paul and his wife describe the fallout from the attack. But the judge said he was choosing a sentence below the guideline range for several reasons, including Boucher’s long record of work with his church, his eight years as a U.S. Army doctor, the fact that the attack was out of character, and the damage to his reputation from the crime.  Leitman said $375,000 punitive damage award in state court also figured into his decision. “That’s a lot of punishment,” he said.

Leitman did not set a date for Boucher to begin the sentence.

I would be surprised if the feds go through with another appeal, and I would be even more surprised if they would prevail on a second appeal.  The Sixth Circuit panel opinion reversing the initial 30-day sentence made much of the original "dramatic downward variance" from a guideline minimum of 21 months, and Judge Lietman seems to have addressed some of the panel's chief concerns when imposing a longer sentence closer to the bottom of the advisory range.  And Judge Lietman's reliance on the civil punishment from the sizable punitive damage award would seem to be a distinctive additional factor supporting the reasonableness of a sentence below the guideline range.

Prior related posts:

July 28, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 27, 2020

Deputy AG defends federal executions that "operated entirely within the law"

Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen took to the pages of the New York Times to publish this piece defending the Justice Department's successful effort to move forward with three federal executions earlier this month.  Here are excerpts:

The death penalty is a difficult issue for many Americans on moral, religious and policy grounds.  But as a legal issue, it is straightforward.  The United States Constitution expressly contemplates “capital” crimes, and Congress has authorized the death penalty for serious federal offenses since President George Washington signed the Crimes Act of 1790.  The American people have repeatedly ratified that decision, including through the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 signed by President Bill Clinton, the federal execution of Timothy McVeigh under President George W. Bush and the decision by President Barack Obama’s Justice Department to seek the death penalty against the Boston Marathon bomber and Dylann Roof.

The recent executions reflect that consensus, as the Justice Department has an obligation to implement the law.  The decision to seek the death penalty against Mr. Lee was made by Attorney General Janet Reno (who said she personally opposed the death penalty but was bound by the law) and reaffirmed by then-Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder.  Mr. Purkey was prosecuted during the George W. Bush administration, and his conviction and sentence were vigorously defended throughout the Obama administration. The former judge who imposed the death sentence on Mr. Honken, Mark Bennett, said that while he generally opposed the death penalty, he would not lose any sleep over Mr. Honken’s execution.

In a New York Times op-ed published on July 17, two of Mr. Lee’s lawyers criticized the execution of their client, which they contend was carried out in a “shameful rush.”  That objection overlooks that Mr. Lee was sentenced more than 20 years ago, and his appeals and other permissible challenges failed, up to and including the day of his execution.  Mr. Lee’s lawyers seem to endorse a system of endless delays that prevent a death sentence from ever becoming real.  But his execution date was announced almost a year ago, and was initially set for last December. It was delayed when his lawyers obtained six more months of review by unsuccessfully challenging the procedures used to carry out his lethal injection....

[I]f the United States is going to allow capital punishment, a white-supremacist triple murderer would seem the textbook example of a justified case.  And if death sentences are going to be imposed, they cannot just be hypothetical; they eventually have to be carried out, or the punishment will lose its deterrent and retributive effects.

Rather than forthrightly opposing the death penalty and attempting to change the law through democratic means, however, Mr. Lee’s lawyers and others have chosen the legal and public-relations equivalent of guerrilla war.  They sought to obstruct by any means the administration of sentences that Congress permitted, juries supported and the Supreme Court approved.  And when those tactics failed, they accused the Justice Department of “a grave threat to the rule of law,” even though it operated entirely within the law enacted by Congress and approved by the Supreme Court.  The American people can decide for themselves which aspects of that process should be considered “shameful.”

A few of many recent prior related posts:

July 27, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Is consideration of gender a must or a no-no in risk assessment tools?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this latest new article in the on-going terrific Law.com/Legaltech News series unpacking modern risk assessment tools.  The headline and full subheadline of the piece reveals why it prompts this question: "Constitutional Brawl Looms Over How Risk Assessment Tools Account for Gender: Researchers say that scoring men and women differently is essential to account for risk assessment tools’ inherent gender bias.  But it’s an open question whether these adjustments are violating state or constitutional law."  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

While there’s been a lot of focus on how risk assessment tools treat different racial demographics, little attention has been paid to another issue that may be just as problematic: how gender factors into risk scores. Researchers say accounting for the differences in gender ensures that risk assessments are more accurate, but exactly how they do so may run into constitutional challenges.

Legaltech News found one gender-specific risk assessment tool currently implemented in at least two states: the Women’s Risk and Needs Assessment (WRNA), which like the the Ohio Risk Assessment System (ORAS), was created by the University of Cincinnati. Kansas uses the WRNA to assess parolees’ risk in a women’s prison in Topeka, while Montana deploys it for women on probation or parole throughout its Department of Corrections....

The reason WRNA is needed in the first place is because most risk assessment instruments are validated (i.e. created) on a population that is majority male, in large part due to current gender imbalance in the criminal justice system (i.e. more men than women commit crimes and become incarcerated).

Dr. Teresa May, department director of the Community Supervision & Corrections Department in Harris County, Texas, also notes that on a whole, men have higher recidivism risk than women. “What we know is when you look at gender, almost always—and in fact I don’t know of an exception—the average rearrest rate [for women] is always much lower than men.”  Without accounting for these differences, a risk assessment could end up scoring women as higher risk than they actually are....

There’s an ongoing debate over whether using  gender as a risk factor, or assigning different cutoff risk levels to both males and females, violates the 14th Amendment. “Basically the Supreme Court of the U.S. has pursued what’s called an anti-classification approach to the equal protection law, which prohibits explicit use of factors like gender and race in making decisions,” says Christopher Slobogin, professor of law at the Vanderbilt University Law School.  He adds, “It is permissible, constitutionally, to use race or gender if there is a compelling state interest in doing so. But generally speaking, the use of race and gender is unconstitutional to discriminate between groups.”

However, in Slobogin’s own opinion, he does not think the “Constitution is violated simply because a risk assessment arrives at different results for similarly situated men and women.” He argues that a tool that uses gender as a risk factor and one that has different cutoff scores for genders are functionally the same, adding in those adjustments makes the instruments more accurate.

But others see it differently. Sonja Starr, professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, for example, recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer that “use of gender as a risk factor plainly violates the Constitution.” 

July 25, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 24, 2020

Never-ending New Jersey drunk driving case highlights fundamental reason why sentencing is so dang hard

9889228-0-image-a-67_1550300070445I am fond of saying "sentencing is dang hard."  (A version of a speech I gave with this title appears in the February 2020 issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter and also is available here via SSRN.)  An appellate ruling this  week in a high-profile New Jersey case has me recalling this point; this local press piece, headlined "Amy Locane will be sentenced for a fourth time on fatal 2010 DWI charge," provides part of the backstory (with a little emphasis added):

A state appellate court ruled Wednesday that actress Amy Locane, convicted in connection with a fatal drunken driving accident a decade ago in Montgomery, must be sentenced for a fourth time because the first three times were either illegal sentences or sentences imposed outside the state's criminal code.

In a 41-page decision, the appellate court ruled that the latest sentence in the case, handed down by Superior Court Judge Kevin Shanahan in February 2019, was "illogical" based on an "unauthorized sentencing theory" that weighed on what he called "the yin and yang" of the case's facts....

James Wronko, Locane's attorney, said he will ask the state Supreme Court to review the decision. "I don't know what society gains by putting the mother of two back in jail," Wronko said.

Shanahan sentenced Locane to five years in prison, but stayed the sentence because he did not consider her a flight risk. The Somerset County Prosecutor's Office argued the sentence should not be stayed and appealed the judge's decision.

Locane previously had been sentenced to three years in state prison on charges of vehicular homicide and assault by auto in connection with the death of Helene Seeman in the crash.  Her husband, Fred, was severely injured in the crash as the couple were turning into their driveway of their weekend home at 9 p.m. on June 27, 2010.  Locane is an actress who starred with Johnny Depp in “Cry-Baby” and was a featured actress on the TV series “Melrose Place.”...

The Somerset County Prosecutor's Office first appealed the the three-year sentence that was handed down by retired Superior Court Judge Robert Reed who presided over the trial.  Locane served 85 percent of that sentence at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Hunterdon County.  She also successfully completed the conditions of her parole a year ago, Wronko said.  "She's led an exemplary life since her release," Wronko said....

In handing down the five-year sentence, Shanahan said that imposing a higher sentence "would have been an exercise in bad judgment, just like all the others."  Shanahan also said that he was not bound by previous Appellate Court rulings in the case.

"Clearly, changes in (Locane's) personal circumstances warrant divergence," the Appellate Court wrote in the decision, "but it is rudimentary that a trial judge is bound by our prior decision. (Shanahan) ignored the prior findings, while seemingly giving them lip service."

So, in a sad drunk driving case involving a fatal result, New Jersey courts have now been trying and failing to figure out Amy Locane's "right" sentence for now a full decade.  In that time, the defendant has served out a three-year ("wrong") prison sentence (and also paid $1.5 million of a nearly $5 million civil settlement).  I can only speculate about how many (mostly taxpayer) resources have been expended in all these court proceedings trying to get to the "right" sentence, and I wonder whether the surviving victims are really eager to start another decade of wrangling over finding the "right" sentence.

Of course, I keep putting "right" in quotes when discussing this matter because there obviously is no clear right sentence in this case (or most cases).  Sentencing is so dang hard in part because it lacks a clear right/wrong metric no matter what sentencing philosophies one is inclined to adopt.  Moreover, this case especially spotlights the fundamental challenge balancing aggravating offense factors (especially a victim's death) with mitigating offender factors (addiction and lack of criminal history).  The latest appellate opinion (available here) showcases how sentencing judges here have generally focused on the offender, while the appellate judges have focused on the offense (at p. 36):

In this case, the focus has repeatedly shifted away from the crime defendant committed to her individual characteristics at the expense of imposing a just sentence reflective of her offense and the harm she caused.  That she was struggling with addiction did not authorize the court to close its eyes to the harm she inflicted on the victims, the victims' family, and the community.  That harm will never dissipate.  The loss of a loved one, and serious physical injury to another, can never be compensated.

Ironically, another round of resentencing strikes me as a fool's errand in part because I agree with this court's sentiment that the harm caused by Amy Locane "will never dissipate" and "can never be compensated."  Because there is no way the law through any form of punishment can make this kind of harm go away, I struggle to see what is likely to be achieved when the state uses more taxpayer resources to  try, yet again, to add still more years to Locane's sentence.

Notably, there is no mention in this latest appellate opinion of just what the victims of this now-long-ago offense might now want.  I hope for their sake that starting another decade of wrangling over Locane's sentence does not rub salt into their wounds.  I also wonder if some kind of restorative justice efforts have been tried or might now be started to enable the victims and the defendant here to get some measure of peace and resolution that the New Jersey courts have been unable so far to provide.

Prior related post:

July 24, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

You be the federal judge: what sentence for Senator Rand Paul's attacker at resentencing after 30 days deemed unreasonable?

Regular readers know that, more than 15 years after Booker created the reasonableness standard of appellate review for federal sentencing, circuit courts still almost never find a sentence to be "substantively unreasonable" upon a defendant's appeal claiming the sentence was too high.  But last year, a Sixth Circuit panel decided, upon an appeal by the government, that a high-profile sentence was "substantively unreasonable" as too low.  The ruling in US v. Boucher, No. 18-5683 (6th Cir. Sept. 9, 2019) (available here), concerned the sentencing resulting from Senator Rand Paul's neighbor attacking him while he was was mowing his lawn in 2017.  Now, as this local article highlights, it is time for resentencing after the Sixth Circuit vacated Boucher’s sentence as substantively unreasonable:

Federal prosecutors have renewed a push for a 21-month sentence for the man who tackled and injured U.S. Sen. Rand Paul in November 2017.

Rene Boucher deserves to spend more time behind bars because of the serious injuries Paul sustained, including six broken ribs that left him in intense pain and led to bouts of pneumonia and damage that ultimately required removing part of Paul’s lung, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bradley P. Shepard said in a memorandum filed Monday.

Shepard also argued that the initial 30-day sentence against Boucher wasn’t enough to deter other potential assaults on members of Congress.  “‘Aggressive’ rhetoric directed at our elected leaders is at a dangerously high level,” Shepard wrote.  “Although this case is lacking in evidence of political motivation, it is still important, in this climate, to send a message to society as a whole that assaults and violence perpetrated against members of Congress will not be tolerated.”

Boucher’s attorney, however, has argued it would be unjust to send him back to prison after he’s already completed his initial sentence, and moved to dismiss the case.

U.S. District Judge Matthew F. Leitman scheduled a sentencing hearing for Boucher on July 27.  Lietman, a judge in Michigan, is sitting as a special judge in Boucher’s case.

Paul, a doctor elected to the Senate in 2010, and Boucher, also a physician, lived next door to each other in a gated community in Bowling Green.  In the summer of 2017, Boucher trimmed five maple trees that were on Paul’s property, but had limbs sticking over the property line onto Boucher’s side, according to a motion from Boucher’s attorney, Matthew J. Baker. In response, Paul piled up a large stack of limbs and brush near the property line in Boucher’s view, Baker said....

[On] Nov. 3, 2017, Boucher saw Paul mowing his yard. Paul blew leaves into Boucher’s lawn and then got off the mower, picked up some limbs and turned toward the place where Boucher had burned the debris the day before, Baker said. Boucher lost his temper, ran 60 yards and tackled Paul from behind....

Police first charged Boucher with misdemeanor assault in state court, but the federal government stepped in and prosecuted him under a law barring assaults on members of Congress.

Paul, a Republican, suggested in a letter to the court that there was a political motive behind the attack, saying that Boucher’s anger toward him “comingles with his hatred of my political policies.”  However, Boucher has said the attack was driven solely by his anger over the yard waste, and prosecutors have acknowledged there was no evidence of a political motivation.

Under advisory guidelines, Boucher faced a potential sentence from 21 to 27 months, though judges can impose sentences outside those guidelines.  U.S. District Judge Marianne O. Battani sentenced Boucher to 30 days in prison, a $10,000 fine and 100 hours of community service, noting Boucher’s military service, career as a doctor and his involvement in his church.

Prosecutors appealed the sentence, arguing it was unreasonably short.  The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new sentencing hearing for Boucher, ruling last September that Battani didn’t give sufficient weight to the seriousness of Paul’s injuries or the need for deterrence, and didn’t sufficiently address the issue of the big difference in Boucher’s sentence and others involving federal assault cases.

In arguing for more time for Boucher, Shepard cited cases in which two people received as much jail time as he did only for throwing eggs at a member of Congress, and others in which people who attacked federal employees received much longer sentences.  The prosecutor also said that had Boucher’s case been handled in a Kentucky court, Paul’s injuries could have meant a charge of second-degree assault, punishable by five to 10 years in prison.

Baker, however, argued that Boucher’s initial sentence was legitimate and that putting him back in prison would amount to punishing him twice for the same crime....  Baker said it appears that the government is getting a do-over on Boucher’s sentencing because the victim is a U.S. senator.

Shepard, however, said it is not unusual for people to be re-sentenced after completing a sentence.  What Boucher wants, the prosecutor said, “is for those who have received exceptionally low sentences to get further special treatment in the form of a bar to resentencing.”

There are so many interesting elements to this resentencing, including the fact that there is a distinct new "outside judge" in charge of this resentencing.  I am inclined to predict Boucher will get a sentence somewhere between the 30 days originally imposed and the 21 months requested by the feds.  But I am eager to hear what readers think the new sentence should be. 

Prior related posts:

July 22, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

"Open Risk Assessment"

The title of this post is the title of this recent paper authored by Brandon Garrett and Megan Stevenson. Here is its abstract:

As criminal justice actors increasingly seek to rely on more evidence-informed practices, including risk assessment instruments, they often lack adequate information about the evidence that informed the development of the practice or the tool.  Open science practices, including making scientific research and data accessible and public, have not typically been followed in the development of tools designed for law enforcement, judges, probation, and others.  This is in contrast to other government agencies, which often open their processes to public notice and comment.

Lack of transparency has become pressing in the area of risk assessment, as entire judicial systems have adopted some type of risk assessment scheme.  While the types of information used in a risk tool may be made public, often the underlying methods, validation data, and studies are not.  Nor are the assumptions behind how a level of risk gets categorized as “high” or “low.”  We discuss why those concerns are relevant and important to the new risk assessment tool now being used in federal prisons, as part of the First Step Act.  We conclude that a number of key assumptions and policy choices made in the design of that tool are not verifiable or are inadequately supported, including the choice of risk thresholds and the validation data itself.  Unfortunately, as a result, the federal risk assessment effort has not been the hoped-for model for open risk assessment.

July 21, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

How many federal death row prisoners does Attorney General William Barr want to see executed in 2020?

The question in the title of this post has been in my head in the wake of last week's three federal executions and the clear signal sent by five members of the Supreme Court that they will not allow lower courts to get in the way of the Attorney General's execution plans.  As highlighted in posts last week here and here, the Supreme Court by 5-4 votes vacated a series of lower court stays and injunctions to enable the Justice Department to complete the scheduled executions of Daniel Lewis Lee and Wesley Ira Purkey.  By the end of the week, the pro-execution momentum was so strong that the third person executed, Dustin Lee Honken, apparently did not even pursue any final legal claims up to the Supreme Court.

Recall that it was only a month ago that AG Barr ordered the scheduling of these execution dates for last week (as well as one more set for August 28 for Keith Dwayne Nelson).  This reality suggests to me that AG Barr could, at just about any time for just about any reason, order the scheduling of one or many executions and have them carried our within a month's time.  There are 59 condemned persons on federal death row (full list here via DPIC), and I suspect at least a couple dozen of these death row defendants have exhausted the standard appellate and post-conviction remedies so that no legal impediments would currently prevent their executions.  Consequently, it would seem their fates now lie squarely and only in the hands of AG Barr and will turn on how he now decides to exercise his discretion in the setting of execution dates.

In DOJ statements concerning the setting of executions dates (here and here), AG Barr has repeatedly stated that "we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system."  If AG Barr really believes this, will he be actively trying to set more execution dates (perhaps many more) in the weeks and months ahead?  Notably, former Vice President Joe Biden is campaigning for Prez on a promise to "Eliminate the death penalty": "Because we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time, Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example."  If AG Barr really believes that justice calls for executing those now currently on federal death row, should he be seeking to complete as many executions as possible in 2020 just in case a new administration might not want to carry out these sentences in 2021? 

Recent prior related posts:

July 21, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, July 19, 2020

"American Roulette: The Social Logic of Death Penalty Sentencing Trials"

9780520344396The title of this post is the title of this recently published book authored by Sarah Beth Kaufman which now seem especially timely in light of the federal government's return to operating its machinery of death.  Here is the book description on the website of the publisher, University of California Press:

As the death penalty clings to life in many states and dies off in others, this first-of-its-kind ethnography takes readers inside capital trials across the United States.  Sarah Beth Kaufman draws on years of ethnographic and documentary research, including hundreds of hours of courtroom observation in seven states, interviews with participants, and analyses of newspaper coverage to reveal how the American justice system decides who deserves the most extreme punishment.  The “super due process” accorded capital sentencing by the United States Supreme Court is the system’s best attempt at individuated sentencing.  Resources not seen in most other parts of the criminal justice system, such as jurors and psychological experts, are required in capital trials, yet even these cannot create the conditions of morality or justice.  Kaufman demonstrates that capital trials ultimately depend on performance and politics, resulting in the enactment of deep biases and utter capriciousness.  American Roulette contends that the liberal, democratic ideals of criminal punishment cannot be enacted in the current criminal justice system, even under the most controlled circumstances.

The 15-page introduction to the text is available here, and here is an excerpt:

It would be sensible to assume that those who face capital punishment have committed the most atrocious murders and that their executions might serve as the strongest deterrent to others.  But these are not the criteria that determine who is “death-worthy” in the United States; ... Zacarias Moussaoui, who conspired to plan the 9/11 attacks, and Gary Ridgway, who was convicted of killing forty-nine women, for example, were both sentenced to life imprisonment.  Corinio Pruitt and Corey Wimbley each committed single robbery-murders and were sentenced to death by execution.  In the twenty-first century United States, between 14,000 and 17,000 homicides are committed each year, yet fewer than a hundred result in a sentence of death.  Those so chosen, according to prosecutors, judges, and legislators, are meant to be the “worst of the worst.”  During the past two decades, death sentencing has steadily decreased from its peak of 315 cases in 1996 to fewer than 50 in 2018....  This is a meaningful trend, but the capital punishment system continues to provide fodder for politicians touting “tough on crime” positions, feeding the myth that the capital punishment system identifies and punishes those most evil in American society.  Whether for or against the death penalty, few people are satisfied with the current system....

I came to think of the trials I witnessed as games of Russian roulette, unnecessary sport where someone would inevitably die, and that I had no power to stop.  Criminal defendants arrive at capital trials through a series of structuring logics ordained by racial classification and state power.  In part I, I take readers through the first major structuring logic: the construction of capital homicide.  From a vast backdrop of millions of human deaths a year, courts, legislatures, police forces, and prosecutors define some deaths as homicide — the result of malicious human intent — before settling on those worthy of being considered capital.  What I refer to as the “narrowing structure” of the capital punishment field is not unproblematic.  The cultural and legal norms that determine who eventually is tried by a capital jury follow confusing and often contradictory logics....  Importantly, the stages of capital narrowing are unknown to most of the parties involved.  Though I worked in capital sentencing for years, I had little idea about the mechanisms determining who was tried capitally.  Capital jurors, I will argue, are likewise and necessarily uninformed.  When they agree to participate in the capital sentencing process, they are assured that they are the last in a series of people who systematically ensure that those tried for capital murder are the worst society has to offer.

July 19, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice explores federal sentencing realities and reform

The introductory essay I saw on SSRN (and blogged about here) altered me to the fact that the latest issue of the Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice has a full set of terrific-looking articles about the modern federal sentencing system.  Here are the titles and links:

Reforming Federal Sentencing: A Call for Equality-Infused Menschlichkeit by Nora V. Demleitner

Federal Sentencing: A Judge’s Personal Sentencing Journey Told Through the Voices of Offenders He Sentenced by Mark W. Bennett

Sentencing Disparities and the Dangerous Perpetuation of Racial Bias by Jelani Jefferson Exum

Article III Adultification of Kids: History, Mystery, and Troubling Implications of Federal Youth Transfers by Mae C. Quinn and Grace R. McLaughlin

Technology’s Influence on Federal Sentencing: Past, Present, and Future by Matthew G. Rowland

Crime and Punishment: Considering Prison Disciplinary Sanctions as Grounds for Departure Under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines
by Madison Peace

July 18, 2020 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, July 17, 2020

"A Vision for the Modern Prosecutor"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new five-page document produced by the Executive Session of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College. Here is the piece's introduction and some key elements:

In the wake of unprecedented and overdue attention on the criminal legal system and its role in our Nation’s legacy of racial injustice, as elected prosecutors and members of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution’s Executive Session on the Role of the Prosecutor, we believe that it is possible to describe and call for an emerging vision for the role of a modern prosecutor.  In doing so, we find it necessary to contrast this vision with a description of the traditional ways that prosecutors have carried out their responsibilities.  In this paper we describe this contrast between traditional practice and a vision of the future by comparing their conceptions of justice, modes of operation, culture, accountability, and metrics. In making these contrasts, we celebrate the power and potential of the current wave of prosecutorial reform that we are witnessing around the country. We have high hopes that this movement will support the broader re-examination of our society’s response to crime and aspiration for justice.

Conceptions of Justice

Traditionally: Prosecutors have defined their role principally as part of a larger criminal justice system that operates with a primary focus on case processing....

We believe the future of prosecution requires that: Prosecutors explicitly set aside this notion of the criminal justice system as a case processing apparatus.... 

 

Modes of Operation

Traditionally: Prosecutors have been largely reactive....

We believe the future of prosecution requires that: Prosecutors no longer regard themselves as recipients of other actors’ cases or as limited by existing system options with respect to dispositions of those cases....

 

Culture

Traditionally: Prosecutors have been acculturated to consider themselves to be the “us,” and the “good guys,” in an “us vs. them” and “good vs. bad” world....

We believe the future of prosecution requires that: Prosecutors recognize the complexity of the people with whom they engage and of the matters to which they attend....

 

Accountability and Metrics

Traditionally: Prosecutors have relied on internal, narrow, and often ill-defined standards for judging their performance....

We believe the future of prosecution requires that: Prosecutors develop broad, explicit and transparent standards and expectations for their actions and outcomes....

Prosecutors must make violence and violence prevention a top priority.

July 17, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Federal execution déjà vu: after SCOTUS votes 5-4 to vacate injunction, feds complete another morning lethal injection

As reported here earlier this week, the federal government completed the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, which had been scheduled for Monday, around 8am on Tuesday morning after a divided  Supreme Court around 2am vacated lower court ruling that were blocking the execution.  It was déjà vu all over again today:  sometime not long after 2am this morning, the US Supreme Court issued this order vacating the injunction, with four Justices in dissent and Justices Breyer and Sotomayor writing up the basis for their disagreement.  This new AP article reports on the execution and some of the legal wrangling that preceded it:

The United States on Thursday carried out its second federal execution this week, killing by lethal injection a Kansas man whose lawyers contended he had dementia and was unfit to be executed.

Wesley Ira Purkey was put to death at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. Purkey was convicted of kidnapping and killing a 16-year-old girl, Jennifer Long, before dismembering, burning and dumping her body in a septic pond. He also was convicted in a state court in Kansas after using a claw hammer to kill an 80-year-old woman who had polio....

As the lethal chemical was injected, Purkey took several deep breaths and blinked repeatedly, laying his head back down on the gurney. His time of death was 8:19 a.m. EDT. His spiritual adviser was in the room, wearing a face mask and a surgical mask and appeared to be praying, his gloved hands held together at the palms.

The Supreme Court cleared the way for the execution to take place just hours before, ruling in a 5-4 decision. The four liberal justices dissented, like they did for the first case earlier this week. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that “proceeding with Purkey’s execution now, despite the grave questions and factual findings regarding his mental competency, casts a shroud of constitutional doubt over the most irrevocable of injuries.” She was joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

It was the federal government’s second execution after a 17-year hiatus. Another man, Daniel Lewis Lee, was put to death Tuesday after his eleventh hour legal bids failed. Both executions were delayed into the day after they were scheduled as legal wrangling continued late into the night and into the next morning....

Purkey’s lawyers had argued his condition had deteriorated so severely that he didn’t understand why he was being executed. They said he was repeatedly sexually assaulted as a child and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions....

The Supreme Court also lifted a hold placed on other executions set for Friday and next month. Dustin Honken, a drug kingpin from Iowa convicted of killing five people in a scheme to silence former dealers, was scheduled for execution Friday.

We may see this pattern play out one more time this week, as I suspect that Honken still has some legal claims to press to try to block his execution tomorrow and that the Supreme Court will eventually turn away those claims so that his execution goes forward. DPIC has this webpage trying to track all the legal developments in all these cases, though it looks like they all are going to end the same way.

Some prior recent related posts:

UPDATE: Over at SCOTUSblog here, Amy Howe has an extended post with more details on the litigation and rulings leading up to Purkey's execution this morning under the headline "Justices allow second federal execution to proceed (updated)."

July 16, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

"Reforming Federal Sentencing: A Call for Equality-Infused Menschlichkeit"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Nora V. Demleitner now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This piece, which serves as an Introduction to the Symposium Issue of the Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice, addresses both questions of pedagogy and federal sentencing. It starts by highlighting the value of a symposium on federal sentencing as a teaching, research, and advocacy tool before it turns to sentencing reform specifically.

Federal sentencing remains a highly contested area because it raises stark questions of equality and equitable treatment.  Sentencing has long been unfair to minority defendants, African Americans in particular, though the guidelines have in part mitigated racial disparities.  Still the injustices perpetuated through federal sentencing have reinforced larger racial biases and contributed to ongoing racial stereotyping.

Empirical research and today’s technology can help both decrease race-based differentials and bring about shorter and more rehabilitation-focused sentencing, as long as we have the will to follow their lead.  Ultimately, we need to bring compassion, mercy, and Menschlichkeit to sentencing. Criminal defendants are not the “other” but “of us.”  Those values need to be part of our legal experience and of legal education lest law become merely an exercise in logic or ideology.

July 15, 2020 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

DC District Judge blocks today's scheduled federal execution based on Ford claim of incompetency

As detailed in this new AP piece, this morning a DC District Judge "halted the execution of a man said to be suffering from dementia, who had been set to die by lethal injection in the federal government’s second execution after a 17-year hiatus." Here is more:

Wesley Ira Purkey, convicted of a gruesome 1998 kidnapping and killing, was scheduled for execution Wednesday at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, where Daniel Lewis Lee was put to death Tuesday after his eleventh-hour legal bids failed.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington, D.C., imposed two injunctions on Wednesday prohibiting the federal Bureau of Prisons from moving forward with Purkey’s execution. The Justice Department immediately appealed in both cases. A separate temporary stay was already in place from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The early morning legal wrangling suggests a volley of litigation will continue in the hours ahead of Purkey’s scheduled execution, similar to what happened when the government executed Lee, following a ruling from the Supreme Court. Lee, convicted of killing an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build a whites-only nation, was the first of four condemned men scheduled to die in July and August despite the coronavirus pandemic raging inside and outside prisons.

Purkey, 68, of Lansing, Kansas, would be the second, but his lawyers were still expected to press for a ruling from the Supreme Court on his competency. “This competency issue is a very strong issue on paper,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “The Supreme Court has halted executions on this issue in the past. At a minimum, the question of whether Purkey dies is going to go down to the last minute.”

Chutkan didn’t rule on whether Purkey is competent but said the court needs to evaluate the claim. She said that while the government may disagree with Purkey’s lawyers about his competency, there’s no question he’d suffer “irreparable harm” if he’s put to death before his claims can be evaluated.

Lee’s execution went forward a day late. It was scheduled for Monday afternoon, but the Supreme Court only gave the green light in a narrow 5-4 ruling early Tuesday.

The issue of Purkey’s mental health arose in the runup to his 2003 trial and when, after the verdict, jurors had to decide whether he should be put to death in the killing of 16-year-old Jennifer Long in Kansas City, Missouri. Prosecutors said he raped and stabbed her, dismembered her with a chainsaw, burned her and dumped her ashes 200 miles (320 kilometers) away in a septic pond in Kansas. Purkey was separately convicted and sentenced to life in the beating death of 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales, of Kansas City, Kansas.

But the legal questions of whether he was mentally fit to stand trial or to be sentenced to die are different from the question of whether he’s mentally fit enough now to be put to death. Purkey’s lawyers argue he clearly isn’t, saying in recent filings he suffers from advancing Alzheimer’s disease. “He has long accepted responsibility for the crime that put him on death row,” one of this lawyers, Rebecca Woodman, said. “But as his dementia has progressed, he no longer has a rational understanding of why the government plans to execute him.”

Purkey believes his planned execution is part of a conspiracy involving his attorneys, Woodman said. In other filings, they describe delusions that people were spraying poison into his room and that drug dealers implanted a device in his chest meant to kill him.

While various legal issues in Purkey’s case have been hashed, rehashed and settled by courts over nearly two decades, the issue of mental fitness for execution can only be addressed once a date is set, according to Dunham, who teaches law school courses on capital punishment. A date was set only last year. “Competency is something that is always in flux,” so judges can only assess it in the weeks or days before a firm execution date, he said.

In a landmark 1986 decision, the Supreme Court ruled the Constitution prohibits executing someone who lacks a reasonable understanding of why he’s being executed. It involved the case of Alvin Ford, who was convicted of murder but whose mental health deteriorated behind bars to the point, according to his lawyer, he believed he was pope.

Purkey’s mental issues go beyond Alzheimer’s, his lawyers have said. They say he was subject to sexual and mental abuse as a child and, at 14, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and psychosis. Last week, three mental health organizations urged U.S. Attorney William Barr to stop Purkey’s execution and commute his sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America and the Treatment Advocacy Center said executing mentally ailing people like Purkey “constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and does not comport with ‘evolving standards of decency.’”

The mother of the slain teenager, Glenda Lamont, told the Kansas City Star last year she planned to attend Purkey’s execution. “I don’t want to say that I’m happy,” Lamont said. “At the same time, he is a crazy mad man that doesn’t deserve, in my opinion, to be breathing anymore.”

US District Judge Chutkan’s 14-page ruling granting a preliminary injunction to  halt the execution can be accessed here.  I was able to accurately guess at this time two days ago that Judge Chutkan's order blocking Daniel Lewis Lee's execution would get vacated on appeal.  But the nature of Purkey's claim make (as well as other litigation he has afoot) leads me to think it somewhat more likely that Purkey's scheduled execution will not go forward today.  But as I said before and will surely say again, one really never knows just what will happen when it comes to last-minute capital litigation.

July 15, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

"The United States of Risk Assessment: The Machines Influencing Criminal Justice Decisions"

The title of this post is the title of this very useful Law.com/Legaltech News article and related research project by Rhys Dipshan, Victoria Hudgins and Frank Ready. The subtitle of the piece provides an overview: "In every state, assessment tools help courts decide certain cases or correctional officers determine the supervision and programming an offender receives. But the tools each state uses varies widely, and how they're put into practice varies even more."  This companion piece, titled "The Most Widely Used Risk Assessment Tool in Each U.S State," provides this introduction:

There are dozens of risk assessment tools in use in local criminal justice systems around the country.  Not all have a far reaching impact, such as those specialized to a specific risk like domestic violence or those assessing risk for a certain demographic like juvenile offenders.  Tools that have the broadest impact and deployment, however, are ones that look at recidivism pretrial risk in adult populations.

Below, we highlight these specific tools in use in each state, and the criminal justice decisions point they influence.  These findings are part of a broader research project examining how jurisdictions implement risk assessment tools, and how they determine they accurately work and are implemented as intended.  The project also dives into how risk assessment tools generate their scores and the debate around whether these instrument exacerbate or mitigate bias in criminal justice decision making.

July 14, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

SCOTUS, by 5-4 vote, vacates new injunction that had been blocking scheduled federal executions ... UPDATE: execution of Daniel Lewis Lee now completed

As noted in this post yesterday, a DC District Court in the morning had entered an order blocking yesterday scheduled federal execution as well as the others planned for this week. That ruling stayed in place through a DC Circuit appeal. But at around 2am this morning, the US Supreme Court decided in this per curiam opinion to "vacate the District Court’s preliminary injunction so that the plaintiffs’ executions may proceed as planned." This AP article provides context and more details:

The Trump administration was moving ahead early Tuesday with the execution of the first federal prison inmate in 17 years after a divided Supreme Court reversed lower courts and ruled federal executions could proceed.

Daniel Lewis Lee had been scheduled to receive a lethal dose of the powerful sedative pentobarbital at 4 p.m. EDT Monday.  But a court order issued Monday morning by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan prevented Lee’s execution.  A federal appeals court in Washington refused the administration’s plea to step in, leaving the hold in place, before the Supreme Court acted by a 5-4 vote.  Still, Lee’s lawyers insisted the execution could not go forward after midnight under federal regulations.  With conservatives in the majority, the court said in an unsigned opinion that the prisoners’ “executions may proceed as planned.” The four liberal justices dissented.

Lee’s execution was scheduled for about 4 a.m. EDT Tuesday, according to court papers. There was another delay when the government asked for an emergency ruling related to an old stay that had been issued in the case, but that wasn’t expected to derail the execution. The Bureau of Prisons had continued with preparations even as lower courts paused the proceedings....

Lee was convicted in Arkansas of the 1996 killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell. “The government has been trying to plow forward with these executions despite many unanswered questions about the legality of its new execution protocol,” said Shawn Nolan, one of the attorneys for the men facing federal execution.

The decision to move forward during a global health pandemic that has killed more than 135,000 people in the United States and is ravaging prisons nationwide, drew scrutiny from civil rights groups as well as family of Lee’s victims.

Some members of the victims’ family argued they would be put at high risk for the coronavirus if they had to travel to attend, and sought to delay the execution until it was safer to travel. Those claims were at first granted but also eventually overturned by the Supreme Court. [NOTE: It was the Seventh Circuit that overturned these claims, but SCOTUS upheld that decision.]

Critics argue that the government is creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency for political gain. The developments are also likely to add a new front to the national conversation about criminal justice reform in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.

Two more executions are scheduled this week, though one, Wesley Ira Purkey, was on hold in a separate legal claim. Dustin Lee Honken’s execution was scheduled for on Friday. A fourth man, Keith Dwayne Nelson, is scheduled to be executed in August.

In an interview with The Associated Press last week, Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department has a duty to carry out the sentences imposed by the courts, including the death penalty, and to bring a sense of closure to the victims and those in the communities where the killings happened.

But relatives of those killed by Lee strongly oppose that idea. They wanted to be present to counter any contention that it was being done on their behalf. “For us it is a matter of being there and saying, `This is not being done in our name; we do not want this,’” said relative Monica Veillette....

Executions on the federal level have been rare and the government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988 — most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier. In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs. The attorney general said last July that the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for executions to resume.

The Supreme Court's per curiam opinion runs three pages, and separate dissents by Justice Breyer and Justice Sotomayor are of similar lengthy and hit their usual notes of complaint about the death penalty. And Justice Breyer's dissent seemed resigned to a particular outcome, as its first sentence states plainly: "Today, for the first time in 17 years, the Federal Government will execute an inmate, Daniel Lewis Lee."

Notably, though the AP report suggested that the Lee execution was still to go forward in the early hours of this morning, as of this writing (just after 8 am on July 14) there is no report that the execution has been completed.

Prior recent related posts:

UPDATE: I suppose I should have waited a few minutes to complete this post, as this Fox News piece now has this updated headline: "Daniel Lewis Lee executed for torturing, killing Arkansas family in 1996, first federal execution 17 years." Here is the start of the piece:

A white supremacist who tortured and killed an Arkansas family-- including an 8-year-old girl-- was executed early Tuesday morning in Indiana. Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, was injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital at 8:07 a.m., just hours after the Supreme Court greenlighted the first federal execution to take place since 2003.

July 14, 2020 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Seventh Circuit panel vacates stay to put federal execution back on schedule for July 13

As reported in this USA Today piece, a Seventh Circuit panel this evening "ruled that the first federal execution in 17 years should go forward Monday, despite concerns raised by the victims' family members that the resurgent coronavirus risked the health of those who planned to witness Daniel Lewis Lee's death by lethal injection."  Here is more:

The court found that the family's argument "lacks any arguable legal basis and is therefore frivolous."

U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson on Friday sided with family members who asserted that the pandemic posed an unreasonable health risk to them as witnesses to execution in Terre Haute, Indiana. “The federal government has put this family in the untenable position of choosing between their right to witness Danny Lee’s execution and their own health and safety," the attorney for the family said Sunday.

The family had planned to attend Lee's execution, even though they are opposed to Lee's death sentence for the murders of William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her daughter, 8-year-old Sarah Powell. Earlene Branch Peterson, 81, the young victim's grandmother, and other family members have argued that Lee's co-defendant was the unquestioned ringleader in the 1996 robbery-murder yet was sentenced to life in prison.

The Arkansas judge who presided at trial and the lead prosecutor in the case also have expressed their opposition to Lee's death sentence.

"Because the government has scheduled the execution in the midst of a raging pandemic, these (family members) would have to put their lives at risk to travel cross-country at this time," the family's attorney said. "They will now appeal the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision to the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to seek reversal. My clients hope the Supreme Court and the federal government will respect their right to be present at the execution and delay it until travel is safe enough to make that possible.”

The full panel opinion in Peterson v. Barr, No. 20-2252 (7th Cir. July 12, 2020) (available here), runs ten pages and is unanimous.  When I saw that a stay had been entered late Friday by the district court, I was a bit surprised that it focused on the Federal Death Penalty Act and that no mention was made of the federal Crime Victims' Rights Act. The Seventh Circuit panel was plainly unimpressed with arguments based on the FDPA, and now it might be too late for any arguments based in the CVRA. 

I believe various other claims by defendant Lee have been rejected by lower courts, and I am sure they are all going to get to SCOTUS is short order.  But I will be surprised if a majority of the Justices are going to disrupts the feds execution plans.

Prior recent related post:

July 12, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, July 10, 2020

With executions looming, lots of news and notes about the federal death penalty

Last month, as noted here, Attorney General William Barr directed the federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions of four federal death-row inmates for this summer.  As of this writing, according to this DPIC page, the federal executions scheduled for Monday, July 13 (of Daniel Lewis Lee) and Friday, July 17 (of Dustin Lee Honken) are going forward.  Unsurprisingly, the prospect of the first federal executions in nearly two decades has led to lots of folks paying a lot more attention to the federal death penalty,  Here are just some of the press pieces catching my eye recently:

From Bloomberg Law, "Vast Majority on Federal Death Row Have Significant Impairments"

From The Crime Report, "Victim Relatives, Priest Seek to Delay Federal Executions"

From The Hill, "EU condemns U.S. for resuming federal executions"

From The Hill, "Executing four white men won't erase death penalty racism"

From the National Catholic Reporter, "Cardinal Tobin asks Trump to grant clemency to federal death-row inmate"

From Reuters, "Special Report: How the Trump administration secured a secret supply of execution drugs"

From USA Today, "Re-opening federal death chamber: Victim opposition, pandemic threaten first execution in 17 years"

July 10, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Great sentencing pieces in 'New Developments in Public Defense Research" collection in Criminal Justice Policy Review

I just came across this great collection of articles under the title "New Developments in Public Defense Research," which appears in the July 2020, issue of the journal Criminal Justice Policy Review. The volume includes seven original papers and an introduction on a range of topics related to public defenders and public defense.  The whole issue is worth checking out, and sentencing fans might be especially interested in these articles:

Including Assets-Based Mitigation in Sentencing by Elizabeth S. Vartkessian

Abstract:  Mitigation evidence consists of information about an accused person that is typically used to advocate for a less severe sentence.  Such evidence most frequently consists of information related to the crime and personal factors that can be separated into two broad categories: deficits and assets-based mitigation.  This article focuses on the importance of assets-based mitigation in sentencing and evaluates if and how state sentencing procedures contemplate and allow for consideration of such evidence.  A content analysis of available state sentencing procedures reveals that states tend to circumscribe mitigation to factors related to the crime or deficits, but largely neglect to give a vehicle to consider assets-based mitigation, which should play a central role in achieving just outcomes.  This article therefore argues for reform to sentencing laws to better accommodate assets-based mitigation by including information related to the defendant’s capacity for growth, self-improvement, and redemption.

 

Decision-Making and Holistic Public Defense Post-Montgomery v. Louisiana by Jeanette Hussemann and Jonah Siegel

Abstract: In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for youth are unconstitutional.  In 2016, the Court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the ruling in Miller should be applied retroactively. Drawing from qualitative interviews with justice actors, and individuals who were sentenced to LWOP as juveniles and paroled, this article examines the implementation of Miller-Montgomery in Michigan, the factors that influence decisions to release juvenile lifers, and their reentry process.  In doing so, we focus specific attention to the role of publicly appointed defense attorneys and the application of holistic defense practices to support Montgomery case mitigation and juvenile lifer reentry.  Findings indicate that institutional disciplinary and programming records, emotional wellness, statements by victims’ family members, political considerations, and reentry plans are key considerations when deciding whether a juvenile lifer should be eligible for parole.

July 9, 2020 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

SCOTUS holds in McGirt, via 5-4 vote with Justice Gorsuch authoring majority opinion, that big part of Oklahoma is a reservation precluding state prosecutions

Proving yet again that he is fully prepared to rule in favor of criminal defendants when he believes he is required to do so by the rule of law, Justice Gorsuch this morning voted with the Supreme Court's more liberal justices to hold in McGirt v. Oklahoma, No. 18–9526 (S. Ct. July 9, 2020) (available here) that a huge part of the state of Oklahoma "remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law."  Here is how the opinion of the Court, authored by Justice Gorsuch, gets started:

On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise. Forced to leave their ancestral lands in Georgia and Alabama, the Creek Nation received assurances that their new lands in the West would be secure forever.  In exchange for ceding “all their land, East of the Mississippi river,” the U.S. government agreed by treaty that “[t]he Creek country west of the Mississippi shall be solemnly guarantied to the Creek Indians.” Treaty With the Creeks, Arts. I, XIV, Mar. 24, 1832, 7 Stat. 366, 368 (1832 Treaty).  Both parties settled on boundary lines for a new and “permanent home to the whole Creek nation,” located in what is now Oklahoma. Treaty With the Creeks, preamble, Feb. 14, 1833, 7 Stat. 418 (1833 Treaty). The government further promised that “[no] State or Territory [shall] ever have a right to pass laws for the government of such Indians, but they shall be allowed to govern themselves.” 1832 Treaty, Art. XIV, 7 Stat. 368.

Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law.  Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.

The import and impact of this ruling is most clear from the first paragraphs of Chief Justice Roberts' dissent:

In 1997, the State of Oklahoma convicted petitioner Jimcy McGirt of molesting, raping, and forcibly sodomizing a four-year-old girl, his wife’s granddaughter. McGirt was sentenced to 1,000 years plus life in prison.  Today, the Court holds that Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction to prosecute McGirt — on the improbable ground that, unbeknownst to anyone for the past century, a huge swathe of Oklahoma is actually a Creek Indian reservation, on which the State may not prosecute serious crimes committed by Indians like McGirt.  Not only does the Court discover a Creek reservation that spans three million acres and includes most of the city of Tulsa, but the Court’s reasoning portends that there are four more such reservations in Oklahoma.  The rediscovered reservations encompass the entire eastern half of the State — 19 million acres that are home to 1.8 million people, only 10%–15% of whom are Indians.

Across this vast area, the State’s ability to prosecute serious crimes will be hobbled and decades of past convictions could well be thrown out.  On top of that, the Court has profoundly destabilized the governance of eastern Oklahoma.  The decision today creates significant uncertainty for the State’s continuing authority over any area that touches Indian affairs, ranging from zoning and taxation to family and environmental law.

None of this is warranted. What has gone unquestioned for a century remains true today: A huge portion of Oklahoma is not a Creek Indian reservation. Congress disestablished any reservation in a series of statutes leading up to Oklahoma statehood at the turn of the 19th century. The Court reaches the opposite conclusion only by disregarding the “well settled” approach required by our precedents. Nebraska v. Parker, 577 U. S. 481, ___ (2016) (slip op., at 5).

July 9, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

"Retroactivity & Recidivism: The Drugs Minus Two Amendment"

Cover_Drugs-Minus-TwoThe title of this post is the title of this notable new US Sentencing Commission report.  A summary of the report is provided on this USSC webpage and provides these basics:

Summary

This publication analyzes recidivism rates among drug offenders who were released immediately before and after retroactive implementation of the 2014 "Drugs Minus Two" Amendment.

The report tracked the recidivism rate of two study groups:

  • Retroactivity Group: 7,121 offenders who received sentence reductions through retroactive application of the Drugs Minus Two Amendment and who were released early from October 30, 2015, to May 31, 2016.
  • Comparison Group: 7,132 offenders who would have been eligible for sentence reductions through retroactive application of the Drugs Minus Two Amendment but were released between May 1, 2014, and October 29, 2015, having served their full sentences before the Drugs Minus Two Amendment could be retroactively applied

Findings 

The Commission's report aims to answer the research question, "Did the reduced sentences for the Retroactivity Group result in increased recidivism?"  The Commission found the following:

  • There was no statistically significant difference in the recidivism rates of offenders released early pursuant to retroactive application of the Drugs Minus Two Amendment and a comparable group of offenders who served their full sentences.
  • This outcome may be attributed, at least in part, to the eligibility criteria required by the Commission, and the careful consideration of those criteria by judges — particularly public safety considerations — in exercising their discretion to grant or deny retroactivity motions.

Interestingly, though apparently not reaching a level of statistical significance, the Sentencing Commission's data actually show that the group who received reduced sentences had a lower rate of recidivism.  From the Key Findings at page 6 of the full report (with my emphasis added):

There was no statistically significant difference in the recidivism rates of the Retroactivity Group (offenders who were released on average 37 months early through retroactive application of the Drugs Minus Two Amendment) and the Comparison Group (offenders who would have been eligible for retroactivity but had served their sentences before retroactivity took effect). Over a three-year period following their release from prison, the Retroactivity Group had a recidivism rate of 27.9 percent compared to 30.5 percent for the Comparison Group. This outcome may be attributed, at least in part, to the eligibility criteria required by the Commission, and the careful consideration of those criteria by judges — particularly public safety considerations — in exercising their discretion to grant or deny retroactivity motions.

The similarity in the recidivism rates of the Retroactivity Group and the Comparison Group held true across all drug types. Among offenders convicted of offenses with the same primary drug type — Powder Cocaine, Crack Cocaine, Heroin, Marijuana, Methamphetamine, and Other Drugs — offenders in the Retroactivity Group had similar recidivism rates to offenders in the Comparison Group, although the recidivism levels varied by drug type. The highest rates were observed among Crack Cocaine offenders (35.1% in the Retroactivity Group and 37.5% in the Comparison Group) and the lowest rates among Powder Cocaine offenders (19.5% in the Retroactivity Group and 22.3% in the Comparison Group).

I am quite inclined to embrace the USSC's assertion that the exercise of wise judicial discretion in deciding who should get the benefit of retroactive implementation of the 2014 "Drugs Minus Two" Amendment explains why recidivism rates were relative low for those defendants who received reduced sentences. Among other benefits of this conclusion, it should make Congress and the USSC ever more confident that they can safely (and should as a matter of fairness and justice) make any any all reduced sentences fully retroactive (subject to discretionary judicial review upon implementation).

July 8, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, July 02, 2020

"How Mandatory Minimums Are Weaponized"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new opinion piece in the New York Times authored by Sandeep Dhaliwal. I recommend the piece in full and here are excerpts:

In the early morning hours of May 30, Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman were arrested in Brooklyn after a night of citywide protests in response to the killing of George Floyd.  They are charged with throwing a Molotov cocktail through the broken window of an unoccupied police car.  No one was hurt.  Both have plead not guilty, but if they are convicted of the array of federal charges leveled against them, there will be no judging involved when they are sentenced: They will face mandatory sentences of 45 years in prison.

Their story is just one example of how many senseless mandatory minimum penalties — blind to the facts of a case and the stories of the individual defendants — remain enshrined in law and must be changed....

At a time when progress is being made to address policing, the prosecution of Mr. Mattis and Ms. Rahman is a sobering reminder of other, deeply ingrained injustices in our systems of punishment. Even after modest improvements made by the 2018 First Step Act, the penalties for criminal activity are too often draconian, and prosecutors are too often keen to invoke them not because the defendants deserve the severity but to coerce them to plead guilty.  Reforms to eliminate mandatory minimums and rein in prosecutorial overreaching are vital to comprehensively reforming our overly punitive criminal justice systems, whose excessive harshness disproportionately affects communities of color....

Mandatory minimums grew popular in the 1970s and 1980s, as Congress and many states began adopting them for a slew of crimes — the biggest category being drug crimes.  Proponents said they were designed to deter the most serious types of criminal conduct.  But the penalties were inflexibly harsh, and it quickly became clear that many low-level offenders were being swept up and facing grossly excessive sentences.

The laws also suffered from another flaw: They were racist. The most infamous example is that it once took 100 times the amount of powder cocaine as crack cocaine to trigger the same mandatory minimum prison terms.  Other lesser-known examples abound.  People of color are disproportionately affected by mandatory minimums for the simple reason that they are disproportionately arrested and charged with crimes generally....

[T]he 45-year mandatory minimum penalty that Mr. Mattis and Ms. Rahman face is part of an all too familiar pattern of prosecution.  The goal is to coerce people to plead guilty to charges carrying harsh sentences in exchange for the dismissal of charges that mandate unconscionable ones.

The message that prosecutors send to them and to so many other defendants is clear: If you consider exercising your fundamental right to trial, we will seek penalties that are so excessive that you will think twice, because we have the power to take sentencing authority away from the judiciary.

When this regime of mandatory minimums began more than 30 years ago, 20 percent of federal criminal cases were resolved by trial.  Today, fewer than 3 percent are, and more than 97 percent of cases are resolved by pleas.

No rational observer would conclude that Mr. Mattis and Ms. Rahman should spend a majority of their lives behind bars for an alleged act that caused harm to no one.  To put the threat of a 45-year mandatory sentence into some perspective, according to data compiled by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the median sentence for murder in the Second Circuit from 2015 through 2019 was 16 years.  The extreme 45-year sentences they face are a reminder that real people and families and communities are at the receiving end of these devastating penalties.

As lawmakers in Congress propose sweeping changes to policing spurred by society’s broad awakening to systemic racism, they must also make changes to eliminate federal mandatory minimums, rein in overcharging and help restore the right to trial.

July 2, 2020 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

"Judicial Authority under the First Step Act What Congress Conferred through Section 404"

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

The First Step Act of 2018 promised relief to inmates serving disproportionately long sentences for cocaine base distribution. Section 404, the focus of this article, seemed straight-forward.  But in the spring and summer of 2019, district judges began reviewing § 404 cases and reaching dissonant results.  Appeals followed, focused on four questions of judicial authority: (1) Who may judges resentence?; (2) May judges engage in plenary resentencing or merely sentence reduction?; (3) May judges resentence all concurrent criminal convictions or only crack cocaine convictions?; and (4) Must judges adopt the operative drug quantity from the original sentencing?

Today, the law of § 404 remains incomplete in every circuit.  This article reviews the legislative history, text, and legal context of § 404.  It finds that Congress intended broad judicial authority in § 404 resentencings.

June 30, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 29, 2020

Is it a death penalty success or failure when worst-of-the-worst plead guilty to avoid capital trial?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this AP story out of California headlined "Accused ‘Golden State Killer’ admits murders, will avoid death penalty."  Here are the basics:

A former police officer who terrorized California as a serial burglar and rapist and went on to kill more than a dozen people while evading capture for decades pleaded guilty Monday to murders attributed to a criminal dubbed the Golden State Killer.

Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. had remained almost silent in court since his 2018 arrest until he uttered the word “guilty” in a hushed and raspy voice multiple times in a plea agreement that will spare him the death penalty for a life sentence with no chance of parole.

DeAngelo, 74, has never publicly acknowledged the killings, but offered up a confession of sorts after his arrest that cryptically referred to an inner personality named “Jerry” that had apparently forced him to commit the wave of crimes that ended abruptly in 1986. “I did all that,” DeAngelo said to himself while alone in a police interrogation room after his arrest in April 2018, Sacramento County prosecutor Thien Ho said....

DeAngelo, seated in a wheelchair on a makeshift stage in a university ballroom that could accommodate hundreds of observers a safe distance apart during the coronavirus pandemic, acknowledged he would plead guilty to 13 counts of murder and dozens of rapes that are too old to prosecute. “The scope of Joseph DeAngelo’s crimes is simply staggering,” Ho said. ”Each time he escaped, slipping away silently into the night.”...

DeAngelo, a Vietnam veteran and a grandfather, had never been on the radar of investigators who spent years trying to track down the culprit. It wasn’t until after the crimes ended that investigators connected a series of assaults in central and Northern California to slayings in Southern California and settled on the umbrella Golden State Killer nickname for the mysterious assailant.

DeAngelo was caught after police used DNA from crime scenes to find a distant relative through a popular genealogy website database and then built a family tree that eventually led them to him. They then tailed DeAngelo and were able to secretly collect DNA from his car door and a discarded tissue to get an arrest warrant....

He tied up husbands and boyfriends and told them he’d kill them if they made a sound while he assaulted the women. Eventually he slipped off into the dark on foot or by bicycle and even managed to evade police who at times believed they came close to catching him. DeAngelo knew the territory well. He had started on the police force in the San Joaquin Valley farm town of Exeter in 1973, where he is believed to have committed his first burglaries and first killing....

Victims’ family members were anxious about what to expect before the court hearing began. “I’ve been on pins and needles because I just don’t like that our lives are tied to him, again,” said Jennifer Carole, the daughter of Lyman Smith, a lawyer who was slain in 1980 at age 43 in Ventura County. His wife, 33-year-old Charlene Smith, was also raped and killed.

A guilty plea and life sentence avoids a trial or even the planned weeks-long preliminary hearing. The victims expect to confront him at his sentencing in August, where it’s expected to take several days to tell DeAngelo and Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman what they have suffered. Gay and Bob Hardwick were among the survivors looking forward to DeAngelo admitting to their 1978 assault.

The death penalty was never realistic anyway, Gay Hardwick said, given DeAngelo’s age and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s moratorium on executions. “He certainly does deserve to die, in my view, so I am seeing that he is trading the death penalty for death in prison,” she said. “It will be good to put the thing to rest. I think he will never serve the sentence that we have served — we’ve served the sentence for 42 years.”

A person who murdered more than a dozen and raped many more would certainly seem to qualify as one of the "worst-of-the-worst" offenders that are often said to be those for whom the death penalty is reserved. But DeAngelo is not getting the ultimately penalty of death, so this case is arguably a story of death penalty failure.  And yet, without the death penalty as a (remote) possibility, DeAngelo would have arguably had no reason to plead guilty and spare victims the pain of a trial and other court proceedings. And so maybe this case is still a story of death penalty success.

June 29, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

SCOTUS denies, by 7-2 vote, cert petition from federal death row defendants challenging federal execution protocol

As reported in this AP article, the "Supreme Court on Monday refused to block the execution of four federal prison inmates who are scheduled to be put to death in July and August."  Here is more:

The justices rejected an appeal from four inmates who were convicted of killing children.  Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor noted that they would have blocked the executions from going forward.

The court's action leaves no obstacles standing in the way of the executions, the first of which is scheduled for July 13. The inmates are separately asking a federal judge in Washington to impose a new delay on their executions over other legal issues that have yet to be resolved.

The activity at the high court came after Attorney General William Barr directed the federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions. Three of the men had been scheduled to be put to death when Barr first announced the federal government would resume executions last year, ending an informal moratorium on federal capital punishment as the issue receded from the public domain....

The federal government’s initial effort was put on hold by a trial judge after the inmates challenged the new execution procedures, and the federal appeals court in Washington and the Supreme Court both declined to step in late last year. But in April, the appeals court threw out the judge’s order. The federal prison in Indiana where the executions would take place, USP Terre Haute, has struggled to combat the coronavirus pandemic behind bars. One inmate there has died from COVID-19.

The inmates scheduled for execution are: Danny Lee, who was convicted in Arkansas of killing a family of three, including an 8-year-old; Wesley Ira Purkey, of Kansas, who raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl and killed an 80-year-old woman; Dustin Lee Honken, who killed five people in Iowa, including two children; and Keith Dwayne Nelson, who kidnapped a 10-year-old girl who was rollerblading in front of her Kansas home and raped her in a forest behind a church before strangling the young girl with a wire.

Three of the executions — for Lee, Purkley and Honken — are scheduled days apart beginning July 13. Nelson’s execution is scheduled for Aug. 28. The Justice Department said additional executions will be set at a later date. Executions on the federal level have been rare and the government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988 — most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.

The Supreme Court's decision here does not guarantee that federal executions will go forward in two weeks, but it does guarantee there will be lots and lots of litigation in those two weeks as defense attorneys press other legal claims and federal prosecutors respond. The fact that the cert vote here was 7-2 could be viewed in various ways as a forecast of how the Justices might approach other issues surely to be brought before them by these defendants with pending execution dates. But I have come to assume that there are now five pretty solid SCOTUS votes to allow capital punishment administration to move forward, so there would seem to be a pretty solid chance the federal government will be getting back to executions shortly.

Prior related posts:

June 29, 2020 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sixth Circuit panel rejects Romell Broom's constitutional arguments that Ohio cannot try again to execute him after botched first attempt

I somehow missed that last week a Sixth Circuit panel handed down a notable unanimous ruling on a novel (and disconcerting) issues of capital punishment administration . Even long-time readers may have forgotten about the case of Romell Broon, but the start of the Sixth Circuit ruling in Broom v. Shoop, No. 19-3356 (6th Cir. June 23, 2020) (available here), provides the still-remarkable essentials:

In an infamous September 2009 incident, the state of Ohio tried to execute death-row inmate Rommel Broom, and failed.  More specifically, the state tried to execute Broom by way of lethal injection, but was forced to abandon the effort when the execution team concluded — two hours into the process — that it could not maintain a viable IV connection to Broom’s veins.  The state then returned Broom to his cell, to await a second execution attempt on another day.  That second execution attempt has not yet happened, however, because the parties have spent the last eleven years litigating whether the U.S. Constitution bars Ohio from ever trying to execute Broom again — Broom relies on both the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual” punishment and the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on “double jeopardy.”  The state courts, including the Ohio Supreme Court, have rejected Broom’s contentions on the merits, as did the district court below on habeas review.  Broom’s case now comes before us.

We in no way condone Ohio’s treatment of Broom; that it took two hours of stabbing and prodding for the state to realize that it could not maintain a viable IV connection to Broom’s veins is disturbing, to say the least.  But because the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) permits us to reverse state court merits decisions in only a narrow set of circumstances, and because the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision rejecting Broom’s constitutional claims on the merits does not fall within that set of circumstances here, we AFFIRM the district court’s judgment denying Broom habeas relief.

Ohio has not executed anyone in two years due in part to litigation and uncertainty over execution protocols, and Broom recently had his 2020 execution date pushed back to March 2022.  I could discuss at great length not only why this case is so jurisprudentially interesting, but I continue to fear that SCOTUS will not be inclined to take up this case.  And for those interested in more coverage of all the facts and law, here are posts on the case going back more than a decade now:

June 29, 2020 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

FINAL REMINDER of exciting DEPC and OJPC sentencing project: "Drafting Contest: An Ohio 'Second Look' Statute"

I warned in this initial posting that I would be repeatedly promoting an exciting new project from a partnership of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC).  Because the deadline for submissions is next week (June 30), this is going to be my reminder.  But it is certainly not too late to get involved; the basic details are explained on this webpage, more background appears in this document, and here are the essentials:

About

A robust national discussion about how best to remedy extreme and unwarranted prison sentences has prompted various new proposed remedies. In hopes of encouraging discussion and debate around the creation of a comprehensive “second-look sentencing provision” in Ohio law, the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC), a statewide criminal-justice nonprofit, are sponsoring a legislative-drafting contest for law students and recent law school graduates.

Contest Objective and Deliverable

DEPC and OJPC encourage law students and recent graduates (from class years 2015-2020) to submit (1) proposed language for a new Ohio statutory provision and (2) accompanying commentary to allow courts to take a second look at Ohio prison sentences.  The proposal should address both substance (e.g., when and to whom does it apply) and procedure (e.g., how should such a second look be initiated and decided).  Entrants may, but are not required to, address the public-health issues that have come to the fore with COVID-19 (e.g., the proposal might have a special provision allowing more prisoners to seek resentencing when a public-health emergency has been declared).  Group submissions are acceptable and encouraged.

Contest Timeline and Awards

Submissions are due June 30, 2020.  The winning submission will receive a prize of $2,000, and up to two runner-up prizes of $1,000 will also be awarded.  If a group submission is awarded prize money, it will be divided equally among the groups members.  All winning submissions will be published via DEPC and OJPC’s websites.  The full version of the winning proposal will also be presented to the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission at a forthcoming meeting and may be used in DEPC and OJPC’s ongoing efforts to advocate for improvements in Ohio law.

June 24, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Crisis and Coercive Pleas"

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

Even in the best of times, trials are rare.  In the midst of the current pandemic, trials have vanished altogether in certain parts of the country; in other areas they occur sporadically as courts grapple with how to hold trials safely.  This makes sense from a public health perspective, but the lack of trials, along with other challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis, poses a heightened risk that defendants will be coerced into false and unfair pleas.

Coercive pleas are part and parcel of the criminal system, but the current crisis provides several avenues for even greater abuse of defendants through the plea process.  In Part I of this essay I explore the particular concerns related to plea bargaining during the COVID-19 crisis and address three broad areas: 1) the particularized fear of a prison or jail sentence during a pandemic, 2) the difficulty with holding — or complete lack of — jury trials, and 3) issues with access to counsel and other procedural challenges that defendants will face during and after the crisis.

Part II offers some solutions to mitigate the risk of coercive pleas.  The essay encourages criminal courts to think about holding jury trials via video, despite the many obvious challenges.  The essay also defines several ways in which judges can take a more active role in protecting against coercive pleas during the pandemic.  And, as the essay explores, this crisis may also provide opportunities for creative problem solving that can outlast the virus.

June 24, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Senators Durbin and Grassley introduce new bill to make modest, but still important, reforms to federal elderly home release and compassionate release

As reported in this new press release, "U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), authors of the bipartisan First Step Act, landmark criminal justice reform legislation, introduced new, bipartisan legislation to reform the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program and compassionate release from federal prisons. "  The release provides some notable contextual data and well some details of the bill's particulars:

Sadly, more than 80 federal prisoners with pre-existing medical conditions that made them more vulnerable to COVID-19 have died as a result of the virus, more than half of whom were over 60 years old.  Elderly offenders, the fastest-growing portion of the prison population, have much lower rates of recidivism and are much more expensive to incarcerate due to their health care needs. 

Since enactment of the First Step Act, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has opposed the vast majority of compassionate release petitions.  In 2019, 1,735 requests for release were initiated by or on behalf of prisoners, of which 1,501 were denied by wardens and 226 of which were forwarded to the BOP Director.  Of these 226, BOP approved only 55 and denied 171.  Since March of this year, only about 500 inmates have been granted compassionate release in the midst of the pandemic, nearly all of them by court order over the objections of the Department of Justice and BOP.  BOP has reportedly refused to approve any compassionate releases based on vulnerability to COVID-19.

“At the end of 2018, Congress came together to pass one of the most important criminal justice reform laws in a generation.  Now we have an obligation to ensure that this law is properly implemented,” Durbin said.  “My legislation with Senator Grassley would help ensure that the most vulnerable prisoners are quickly released or transferred to home confinement for the remainder of their sentence – just as the First Step Act intended.  This is especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic to protect against the spread of this deadly virus.  I’m hopeful that this commonsense, bipartisan legislation will pass swiftly through the House and Senate and will be signed into law.”

“In the middle of a pandemic the federal government ought to be doing everything it can to protect the inmates in its care.  We already established important home confinement and early release programs in 2018, which are especially important right now as older inmates face very serious risks because of the virus.  Our bill will clarify and expand those programs we wrote into the First Step Act, so we can better protect these vulnerable populations,” Grassley said.

Specifically, the COVID-19 Safer Detention Act would reform the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program and compassionate release by:

  • Clarifying that the percentage of time served required for the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program should be calculated based on an inmate’s sentence, including reductions for good time credits (H.R. 4018, which passed the House by voice vote);
  • Expanding the eligibility criteria for the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program to include nonviolent offenders who have served at least 50 percent of their term of imprisonment;
  • Clarifying that elderly nonviolent D.C. Code offenders in BOP custody are eligible for the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program and that federal prisoners sentenced before November 1, 1987 are eligible for compassionate release;
  • Subjecting elderly home detention eligibility decisions to judicial review (based on the First Step Act’s compassionate release provision); and
  • Providing that, during the period of the pandemic, COVID-19 vulnerability is a basis for compassionate release and shortening the period prisoners must wait for judicial review for elderly home detention and compassionate release from 30 to 10 days.

The following organizations support the COVID-19 Safer Detention Act:  Aleph Institute, Americans for Tax Reform and Digital Liberty, Drug Policy Alliance, Due Process Institute, FAMM, Federal Public and Community Defenders, FreedomWorks, Justice Action Network, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), Right on Crime, Sentencing Project, Taking Action For Good, Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), and Tzedek Association.

A section-by-section of the legislation is available here.

Bill text is available here.

I have placed in bold the provisions of this new bill that strike me as particularly noteworthy and that could prove most consequential. In short form, this bill would seem to authorize (though not require) judges to move most persons over the age of 60 from federal prison into home confinement as soon as they approach serving about half of their initially imposed prison sentence.  Sound like a great idea to me, and it also sounds like another version of another kind of "parole light" proposal of the sort I discussed a few years ago in this article

June 23, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

An NYC window into COVID's disruption of the administration of criminal justice

The New York Times has this lengthy new front-page article under the headline "Pandemic Pushes New Yorkers Into Legal Limbo."  The piece merits a full read as just one version of so many stories about how COVID is echoing through criminal justice systems.  Here are some excerpts:

The coronavirus outbreak is putting extraordinary stress on New York City’s judicial system, forcing lengthy delays in criminal proceedings and raising growing concerns about the rights of defendants.

Since February, the backlog of pending cases in the city’s criminal courts has risen by nearly a third — to 39,200.  Hundreds of jury trials in the city have been put on hold indefinitely.  Arraignments, pleas and evidentiary hearings are being held by video, with little public scrutiny.  Prosecutions have dropped off, too, as the authorities have tried to reduce the jail population.

Three months into the crisis, the city’s once bustling courthouses are barely recognizable.  Their spacious lobbies and halls, formerly filled with people, are nearly empty, and in the courtrooms clerks in surgical masks tend to virtual hearings on giant video screens.  Two centuries of face-to-face judicial traditions have either been cast aside or moved online....

Two weeks ago, the state courts in New York City took a first small step toward physically reopening: Judges started returning to their chambers, though they are still holding court virtually.  No one has quite figured out yet how to bring the public back safely to New York City courthouses, nor how to resume trials and state grand jury hearings. Officials said the challenge of balancing public health and the requirements of the law is likely to persist for some time.  “It’s a situation we’ve just never seen before,” said Melinda Katz, the Queens district attorney....

The halt on jury trials, while highly unusual and difficult for defendants, has not yet reached a crisis point.  Even under the best conditions, it can take years for cases to move from arrest to trial, and only about 5 percent ever get that far; most end with a plea bargain.  Still, jury trials are the heart of the justice system, and state court officials face significant hurdles as they resume.  “I can’t tell you we have a precise plan,” said Judge Lawrence Marks, the state’s chief administrative judge. “It will be one of the last phases.”

Unlike other court proceedings, jury trials require people to hear evidence together and then deliberate in close quarters.  “The whole idea of ‘12 Angry Men’ screaming at each other over a telephone, over a Zoom network, would be ridiculous,” said one defense lawyer, Joel Cohen.

In Federal District Court in Manhattan, architects and carpenters have been redesigning courtrooms, building jury boxes with additional space and inserting plexiglass dividers to keep jurors safer. Shields are being put in front of witness stands and at lecterns where lawyers argue.  Certain precautions that are being considered may raise legal issues.  “You can’t put a mask on the witnesses in a criminal trial because the defendant has the right to see them,” Chief Judge Colleen McMahon said.  “Jury trials are way, way down the road,” she added.

Some jurists warn that a prolonged delay in resuming trials could violate the Constitution.  “If well past July and for months to come, it is still dangerous for 12 people to gather together in tight quarters to hear and determine civil and criminal cases, it is not easy to see how the constitutional right to a jury trial will be genuinely met,” Judge Jed S. Rakoff wrote in The New York Review of Books....

People who are arrested no longer set foot inside a physical courtroom to hear the charges against them in an arraignment. They now sit in a windowless booth in a courthouse cell, looking into a camera and speaking into a microphone on the wall.  Felony arraignments have fallen by 50 percent this spring compared to last, largely because far fewer people were arrested in the first weeks of the pandemic.  That has made the transition to video somewhat easier, though not any faster.  In the months after the courts moved to a virtual system, the average arrest-to-arraignment time has increased by as much as three hours.

Before the pandemic, lawyers generally did most of the talking in court. In the video hearings, defendants, no longer in the same room as their lawyers, have been more prone to sudden and sometimes incriminating outbursts....  Tina Luongo, chief criminal defender for the Legal Aid Society, mentioned another challenge: The inability to see a witness's body language and quietly confer with the defendant seriously hampers defense lawyers. “We’ve got to figure that out,” she said. “When we’re all on one Skype link, how do I talk to my client in a confidential way?”  Before hearings begin, lawyers can meet virtually with clients in private Skype conference rooms, but the system is not foolproof....

Perhaps the biggest headache for the state courts has been the inability to convene grand juries, which given their size — they are usually composed of 16 to 23 people — have been unable to gather safely. Grand juries have traditionally acted as a citizen’s check on overzealous prosecutions by scrutinizing evidence and approving formal charges. They are also used by state and federal prosecutors to conduct long-term investigations.  Without them, the rights of both defendants and crime victims are less assured....

Unable to convene grand juries, the city’s five district attorneys are turning instead to preliminary hearings, which have not been conducted in New York in decades.  At the hearings, judges hear witnesses, consider evidence and decide if prosecutors’ charges are warranted. Like everything else these days, these hearings are being held by video....

The city’s two federal courts, in Manhattan and Brooklyn, have adapted more smoothly to the crisis.  Under their auspices, grand jurors began meeting again recently outside the city, in White Plains and Central Islip.  And in both courts, regular audio and video hearings have been held, with dial-in numbers for the public clearly posted on electronic dockets.  But obstacles remain, like how to bring in large numbers of prospective jurors for screening.

Disappointingly, this piece does not address sentencing issues and challenges in state or federal courts.  As always, I welcome comment from readers about their recent COVID-shaped experiences in that arena.

June 23, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, June 22, 2020

"The Substance of Montgomery Retroactivity: The Definition of States’ Supremacy Clause Obligation to Enforce Newly-Recognized Federal Rights in Their Post-conviction Proceedings and Why It Matters"

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

In Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016), the Supreme Court made a decision of far-reaching importance to the criminal justice system: the Supremacy Clause requires states adjudicating post-conviction attacks to give full retroactive effect to “substantive” new rules of federal constitutional law.

The significance of this holding has so far been under-appreciated because of the assumption that “substantive” has the same narrow meaning in the context of the state’s obligations under the Supremacy Clause as it does under Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), which sets forth prudential limitations on the claims that the federal courts will entertain when adjudicating federal habeas corpus attacks on state criminal convictions.

But, this article argues, the two contexts are not the same and the assumption is unwarranted.  To be sure, rules that are “substantive” under Teague are also substantive under Montgomery.  But because Montgomery is based on the Supremacy Clause, the class of “substantive” federal rules for Montgomery purposes should be far broader than it is for Teague purposes.

“Substantive” rules under Montgomery, I propose, include all those whose policy underpinnings extend beyond enhancing the factual accuracy of particular decisions.  Examples of such rules are ones whose aims include discountenancing government misconduct (e.g., barring evidence derived from coerced confessions or unreasonable searches) and achieving full community participation in the judicial process (e.g., adding new groups to the ones that may not constitutionally be excluded from jury service, and expanding the categories of juror bias that a defendant must be permitted to litigate).

Adopting the proposed definition will have structural benefits to the system of criminal justice adjudication.  The Montgomery decision will necessarily have the effect of increasing the number of state post-conviction decisions.  The broader the definition of “substantive” the more pronounced the effect.  The more pronounced the effect the better off the criminal justice system will be, for two reasons.  First, state post-conviction decisions will be some extent be able to fill the gap in the normal creation of new rules by lower federal courts that has resulted from the restrictive ruling in Teague.  Second, the greater the salience of post-conviction decisions, the greater the pressure on the states to improve the quality of their post-conviction systems.

Thus, in the interests of making modest but real improvements in the quality of our criminal law, lawyers, legislators, academics, judges, and all individuals concerned about justice should seek adoption of the proposal of this article.

June 22, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

No new cert grants from SCOTUS as Justice Thomas laments failure to take up whether First Amendment limits criminalizing "reckless threats"

This morning's Supreme Court order list yet again lacks any new grants of certiorari (which, as explained in this recent post, I have come to expect from this court).  But, showcasing as he did last week that he will call out his colleagues for failing to take up issues he considers important, Justice Thomas has a dissent from the denial of cert in Kansas v. Boettger, No. 19–1051.  Here is how this six-page dissent gets started:

Kansas asks us to decide whether the First Amendment prohibits States from criminalizing threats to “[c]ommit violence . . . in reckless disregard of the risk of causing . . . fear.” Kan. Stat. Ann. §21–5415(a)(1) (2018).  Respondent Timothy Boettger was convicted for telling the son of a police detective that he “‘was going to end up finding [his] dad in a ditch.’” ___ Kan. ___, ___, 450 P. 3d 805, 807 (2019).  Respondent Ryan Johnson was separately convicted for telling his mother that he “‘wish[ed] [she] would die,’” that he would “‘help [her] get there,’” and that he was “‘going to f***ing kill [her] a***.’” ___ Kan. ___, ___, 450 P. 3d 790, 792 (2019).  The Kansas Supreme Court overturned both convictions and held that reckless threats are protected by the First Amendment, relying on Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003).

In my view, the Constitution likely permits States to criminalize threats even in the absence of any intent to intimidate. See Elonis v. United States, 575 U.S. 723, 760– 767 (2015) (dissenting opinion).  It appears to follow that threats of violence made in reckless disregard of causing fear may be prohibited.  The Kansas Supreme Court reached the opposite conclusion by overreading our decision in Black, which did not answer the question presented here.  Other courts looking to Black, however, have upheld similar statutes.  State v. Taupier, 330 Conn. 149, 193 A.3d 1 (2018); Major v. State, 301 Ga. 147, 800 S.E.2d 348 (2017).  I would grant the petition for certiorari to resolve the split on this important question.

June 22, 2020 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Seventh Circuit panel finds way above-guideline (stat-max) sentence to be "not sufficiently" justified

As long-time readers know, I have long been troubled be the fact that the Booker-created reasonableness standard of review has been pretty toothless as a check on extreme federal sentences. But because so few sentences have been found unreasonable, any such decision is noteworthy, and so here I highlight a new Seventh Circuit panel decision handed down last week in US v. Jones, No. 19-1644 (7th Cir. June 19, 2020) (available here). The 12-page ruling is worth reading in full, and here is how the opinion starts and one notable substantive paragraph:

In 1998, a federal jury convicted Jerry Jones of two carjackings, an armed bank robbery, and using firearms during those crimes of violence.  The district court sentenced him to 840 months in prison. Twenty years later, the district court vacated its original sentence and ordered resentencing because Jones no longer qualified as a career offender under the federal Sentencing Guidelines.

At resentencing, Jones’s effective Guidelines range was 348–390 months.  The district court deviated from the Guidelines and once again sentenced Jones to 840 months in prison. That was an increase of 450 months, approximately 215% above the high end of Jones’s Guidelines range.  Jones now appeals his sentence.  Because the district court did not sufficiently justify the extent of its deviation from the Guidelines, we vacate its judgment and remand for resentencing....

Here, the district court acknowledged the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities, noting that Jones’s co-defendants—“with similar records [and] similar conduct” — had received sentences of 675 months and 728 months.  Notwithstanding the three defendants’ similar records and similar conduct, Jones received a sentence 165 months longer than one co-defendant and 112 months longer than the other.  The court did not explain why it singled Jones out for different treatment.  Quite the contrary, it synthesized the offenders and their offenses, observing they had “similar records [and] similar conduct.”  It was therefore incumbent on the court to specify what warranted Jones’s sentence disparity.  See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6).  Without such a justification, and because the court did not sentence Jones within the Guidelines range, we cannot assure ourselves that the court sufficiently considered the interest in consistency between similarly situated defendants.

No matter how long I follow the federal sentencing system, I will continue to be awed (in a bad way) by the scale of sentences that get handed out in seemingly run-of-the-mill cases. Here, after co-defendants receive sentences of over 55 years and 60 years, the judge decided that he should round up to an even 70 years for Mr. Jones (meaning that, even with time off for good behavior in prison, he could be not released until age 95).  I am pleased that this Seventh Circuit panel is now demanding a more meaningful justification for such a sentence, but I am displeased that such extreme sentences can be deemed justifiable in part because they are just not all that unusual in the federal system.

June 21, 2020 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 20, 2020

"The Categorical Imperative as a Decarceral Agenda"

The title of this post is the title of this new essay authored by Jessica Eaglin recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Despite recent modest reductions in state prison populations, Franklin Zimring argues in his forthcoming book that mass incarceration remains persistent and intractable.  As a path forward, Zimring urges states to adopt pragmatic, structural reforms that incentivize the reduction of prison populations through a “categorical imperative,” meaning, by identifying subcategories of offenders best suited for diversion from prison sentences at the state level.  This decarceral method is at odds with popular sentencing reforms in the states.

By exploring the tensions between reform trends in practice and Zimring’s proscription, this Essay illuminates a deeper concern with sentencing reforms in the era of mass incarceration.  Reforms focused on categorizing offenders can obscure and sustain policymakers’ persistent tendency to frame social problems as matters of crime and punishment. Recognizing this shortcoming upfront has important implications for scholars and policymakers alike when contemplating the methodologies that should inform sentencing reforms going forward.

June 20, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 19, 2020

PENULTIMATE REMINDER of exciting DEPC and OJPC sentencing project: "Drafting Contest: An Ohio 'Second Look' Statute"

I warned in this initial posting that I would be repeatedly promoting an exciting project from a partnership of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC).  Because the deadline for submissions is approaching (June 30), I figure this may be my second to last reminder.  But it is certainly not too late to get involved; the basic details are explained on this webpage, more background appears in this document, and here are the essentials:

About

A robust national discussion about how best to remedy extreme and unwarranted prison sentences has prompted various new proposed remedies. In hopes of encouraging discussion and debate around the creation of a comprehensive “second-look sentencing provision” in Ohio law, the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC), a statewide criminal-justice nonprofit, are sponsoring a legislative-drafting contest for law students and recent law school graduates.

Contest Objective and Deliverable

DEPC and OJPC encourage law students and recent graduates (from class years 2015-2020) to submit (1) proposed language for a new Ohio statutory provision and (2) accompanying commentary to allow courts to take a second look at Ohio prison sentences.  The proposal should address both substance (e.g., when and to whom does it apply) and procedure (e.g., how should such a second look be initiated and decided).  Entrants may, but are not required to, address the public-health issues that have come to the fore with COVID-19 (e.g., the proposal might have a special provision allowing more prisoners to seek resentencing when a public-health emergency has been declared).  Group submissions are acceptable and encouraged.

Contest Timeline and Awards

Submissions are due June 30, 2020.  The winning submission will receive a prize of $2,000, and up to two runner-up prizes of $1,000 will also be awarded.  If a group submission is awarded prize money, it will be divided equally among the groups members.  All winning submissions will be published via DEPC and OJPC’s websites.  The full version of the winning proposal will also be presented to the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission at a forthcoming meeting and may be used in DEPC and OJPC’s ongoing efforts to advocate for improvements in Ohio law.

June 19, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Terrific coverage of clemency in new issue of University of St. Thomas Law Journal

The latest issue of the University of St. Thomas Law Journal has a great collection of articles under the heading "Clemency: A Constitutional Power Moves into the Future."  Here are the titles, authors and links for all the pieces:

Memo to the President: Two Steps to Fix the Clemency Crisis by Mark Osler

Who Is My Brother’s Keeper? by Rudy Martinez

Clemency Must Play a Pivotal Role in Reversing the Damage Caused by the "Tough on Crime Era" by Mark V. Holden

Clemency, Pardons, and Reform: When People Released Return to Prison by Jessica Jackson

The Future of Presidential Clemency Decision-Making by Paul J. Larkin, Jr.

June 19, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

"Restorative Justice From Prosecutors' Perspective"

The title of this post is the title of this new article now available via SSRN and authored by Lara Bazelon and Bruce Green. Here is its abstract:

Restorative justice processes have been promoted as an alternative to criminal adjudication for many years outside the United States and, in recent years, in the United States as well.  In the United States, restorative justice processes are used in some jurisdictions in cases involving juvenile offenders or low-level, nonviolent offenses by adults, but they have rarely been used in cases of adult felony offenders charged with serious violent crimes.  Whether restorative justice processes will be used more broadly depends largely on whether prosecutors become receptive to their use.

A handful of newly elected “progressive prosecutors” have expressed interest in applying restorative justice processes in these and other kinds of felony cases involving adult defendants.  But conventional prosecutors generally remain uninterested in or hostile to restorative justice, even though most accept problem-solving courts and other alternatives to prosecution and incarceration.  This Article explores why mainstream U.S. prosecutors are disposed against restorative justice and suggest how their concerns might best be addressed by restorative justice proponents.

June 17, 2020 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

SCOTUS stays Texas execution based seemingly on clergy claim

As reported in this AP article, the "Supreme Court granted a reprieve Tuesday to a Texas inmate scheduled to die for fatally stabbing an 85-year-old woman more than two decades ago, continuing a more than four-month delay of executions in the nation’s busiest death penalty state during the coronavirus pandemic." Here are the details:

The justices blocked Ruben Gutierrez’s execution about an hour before he could have been executed. Gutierrez’s attorneys had argued his religious rights are being violated because the prison system won’t allow a chaplain to accompany him in the death chamber.

The Texas prison system last year banned clergy from the death chamber following a Supreme Court ruling that halted the execution of another inmate, Patrick Murphy, who had requested a Buddhist adviser be allowed in the chamber. In response to the ruling in Murphy’s case, the Texas prison system changed its policy, only allowing prison security staff into the execution chamber.

“As a devout Catholic, Mr. Gutierrez’s faith requires the assistance of clergy to help him pass from life into afterlife. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice changed its policy for its own convenience, but spiritual comfort at the time of death is not a convenience; it’s a protected legal right,” Shawn Nolan, one of Mr. Gutierrez’s attorneys, said after the stay was granted.

The Supreme Court said it granted the stay pending a ruling by the high court on Gutierrez’s petition on the issue of whether to allow a spiritual adviser to accompany him in the death chamber. A decision on the petition was expected at a later date....

If Gutierrez’s execution had been carried out, he would have been the first inmate in Texas to receive a lethal injection since Feb. 6 and the second U.S. inmate to be put to death since states began to reopen after the pandemic shut down much of the U.S. After the country began to reopen, Missouri resumed executions on May 19.

Six executions scheduled in Texas for earlier this year were postponed by an appeals court or judges because of the outbreak. A seventh was delayed over claims of intellectual disability. Gutierrez’s attorneys had also sought a coronavirus-related delay but were turned down Friday by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals....

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops filed a brief with the high court in support of Gutierrez. “To deny a prisoner facing imminent execution access to spiritual and religious guidance and accompaniment is cruel and inhuman,” said Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville....

Gutierrez would have been the third inmate put to death this year in Texas and the seventh in the U.S.

The Supreme Court's stay order is available at this link, and here is its text in full:

The application for stay of execution of sentence of death presented to Justice Alito and by him referred to the Court is granted pending the disposition of the petition for a writ of certiorari. Should the petition for a writ of certiorari be denied, this stay shall terminate automatically.  In the event the petition for a writ of certiorari is granted, the stay shall terminate upon the sending down of the judgment of this Court.  The District Court should promptly determine, based on whatever evidence the parties provide, whether serious security problems would result if a prisoner facing execution is permitted to choose the spiritual adviser the prisoner wishes to have in his immediate presence during the execution.

June 16, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Religion, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Whitewashing the Jury Box: How California Perpetuates the Discriminatory Exclusion of Black and Latinx Jurors"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new (and massive) report by faculty and students at the Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic.  This release about the report provides background and a summary starting this way: "An eye-opening report from Berkeley Law’s Death Penalty Clinic finds that racial discrimination is a consistent aspect of jury selection in California. The exhaustive study investigates the history, legacy, and ongoing practice of excluding people of color—especially African Americans—from state juries through prosecutors’ peremptory challenges."  Here is part of the report's executive summary:

Racial discrimination is an ever-present feature of jury selection in California.  This report investigates the history, legacy, and continuing practice of excluding people of color, especially African Americans, from California juries through the exercise of peremptory challenges. Unlike challenges for cause, each party in a trial has the right to excuse a specific number of jurors without stating a reason and without the court’s approval.  In California, peremptory challenges are defined by statute.

Historically, the main vice of peremptory challenges was that prosecutors wielded them with impunity to remove African Americans from jury service.  These strikes were part and parcel of the systematic exclusion of Blacks from civil society.  We found that prosecutors continue to exercise peremptory challenges to remove African Americans and Latinx people from California juries for reasons that are explicitly or implicitly related to racial stereotypes....

In his concurring opinion in Batson, Justice Thurgood Marshall warned that Batson’s three-step procedure would fail to end racially discriminatory peremptory strikes. He anticipated that prosecutors would easily be able to produce “race-neutral” reasons at Batson’s second step, and that judges would be ill-equipped to second-guess those reasons.  Further, Justice Marshall doubted Batson’s efficacy because the procedure did nothing to curb strikes motivated by unconscious racism — known more often today as implicit bias.

Justice Marshall was prescient: 34 years after Batson was decided, prosecutors in California still disproportionately exercise peremptory challenges to exclude African Americans and Latinx people from juries.

The Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic explored the shortcomings of the Batson procedure.  Our report investigates how the California Supreme Court went from a judiciary that championed the eradication of race-based strikes to a court that resists the United States Supreme Court’s limited efforts to enforce Batson.  We conclude that Batson is a woefully inadequate tool to end racial discrimination in jury selection.

June 16, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, June 15, 2020

By a vote of 6-3, SCOTUS finds deficient performance in Texas capital case and remands on prejudice issue

A dozen years ago, I wrote a full law review article to express my grumpiness about the felt reality that the Supreme Court often seems to care a whole lot more about cases involving persons sentenced to death than about just about any other criminal defendants.  That article is on my mind this morning upon seeing the 19-page per curiam decision that Supreme Court released in Andrus v. Texas, No. 18–9674 (S. Ct. June 15, 2020) (available here). 

The defendant in this case, Terence Andrus, killed two people in an attempted carjacking and was sentenced to death after his defense counsel plainly did a very lousy job developing mitigation on his behalf.  Here is the heart of the per curiam opinion's accounting of its ruling and rationale:

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the trial court’s recommendation to grant habeas relief. In an unpublished per curiam order, the Court of Criminal Appeals concluded without elaboration that Andrus had “fail[ed] to meet his burden under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), to show by a preponderance of the evidence that his counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and that there was a reasonable probability that the result of the proceedings would have been different but for counsel’s deficient performance.” App. to Pet. for Cert. 7–8.  A concurring opinion reasoned that, even if counsel had provided deficient performance under Strickland, Andrus could not show that counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced him. Andrus petitioned for a writ of certiorari.  We grant the  petition, vacate the judgment of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and remand for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion. The evidence makes clear that Andrus’ counsel provided constitutionally deficient performance under Strickland. But we remand so that the Court of Criminal Appeals may address the prejudice prong of Strickland in the first instance....

Here, the habeas record reveals that Andrus’ counsel fell short of his obligation in multiple ways: First, counsel performed almost no mitigation investigation, overlooking vast
tranches of mitigating evidence. Second, due to counsel’s failure to investigate compelling mitigating evidence, what little evidence counsel did present backfired by bolstering
the State’s aggravation case. Third, counsel failed adequately to investigate the State’s aggravating evidence, thereby forgoing critical opportunities to rebut the case in
aggravation. Taken together, those deficiencies effected an unconstitutional abnegation of prevailing professional norms.

I am always pleased to see the Supreme Court call out, and find constitutionally inadequate, any sort of lousy defense work (though I sure would like to see this done a lot more in NON-capital cases).  And I suppose I should also be pleased that Andrus will be a "good" SCOTUS precedent for inadequate defense Strickland claims in the future.  But Justice Alito's seven-page dissent (which was jointed by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch) has me convinced that this was ultimately a "bad" case because the defendant seems sure to lose on the prejudice issue upon remand to the Texas state courts. Here is how Justice Alito's dissent concludes:

In sum, the CCA assessed the issue of prejudice in light of more than the potentially mitigating evidence that the Court marshals for Andrus.  The CCA had before it strong aggravating evidence that Andrus wantonly killed two innocent victims and shot a third; that he committed other violent crimes; that he has a violent, dangerous, and unstable character; and that he is a threat to those he encounters.

The CCA has already held once that Andrus failed to establish prejudice.  I see no good reason why it should be required to revisit the issue.

June 15, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Over dissents by Justice Thomas, SCOTUS denies cert on qualified immunity and Second Amendment cases

I flagged in this post last week that the Supreme Court had been sitting on a number of qualified immunity and Second Amendment cases, which had prompted considerable speculation that the Justices might soon take up one or both of these high-profiles issues in one way or another.  But this morning's SCOTUS order list would appear to have denials of cert on all the cases in these arenas, and we get two dissents from Justice Thomas that suggest that the cases were being held primarily to give him time to pen his complaints about the denial of certiorari.

Justice Thomas' dissent in the qualified immunity arena comes in Baxter v. Bracey, and his six-page opinion gets started this way:

Petitioner Alexander Baxter was caught in the act of burgling a house.  It is undisputed that police officers released a dog to apprehend him and that the dog bit him.  Petitioner alleged that he had already surrendered when the dog was released.  He sought damages from two officers under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U.S.C. §1983, alleging excessive force and failure to intervene, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  Applying our qualified immunity precedents, the Sixth Circuit held that even if the officers’ conduct violated the Constitution, they were not liable because their conduct did not violate a clearly established right.  Petitioner asked this Court to reconsider the precedents that the Sixth Circuit applied.

I have previously expressed my doubts about our qualified immunity jurisprudence. See Ziglar v. Abbasi, 582 U.S. ___, ___–___ (2017) (THOMAS, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment) (slip op., at 2–6). Because our §1983 qualified immunity doctrine appears to stray from the statutory text, I would grant this petition.

Justice Thomas' dissent in the Second Amendment arena comes in Rogers v. Grewal, and here he gets Justice Kavanaugh joining on to part of this 19-page opinion. That opinion gets started this way:

The text of the Second Amendment protects “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.”  We have stated that this “fundamental righ[t]” is “necessary to our system of ordered liberty.”  McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U. S. 742, 778 (2010).  Yet, in several jurisdictions throughout the country, law-abiding citizens have been barred from exercising the fundamental right to bear arms because they cannot show that they have a “justifiable need” or “good reason” for doing so.  One would think that such an onerous burden on a fundamental right would warrant this Court’s review.  This Court would almost certainly review the constitutionality of a law requiring citizens to establish a justifiable need before exercising their free speech rights.  And it seems highly unlikely that the Court would allow a State to enforce a law requiring a woman to provide a justifiable need before seeking an abortion.  But today, faced with a petition challenging just such a restriction on citizens’ Second Amendment rights, the Court simply looks the other way.

Petitioner Rogers is a law-abiding citizen who runs a business that requires him to service automated teller machines in high-crime areas.  He applied for a permit to carry his handgun for self-defense.  But, to obtain a carry permit in New Jersey, an applicant must, among other things, demonstrate “that he has a justifiable need to carry a handgun.” N.J. Stat. Ann. §2C:58–4(c) (West 2019 Cum. Supp.).  For a “private citizen” to satisfy this “justifiable need” requirement, he must “specify in detail the urgent necessity for self-protection, as evidenced by specific threats or previous attacks which demonstrate a special danger to the applicant’s life that cannot be avoided by means other than by issuance of a permit to carry a handgun.” Ibid.; see also N. J. Admin. Code §13:54–2.4 (2020).  “Generalized fears for personal safety are inadequate.” In re Preis, 118 N.J. 564, 571, 573 A.2d 148, 152 (1990).  Petitioner could not satisfy this standard and, as a result, his permit application was denied.  With no ability to obtain a permit, petitioner is forced to operate his business in high-risk neighborhoods with no firearm for self-defense.

Petitioner asks this Court to grant certiorari to determine whether New Jersey’s near-total prohibition on carrying a firearm in public violates his Second Amendment right to bear arms, made applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.  See McDonald, 561 U. S., at 750; see id., at 806 (THOMAS, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment).  This case gives us the opportunity to provide guidance on the proper approach for evaluating Second Amendment claims; acknowledge that the Second Amendment protects the right to carry in public; and resolve a square Circuit split on the constitutionality of justifiable-need restrictions on that right.  I would grant the petition for a writ of certiorari.

June 15, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, June 14, 2020

"Should death-penalty juries learn about death penalty costs?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new AP article.  Here are excerpts: 

Debate over Utah’s death penalty is intensifying in 2nd District Court as attorneys prepare for the trial of an Ogden couple accused of starving and fatally abusing their 3-year-old daughter.  Prosecutors said earlier they will seek the death penalty against Miller Costello, 28, and Brenda Emile, 25, if they are convicted of aggravated murder in the July 6, 2017, death of Angelina Costello.

Over the past year, defense attorneys have filed several motions challenging the death penalty, including those asking that jurors be questioned about blood atonement and the comparative costs of execution versus life in prison.  They also have asked Judge Michael DiReda to strike the death penalty as “cruel and unusual punishment by practice and the consensus of the Utah citizenry” and because they contend the sentencing portion of the law unfairly shifts the burden of proof to defendants....

In a May 14 filing, county attorneys ... urged DiReda to reject the defense’s request to allow defense lawyers to quiz prospective jurors about death penalty costs.  “Questions of deterrence or cost in carrying out a capital sentence are for the Legislature, not for the jury considering a particular case,” the prosecution said.

Admitting evidence on death penalty costs “is akin to admitting evidence of the process of the death penalty, which has already been rejected by the Utah Supreme Court,” prosecutors said.  They added, “inviting the jury to determine whether the cost of the death penalty is worth it for a person that may be convicted of starving and physically abusing a three-year-old girl to death is very dangerous ground for the defendant.”

The defense had argued in its Jan. 21 filing that there’s ample evidence that imposing the death penalty far exceeds the cost of imposing a life sentence.  The Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice published a study in 2018 determining that the average cost of an execution was at least $237,900 more than a decision of life in prison.  A more limited 2012 Utah study said the difference was as much as $1.6 million per case.

The defense noted that in the 2009-15 case of Weber County double-murder convict Jeremy Valdes, two dozen or more potential jurors said in their questionnaire that they would choose the death penalty over life in prison because they thought it would cost less to execute the defendant.

“Of course, that is not true,” the defense motion said.  “It is incumbent upon the court to ensure that the citizens who comprise the jury pool are well-informed. And those who would otherwise make good jurors should be educated as to the cost imposing the death penalty so they can be properly rehabilitated.”

I tend to be very supportive of sentencing decision-makers, whether judge or jurors, having as much relevant and accurate information as possible when making sentencing decisions. Especially if there is reason to fear that misinformation about costs may shape the work of capital sentencing jurors, I would strongly urge allowing then to have accurate information on this topic.

June 14, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, June 13, 2020

"Pandemics, Risks and Remedies"

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

There are lessons in every catastrophe, and the impact of Coronavirus-19 (“COVID”) on America’s prisoner population has been especially catastrophic.  Jails and prisons are sites of unique peril because each facility bears the systemic risk of a single infection.  That COVID tore through these facilities was predictable — the health infrastructure is deplorable, social distancing is impossible, and the community has heightened medical vulnerabilities.  These places are pandemic tinder boxes, and COVID was more than enough to kindle the blaze.

There is a temptation to view America’s inability to protect her prisoners as a simple failure of political and bureaucratic will, but the shortage of such resolve was just one part of a more complex institutional disaster.  In this Paper, I argue that COVID exposed a remedial deficit between pandemic risks that were systemic and remedies that were not.  In so doing, I explore the surprisingly poor performance of the mechanisms that one might have expected to facilitate sufficient prisoner discharge: federal civil rights litigation, administrative release, and clemency power.

The systemic health risk at jails and prisons requires remedies that are fast and scalable, but existing discharge mechanisms are too slow, require too much multilateral consensus, and concentrate discharge powers in the wrong institutions.  To address future waves of pandemic infection, American jurisdictions should concentrate discharge powers in decision-makers who are closer to the most acutely affected localities.  A concentration-and-localization principle is also a model for a broader back-end decarceration strategy.

June 13, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)