Saturday, September 18, 2021

"'They’re Taking My Stuff!' What You Need to Know about Seizure and Forfeiture"

The title of this post is the title of this new report by Dan Greenberg with the Competitive Enterprise Institute.  Here is its executive summary:

Law enforcement officers in the United States seize billions of dollars in cash and other personal property from members of the public every year.  Most of this seized property is eventually forfeited to state and federal governments.  These seizures and forfeitures rarely require proof of criminal conduct; rather, they often rest merely on the suspicion that the property in question is related to a crime.  As critics of these practices have noted, seizure and forfeiture sometimes result in confiscation of the property of innocent, law-abiding civilians.  Furthermore, because the proceeds of forfeiture typically go straight to law enforcement budgets, this creates perverse incentives that make it more likely that law enforcement officers and prosecutors might devote disproportionate effort to this endeavor.

This paper explains how seizure and forfeiture work.  More precisely, it contains an account of the relatively minimal legal protections that law-abiding civilians have against both seizure and forfeiture.  The paper also provides strategies that the law-abiding civilian can use to reduce the chance of having property seized while traveling.

September 18, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 17, 2021

Making the important (but insufficient) claim that jurors should "know what the penalties for a guilty verdict will be"

A couple of month ago, I flagged here the notable new article by Daniel Epps and William Ortman titled "The Informed Jury."  I was pleased to see that this week Epps and Ortman brought their work to the pages of the Washington Post via this notable commentary under the headline "Jurors don’t know what the penalties for a guilty verdict will be. They should."  Here are some extended excerpts (with a bit of commentary to follow):

The American criminal justice system asks jurors to do something extraordinary: They make decisions that have enormous consequences for their fellow citizens’ lives — depriving them of freedom for decades, for example — without knowing those consequences in advance.  That’s because most American jurisdictions follow a rule of jury ignorance, meaning that neither judges nor lawyers may tell jurors what punishment a defendant could receive if convicted....

Keeping juries ignorant, however, exacerbates one of the U.S. criminal justice system’s worst tendencies — its inclination to grow more punitive.  Evidence from both history and social scientific experiments suggest that jurors are less likely to convict if they know a defendant’s punishment could be extremely harsh.  The rule of jury ignorance eliminates an important check on the system.  If politicians thought juries would be less likely to convict when a sentence was severe, for instance, they would be less likely to pass draconian laws.

Replacing ignorant juries with informed ones therefore could be an important criminal justice reform.  As a general rule, then, we propose that judges should tell jurors the range of sentences, including the statutory maximum and any mandatory minimums, that a defendant would face upon conviction. (We make the case in a forthcoming article in the Vanderbilt Law Review.)...

The argument that juries should be informed about sentences should appeal to both liberal and conservative justices of an “originalist” bent — with liberals focusing on how such a reform would democratize the criminal justice system, and originalists focusing on the fact that the ignorant jury lacks a solid historical foundation.

Indeed, juries informed about punishment were quite familiar to the founding generation.  In the 18th century, both in Britain and its American colonies, jurors understood that by finding a defendant guilty of a less serious crime (“libidinous actions,” say) instead of a more serious one (adultery), they could spare them from a death sentence.  Often they did exactly that, even when it was obvious to all that the defendant was guilty of the more serious offense.  It was only in the 19th century — when prisons and incarceration replaced the death penalty as the leading form of criminal punishment — that judges undermined jurors’ opportunity to shape punishment by shielding them from any knowledge of it....

Under our proposal, jurors would know about the punishments that await defendants on the other side of a guilty verdict: Judges would spell out the minimum and maximum sentences as part of their instructions to the jury.... In rare cases, juries would acquit even clearly guilty defendants where they saw the punishment as unjust.

But the transformative potential of informed juries goes beyond what they’d do in individual cases. Informing juries about punishment would alter the incentives for three key actors in criminal justice: Defendants might be more willing to roll the dice at trial (counting on juries to see the unfairness of sentences); prosecutors might think twice before “overcharging” (to avoid losing more cases); and lawmakers might hesitate before enacting severe penalties (after seeing the preceding developments). Informed juries could not single-handedly end mass incarceration or racial disparities, but they could be a step in the right direction....

Informed juries would also be more democratic juries; we’d effectively be asking a group of citizens to authorize a punishment before a judge could impose it. While most criminal laws are enacted at the state or national level, criminal juries are typically drawn more locally, from cities or counties.  Even when members of the communities impacted the most by punitive criminal justice are shut out of decision-making by lawmakers, they can still have a powerful impact in the jury room — if they have the relevant information on which to act.  Such juries would also better honor the spirit of the Constitution’s guarantee of a jury trial than the juries we have today.  Criminal juries were intended by the founders to be powerful checks on state power over criminal punishment; they weren’t supposed to just be narrow fact-finders.

How to bring this reform about?  Legislatures could direct courts to inform jurors about sentencing. Or courts could, on their own accord, reverse the wrong turn they made on juries more than a century ago. (Several federal court judges have expressed frustration over jury ignorance in recent years.)  By giving jurors the important power to determine the fate of those accused of crime, our system places a tremendous amount of trust in the judgment of ordinary people. We should trust juries with information that is critical to their making the soundest, most just decisions possible.

Long-time readers will not be surprised that I support this proposal.  Ever since being deeply moved by Justice Stevens' opinion in Apprendi and Justice Scalia's opinion in Blakely, I have been a avid supporter of having juries play a greater role in our criminal justice systems. (I even wrote an article some years ago making an originalist (and modern) argument that juries should be involved in federal habeas decision-making.) 

But I do not think it is enough to just have juries informed about sentencing possibilities, I think they should also have a direct role in sentencing decision-making.  Specifically, in order to better advance many of the sound goals that Epps and Ortman champion, I think citizen jurors, at least in the federal system, should be authorized and encouraged to provide sentencing advice to federal judges somewhat akin to how the federal sentencing guidelines now provide sentencing advice to federal judges.  That is, I would like to see citizen jurors provide a suggested sentencing range to federal judges, but that range would be advisory and serve as just one factor for the sentencing judge's consideration along with the other 3553(a) factors. 

Problematically, because roughly 95% of all criminal cases are resolved by pleas, informing jurors at a traditional trial only impacts a handful of cases.  I think Epps and Ortman are right that all other other actors in our criminal justice system will be impacted by informed jurors, but I am not sure the impact will always be significant (or positive).  But my vision of advisory federal sentencing juries includes the possibility of making them available in all cases even if the defendant chooses to accept guilt and plead guilty.  Of course, the parties could still bargain around these juries (just as now parties can sometimes bargain around the federal sentencing guidelines), but I suspect in a lot of challenging and important cases some or all of the parties would see the benefit of citizen juror involvement in making a suggested sentencing recommendation.

September 17, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Second Texas inmate gets execution stay based on religion claim SCOTUS considering in Ramirez

As reported in this post, the Supreme Court last week stayed the execution of John Ramirez and granted certiorari to consider Ramirez’s request that his pastor be allowed to physically touch him and audibly pray in the execution chamber while Ramirez is put to death by the state of Texas.  In this follow-up post, titled "A short de facto execution moratorium?: could other condemned inmates secure a stay until SCOTUS decides new Ramirez case on religious liberty?", I wondered aloud if the SCOTUS cert grant in Ramirez could produce a short de facto execution moratorium based on other death row inmates making a religious liberty claim like Ramirez’s request.

This new AP piece, headlined "Judge delays another Texas execution over religious freedom claims," reports that at least one other Texas inmate has secured an execution stay on the basis of Ramirez.  Here are the details:

Another Texas inmate has had his execution delayed over claims the state is violating his religious freedom by not letting his spiritual adviser lay hands on him at the time of his lethal injection.

Ruben Gutierrez was set to be executed on Oct. 27 for fatally stabbing an 85-year-old Brownsville woman in 1998.  But a judge on Wednesday granted a request by the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office to vacate the execution date. Prosecutors said the U.S. Supreme Court’s upcoming review of similar religious freedom issues made by another inmate, John Henry Ramirez, whose execution the high court delayed last week, will impact Gutierrez’s case.

“As the Ramirez matter may be dispositive of any issue related to Gutierrez’s religious liberty claim, it is in the best interest of the state, the family of the victim of Gutierrez’s crimes, that his execution be delayed,” prosecutors said in a motion filed Tuesday.

Gutierrez was previously an hour away from execution in June 2020 when the Supreme Court granted him a stay because his spiritual adviser was not allowed to accompany him in the death chamber.

Last month, Gutierrez’s attorneys filed a complaint in federal court alleging the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was violating his right to practice his religion by denying his request to have his priest touch his shoulder, pray out loud and perform last rites when he was executed.

Gutierrez, 44, said that these three things need to be done “to ensure my path to the afterlife,” according to his complaint.  His attorneys cited the Constitution’s First Amendment and a federal statute that protects an inmate’s religious rights. Ramirez made similar claims when he was granted a stay.

The Supreme Court has dealt with the presence of spiritual advisers in the death chamber in recent years but has not made a definitive ruling on the issue.  That could change after it hears oral arguments in Ramirez’s case on Nov. 1.

Prior related posts:

September 17, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Making the case for a ceiling on the trial penalty

Marc Levin has this notable new commentary on plea practices and the trial penalty over at The Crime Report under the headline "‘Planning for Losing’: A Lesson on Justice Reform from Afghanistan." I recommend the piece in full, and here is a taste:

Akin to a peace deal in the American justice system, plea agreements enable defendants to avoid the worst possible scenario in exchange for waiving their right to a battle at trial.  However, the current approach to these deals means a defendant who does not concede defeat upfront can obtain no assurance regarding their sentence if convicted.

This dynamic has led to a disparity or “trial penalty” that is so pronounced that, in addition to expending the processing of the guilty, it effectively coerces many innocent defendants to plead guilty.

A National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers report, for example, found that the average sentence for fraud defendants who went to trial in 2015 was three times higher than the sentence for those who pleaded guilty; for defendants charged with burglary and embezzlement, the sentence at trial was almost eight times higher.

Indeed, one simulation suggests that more than half of participants in an experiment would be willing to confess to a crime they didn’t commit in exchange for a significantly lower sentence. Some 15 percent of DNA exonerations, which generally involve charges for the most serious crimes, involve those who pleaded guilty....

The trial penalty that coaxes both the guilty and innocent to enter pleas is exacerbated by mandatory minimum statutes, which trigger automatic penalties if invoked by the prosecutor, as well as sentencing enhancements within the discretion of the prosecutor, such as whether to file notice with the court of a prior offense.

One potential solution for reining in the trial penalty is to require that any plea deal offered by prosecutors include a contingency guaranteeing that the sentence would be similar upon conviction at trial.  Under this scenario, defendants who exercise their right to go to trial might be entitled to a sentence that is the same or no more than 15 percent longer than the best offered deal.

Russell Covey, a professor at Georgia State University College of Law who has studied plea bargaining, has outlined how this sentence “ceiling” tied to the best plea offer could work in practice.  The late dean of Harvard Law School, James Vronberg, has also weighed in, arguing that a differential of 10 to 20 percent would be sufficient to entice defendants who are guilty to enter mutually beneficial plea agreements, and would not be coercive....

Whether in peace deals or plea bargaining, there is value in reaching an advance agreement on at least a range of ultimate outcomes that is contingent on one party’s defeat.  Yet current plea bargaining practice offers defendants an all-or-nothing proposition, requiring them to accept the risk of a far more severe sentence in order to pursue their constitutional right to trial and thereby test the evidence against them.

The imperative for ensuring a sentence bears some relationship to the plea offer is not just about avoiding people pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit.  It is also essential at the systemic level to achieve greater fairness and reduced sentencing disparities in the resolution of comparable cases.  Reining in the trial penalty will ensure the efficiency imperative does not sideline the pursuit of equity and due process.

September 16, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Convicted January 6 rioter, who (below-guideline) sentence of eight months in federal prison, seeks to undo his plea and sentence

This new Politico piece, fully headlined "First Jan. 6 rioter sentenced for a felony seeks to unwind plea deal; Paul Hodgkins is claiming through a new attorney that his signature on the deal was forged," reports on a notable post-sentencing effort by a notable defendant to undo his plea.  Here are just some of the interesting details:

The first Jan. 6 rioter sentenced for a felony charge began mounting a desperate bid Wednesday to unravel his plea agreement, claiming through a newly retained attorney that his signature on the deal was forged.  But the federal judge in the case, Randy Moss, expressed skepticism about the claim and noted it could even put Paul Hodgkins at legal risk, since he said under oath that he had reviewed and accepted the plea deal.

Hodgkins was charged with felony obstruction of Congress for breaching the Capitol and making his way to the floor of the Senate, where images show him donning gloves and rifling through some papers left in the evacuated room.  He pleaded guilty to the charge in June, while being represented by attorney Patrick Leduc, a JAG Reserve officer who later deployed to Qatar, where he is assisting with Afghan refugee rescue operations.

Moss sentenced Hodgkins in July to an eight-month jail term, far below the government’s recommended 16-month sentence, an acknowledgment that Hodgkins was among the first to accept responsibility for his role in the breach.  But Hodgkins’ new claim puts the matter into turmoil.  Hodgkins had asked Moss to delay his jail sentence, which is set to begin on Sept. 20, until January, giving him time to mount his effort to unwind the plea agreement.  But Moss rejected that attempt Wednesday afternoon, saying Hodgkins "has not demonstrated good cause for the requested four-month delay."

His new attorney, Carolyn Stewart, made the forgery allegation during a hearing called by Moss to address Hodgkins’ claim that Leduc provided ineffective counsel. She said she retained handwriting expert Curt Baggett to review the document and confirmed that it was not Hodgkins’ signature on the agreement.  Baggett, she said, would be willing to testify to it in court.  Stewart suggested that the allegedly forged signature was one of many irregularities tainting the case. “It’s mind boggling,” the defense attorney said, mentioning that she is attuned to such patterns because of her work as an intelligence analyst in Afghanistan. “These kinds of things keep popping up ... I’m floored.”

LeDuc said in an email to POLITICO that the claim of a forged signature was "insane" and that he painstakingly reviewed the deal with Hodgkins.  "I went over every single line of that plea agreement with Paul for about three hours to include the factual stipulations and he signed the thing in front of me and then came back and [re-signed] the other form as well," he said.  "Nothing happened in the case without Paul’s consent.  I don’t understand any of this this. It is insane and I am just so over it all."

In a phone interview, Baggett confirmed he conducted the analysis of Hodgkins’ handwriting at Stewart's request and indeed concluded the signature had been forged.  It’s unclear, though, what bearing the allegation has on Hodgkins’ guilt, since he entered the plea in an open court hearing and acknowledged his guilt for the alleged offenses, and Moss ran through many of the provisions of the deal with him.

The judge didn’t opine directly on the forgery allegation Wednesday, but he did note that the reason “a lot of time” was spent on the colloquy with Hodgkins is to “guard against” subsequent claims that the defendant didn’t understand the agreement or the consequences of pleading guilty.  Moss also warned Stewart that by claiming the signature was forged she could be suggesting that her client lied under oath in his statements at the plea hearing in June....

Stewart’s allegation appeared to rankle prosecutor Mona Sedky, who called the Florida-based lawyer a “relatively new” attorney and said some of the messages she’d gotten from the lawyer were unconventional.  “I’ve been tolerant of a lot of very strange and and unorthodox communications, for lack of a better word, and I’ve been not putting it in my pleadings and not raising it with the court out of respect to her,” the prosecutor said.

Prior related posts on Hodgkins:

September 15, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (13)

"COVID-19 Relief and the Ordinary Inmate"

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

As scholars and advocates have lamented the deficiencies of remedies pre- and post-conviction for the extraordinary, the “ordinary” are not saddled with slow and deficient remedies -- they have none.  This Essay explores this absence of such relief for those unable to make an extraordinary claim during the COVID-19 public health crisis of 2020.  For the ordinary men, women, and children held in custody in 2020 and beyond, pretrial detention and sentencing laws make no exception in the face of a potentially fatal contagion or the public health crisis it creates.  Yet, the pandemic highlights the reality that systematic flaws -- carceral systems that permit mass infection within and outside their walls and release triggers premised on extraordinary circumstances or conditions -- are a sort of roulette of disaster for ordinary people in custody who lack access to pre- and post-conviction relief.  As problematic as these flaws are, they also represent an opportunity to reconsider the priorities that animate such relief and to question (or reimagine) systems that rebalance those priorities not just around the lives of the extraordinary, but around the lives of the ordinary. 

September 15, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

NACDL produces notable new report on data-driven policing and racial bias in criminal justice system

As detailed in this new press release, "today, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) released its latest report – Garbage In, Gospel Out: How Data-Driven Policing Technologies Entrench Historic Racism and ‘Tech-wash’ Bias in the Criminal Legal System."  Here is  more from the release:

As explained in the report, in recent years, police departments have been turning to and relying on rapidly developing data-driven policing technologies to surveil communities, track individuals and, purportedly, predict crime.  These technologies include algorithmic decision-making that departments claim can predict where crime is likely to occur, who will likely commit crime, and who will likely be a victim.  These algorithms are thus designed to interrogate massive troves of data gathered in a myriad of ways, using inputs that can range from police-generated crime reports to publicly available social media posts.  The outputs are then used to make critical decisions about patrols, or to make life-altering designations of individuals.

The purpose of this Report is to: (1) call attention to the rapid development and deployment of data-driven policing; (2) situate data-driven policing within the racialized historical context of policing and the criminal legal system; (3) make actionable recommendations that respond to the reality, enormity, and impact of data-driven policing; and (4) suggest strategies for defense lawyers in places where data-driven policing technology is employed.

“This Report will contribute profoundly to the national conversation regarding the inhumane, unfair, and destructive impact of racism and bias in policing,” said NACDL President Martín Antonio Sabelli.  “As the title of the Report suggests, data-driven policing technologies amplify the effects of systemic racism in policing by collecting data based on racist policing (including, for example, overpolicing of communities of color) and treating that garbage data as gospel for future policing decisions. ‘White-washing’ this biased data does nothing more than give a veneer of respectability and an appearance of neutrality while entrenching problematic practices rooted in racism.  The report calls for the abandonment of data-driven policing, wherever possible, and transparency and accountability where such practices have already become entrenched.”

“For more than two years, NACDL’s Task Force on Predictive Policing conducted research and interviews across the nation, leading to this report and the recommendations and suggested strategies set forth in it,” explained NACDL Task Force on Predictive Policing Chair Cynthia W. Roseberry.  “This report works to demystify the practice of data-driven policing to ensure that those engaged in the essential work of combatting systemic racism in the criminal legal system can operate with full information.  This report is not only an important addition to the body of scholarship in this area, it will also serve as a vital tool for advocates and defenders alike.”

The Report’s major topics include (1) the history of policing and the economics of punishment, (2) the history of surveillance and the rise of big data, (3) the landscape of data-driven policing, (4) critical analysis of data-driven policing, (5) task force recommendations on data-driven policing technologies, (6) an overview of state and local legislation, (7) an overview of police departments that have suspended or terminated contracts with data-driven policing programs, and more.

The full 100+-page report is available at this link.

September 14, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 11, 2021

"Expanding Compassion Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic"

The title of this post is the title of this paper now on SSRN authored by Katie Tinto and Jenny Roberts. Here is its abstract:

Compassionate relief matters.  It matters so that courts may account for tragically unforeseeable events, as when an illness or disability renders proper care impossible while a defendant remains incarcerated, or when family tragedy leaves an inmate the sole caretaker for an incapacitated partner or minor children.  It matters too, as present circumstances make clear, when public-health calamities threaten inmates with literal death sentences.  It matters even when no crisis looms, but simply when continued incarceration would be “greater than necessary” to achieve the ends of justice.

September 11, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 09, 2021

A short de facto execution moratorium?: could other condemned inmates secure a stay until SCOTUS decides new Ramirez case on religious liberty?

As highlighted in this post, the Supreme Court late last night stayed the execution of John Ramirez, who was scheduled to be killed by Texas via lethal injection on Wednesday night.  Importantly, the Justices not only postponed this execution, it also granted certiorari to allow the Court to fully consider on the merits Ramirez’s request that his pastor be allowed to physically touch him and audibly pray in the execution chamber while Ramirez is put to death. 

Notably, the brief SCOTUS order called for an expedited briefing schedule "that will allow the case to be argued in October or November 2021."  But, even if the argument were to take place in (late) October, it seems pretty unlikely that the Court's ultimate ruling in Ramirez v. Collier will be handed down before late November.  And, as detailed here, Texas has six additional executions scheduled for between now and November 17, 2021.  I cannot help but wonder if some or all of these condemned inmates on Texas death row will now request that a religious official be allowed to physically touch them and/or audibly pray in the execution chamber while they are put to death.  If any or all other Texas inmates on death row now make such a religious request and it is denied by prison officials (and/or if Alabama and Missouri inmates scheduled to be executed in October make similar requests), wouldn't the balance of equities support a short stay of these other scheduled executions until the Supreme Court rules in Ramirez?

Perhaps Texas and other state officials will seek to go forward with executions despite any new Ramirez-type requests by other condemned inmates for religious accommodations in the execution chamber by asserting that any new request is not made in good faith and is only a last-minute (and too-late) effort to delay an execution.  But couldn't  an inmate respond, perhaps in good faith, that he did not even think such a religious accommodation was possible until John Ramirez litigated this issue and the Supreme Court decided to take it seriously.  I sense lower courts might be particularly wary of trying to judge whether a dying inmate's religious request is sincere.  Moreover, the fact that SCOTUS has fast-tracked this case might also enable death row inmates and their counsel to argue that any execution postponement to resolve a requested Ramirez-type religious accommodations would likely last only a few months.

Am I missing something and/or am I crazy to think that the SCOTUS cert grant in Ramirez could produce a short de facto execution moratorium until the Justices issue an opinion in Ramirez

September 9, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Interesting look at efforts to shine more light on, and get better results from, New York parole practices

Via email I learned of this lengthy article in the Fordham Law magazine discussing the interesting work of Fordham Law's Parole Information Project.  Here is part of the article (with links from the original):

Just as the pandemic has revealed racial disparities in access to health care (and vaccines), dig into New York State’s parole process and you will find racial disparities in access to justice.  An analysis by Albany’s Times-Union newspaper found that of 19,000 parole decisions made in New York State over the past two years, 41 percent of white inmates in New York State prisons were granted parole, while only 34 percent of Black inmates and 33 percent of Hispanic inmates were paroled.  And an earlier study by The New York Times found that fewer than one in six Black or Hispanic men were released at their first hearing, compared with one in four white men.

Overall, 12,000 incarcerated individuals are considered for parole in New York State every year, and a large majority are denied.  Worse, most of the families and pro bono lawyers who are trying to help these prisoners will never know why — the process is that opaque....

“Too often, with issues around mass incarceration, we look at the beginning of the system: who is getting arrested, the sentences they are getting,” says [Martha] Rayner, {who co-directs Fordham Law School’s Criminal Defense Clinic].  “But more and more, there’s a new understanding that if we are going to decarcerate [the prison population], parole is a key area of reform.”

Fordham Law School is on the cutting edge of that reform with its Parole Information Project, a unique database of parole documents that aims to make the archaic, Byzantine parole and parole-appeal process in New York State easier to navigate and more transparent.

With nearly 1,000 parole board transcripts and interviews, assessment reports, and appeal decisions online, all in a searchable, free, and publicly accessible database, it’s possible for families, advocates, attorneys, and, really, anyone, to discover which parole commissioners are making what decisions and exactly what happens in those once-mysterious parole and parole-appeal meetings, and to look for patterns and precedents that can aid anyone focused on parole be more effective and powerful in their efforts.

Now, in the wake of Black Lives Matter as well as two pending New York State laws aimed at reforming the parole system, Fordham Law’s parole project is ramping up. A $100,000 grant from Goldman Sachs will pay for a fellow focused on parole work and add crucial resources to expand the program. “The stars are aligned,” says Rayner, referring to both the grant and the aforementioned two New York State laws up for consideration that could make it easier for those eligible for parole to get it: the Fair and Timely Parole bill and The Elder Parole Bill.

The grant will also go a long way toward helping the parole project team overcome a number of challenges, as well as continue to grow the database. “For any meaningful statistical information, you need a certain volume of documents, and it takes time to get them, to redact names of individuals for privacy, and to revise the database to stay up to date with the most current laws,” explains Yael Mandelstam, the Maloney Library’s associate librarian for technical services.

September 9, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

SCOTUS stays Texas execution and grants cert on death row inmate's request for pastor's touch during execution

Texas was scheduled to execute John Ramirez this evening, but the Supreme Court blocked the effort as reported here at SCOTUSblog:

The Supreme Court agreed to postpone the execution of John Ramirez, who was scheduled to die on Wednesday night in Texas.  The last-minute respite will allow the justices to fully consider Ramirez’s request that his pastor be allowed to physically touch Ramirez and audibly pray in the execution chamber while Ramirez is put to death.

Ramirez’s emergency application was the latest in a series of shadow-docket requests in the past two years involving spiritual advisers at executions. But the justices are now poised to weigh in more definitively on the rights of inmates to have spiritual advisers at their side in their final moments: In the brief order putting Ramirez’s execution on hold, the court agreed to hear Ramirez’s appeal on its regular docket this fall.

Ramirez, who was sentenced to death for the 2004 murder of convenience-store clerk Pablo Castro, asked to have his Baptist pastor, Dana Moore, put his hands on Ramirez’s body and pray out loud as Ramirez is executed.  After Texas refused to grant that request, Ramirez went to federal court in August.  The district court rejected Ramirez’s bid to postpone his execution last week, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit turned down his plea to intervene.

The four cases that have previously reached the court centered on whether spiritual advisers could be present in the execution chamber at all....  Ramirez’s case involved a slightly different issue: what kind of aid a spiritual adviser can (and cannot) provide during an execution.  Ramirez came to the Supreme Court on Tuesday, asking the justices to put his execution on hold and to review his case on the merits.  He stressed that his filing was not a last-minute effort to delay his execution, because he had first raised the spiritual-adviser question over a year ago.  The state’s refusal to allow Moore to touch him and pray out loud, Ramirez argued, violates both his constitutional rights and the federal law guaranteeing religious rights for inmates.  Under the Texas policy, Ramirez emphasized in his reply brief on Wednesday, the execution chamber would be “a godless vacuum,” with Moore “no different from a potted plant.”...

In an order issued shortly before 10 p.m. EDT, the justices agreed to stay Ramirez’s execution and to hear his appeal on the merits. The court indicated that the case should be fast-tracked, with oral argument set for either October or November. There were no public dissents from Wednesday’s order.

September 8, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, September 06, 2021

"If Democrats don't think Robert Kennedy’s assassin deserves parole, do they really support criminal justice reform?"

The question in the title of this post is the subtitle of this new MSNBC commentary authored by Chris Geidner.  The main headline is "California may parole Robert Kennedy's assassin. Liberals aren't happy."  Here are excerpts:

Sirhan Sirhan, who was convicted of murdering Robert F. Kennedy 53 years ago, has been recommended for release by the California Board of Parole Hearings.  But, in a misguided effort that serves to reinforce the harsh practices that led to our incarceration explosion, some Democrats are fighting against the 77-year-old’s release. In doing so, they’re helping fuel the tough-on-crime rhetoric most often voiced these days by Republicans.

Sirhan was originally sentenced to death for murdering the presidential candidate and former attorney general as he campaigned in Los Angeles, but in 1972 his sentence was commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Sirhan has been denied parole 15 times — most recently in 2016. But on Aug. 27, the California parole board recommended his release.  After that recommendation, we quickly were reminded that the assassination from 53 years ago remains a present and painful memory to many Americans. It also became clear that some Democrats and progressives are willing to make exceptions to the criminal justice reforms they’ve claimed to support.

“I can’t pretend to know what’s going on in people’s minds,” Sirhan’s lawyer, Angela Berry, told me after the parole board’s recommendation.  “I think that wound is just so strong for people. They just can’t see that the board followed the law.”

That “they” includes opportunistic, “tough on crime” conservatives — but also liberal and progressive Democrats. “The news of Sirhan’s potential release hit me hard this weekend,” filmmaker Michael Moore wrote. “No, this assassin must not be set free.”

Few have voiced their opposition as loudly as Harvard Law School Professor Emeritus Laurence Tribe.  A longtime prominent liberal voice, Tribe has been on a nonstop campaign to stop Sirhan’s parole. Before the parole panel even met — with no apparent investigation, let alone evidence — Tribe, referring to Sirhan, wrote on Twitter, “Even at 77, he could be a threat.”...

Sirhan has been eligible for parole for several decades.  “The law presumes release unless the person poses a current unreasonable risk to the public,” Berry said.  “There wasn’t one iota of evidence to suggest this man is still dangerous.” The documents Sirhan submitted to the parole board included evidence from the state’s own experts that Sirhan “represents a Low risk for violence” and noted that his current age qualifies him for “elderly prisoner consideration” and the age at which he committed his crime means he should be treated as a “youthful offender.”...

Our system has become extremely carceral, but in 1972, when Sirhan was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, the idea that someone would serve more than 50 years in prison was way outside the norm.  As his submission to the parole board noted, “The proscribed punishment for first degree murder in 1968 was life with parole eligibility after 7 years.”  Throughout the country, we've not only increased sentences exponentially since then, but we've also decreased the use and availability of parole and clemency and deemed more activities criminal.

Democratic opposition to letting California’s parole system work as intended is a problem for a party that claims to support criminal justice reform.  Reformers in both parties have set goals to end over-sentencing, expand the use of clemency and parole and end overcriminalization.  But when Tribe, and even the Kennedys, speak in opposition to Sirhan’s parole, opponents of reform hear their “tough on crime” refrains being justified....

After initially arguing against Sirhan’s release, Moore wrote that his sister, a public defender, persuaded him to think more deeply about his position.  “If the Governor decides to let him go, I will try to find my peace with that,” Moore wrote.  “While offering my love to Kennedy’s family. And recommitting myself to the efforts of bringing about a more just system.”

A more just system means so many things, but, specifically here, it means letting parole work, and it means understanding that turning prisons into nursing homes for people who were practically children when they committed crimes is not only a financial mistake, it misunderstands our knowledge that people change and that older people overwhelmingly do not commit crimes.

Prior related posts:

September 6, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, September 03, 2021

"Inside the Black Box of Prosecutor Discretion"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Megan Wright, Shima Baradaran Baughman and Christopher Robertson. Here is its abstract:

In their charging and bargaining decisions, prosecutors have unparalleled and nearly-unchecked discretion that leads to incarceration or freedom for millions of Americans each year.  More than courts, legislators, or any other justice system player, in the aggregate prosecutors’ choices are the key drivers of outcomes, whether the rates of mass incarceration or the degree of racial disparities in justice.  To date, there is precious little empirical research on how prosecutors exercise their breathtaking discretion.  We do not know whether they consistently charge like cases alike or whether crime is in the eye of the beholder.  We do not know what sorts of limits, supervision, or guidelines prosecutors work within. And we do not know what sorts of information prosecutors rely upon, when making their decisions.  Prosecutors’ decisions have accordingly been called a “black box” for their inscrutability.

Until now.  We recruited over 500 prosecutors nationwide, and had them charge an identical case given identical substantive law, specify the plea bargain terms that they would seek, and explain their decisions.  We also learned about their internal office guidelines and procedures, and the information they rely upon when making charging and bargaining decisions.

Our study tells a story of surprising severity in how prosecutors dispose of a relatively mild case with no harm to victims, creating potentially devastating consequences for an offender suffering from apparent mental illness.  Taking advantage of our vignette-survey design, which presents the exact same case to hundreds of prosecutors, we also document wild heterogeneity in prosecutor charging practices, with some dismissing the case out of hand and others demanding months or years of incarceration.  We also find that many prosecutors lack meaningful guidelines or supervision.  Nonetheless, in our review of their qualitative explanations, we also find prosecutors aspiring to do justice, concerned about harm to victims and the rehabilitation of offenders, and considering their mental health and financial wherewithal.  From these findings, we shed light in an otherwise theoretically rich but empirically lacking area of criminal scholarship.

September 3, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Might SCOTUS be interested in taking up victim rights issues surrounding the Jeffrey Epstein case?

I find it somewhat surprising that the US Supreme Court has not yet ever taken up any cases dealing with the Crime Victims' Rights Act (CVRA), the 2004 legislation which significantly expanded the statutory rights of federal crime victims and creates duties on federal courts to ensure these rights are respected.  But, as highlighted by this new Politico article, headlined "Jeffrey Epstein accuser asks Supreme Court to uphold victims' rights," a high-profile case now provides them with a remarkable new opportunity to take up CVRA issues.  Here are the basics:

A woman who accused Jeffrey Epstein of sexually abusing her beginning when she was 14 is asking the Supreme Court to rule that federal prosecutors violated her rights by failing to consult her before cutting what critics have dubbed a sweetheart deal with the since-deceased financier and philanthropist.

The so-called nonprosecution agreement precluded U.S. authorities in south Florida from bringing federal charges against Epstein, despite similar allegations from dozens of women, if Epstein pleaded guilty to two state felonies related to soliciting a minor for sex.

Lawyers for Courtney Wild are asking the justices to overturn an appeals court ruling from June that held that Wild could not use a civil suit to enforce her rights under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, a law Congress passed in 2004 to guarantee victims of crime certain protections in the federal criminal justice system.

The 7-4 ruling from the full bench of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called the government’s actions in the case “shameful,” but concluded that while the statute gives victims rights to jump into federal criminal proceedings, it doesn’t allow them to sue when no such case was ever filed.

“The en banc decision leaves the Government free to negotiate secret, pre-indictment non-prosecution agreements without informing crime victims,” attorneys Paul Cassell, Brad Edwards and Jay Howell wrote in the high court filing.

Over at The Volokh Conspiracy, Paul Cassell yesterday had this lengthy post about his new cert petition under this full headline: "Was it Lawful for the Justice Department to Reach a Secret Non-Prosecution Agreement with Jeffrey Epstein Without Telling His Victims?: My cert petition to the U.S. Supreme Court asks it review the Eleventh Circuit en banc's decision concluding that Epstein's victims cannot enforce their right to confer with prosecutors under the Crime Victims' Rights Act because the Department never formally filed charges against Epstein." Here is how his post gets started (with links from the original):

Today I filed a cert petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to review whether crime victims can enforce their rights under the Crime Victims' Rights Act (CVRA) before prosecutors file charges.  The petition, filed by one of the nation's leading crime victims' attorneys, Bradley J. Edwards, and me on behalf of one of Epstein's victims — Courtney Wild — seeks review of a 7-4 en banc decision from the Eleventh Circuit.  The Circuit held that the CVRA is only triggered when prosecutors file federal charges. Before then, according to the Eleventh Circuit, prosecutors are free to conceal from victims any deal that they may strike with the target of a federal investigation — as they did in the Epstein case.  This issue has sweeping implications for the proper enforcement of the CVRA, and we hope that the Court grants Ms. Wild's petition to review this very important legal question.

September 1, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 30, 2021

Sixth Circuit invents another extra-textual limit on what can permit a sentence reduction under 3582(c)(1)(A), including one in contradiction of USSC guidelines

In this post earlier today, I noted and criticized the Third Circuit's work in US v. Andrews, No. 20-2768 (3d Cir. Aug. 30, 2021) (available here), for its embrace of extra-textual categorial exclusions as to what might qualify as extraordinary and compelling reasons to support a sentence-reduction motion under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).  Turns out, today was a special day for this kind of extra-textual policy work by the courts, as the Sixth Circuit in US v. Hunter, No. 21-1275 (6th Cir. Aug. 30, 2021) (available here), also decided to make up rules in this context:

As explained further below, the text and structure of § 3582(c)(1)(A) limit a district court’s discretion to define “extraordinary and compelling” in two ways relevant to this case. First, non-retroactive changes in the law, whether alone or in combination with other personal factors, are not “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for a sentence reduction. Second, facts that existed when the defendant was sentenced cannot later be construed as “extraordinary and compelling” justifications for a sentence reduction.

I have explained in a number of prior posts why the "first" point made by the Hunter court is unsupported by the text of 3582(c)(1)(A) (see here)  But the "second" point from the Hunter panel seems especially problematic and an especially misguided policy invention.  Congress instructed, in 28 U.S.C. § 994(t), that the US Sentencing Commission "describe what should be considered extraordinary and compelling reasons for sentence reduction," and the USSC has expressly stated, in USSG §1B1.13 application note 2, that facts that existed when the defendant was sentenced can later support a finding of "compelling and extraordinary" reasons for a reduction.  Here is this USSC application note in full:

2. Foreseeability of Extraordinary and Compelling Reasons. — For purposes of this policy statement, an extraordinary and compelling reason extraordinary and compelling reasons need not have been unforeseen at the time of sentencing in order to warrant a reduction in the term of imprisonment.  Therefore, the fact that an extraordinary and compelling reason reasonably could have been known or anticipated by the sentencing court does not preclude consideration for a reduction under this policy statement.

So, to review, Congress tasked the Sentencing Commission with describing how district courts should assess extraordinary and compelling reasons for a sentence reduction, and the USSC said that there is no preclusion on the consideration of facts known at the time of sentencing.  But, in contravention of the instructions of Congress and the work of the USSC, this Sixth Circuit panel has decided it can and should make up its own misguided rule that facts that existed when the defendant was sentenced cannot contribute to providing extraordinary and compelling reasons for a reduction.

As I see the Hunter opinion, it really seems like the panel was troubled by a murderer getting his sentence reduced to "only" 21 years in prison.  If the substantive merits of the reduction  so bothered the panel, I sure wish it would have explained its concerns with a focus on how the 3553(a) factors were weighed, rather than by making up a lot of problematic law concerning what cannot serve as the basis for finding an extraordinary and compelling reason.   As I have noted before, Congress set forth one (partial) express exclusion in § 994(t): "Rehabilitation of the defendant alone shall not be considered an extraordinary and compelling reason."  In light of this clear (and limited) statutory command, all other limits created by circuit courts appear to me to be extra-textual policy-making, not textual statutory interpretation.

August 30, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Third Circuit invents some extra-textual limits on what might permit a sentence reduction under 3582(c)(1)(A)

Over the last year, the federal circuits have started issuing various opinions concerning what factors may serve as the basis for compassion release in the wake of the FIRST STEP Act allowing courts to consider sentence-reduction motions under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  Of course, Congress long ago expressly instructed, in 28 U.S.C. § 994(t), that the US Sentencing  Commission "shall describe what should be considered extraordinary and compelling reasons for sentence reduction, including the criteria to be applied and a list of specific examples."  But the Commission has not had a quorum in the nearly three years since the FIRST STEP Act became law, so courts have had to figure out these matters on their own for now.

Given the statutory text enacted by Congress in 1984 and in 2018, I think the first big circuit ruling in this space had it right.  Specifically, the Second Circuit in September 2020 was the first circuit to rule in Zullo/Brooker, quite rightly in my view, that district courts now have broad discretion to consider "any extraordinary and compelling reason for release that a defendant might raise" to justify a sentence reduction under 3582(c)(1)(A).  That seemed right because Congress nowhere placed in the statutory text any categorical limits on what kinds of factors could qualify as "extraordinary and compelling."  Congress did set forth one (partial) express exclusion in § 994(t): "Rehabilitation of the defendant alone shall not be considered an extraordinary and compelling reason."  But this clear statutory command always led me to conclude that (1) any other factor could possibly be considered an extraordinary and compelling reason, and also (2) that rehabilitation of the defendant combined with other factors could be considered an extraordinary and compelling reason.

I provide this backstory to explain why I am troubled by part of the Third Circuit's work today in US v. Andrews, No. 20-2768 (3d Cir. Aug. 30, 2021) (available here).  The very first sentence of the Andrews ruling has a Kafka-esque "only in America" quality to it: "Eric Andrews is serving a 312-year sentence for committing a series of armed robberies when he was nineteen."  That a person at age 19 can get a 312-year sentence for a series of robberies strikes me as quite extraordinary and quite compelling, but the district court did not see matters that way.  Specifically, as described by the panel opinion, the district court decided that "the duration of Andrews’s sentence and the nonretroactive changes to mandatory minimums could not be extraordinary and compelling as a matter of law."  Of course, there is no statutory text enacted by Congress that sets forth this "as a matter of law."  But the Third Circuit panel here blesses the extra-textual notion that courts can and should invent some new categorial exclusions "as a matter of law" regarding what might qualify as extraordinary and compelling.  Sigh.

Here is some of the Third Circuit panel discussion (with some cites and parentheticals removed):

We begin with the length of Andrews’s sentence.  The duration of a lawfully imposed sentence does not create an extraordinary or compelling circumstance.  “[T]here is nothing ‘extraordinary’ about leaving untouched the exact penalties that Congress prescribed and that a district court imposed for particular violations of a statute.” United States v. Thacker, 4 F.4th 569, 574 (7th Cir. 2021). “Indeed, the imposition of a sentence that was not only permissible but statutorily required at the time is neither an extraordinary nor a compelling reason to now reduce that same sentence.” United States v. Maumau, 993 F.3d 821, 838 (10th Cir. 2021) (Tymkovich, C.J., concurring).  Moreover, considering the length of a statutorily mandated sentence as a reason for modifying a sentence would infringe on Congress’s authority to set penalties. See Gore v. United States, 357 U.S. 386, 393 (1958) (“Whatever views may be entertained regarding severity of punishment, whether one believes in its efficacy or its futility, these are peculiarly questions of legislative policy.” (citation omitted)).

The nonretroactive changes to the § 924(c) mandatory minimums also cannot be a basis for compassionate release.  In passing the First Step Act, Congress specifically decided that the changes to the § 924(c) mandatory minimums would not apply to people who had already been sentenced.  See First Step Act § 403(b).  That is conventional: “[I]n federal sentencing the ordinary practice is to apply new penalties to defendants not yet sentenced, while withholding that change from defendants already sentenced.”  Dorsey v. United States, 567 U.S. 260, 280 (2012).  “What the Supreme Court views as the ‘ordinary practice’ cannot also be an ‘extraordinary and compelling reason’ to deviate from that practice.” United States v. Wills, 997 F.3d 685, 688 (6th Cir. 2021).  Interpreting the First Step Act, we must “bear[] in mind the fundamental canon of statutory construction that the words of a statute must be read in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.” Util. Air Regul. Grp. v. EPA, 573 U.S. 302, 320 (2014)... And when interpreting statutes, we work to “fit, if possible, all parts” into a “harmonious whole.” Brown & Williamson, 529 U.S. at 133 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting FTC v. Mandel Bros., Inc., 359 U.S. 385, 389 (1959)).  Thus, we will not construe Congress’s nonretroactivity directive as simultaneously creating an extraordinary and compelling reason for early release.  Such an interpretation would sow conflict within the statute.

This ruling and others like it seem to me to have the framing wrong.  Sure, a lawfully imposed sentence, even one based on now-reduced mandatory minimums, will not and should not alone  always qualify in every single case as the sole basis for compassionate release.  (This is what making a change retroactive will do "as a matter of law," namely make every sentence imposed based on that law always eligible for a reduction in every single case.)  Defendants in these compassionate release cases are not arguing that a lawful, now-changed sentence serves as the sole basis for a reduction in all cases, rather they are just saying such facts can and should be considered by judges along with other factors in assessing whether there are extraordinary and compelling reasons for sentence reduction.  Since Congress has not expressly stated that these are improper factors, they can only become unlawful if and when judges start making up extra-textual limits on application of statutory law here.

A few of many, many prior related posts:

August 30, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, August 27, 2021

Lots of interesting sentencing issues as South Dakota's Attorney General avoids any incarceration after killing pedestrian

This AP piece, headlined "An Attorney General Won't Serve Any Jail Time For A Crash That Killed A Pedestrian," reports on the details of a notable resolution to a high-profile criminal case involving the top legal official in the Mount Rushmore State. Here are some details:

South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg pleaded no contest Thursday to a pair of misdemeanor traffic charges over a crash last year that killed a pedestrian, avoiding jail time despite bitter complaints from the victim's family that he was being too lightly punished for actions they called "inexcusable."

Circuit Judge John Brown had little leeway to order jail time.  Instead, he fined the state's top law enforcement official $500 for each count plus court costs of $3,742.  Brown also ordered the Republican to "do a significant public service event" in each of the next five years near the date of Joseph Boever's death — granting a request from the Boever family.  But he put that on hold pending a final ruling after Ravnsborg's attorney objected that it was not allowed by statute.

Ravnsborg said in a statement after the hearing that he plans to remain in office.  The plea capped the criminal portion of a case that led Gov. Kristi Noem — a fellow Republican — and law enforcement groups around the state to call for his resignation.  But he still faces a likely lawsuit from Boever's widow and a potential impeachment attempt.

Ravnsborg's statement accused "partisan opportunists" of exploiting the situation and said they had "manufactured rumors, conspiracy theories and made statements in direct contradiction to the evidence all sides agreed upon."  Noem, in a statement afterward, pushed the Legislature to consider impeachment and said she ordered the House speaker be given a copy of the investigative file. Impeachment proceedings halted in February after the judge barred state officials from divulging details of the investigation. Lawmakers indicated then that they might resume after the criminal case ended.

The attorney general was driving home to Pierre from a political fundraiser on Sept. 12 when he struck Boever, who was walking on the side of a highway. In a 911 call after the crash, Ravnsborg was initially unsure about what he hit and then told a dispatcher it might have been a deer. He said he didn't realize he struck a man until he returned to the crash scene the next day and discovered the body of Boever, 55.

Ravnsborg pleaded no contest to making an illegal lane change and using a phone while driving, which each carried a maximum sentence of up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Prosecutors dropped a careless driving charge.

Ravnsborg didn't attend the hearing — he didn't have to and was represented by his attorney, Tim Rensch. That angered Boever's family. "Why, after having to wait nearly a year, do we not have the chance to face him?" Boever's sister, Jane Boever, asked the court. She said "his cowardly behavior leaves us frustrated."

She said her brother was "left behind carelessly" the night he died. She accused Ravnsborg of running down her brother and then using his position and resources to string the case along. She said he has shown no remorse, and only "arrogance toward the law." Jane Boever called the punishment "a slap on the wrist."

"Our brother lay in the ditch for 12 hours," she said. "This is inexcusable." Boever's widow, Jennifer Boever, said Ravnsborg's "actions are incomprehensible and ... cannot be forgiven."

Rensch pushed back hard on the family's criticism, calling the attorney general an "honorable man." Rensch said Ravsnborg had been consistent from the beginning that he simply did not see Boever. And he noted that the case was "not a homicide case, and it's not a manslaughter case."

"Accidents happen, people die. It should not happen. No one wants anybody to die," he said. Rensch told reporters after the hearing that Ravnsborg had cooperated fully with investigators by sitting down for two interviews and allowing his phones to be analyzed. "Basically just take your shirt off and say, 'Here I am, bring it on.' I'll answer anything you've got, and that's what this guy did," Rensch said.

Beadle County State's Attorney Michael Moore, one of the prosecutors, agreed that the attorney general had been cooperative. He was also satisfied with Ravnsborg's punishment and the crash investigation. "Because of who it was and the high profile nature of the case, the investigation was a lot more thorough," he said.

After a months-long probe led to prosecutors charging Ravnsborg with the three misdemeanors in February, Noem put maximum pressure on Ravnsborg to resign, releasing videos of investigators questioning him. They revealed gruesome details, including that detectives believed Boever's body had collided with Ravnsborg's windshield with such force that part of his eyeglasses were deposited in the backseat of Ravnsborg's car.

Prosecutors said Ravnsborg was on his phone roughly one minute before the crash, but phone records showed it was locked at the moment of impact. Ravnsborg told investigators that the last thing he remembered before impact was turning off the radio and looking down at the speedometer. A toxicology test taken roughly 15 hours after the crash showed no alcohol in Ravnsborg's system, and people who attended the fundraiser said he was not seen drinking alcohol.

Ravnsborg adamantly denied doing anything wrong. He insisted he had no idea he hit a man until returning to the crash site and that he is worthy of remaining the state's top law enforcement officer. "Joe's death weighs heavily on me and always will," Ravnsborg said in his statement. "I've often wondered why the accident occurred and all the things that had to have happened to make our lives intersect."

Ravnsborg's insistence on remaining in office has opened a divide among Republicans, with him retaining support among some GOP circles. The attorney general has been spotted working booths for local Republican groups at county fairs in recent weeks. But popular predecessor Marty Jackley is already running for his old job and has collected the support of most of the state's county prosecutors. Political parties will select candidates for attorney general at statewide conventions next year....

Boever's family said they hope Ravnsborg is driven from office one way or another. "It is not too late for the state Legislature to resume impeachment proceedings," Jane Boever said. "And if they fail us, then it's left to the voters of South Dakota to remove him from the ballot box."

The sentencing nerd in me is struck by the fact that Judge Brown, in response to a request from the victim's family, "ordered the Republican to 'do a significant public service event' in each of the next five years near the date of Joseph Boever's death." I am not sure what that exactly means, but apparently the SD AG's lawyer thinks it is "not allowed by statute."  I also wonder if the possible, but not certain, prospect of Ravnsborg losing his job may have influenced the prosecutors to accept this deal.  (And, the Criminal Law professor in me also thinks this might be a good hypo when I teach omission liability next week.)

Because the exact facts are a bit opaque (e.g., was the victim killed instantly and why and how was he walking on a "highway"), I am still not sure what to make of this sentencing outcome.  But I would certainly be eager other perspectives.

August 27, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, August 26, 2021

California Supreme Court turns back broad challenge to state capital procedures

As detailed in this Los Angeles Times article, headlined "California’s top court declines to overhaul death penalty," a broad challenge to death penalty procedures was rejected by the California Supreme Court today.  Here are the basics:

The California Supreme Court on Thursday decided to leave the state’s death penalty law intact, refusing an entreaty from Gov. Gavin Newsom that would have overturned scores of death sentences.

In a unanimous decision, the state’s highest court said there was little legal support under state law for overhauling the law, as opponents of capital punishment urged. In fact, the court said, some of the precedents cited by defense lawyers actually undercut their position.

Defense lawyers had argued the state’s capital punishment law was unconstitutional because it failed to require jurors to unanimously agree beyond a reasonable doubt on the reasons why a defendant should be sentenced to death instead of life without possibility of parole. A decision to impose the death penalty also should be made beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard now used in deciding guilt, the lawyers said.

If the court had agreed, hundreds — if not all — death sentences would have had to be overturned because such decisions generally apply retroactively.

Justice Goodwin Liu, who wrote the ruling, said some of the cases cited by defense attorneys did not support their position. “If anything,” he said, they suggested “the ultimate penalty determination is entirely within the discretion of the jury.” The court did not reject the constitutional arguments raised by Newsom but said they did “not bear directly on the specific state law questions before us.”

In a concurring opinion, Liu said there was enough U.S. Supreme Court precedent to warrant reconsidering California’s death penalty rules in future cases. He noted that some other states have changed their capital punishment requirements as a result of more recent Supreme Court rulings on the 6th Amendment, which protects the trial rights of the criminally accused....

John Mills, who represented two scholars of the state Constitution as friends of the court, said the ruling and Liu’s concurrence have provided a road map for future challenges that may be more likely to succeed. He predicted death row inmates will soon bring the kinds of claims that Liu said might be persuasive but were not at issue in McDaniel’s appeal. “He was laying out some concerns that were not presented by Mr. McDaniel about the operations of the California death penalty statute that he is concerned may violate the federal Constitution,” Mills said. “Those issues remain an open question in California because they were not litigated in this case.”...

California has more than 700 inmates on death row, but legal challenges have stymied executions. Only 13 inmates have been executed since 1992, and Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions during his time in office.

The full 111-page opinion from the California Supreme Court is available at this link.

August 26, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Might Oklahoma really try to move forward with seven executions over the next six months?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new local article headlined "Oklahoma AG requests execution dates for seven state death row inmates." Here are the basics:

Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor late Wednesday asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to set execution dates for seven death row inmates, including Julius Jones. The action comes after the state put the death penalty on hold following the 2014 botched execution of Clayton Lockett, the 2015 execution of Charles Warner using the wrong drug, a review of the protocol and litigation.

O’Connor asked that Jones’ execution date be set for Oct. 28. Jones, who has waged a public relations campaign claiming innocence, is set for a Sept. 13 commutation hearing before the Pardon and Parole Board. However, with the O’Connor filing seeking an execution date, that could change to a clemency hearing a later date, said Tom Bates, Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board director.

The board has scheduled a meeting for next week to discuss the potential resumption of executions and the scheduling of clemency hearings. Jones was convicted of the 1999 murder of Edmond businessman Paul Howell.

O’Connor asked the court to set a Feb. 10 execution date for James Allen Coddington, who was sentenced to death for the 1997 killing of Albert Hale in Oklahoma County. He also requested that a Dec. 30 execution date be set for Donald Anthony Grant. He was sentenced to death for the 2001 murders of Del City motel workers Brenda McElyea and Suzette Smith.

An Oct. 7 date was requested by John Marion Grant Grant, who was sentenced for the 1998 killing of Gray Carter, a prison kitchen worker at the Dick Connor Correctional Center in Hominy. Wade Greely Lay, sentenced to death for the 2004 killing of a Tulsa security guard Kenny Anderson, was petitioned to be sentenced on Dec. 9.

The court was also asked to set a Jan. 20 execution date for Gilbert Ray Postelle. Postelle was convicted at trial of killing four people in 2005 outside a trailer in Del City. He received the death penalty for two of the murders.

A execution date of Nov.18 was requested for Bigler Jobe Stouffer.  Stouffer was sentenced to death for the 1985 killing of Putnam City teacher Linda Reaves.

I believe the have only been four state executions nationwide since the start of the pandemic nearly 18 months ago, so I am inclined to assume that this request for multiple execution dates over the next six months from the Oklahoma AG is mostly a symbolic effort primarily intended to signal the AG's eagerness to move forward with executions and to keep capital proceedings moving along.  But when former US AG William Barr announced his intent in 2019 to restart federal executions after a long delay, I underestimated just how effectual a motivated AG could be in getting the machinery of death back in action.  So stay tuned.

August 26, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Notably high-profile cases now the focus of parole decision-making

Perhaps in part because the federal system abolished parole nearly 40 years ago through the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, parole practices and parole reform often do not get the most attention in broad debates about criminal justice and sentencing policies.  But the majority of states still have parole as part of their justice systems, and this 2019 Prison Policy Initiative report makes the case that "most states show lots of room for improvement" in their parole practices.

I have general parole issues on the mind because two new press pieces about a couple of high-profile cases serve as a useful reminder of the import of parole decision-making and the array of actors who can impact this decision-making:

From The Hill, "Prosecutors for first time not opposing parole for RFK assassin Sirhan Sirhan"

Los Angeles prosecutors for the first time have decided not to oppose the release of Sirhan Sirhan, the man convicted of assassinating former Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) in 1968.  The Washington Post reported that Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón’s office is remaining neutral in the case and will not be present at Sirhan's parole hearing on Friday.

While prosecutors had opposed Sirhan’s release in 15 previous parole hearings, Gascón upon taking on his role in December 2020 said his office’s “default policy” would be to not attend parole hearings and to instead work to submit letters in support of inmates who have served mandatory minimums and no longer pose a threat to society. 

From The Guardian, "Black police groups call for ex-Black Panther jailed for 48 years to be released"

A coalition of current and retired Black police officers is calling for the release on parole of Sundiata Acoli, a former Black Panther member who has been incarcerated for 48 years for the 1973 murder of a New Jersey state trooper.

Four Black law enforcement groups have joined forces to press the case for Acoli’s parole almost half a century after he was arrested.  In an amicus brief filed with the New Jersey supreme court, they call his continued imprisonment “an affront to racial justice” and accuse the parole board of violating the law by repeatedly refusing to set the prisoner free.

August 26, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Unusual Fourth Circuit panel affirms federal convictions and death sentence for Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof

I noted in this post from May 2021 that an unusual Fourth Circuit panel had to be assembled to hear the capital appeal of Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof because all the member of the Fourth Circuit were recused.  The mass recusal resulted from the fact that now Circuit Judge Jay Richardson was in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Carolina in 2017 and the lead prosecutor on the Roof case.  And it meant that  Judge Duane Benton of the Eighth Circuit, Judge Kent Jordan of the Third Circuit and Senior Judge Ronald Gilman of the Sixth Circuit considered Roof's many issues on appeal.

That trio of judges today handed down a 149-page opinion in United States v. Roof, No. 17-3 (Aug. 25, 2021) (available here).  The per curiam opinion starts and concludes this way:

In 2015, Dylann Storm Roof, then 21 years old, shot and killed nine members of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (“Mother Emanuel”) in Charleston, South Carolina during a meeting of a Wednesday night Bible-study group.  A jury convicted him on nine counts of racially motivated hate crimes resulting in death, three counts of racially motivated hate crimes involving an attempt to kill, nine counts of obstructing religion resulting in death, three counts of obstructing religion involving an attempt to kill and use of a dangerous weapon, and nine counts of use of a firearm to commit murder during and in relation to a crime of violence.  The jury unanimously recommended a death sentence on the religious-obstruction and firearm counts, and he was sentenced accordingly. He now appeals the convictions and sentence.  Having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and 18 U.S.C. § 3595(a), we will affirm....

Dylann Roof murdered African Americans at their church, during their Bible-study and worship. They had welcomed him. He slaughtered them. He did so with the express intent of terrorizing not just his immediate victims at the historically important Mother Emanuel Church, but as many similar people as would hear of the mass murder. He used the internet to plan his attack and, using his crimes as a catalyst, intended to foment racial division and strife across America.  He wanted the widest possible publicity for his atrocities, and, to that end, he purposefully left one person alive in the church “to tell the story.” (J.A. at 5017.)  When apprehended, he frankly confessed, with barely a hint of remorse.

No cold record or careful parsing of statutes and precedents can capture the full horror of what Roof did. His crimes qualify him for the harshest penalty that a just society can impose.  We have reached that conclusion not as a product of emotion but through a thorough analytical process, which we have endeavored to detail here. In this, we have followed the example of the trial judge, who managed this difficult case with skill and compassion for all concerned, including Roof himself.  For the reasons given, we will affirm

In capital cases, it is pretty common for the losing party to seek en banc review. But, as was discussed in my May post, it is unclear whether and how an additional 12 judges would get appointed by designation in order to properly consider any en banc petition that might come next. Roof can, of course, proceed now to seek certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court (which will surely happen eventually even if he does seek en banc review).

A few of many prior related posts:

August 25, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, August 20, 2021

"Virtual Guilty Pleas"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Jenia Iontcheva Turner and available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The coronavirus pandemic led criminal courts across the country to switch to virtual hearings to protect public health.  As the pandemic subsides, many policymakers have called for the continued use of the remote format for a range of criminal proceedings.  To guide decisions whether to use remote criminal justice on a regular basis, it is important to review the advantages and disadvantages of the practice.

Remote criminal proceedings have been praised for their convenience and efficiency, but have also raised concerns.  Many have worried that videoconferencing inhibits effective communication between defendants and their counsel, hinders defendants’ understanding of the process, impedes effective confrontation of witnesses, and prejudices the court’s perceptions of the defendant and witnesses.

Previous scholarly work has attempted to evaluate remote criminal proceedings through legal and policy analysis, surveys of practitioners, and a comparison of outcomes of in-person and remote proceedings.  This Article adds insights based on direct observations of over three hundred remote criminal proceedings in misdemeanor and felony courts across Michigan and Texas.

Our observations reveal that judicial review of guilty pleas in the virtual setting is as brief and superficial as it is in person and may fail to detect inaccurate, coercive, or uninformed guilty pleas.  But the virtual format presents additional risks to the fairness and integrity of the plea process, including the disengagement from the process by defendants, the difficulty of counsel and defendant to communicate privately, and the potentially prejudicial effects of inadequate technology and informal settings.

The Article concludes by arguing that states should not use remote plea hearings on a regular basis after the pandemic is over.  To the extent they do continue conducting remote plea hearings, they must bolster procedural safeguards in the proceedings.  Judges must review virtual pleas and plea agreements more closely, verify that defendants are making an informed and voluntary choice to proceed remotely, take measures to ensure that defendants are represented adequately, and address the potentially prejudicial effects of the remote setting.  These measures can help protect fairness in the plea process and ensure that virtual guilty pleas remain constitutionally valid.

August 20, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Second Circuit panel reverses 48-month (way-below-guideline) sentence as substantively unreasonable for abused woman who provided material support to ISIS

Regular readers know I do not blog much these days about federal sentence reasonableness review because there are not that many blogworthy opinions.  Out of many thousands of appeals brought by federal defendants each year, typically only a few hundred are successful, and all but a few dozen involve miscalculation of the guideline range.  The government rarely appeals, though it has a much better success rate in the relatively few appeals it brings each year. 

In one particular (and relatively rare) categories of cases, the government has a particularly notable history of appellate success when arguing a sentence in unreasonably lenient (see posts linked below for some historical examples).  This category is terrorism cases, and a Second Circuit panel added another example in this category with its ruling today in US v. Ceasar, No. 19-2881 (2d Cir. Aug. 18, 2021) (available here).  Federal sentencing fans will want to review this 53-page opinion in detail, but here is the opinion's introduction:

It is undisputed that beginning in or around January 2016, the defendant-appellee, Sinmyah Amera Ceasar, conspired to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria ("ISIS"), in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2339B(a). Using social media and the encrypted messaging application Telegram, Ceasar expressed her support for ISIS, encouraged others to join ISIS abroad, and helped individuals in the United States contact ISIS members overseas. The overseas ISIS members then facilitated U.S.-based ISIS supporters' travel to ISIS-controlled territory. Ceasar herself intended to travel to ISIS territory by way of Sweden, where she planned to marry another ISIS supporter. In November 2016, Ceasar was arrested at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on her way to Sweden via Turkey. Following her arrest, Ceasar entered into a cooperation agreement with the government in which she pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. In April 2018, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York granted her presentence release.

While on presentence release, Ceasar reoffended.  Despite the fact that the conditions of her release explicitly prohibited her from contacting individuals or organizations affiliated with foreign terrorist groups, Ceasar obtained a laptop computer, recreated pseudonymous social media accounts, and resumed contacting or attempting to contact several individuals known to be supporters of ISIS or other extremist groups.  The FBI, investigating Ceasar's conduct, found that she had intentionally deleted incriminating communications and had instructed others with whom she had been in contact to do the same.  The bond underlying her presentence release was revoked, and she was remanded pending sentencing. When the FBI interviewed Ceasar about her conduct while on presentence release, she made a significant number of false and misleading statements....

Mental health professionals who met with and treated Ceasar characterize her conduct as a misguided search for community stemming from a lifetime of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse and neglect.  Beginning in her childhood, Ceasar's father sexually abused her.  At age 13, she entered the foster care system and was abused or neglected in each home in which she was placed.  While Ceasar has never been legally married, she entered into three successive so-called "religious marriages" with older men, beginning when she was 16.  In each of those marriages, her husband physically or emotionally abused her.  Ceasar was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the abuse and trauma she endured.

Ceasar faced a Sentencing Guidelines range of 360 to 600 months' imprisonment.  Prior to sentencing, the district court ordered the government and Ceasar to provide expert witness testimony or other materials to assist in its sentencing determination.  The district court held a multiday sentencing hearing at which two government and three defense experts testified as to Ceasar's involvement with and support of ISIS and whether she would be likely to reoffend. 

The district court concluded that the advisory Guidelines range was "excessively harsh" and varied downward from it dramatically.  The court found that Ceasar was motivated by the abuse and trauma she suffered most of her life, and that she needed educational and mental health support in lieu of a long prison sentence.  On June 26, 2019, despite the Guidelines minimum of 360 months, the court imposed a 46-month sentence on Ceasar for the Material Support Offense, one month for the Obstruction Offense, and one month for committing an offense while on presentence release, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3147, all to run consecutively for a total term of 48 months' imprisonment.  Because she had been in custody from the time of her arrest in November 2016 until she was granted presentence release in April 2018, and was then remanded to custody on July 19, 2018 (following her violation of the conditions of her presentence release), Ceasar served only 13 additional months from the time of sentencing (June 26, 2019) until she was released from prison on July 28, 2020. 

The government appealed on substantive reasonableness grounds, arguing that the district court abused its discretion by considering Ceasar's need for rehabilitation to the exclusion of other sentencing factors, and that this mitigating sentencing factor could not bear the weight assigned to it. The government further argues that Ceasar's sentence was shockingly low compared with other sentences imposed for similar crimes. 

We are not without sympathy for Ceasar, but we are constrained to agree with the government. We conclude that the district court placed more emphasis on Ceasar's need for rehabilitation than that sentencing factor could bear, and failed adequately to weigh section 3553(a) factors that balance the needs and circumstances of an individual defendant against, among other things, the goals of protecting the public, deterring criminal behavior, and engendering respect for the law. We further conclude that in comparison with sentences for similar terrorism crimes, Ceasar's sentence of 48 months' imprisonment was shockingly low and unsupportable as a matter of law. We therefore vacate the judgment of the district court and remand for resentencing.

Prior posts on similar reasonableness ruling:

August 18, 2021 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

“The Case for a Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Prosecution"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new white paper produced by Fair and Just Prosecution.  Here is its executive summary:

THE NEED FOR A PRESIDENTIAL TASK FORCE ON 21ST CENTURY PROSECUTION

The United States currently incarcerates its residents at the highest rate of any democratic country in the world.  This system of mass incarceration disproportionately impacts Black and brown Americans, disrupts communities, and bloats budgets, all while impeding the mission of public safety it purports to promote.  Prosecutors wield a vast amount of discretion and authority within the criminal legal system — and therefore share responsibility for those systemic failings — yet they also hold the power to bring about systemic transformation.  The Biden-Harris administration has a vital role to play in catalyzing innovation and helping prosecutors nationwide chart a path to greater justice and equity for their communities.  A new generation of local elected prosecutors are modeling that potential and are reimagining the role of prosecutors. We propose a Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Prosecution to build on — and help perpetuate — that movement.

PROPOSED FOCUS

Seventeen pillars would serve as the basis for a series of hearings and focus the Task Force’s work:

  • Understanding the historical legacy of the prosecutor
  • Promoting deflection, diversion, and shrinking the system
  • Advancing racial and ethnic justice
  • Addressing the poverty penalty and bail reform
  • Promoting harm reduction, saving lives, and drug policy reform
  • Misdemeanor justice
  • Better serving crime survivors
  • Understanding, preventing, and addressing violence
  • Juvenile and young adult justice
  • Preventing officer-involved shootings and enhancing police accountability
  • Improving conditions of confinement
  • Implementing post-conviction justice, fair sentencing, and sentencing review
  • Accounting for collateral consequences and promoting expungement
  • Addressing mass supervision and improving reentry
  • Envisioning success, metrics, and culture change
  • Ensuring ethics, accountability, and transparency
  • Propelling change and investing in transformation....

GOALS AND OUTCOMES

We recommend that the Task Force produce:
  • A final report that identifies successful prosecutorial reforms and innovation, lays out key challenges to implementing change, details promising practices, and offers specific and tangible goals paired with policy and program recommendations that could include improving the safety and well-being of our communities, dramatically reducing jail and prison populations, ending racial disparities, and enhancing transparency and accountability;
  • A strategic roadmap to incentivize and fund change and innovation, including by encouraging and enabling specific federal laws, policies, resources, and grants to help support and propel systemic transformation; and
  • A concrete implementation plan, including the creation of an implementation oversight group and ongoing technical assistance from key federal government bodies and leaders.

August 17, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Can Restorative Justice Conferencing Reduce Recidivism? Evidence From the Make-it-Right Program"

The title of this post is the title of this new NEBR working paper authored by Yotam Shem-Tov, Steven Raphael and Alissa Skog. Here is its abstract:

This paper studies the effect of a restorative justice intervention targeted at youth ages 13 to 17 facing felony charges of medium severity (e.g., burglary, assault).  Eligible youths were randomly assigned to participate in the Make-it-Right (MIR) restorative justice program or to a control group in which they faced criminal prosecution.  We estimate the effects of MIR on the likelihood that a youth will be rearrested in the four years following randomization.  Assignment to MIR reduces the likelihood of a rearrest within six months by 19 percentage points, a 44 percent reduction relative to the control group.  Moreover, the reduction in recidivism persists even four years after randomization.  Thus, our estimates show that juvenile restorative justice conferencing can reduce recidivism among youth charged with relatively serious offenses and can be an effective alternative to traditional criminal justice practices.

August 17, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 15, 2021

"Bridging the Gap: A Practitioner’s Guide to Harm Reduction in Drug Courts"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Center for Court Innovation and authored by Alejandra Garcia and David Lucas. Here is the first part of the report's introduction:

Drug law reforms across the country are trending toward decriminalization and public healthinformed responses, and away from the carceral strategies of the past. These historic changes are likely to impact drug court operations significantly. Fewer drug-related arrests means fewer referrals to drug courts, and a lighter hand in sentencing will reduce the legal leverage that has long been used to incentivize participation. The overdose crisis, COVID-19, and renewed demands for racial equity and legal system transformation have also given rise to a more expansive discourse around drug use, mental health, and community safety. Alongside this shift, harm reduction initiatives are being supported at the local, state and federal level on a scale never seen before.

At their inception, drug courts represented a new way of thinking about the intersection of addiction and crime in society. Offering a treatment alternative to jail or prison, the model aimed to address the harms — and ineffectiveness — of incarcerating drug users. Today, however, criminal legal system reformers are calling into question some of the model’s most defining features, which remain largely coercive and punitive. Moving forward, drug courts can expect to face increasing pressure from public health experts and harm reduction advocates to abandon the abstinence-only model, eliminate jail sanctions, and overhaul their drug testing protocols.

This document is an attempt to provide a fresh perspective on several foundational drug court practices and the inherent challenges of this work. It argues that the most effective way for drug courts to evolve — and do less harm — involves integrating the practices and principles of harm reduction. Drug courts and the harm reduction movement will continue to co-exist for some time and face similar system barriers while serving many of the same people. As such, this document represents a conversation that is new and necessary — one that aims to bridge the gap between these contrasting paradigms for the benefit of those who participate in drug courts.

August 15, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Part 3 of Prof Slobogin discussing Just Algorithms

6a00d83451574769e20282e1172fad200b-320wiIn this recent post, I explained that I asked Prof Christopher Slobogin to share in a set of guest posts some key ideas from his new book, Just Algorithms: Using Science to Reduce Incarceration and Inform a Jurisprudence of Risk.  Here is the third and final post of this set (following the first and second).

--------

In two previous blogs about my new book, Just Algorithms: Using Science to Reduce Incarceration and Inform a Jurisprudence of Risk (Cambridge University Press), I described its thesis that risk assessment instruments (RAIs) can reduce incarceration in a cost-effective manner, and the “jurisprudence of risk” it advances that aims to ensure accurate and fair instruments that, among other things, avoid racially disparate outcomes.  To take full advantage of risk assessment’s potential for curbing incarceration and rationalizing sentencing, however, we must also rethink our current punishment regime, which is another goal of the book.

In the past 50 years, a large number of states have moved away from indeterminate sentences controlled by parole boards toward determinate sentencing, which shifts power to prosecutors who can now essentially dictate the sentence received after trial through the charging decision.  Most of the states that have not adopted determinate sentencing have effectively gone in the same direction by significantly circumscribing the authority of parole boards to make release decisions.  These changes were understandable, given the dispositional disparities that occurred with indeterminate sentencing, the checkered history of parole boards, and the difficulty of assessing risk and rehabilitative potential.

With the advent of more accurate and objective predictive algorithms, however, indeterminate sentencing should be given a second chance. More specifically, while judges should still impose a sentence range that is determined by desert, risk-needs algorithms should be instrumental in determining whether offenders who are imprisoned stay there beyond the minimum term of that sentence.  Sentencing would no longer be based on convoluted front-end calculations which attempt to divine the precise culpability of the offender, tempered or enhanced by the prosecutor’s or the judge’s speculative intuitions about deterrence, risk or rehabilitative goals.  Rather, after the judge imposes the retributively-defined sentence range based on the charge of conviction, offenders would serve the minimum sentence (which for misdemeanors and lower level felonies may not involve prison), and only be subject to prolonged restraint if they are determined to be high risk via a validated RAI.  In this form of limiting retributivism, desert would set the range of the sentence, risk its nature and duration.

With this type of sentencing system, not only will the arbitrariness of the old parole-driven scheme be reduced, but the power structure within the criminal justice system will be profitably re-oriented.  Today, the plea bargaining process allows prosecutors to threaten draconian sentences that bludgeon defendants, even innocent ones, into accepting convictions without trial.  If, instead, post-trial dispositions within the sentence range depend on a parole board’s determination of risks and needs, the ultimate disposition after a trial will be unknowable, and prosecutorial bargaining power inevitably would be reduced. Defendants can turn down prosecutorial offers with virtual impunity if they are considered low risk.  And even high risk defendants might want to roll the dice with the parole board. Innocent people would be much less likely to plead guilty, and guilty people would be much less likely to acquiesce to harshly punitive bargains.  The prosecutor’s main leverage will come from offers of reduced charges or alternatives to prison, because with parole boards controlling release, threats to recommend the maximum sentence to the judge will be meaningless.

These proposals may appear to be radical. But in fact they merely reinstate a version of the sentencing regimes that existed in much of this country before the middle of the twentieth century, when dispositions were more flexible and plea bargaining and guilty pleas were less dominant.  At the same time, a key difference in these proposals, and the primary reason rejuvenating indeterminate sentencing is justifiable, is the reliance on risk assessment algorithms.  Without them, judges and parole boards are simply guessing about dangerousness, and their default judgment — absent heroic efforts to resist public pressure and normal human risk-averseness — will be to find that offenders pose a high risk of reoffending.  With them — and assuming their results are treated as presumptive — judges who refuse to imprison an offender and parole boards that make a release decision can point to known base rates (which, in the case of violent crime, are very low) and can blame the algorithm if things go awry.

The overarching hypothesis of this book is this: Whether implemented prior to trial in lieu of the bail system, or post-conviction in lieu of unstructured predictive decision-making, just algorithms can be a central component of any effort to reduce the human and financial cost of incarceration, without sacrificing public safety.  That hypothesis may be wrong, but it is worth a fair test.  Because when developed and used in a manner consistent with a coherent jurisprudence of risk, algorithms could be the single most potent mechanism we have for bringing about real reform of the American criminal justice system.

I want to thank Doug Berman again for letting me describe my book on his Sentencing Law & Policy Blog.

August 11, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Case for Pattern-and-Practice Investigations Against District Attorney’s Offices"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Rory Fleming.  Here is its abstract:

Prosecutorial misconduct is a serious issue and one that is notoriously hard to combat.  Frustrated with the inaction from state bars, reformers have embraced alternative accountability strategies, such as prosecutor elections and civilian review boards.  Another tool for additional accountability is the pattern-and-practice investigation under 42 U.S.C. § 14141.  Frequently used as a federal intervention tool against errant police departments, the statute has only been used the local prosecutor context once.  Even so, it has untapped potential as a tool to make consistently high-problem local prosecutor's offices comply with their ethical duties under the rules in Brady, Batson, and other Supreme Court decisions.  Upon finding that the evidentiary threshold of a pattern of practice of constitutional violations has been met, the Justice Department can negotiate a settlement agreement that legally binds the local prosecutor's office to take action to ameliorate the issues leading to the status quo.  Several factors, such as a local prosecutor's jurisdiction experiencing a particularly high number of reversals due to misconduct and striking a particularly high number of minorities during voir dire, should inform DOJ's priorities, if it decides to act. 

August 11, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

New Minnesota law provides for prison alternatives for veterans involved in lower-level offenses

In a number of prior posts (some linked below), I have spotlighted discussions and debates over whether and how past military service can and should be brought to bear at sentencing.  Against that backdrop, I was intrigued to see this local report on a new state law headlined "Minnesota officials laud Veterans Restorative Justice Act as an 'opportunity to have another path'."  Here are the particulars:

Minnesota veterans that commit a criminal offense as a result of a service-related condition could be granted a pathway to restitution without jail time under a measure approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz....

The so-called Veterans Restorative Justice Act sets up alternate courses through the criminal justice system for veterans that struggle with injuries, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma or chemical exposure.  Veterans facing lower-level offenses would be eligible to be placed on probation and complete rehabilitation and county programming rather than going to jail.  And those who completed their rehabilitation and treatment requirements could see their charges wiped away under the program.

Veterans courts allow for similar opportunities in certain parts of the state, but the law will make those options available statewide, the law's supporters said.  "This is an opportunity for those veterans that are having those difficulties with the reintegration to have some help and assistance, something other than just going to jail, this gives them an opportunity to have another path," Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Herke said.

Jeff Johnson, a Ramsey County Veterans Court graduate, said completing the treatment and rehabilitation programs required through the specialty court helped him reacclimate to civilian life after 24 years of active duty service. "When I got out, I'll be honest with you, even though I grew up here in Minnesota ... I felt like a Martian. It takes a lot of adjustment to figure out the society I hadn't participated in in 24 years," Johnson said. "(Veterans Court) is not a place where a veteran gets his or her life back, not in the least. They get a new life."

Advocates spent years attempting to pass the proposal in St. Paul before the divided Legislature agreed to advance it earlier this year.  And both Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday commended the veterans advocacy organizations for keeping up the push to get the proposal through the Statehouse.

Some (of many) prior related posts:

August 11, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Another reminder that "old law" federal prisoners are still awaiting compassionate equal treatment

A few months ago, I blogged here about an NPR story regrading so-called "old law" federal prisoners, persons who committed federal crimes before November 1987 and who are not currently able to apply to a judge for compassionate release under the FIRST STEP Act. NPR returned to this story recently with this new piece headlined "Some Older Prisoners Aren't Eligible For Compassionate Release. Lawmakers Want Change." Here are excerpts:

COVID-19 has exacted a terrible toll inside America's prisons, spreading there at six times the rate as among the general population. The coronavirus pandemic motivated tens of thousands of incarcerated people to request early release on the grounds that their old age and health troubles made them especially vulnerable.

But the Federal Bureau of Prisons told lawmakers that of the nearly 31,000 prisoners to request compassionate release, the BOP approved just 36. Thanks to Congress, many had another option.  The First Step Act gave them the opportunity to go to court and persuade a judge they should win compassionate release.  More than 3,000 people have won their freedom that way during the pandemic.

But that law overlooks a small group of people in federal prison who were convicted of crimes before November 1987. One of them is Kent Clark.  NPR focused on Clark and other "old law" prisoners in a story this year.  Clark's cousin said Clark had lost his memory during his 31 years in prison.  After the story ran, public defender Rahul Sharma finally got Clark's medical records.

"They showed he has moderate to severe dementia, borderline blindness, tooth loss, severe depressive disorder, gout, cardiac arrhythmia and honestly just severe pain throughout his body," Sharma said.  He said Clark had been wandering into other people's prison cells and kept a list of things he needed to remember to do every day, like going to the bathroom and wearing a mask.  "It was found by the facility, by the prison, that he was a real danger to himself, given the severity of his dementia," Sharma said.

Clark has now been moved to a hospital in Florida where he's guarded by corrections officers, with one arm chained to the hospital bed and irons on his legs.  The warden has denied Clark's request for compassionate release.  Sharma said Clark, now 66, is deteriorating rapidly.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is leading efforts to make "old law" prisoners eligible to petition a judge for compassionate release.  A bill moving through Congress would change the law to make "old law" prisoners eligible to petition a judge for compassionate release.  The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the measure by a bipartisan vote of 14-8 in May.

Democrats hope to bring it to the full Senate this fall, saying the bill would fix a glaring injustice.  Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is leading the charge.  "'Old-law' offenders are some of the most vulnerable and deserving of relief in federal prisons," Durbin said in a written statement.  "There is no logical or moral reason to exclude these offenders from the opportunity to petition the court for compassionate release."  Durbin called it a "modest, but necessary" reform and pointed out that the top Republican on the committee, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, is on board.

But some Republican senators, like Arkansas' Tom Cotton, are resisting.  "Most of this bill is just an expansion of criminal leniency policies for serious offenders under the guise of protecting inmates," Cotton said at a committee meeting this summer.

Mary Price, the general counsel of FAMM, a group that advocates for incarcerated people and their families, said that giving people in prison the option of petitioning a judge for release is not a "get-out-of-jail-free card."  Indeed, Price said, only about 20% of people in prison who sought compassionate release during the pandemic have been approved by judges.

August 10, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 09, 2021

Tale of two sentencings highlights disparity and need for for better data

This lengthy new article from Cleveland.com spotlights a local example of sentencing disparity and highlights how this tale contributes to calls for statewide data-focused reforms.  The headline of the article provides a preview: "White woman who stole $250K gets probation, while Black woman who stole $40K goes to jail.  Disparate sentences spark calls for reform."  Here is how the article gets started:

Two Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judges doled out disparate sentences this week to women who stole public money in separate cases, reigniting calls to create a statewide sentencing database to ensure judges mete out fair punishments.

A white woman stole nearly $250,000 from the village of Chagrin Falls.  Judge Hollie Gallagher sentenced her on Monday to two years of probation.  A Black woman who stole $40,000 from Maple Heights City Schools went before Judge Rick Bell, who sentenced her Tuesday to 18 months in prison.

Leaders of Black faith organizations, labor organizations, current and former judges and social activist groups all told cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer that the stark difference between the sentences damaged the credibility of the criminal justice system and reinforced the sentiment that judges disproportionately punish people of color or those without means.

All of the leaders called on Cuyahoga County’s judges and judges around the state to join an Ohio Supreme Court pilot project that would create a public database to make transparent how judges sentence defendants and provide guardrails on judicial discretion that often results in unequal justice.  Only 10 of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court’s 34 judges have said they plan to sign on to the program. Six of those judges are in their first term on the bench.

“It’s kind of hard to figure how you can end up with results that are so different for similar kinds of actions,” former longtime Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Ronald Adrine said.  “Cases like these point out the need for the system to do a better job of reviewing the data because there’s lots of disparity between the way that people of color and white people are treated. But it doesn’t get captured because nobody’s really looking.”

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Michael Donnelly, who spent 14 years on the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas bench before ascending to the state’s highest court in 2019, and 8th District Court of Appeals Judge Sean Gallagher said the adoption of the database would move the state closer to identifying and correcting issues that contribute to disparities in sentencing.  “Are we satisfied with a system that would allow for two extremely different results like this?” Donnelly asked.  “Is that good policy? Does it make the community more safe, when our sentencing laws allow for that disparity? We need to ask that question in Ohio.”

Both judges said that, while judicial discretion is important, the reaction to this week’s differing sentences shows the state needs to do more to ensure that judges punish people who commit similar crimes more equally.  “If there isn’t faith in the justice system that you’re going to get a fair shake, then that’s the biggest indictment against keeping the things the way they are,” Gallagher said.

A few prior related posts:

August 9, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Part 2 of Prof Slobogin discussing Just Algorithms

6a00d83451574769e20224df387165200bIn this recent post, I explained that I asked Prof Christopher Slobogin to share in a set of guest posts some key ideas from his new book, Just Algorithms: Using Science to Reduce Incarceration and Inform a Jurisprudence of Risk.  Here is the second of the set.

--------

In a previous blog post on my new book Just Algorithms: Using Science to Reduce Incarceration and Inform a Jurisprudence of Risk (Cambridge University Press), I made the case for using risk assessments instruments (RAIs) in the pretrial and post-conviction process as a means of reducing incarceration through providing more accurate and cost-effective assessments of the risk of reoffending.  But not all risk assessment instruments are created equal.  Although algorithms, on average, are superior to unstructured judgment when it comes to prediction, many are seriously defective in a number of respects.  A major goal of my book is to provide a set of principles meant to govern the development of these instruments and to guide judges and other criminal justice actors in determining which measures to use and for what purposes.  Influenced by insights gleaned from the algorithms themselves, it advances, in short, a much-needed “jurisprudence of risk” analogous to the jurisprudence of criminal liability that has long governed the definition of crimes and the scope of punishment.

The first part of the book’s title points to one important aspect of this jurisprudence.  If the recommendations in this book are followed, the usual approach taken by legal decision-makers — which is to treat the algorithmic forecast as simply one factor relevant to risk assessment — would generally be impermissible.  “Adjusting” the results of a well-validated RAI, based on instincts and experience, defeats the purpose of using an RAI, especially when the decision-makers’ intuition about risk is based on factors that have already been considered in the tool.  Incorporating human judgment into the risk assessment will usually make matters worse when the RAI meets the basic requirements outlined in this book.  This notion is one meaning — the literal one — of “Just Algorithms.”

The second meaning of that title is even more important.  Properly cabined, predictive algorithms can be just.  Numerous writers have argued to the contrary, pointing in particular to racial disparities among those who are identified as high risk.  But even if such disparities do exist, they do not necessarily make risk algorithms unjust.  This book takes the position that the fairest approach to evaluating risk is to treat people who are of equal risk equally.  The primary goal of an RAI should be to identify accurately those who are high risk and those who are low risk, regardless of color, even if that means that a greater percentage of people of color are identified as high risk.  At the same time, it must be recognized that assessments of risk may be inaccurate if the influence of racialized policing and prosecutorial practices on the validity of assessment instruments is not taken into account.

Another, related complaint about predictive algorithms — one that has special salience at sentencing and other post-conviction settings — is that punishment should never be based on conduct that has not yet occurred, both given the uncertainty of prediction and its insult to human dignity and autonomy.  The point this book makes on this score is, again, a comparative one.  The primary competitor to sentencing that considers risk is a purely retributive system — one that relies solely on backward-looking assessments of criminal conduct and the mental states that accompany it.  But such a system is rife with speculative claims about just desert, and can be remarkably inattentive to the impact of mitigating human foibles.  Properly regulated algorithmic risk assessments, in contrast, can differentiate high and low risk offenders at least as reliably as judges and juries can calibrate culpability, and can do so without abandoning condemnation based on blame, especially if sentences ranges are still based on retributive principles.  The needs part of theassessment can also facilitate the identification of autonomy-affirming and dignity-enhancing treatment programs that help offenders help themselves.

To realize the full potential of RAIs in the sentencing setting, however, the current fixation on determinate sentencing needs to be rethought.  That is the subject of my third and final blog, soon to come.

Prior related post:

August 8, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Highlighting the importance of data to ensure equity in diversion efforts

Regular readers are probably used to hearing me stress the importance of data in various aspects of our criminal justice systems, and so I was pleased to see this new Law360 piece headlined "Data Collection Is Crucial For Equity In Diversion Programs." I recommend the lengthy piece in full, and here is how it starts:

Prosecutorial diversion programs are intended to create equity in the criminal justice system by stopping the incarceration of people who have mental health and substance abuse problems, but without proper data collection, prosecutors can't ensure equity in these programs, experts say.

The Prosecutorial Performance Indicators project, an initiative led by researchers at the Florida International University and Loyola University of Chicago to help prosecutors collect data to improve their methods, recently released a report that looked at racial disparities in the number of people who had their cases diverted from criminal courts to diversion programs, like mental health or drug courts.

According to the report that compared the race and ethnicity of people placed in diversion programs in four prosecutors' offices in Chicago, Jacksonville, Milwaukee and Tampa, even though overall more Black defendants than white were placed in diversion programs in three of the four cities, more white defendants than Black defendants had their felony cases placed in diversion programs in all of the cities.

With this data, prosecutors in these offices can use it to guide their policies and prosecutorial decisions, according to Melba Pearson, director of policy and programs at FIU's Center for Administration of Justice and a PPI co-manager. "While diversion is a great tool, we have to make sure that it's applied equitably, so that includes looking at factors like cost, accessibility [and] how offers are being delivered," Pearson told Law360.

In Jacksonville, the data shows that, from 2017 through 2019, the number of Black defendants that had their misdemeanor cases diverted from prosecution grew because its prosecutor's office implemented a program that gives people charged with misdemeanor traffic violations an opportunity to have their charges dropped.

The full report referenced in this article, which is titled "Race and Prosecutorial Diversion: What we know and what can be done," is available at this link.

August 8, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 05, 2021

Prof Slobogin discussing Just Algorithms in guest posts

6a00d83451574769e20224df387165200bIn this recent post, I flagged a notable new forthcoming book authored by Christopher Slobogin.  I asked Prof Slobogin if he might be interested in sharing some key ideas from this important book in a set of guest posts. He kindly agrees, and here is the first of the set.

--------

Doug has graciously invited me to blog about my new book, Just Algorithms: Using Science to Reduce Incarceration and Inform a Jurisprudence of Risk (Cambridge University Press). There follows the first of three excerpts extracted from the Preface (the next two coming soon):

Virtually every state has authorized the use of algorithms that purport to determine the recidivism risk posed by people who have been charged or convicted of crime. Commonly called risk assessment instruments, or RAIs, these algorithms help judges figure out whether individuals who have been arrested should be released pending trial and whether a convicted offender should receive prison time or an enhanced sentence; they assist parole boards in determining whether to release a prisoner; and they aid correctional officials in deciding how offenders should be handled in prison.  Most of these algorithms consist of from five to 15 risk factors associated with criminal history, age, and diagnosis, although an increasing number incorporate other demographic traits and psychological factors as well. Each of these risk factors correlates with a certain number of points that are usually added to compute a person’s risk score; the higher the score, the higher the risk.  Some tools may also aim at identifying needs, such as substance abuse treatment and vocational training, thought to be relevant to rehabilitative interventions that might reduce recidivism. This book will provide examples of a number of these instruments so that the reader can get a sense of their diversity and nuances.

One purpose of this book is to explain how risk algorithms might improve the criminal justice system.  If developed and used properly, RAIs can become a major tool of reform. They can help reduce the use of pretrial detention and prison and the length of prison sentences, without appreciably increasing, and perhaps even decreasing, the peril to the public (goals that are particularly pressing as COVID-19 ravages our penal facilities).  They can mitigate the excessively punitive bail and sentencing regimes that currently exist in most states. They can allocate correctional resources more efficiently and consistently.  And they can provide the springboard for evidence-based rehabilitative programs aimed at reducing recidivism. More broadly, by making criminal justice decision-making more transparent, these tools could force long overdue reexamination of the purposes of the criminal justice system and of the outcomes it should be trying to achieve.

Despite their potential advantages, the risk algorithms used in the criminal justice system today are highly controversial.  A common claim is that they are not good at what they purport to do, which is to identify who will offend and who will not, who will be responsive to rehabilitative efforts and who will not be.  But the tools are also maligned as racially biased, dehumanizing, and, for good measure, antithetical to the foundational principles of criminal justice.  A sampling of recent article and book titles makes the point: “Impoverished Algorithms: Misguided Governments, Flawed Technologies, and Social Control,” “Risk as a Proxy for Race: The Dangers of Risk Assessment,” “Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor.” In 2019, over 110 civil rights groups signed a statement calling for an end to pretrial risk assessment instruments.  That same year 27 Ivy League and MIT academics stated that “technical problems” with risk assessment instruments “cannot be resolved.”  And in 2020 another group of 2323 scholars from a wide range of disciplines “demanded” that Springer publishing company, one of the largest purveyors of healthcare and behavioral science books and journals, “issue a statement condemning the use of criminal justice statistics to predict criminality” because of their unscientific nature.

A second purpose of this book is to explore these claims.  All of them have some basis in fact.  But they can easily be overblown.  And if the impact of these criticisms is to prevent the criminal justice system from using algorithms, a potentially valuable means of reform will be lost.  A key argument in favor of algorithms is comparative in nature.  While algorithms can be associated with a number of problems, alternative predictive techniques may well be much worse in each of these respects.  Unstructured decision-making by judges, parole officers, and mental health professionals is notoriously bad, biased and reflexive, and often relies on stereotypes and generalizations that ignore the goals of the system. Algorithms can do better, at least if subject to certain constraints. .

In blogs to come I describe these constraints, and how RAIs can be integrated into the criminal justice system.

August 5, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

"Empathy and Remote Legal Proceedings"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Susan Bandes and Neal Feigenson now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Do remote legal proceedings reduce empathy for litigants?  Pre-COVID studies of remote bail hearings and immigration removal hearings concluded that the subjects were disadvantaged by the remote nature of the proceedings, and these findings are sometimes interpreted to mean that decision-makers tend to be less empathetic toward remote litigants.  Reviewing both the pre-COVID literature and more current studies, we set out to determine whether empathy is reduced in virtual courts. 

The notion that it is more difficult for decision-makers to exercise empathy toward someone they encounter only on a video screen is consistent with findings that physical distance increases social and hence psychological distance, and may well be borne out by further research.  However, while there are reasons to suspect that the exercise of empathy may be altered on Zoom or comparable platforms, thus far there is no firm evidence that the remote nature of legal proceedings, in itself, reduces empathy for litigants, witnesses, or other participants in legal proceedings.  On the other hand, there are ample grounds for concern that remote proceedings may further disadvantage litigants who are already unequally burdened by empathy deficits based on race, social class, gender, ethnicity, or other factors that may differentiate them from decision-makers.  We call attention to particular ways in which virtual proceedings may exacerbate these empathy deficits.

August 3, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, August 02, 2021

"Power to the People: Why the Armed Career Criminal Act is Unconstitutional"

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

In our constitutional democracy, it is the people who hold ultimate power over every branch of government, including authority over the judiciary through the jury trial guarantee of the Sixth Amendment.  However, the traditional view of recidivist statutes, including the federal Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), exempts the fact of a defendant’s prior convictions from the Sixth Amendment jury trial promise.  Specifically, prosecutors and federal judges have removed from juries and given to sentencing judges the power to determine prior crimes that enhance a defendant’s sentence under the ACCA by labeling a recidivist finding a sentencing factor rather than an element of the offense.

In this article, I argue the recidivist statute exemption, primarily exercised in federal law through the vehicle of Almendarez-Torres v. United States, violates the Constitution; defies the Court’s revived focus on the jury trial right through the Apprendi v. New Jersey line of cases requiring any fact that increases a defendant’s sentencing range to be found by the jury or admitted by the defendant at the guilty plea; and disregards the Court’s due process focus in the Taylor v. United States line of cases prohibiting factfinding under the ACCA.

I present my theory by examining the ACCA’s different occasions clause, a lesser known but potent provision that in theory imposes the ACCA’s mandatory minimum sentence of fifteen years only when recidivist crimes are “committed on occasions different from one another.”  In practice, judges impose the different occasions clause by engaging in complex judicial factfinding at sentencing by a lower preponderance of the evidence standard regarding the who, what, when, where, and why of prior crimes.  Judges who label the different occasions clause a sentencing factor rather than an element of the offense act in disregard of the jury trial right, due process guarantee, and legislative intent of the ACCA.  I argue that the Constitution requires the ACCA different occasions clause to be decided by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt in a bifurcated trial.  Judicial removal of the different occasions clause from jury scrutiny dramatically illustrates why a new approach enforcing the Sixth Amendment jury trial right to the ACCA different occasions clause is long overdue.

August 2, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Amicus brief stresses congressional text does not preclude legal change as basis for 3582(c)(1)(a) sentence reduction

In this post last month, I lamented the split Sixth Circuit panel opinion in US v. Jarvis, No. 20-3912 (6th Cir. June 3, 2021) (available here), which stated that "non-retroactive changes in the law [can] not serve as the 'extraordinary and compelling reasons' required for a sentence reduction."  In that post, I noted that nothing in the text of § 3582(c)(1)(a) supports the contention that non-retroactive changes in the law cannot ever constitute "extraordinary and compelling reasons" to allow a sentence reduction, either alone or in combination with other factors.  As I see it, the majority in Jarvis was eager to create an extra-textual categorical limitation on the authority Congress gave to district courts to reduce sentences because, presumably based on its own sense of sound policy, it wanted to cabin the new sentencing discretion created by the FIRST STEP Act. 

Against that backdrop, I was pleased to learn of a new amicus brief filed in support of rehearing en banc in Jarvis that makes a series of forceful arguments that wisely lean heavily on textualism.  The brief is filed on behalf of the American Conservative Union Foundation Nolan Center for Justice and Shon Hopwood, and I recommend the entire filing (which can be downloaded below).  Here are a few excerpts emphasizing the statutory text:

Until and unless the Sentencing Commission promulgates a new policy statement clarifying what factors district courts may consider in deciding motions for compassionate-release sentence reductions, this Court should refrain from holding that factors are legally impermissible unless consideration of those factors conflict with the statutory text.  To do otherwise is to substitute this Court’s judgment for Congress’s.  Because a district court’s consideration of nonretroactive sentencing-law reforms as extraordinary circumstances does not contravene any contrary statutory command, it is legally permissible (and is in fact consistent with the legislative history and plain text of the First Step Act)....

The Sentencing Commission is empowered to promulgate a new policy statement that expressly permits district courts to consider nonretroactive sentencing-law reforms, combined with other factors, in determining whether a defendant has presented extraordinary and compelling reasons.  That the Commission presently lacks a quorum is irrelevant to interpretation of the underlying statutes.  Since the Commission can promulgate a policy statement permitting consideration of nonretroactive sentencing reforms, district courts may certainly consider such criteria now in the absence of a new and applicable policy statement.

Download Jarvis Amicus Brief FINAL

July 31, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Trump Executions"

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

In the final six months of Donald Trump’s presidency, the federal government executed thirteen people.  For perspective, there were three federal executions in the prior fifty-seven years — and none since 2003.  Among other things, this Article is a historical record of the “Trump Executions,” constructed largely from primary-source material. The Article also offers a framework for organizing the unique legal issues that the Trump Executions presented, and discusses their crucial implications.

I proceed in three parts.  Part I places the Trump Executions in historical context.  For politicians and bureaucrats who embrace the death penalty, the Trump Executions were a once-in-a-generation opportunity.  Part I explains the Bureau of Prisons’ lengthy struggle to identify and implement a lawful execution protocol — which was largely responsible for the growth of federal death row, and the pent-up desire to clear it.  Part I also presents a four-year timeline of the Trump Executions, which grounds the balance of the Article.

Part II organizes, into four useful categories, the legal disputes that were largely unique to the Trump Executions.  These were over: (1) the pentobarbital-only lethal injection sequence, (2) a federal “parity” provision requiring alignment between federal and state death penalty implementation; (3) a statutory savings clause allowing prisoners to bypass otherwise-applicable restrictions on post-conviction relief; and (4) the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.  (Issues belonging to a residual category receive abbreviated treatment.) Surprisingly, when the litigation was complete, the judiciary had clarified little about federal death penalty law.

Part III considers the implications of the Trump Executions.  The Supreme Court, which undertook unprecedented intervention by way of its “shadow docket,” plainly worked to ensure that the Joe Biden administration had no say in sentence implementation.  The significance of the presidential transition was quite real, as the Trump Executions went forward on the backs of political and bureaucratic outliers that coincide only infrequently.  Ironically, the Trump Executions will most durably affect other institutional practices that depend on emergency adjudication — including pandemic responses, elections, and capital punishment in the states.

July 31, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 29, 2021

"The Informed Jury"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Daniel Epps and William Ortman now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The right to a criminal jury trial is a constitutional disappointment.  Cases almost never make it to a jury because of plea bargaining. In the few cases that do, the jury is relegated to a narrow factfinding role that denies it normative voice or the ability to serve as a meaningful check on excessive punishment.

One simple change could situate the jury where it belongs, at the center of the criminal process.  The most important thing juries do in criminal cases is authorize state punishment.  But today, when a jury returns a guilty verdict, it authorizes punishment without any idea of what is in store for the defendant.  This principle of jury ignorance is a profound mistake.  It is unmoored from history and the core function of the jury to authorize punishment.  Worse, it exacerbates the criminal legal system’s predilection for excessive severity.

This Article offers and defends a proposal to replace ignorant juries with informed ones, by requiring juries to be told of the statutory minimum and maximum punishment in every case before being asked to return a conviction.  Informed juries would change the dynamics of criminal justice for the better.  In individual cases, punishment information would make juries more careful before convicting and would sometimes lead juries to refuse to convict where punishment would be excessive and unjust.  But more importantly, informed juries would provide systemic benefits.  Requiring informed juries would set in motion a political feedback loop that would counteract existing incentives for legislators and prosecutors to prefer severity.  In addition to being good policy, there are powerful arguments that informed juries deserve to be recognized as part of the constitutional jury-trial right.

July 29, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Ohio Justice provides insider take on "sentencing by ambush" due to plea bargaining process

This local court press piece, headlined "Justice Admonishes ‘Sentencing by Ambush’," reports on a notable new law review article authored by Ohio Supreme Court Justice Michael Donnelly. Here are excerpts from the press piece (with links from the original):

An Ohio Supreme Court justice is seeking reforms to plea deal processes, which he says are full of unknowns for defendants, who often surrender their constitutional rights.

Justice Michael P. Donnelly lists his concerns and solutions about discrepancies in plea agreements and their outcomes in an article published by the Akron Law Review titled, “Sentencing by Ambush: An Insider’s Perspective on Plea Bargaining Reform.”

In the piece, Justice Donnelly details observations from his 14 years as a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge and how his experiences on the trial court bench, paired with his perspective as a member of the Supreme Court, compelled him to write about the need for systemic change to plea arrangements.

“Would you ever enter into a contract when you had no idea what benefit you would receive… [or] without knowing the terms to which you were obligating yourself?” Justice Donnelly asks in the article. “Regrettably, … criminal defendants do that every single day.”

The article explains the legal course of plea bargaining: a prosecutor and defense attorney settle on a recommended punishment, and a judge ultimately determines the sentence. Justice Donnelly highlights multiple procedural flaws that occur in pursuit of this type of conclusion to a case.  The fundamental issues Justice Donnelly raises are magnified because U.S. Department of Justice researchers estimate 90% to 95% of cases — state and federal — are resolved through plea deals.

He notes that prosecutors can charge multiple and different offenses based on the facts from a single event as a means of leverage against a defendant.  The high court jurist also points out two main inconsistencies in plea proceedings: Not all judges accept settlements between the prosecution and defense, and not all plea negotiations are on the record.

“One of the biggest threats to public confidence in the criminal justice system [stems] from off-the-record sentencing representations, whether from a judge in chambers or a defense attorney’s informed speculation,” Justice Donnelly wrote.  As a means for transparency, the justice recommends that all discussions take place in open court. He believes a documented dialogue would ensure negotiations are fair between the prosecution and defense, which would include stating the rationale for the agreement....

Addressing sentencing issues also is the aim of a larger initiative, led by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Donnelly, to develop a statewide sentencing database.

Both efforts emphasize the need for transparency as a way to provide more uniform and proportional sentences across the state, while limiting implicit bias.  “This reform would provide decision-makers (judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, and legislators) with information that is essential to ensure that better decisions are made regarding the most serious issue of incarcerating individuals,” Justice Donnelly said.

July 28, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Prison Policy Initiative details "Nine ways that states can provide better public defense"

Ginger Jackson-Gleich and Wanda Bertram at Prison Policy Initiative have this new briefing fully titled "Nine ways that states can provide better public defense: We suggest a few questions to ask to assess the strength of your state's public defense system." Here is part of its introduction and conclusion:

One of the many reasons mass incarceration persists is because people too poor to afford their own lawyers are denied meaningful representation in court. This injustice happens because public defense systems — the systems tasked with providing attorneys to those in need — are severely underfunded and overburdened.

While every state and local public defense system is unique, we’ve identified nine urgent and common problems that plague public defense systems nationwide.  Unfortunately, there isn’t enough current data for us to explain how every state stacks up on these issues, but we’ve done the next best thing: We’ve created a list of nine questions you can ask to assess where your state’s public defense system might need help, and we’ve highlighted helpful and detailed resources that can assist reform efforts....

Even an excellent public defense system in every state would not, on its own, end mass incarceration, but ensuring that every person accused of a crime has satisfactory assistance of counsel would certainly help.  As many others have noted before us, the constitution’s promise that every criminal defendant has the right to legal counsel has never been a reality in this country.

Today, at least 4.9 million people are arrested annually, most of them poor, and virtually every public defense system struggles to represent all of the defendants who can’t afford their own lawyer.  Until states remove the many barriers to providing adequate public defense, this country will continue to be one where due process and equal protection are imaginary — a place where people are told to believe in a constitutional right that does not actually exist.

July 27, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Just Algorithms: Using Science to Reduce Incarceration and Inform a Jurisprudence of Risk"

The title of this notable new forthcoming book authored by Christopher Slobogin.  It is also the title of this new SSRN posting which provides a preview of the book and an article that sets forth some of its contents. Here is the SSRN posting abstract:

Statistically-derived algorithms, adopted by many jurisdictions in an effort to identify the risk of reoffending posed by criminal defendants, have been lambasted as racist, de-humanizing, and antithetical to the foundational tenets of criminal justice.  Just Algorithms argues that these attacks are misguided and that, properly regulated, risk assessment tools can be a crucial means of safely and humanely dismantling our massive jail and prison complex.

The book explains how risk algorithms work, the types of legal questions they should answer, and the criteria for judging whether they do so in a way that minimizes bias and respects human dignity. It also shows how risk assessment instruments can provide leverage for curtailing draconian prison sentences and the plea-bargaining system that produces them.  The ultimate goal of the book is to develop the principles that should govern, in both the pretrial and sentencing settings, the criminal justice system's consideration of risk.  Table of Contents and Preface are provided, as well as a recent article that tracks closely two of the book's chapters.

July 27, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 26, 2021

"Death Penalty Exceptionalism and Administrative Law"

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

Prosecutors ask for death sentences, and judges and juries impose them, but the people who actually carry out those sentences are corrections department officials — administrative agency personnel. In this symposium contribution, I explore a little known nook of administrative law, examining how administrative law norms work in the execution setting of lethal injection.  What I find is death penalty exceptionalism — the notion that “death is different” so every procedural protection should be provided — turned on its head. 

Lethal injection statutes just say “lethal injection,” providing no guidance whatsoever to those who must implement them. Prison personnel have no expertise in deciding what drugs to use or how to perform the procedure.  And the usual administrative law devices that we rely on to bring transparency and accountability to the agency decision-making process are noticeably absent.  The culmination of these irregularities is a world where lethal injection drug protocols are decided by Google searches and other decision-making processes that would never pass muster in any other area of administrative law.

In the execution context, death penalty exceptionalism means that the minimal standards that ordinarily attend administrative decision-making do not apply.  It means that when the state is carrying out its most solemn of duties, those subject to its reach receive not more protection, but less.  In the end, when the death penalty meets administrative law, administrative law norms get sullied and the death penalty loses the one comfort one might otherwise have: that when the state takes human life, it takes extra care to do it right.  What happens at the intersection of these two great bodies of law is a result not good for either.

July 26, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 25, 2021

US Sentencing Commission releases more detailed "Compassionate Release Data Report" for 2020

As detailed in this post, last month the US Sentencing Commission released a short data report titled "Compassionate Release Data." That report provided notable but very basic numbers on the grants and denials of federal compassionate release motions nationwide for calendar year 2020.  The report revealed, as further discussed in this follow-up post, that judges granted a good number of these motions once COVID hit, but that the Bureau of Prisons approved stunningly few compassionate release applications and that there were considerable disparities in grant rates in different judicial districts.

I was quite pleased to see the USSC promulgate any compassionate release data, but I was eager for additional data beyond circuit and district breakdowns of these motions.  In my prior post, I hoped we might at some point see "a lot more offender demographic information (e.g., race, gender, age of movant) and sentence modification information (e.g., primary sentenced offense and amount of sentence reduction)."  Excitingly, the USSC has now released this updated expanded data report that provides a lot more details about compassionate release grants for calendar year 2020.

Specifically, this latest report includes data on "Demographic Characteristics Of Offenders Receiving Compassionate Release" and on "Selected Sentencing Factors For Offenders Receiving Compassionate Release" and on "Type Of Crime For Offenders Receiving Compassionate Release" and on "Original Sentence Length For Offenders Receiving Compassionate Release." I am so very pleased to see this additional data, although the extent of sentence reductions is still a data point not covered which seems to me to be important to understand the full compassionate release story (e.g.,ten granted sentence reduction motions that reduce sentences by five months seem quite different than ten granted motions reducing sentences by five years.)   

Upon first glace, it is hard to see if there are any particularly distinctive or disturbing patterns in this enhanced USSC compassionate release data.  Interestingly, looking at the demographics, I noticed that the percentage of black prisoners securing a sentence reduction in 2020 (which was 45.2% according to the USSC data) appears to be greater than the percentage of black prisoners in federal prison (which was 34.9% as of this USSC report with March 2021 data).  Likewise, I was intrigued to see that the percentage of prisoners convicted of drug trafficking securing a sentence reduction in 2020 (which was 53% according to the USSC data) appears to be greater than the percentage of such prisoners in federal prison (which was 43% as of this same USSC report).   

I hope that the US Sentencing Commission not only continues to release more and more granular data about sentencing reduction grants.  I also hope the USSC will (a) track recidivism rates for this population over time, and (b) learn about which guidelines might be seen to produce excessively long sentencing in retrospect as documented through these grants.  The kind of second-look sentencing mechanism now operating the the federal system is not only valuable and important as a means to achieve better justice in individual cases, but also should serve as an important feedback loop providing a kind of on-going audit of the operation of the entire federal sentencing system. 

A few of many prior related posts:

July 25, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, July 24, 2021

"Talking Back in Court"

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

People charged with crimes often speak directly to the judge presiding over their case.  Yet, what can be seen in courtrooms across the U.S. is that defendants rarely “talk back” in court, meaning that they rarely challenge authority’s view of the law, the crime, the defendant, the court’s procedure, or the fairness of the proposed sentence.

With few exceptions, legal scholars have treated the occasions when defendants speak directly to the court as a problem to be solved by appointing more lawyers and better lawyers.  While effective representation is crucial, this Article starts from the premise that defendants have important things to say that currently go unsaid in court.  In individual cases, talking back could result in fairer outcomes.  On a systemic level, talking back could bring much needed realism to the criminal legal system’s assumptions about crime and punishment that produce injustice.

This Article analyzes three types of power that prevent defendants from talking back in court: sovereign, disciplinary, and social-emotional power.  While sovereign power silences defendants through fear, disciplinary power silences defendants by imposing a system of order within which talking back seems disorderly.  Finally, social-emotional power silences defendants by imposing an emotional regime in which self-advocacy is both a breach of decorum and an affront to the court’s perception of itself as a source of orderliness and justice.  The dynamics of social-emotional power are particularly critical to evaluating court reform efforts focused on improving courtroom culture.  Paradoxically, the more solicitous the judge, the less the defendant may feel comfortable raising concerns that challenge the court’s narrative of justice.

July 24, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Friday, July 23, 2021

As Eleventh Circuit works though ACCA "occasions different" mess, Judge Newson flags Apprendi "prior conviction" issues

A helpful reader alerted me to an interesting new split Eleventh Circuit panel decision in US v. Dudley, No. 19-10267 (7th Cir. July 22, 2021) (available here), concerning application of the severe mandatory minimum in the federal Armed Career Criminal Act.  As regular readers know, ACCA converts the 10-year maximum prison term for illegal gun possession by a felon into a 15-year mandatory minimum if the defendant has the wrong kind of prior convictions.  The basic issue in Dudley is a topic also to be considered by the Supreme Court this fall in Wooden v. US, namely ACCA's requirement that key prior offenses needed to be "committed on occasions different from one another."  In Wooden, the facts of the prior convictions are not in dispute, and so the Supreme Court will likely just explore the legal meaning of "occasions different from one another."  In Dudley, part of the debate concerns uncertainty about the facts of the prior convictions, and so the Eleventh Circuit panel has to discuss how these facts can be proved.

Working through a variety of complicated ACCA precedents, the majority in Dudley ultimately decides that "the district court did not err in relying on the prosecutor’s factual proffer in Dudley’s plea colloquy to find by a preponderance of the evidence that the three qualifying prior convictions for Alabama assault occurred on three separate, distinct occasions."  For hard-core ACCA fans, the majority's discussion might be interesting.  But hard-core Sixth Amendment fans will especially want to check out Judge Newsom's lengthy partial dissent which flags the significant Apprendi issues raised by prior rulings and this case.  Here is are some passages from the partial dissent to show why the whole opinion is worth checking out:

For starters, why doesn’t judicial factfinding involving ACCA’s different-occasions requirement itself violate the Sixth Amendment?  After all, we’ve described the different-occasions inquiry as a factual one....

Of course, I recognize that we and other circuits have repeatedly rejected constitutional challenges to ACCA’s different-occasions inquiry.  See Maj. Op. 18–19 (collecting cases).  We’ve justified ourselves on the ground that the date of an offense is part of the “factual nature” of the conviction — and thus falls under Almendarez-Torres’s exception to Apprendi....

But that explanation, while plausible at first blush, is tough to square with the Court’s characterization of Almendarez-Torres as a “narrow exception” to Apprendi’s general rule.  See Alleyne, 570 U.S. at 111 n.1.  As interpreted by Apprendi, Almendarez-Torres exempts only “the fact of a prior conviction” from the bar on judicial factfinding.  Apprendi, 530 U.S. at 490 (emphasis added).  After all, Almendarez-Torres itself involved only the bare fact that the defendant had been convicted of a prior aggravated assault.  523 U.S. at 226.   Although I don’t question Almendarez-Torres’s continuing vitality — above my pay grade — it seems that we do more than just faithfully apply that decision when we extend its “narrow exception” for the mere “fact of a prior conviction” to include other related facts, such as the date or time of the underlying offense.  Indeed, if Almendarez-Torres authorizes factfinding about more than just the fact of a prior conviction, what’s the limiting principle?  What differentiates the timing of the offense from the fact that it was “violent” for ACCA’s predicate-felony inquiry?  Both, it seems to me, are equally part (or not part) of the “factual nature” of the prior conviction.

July 23, 2021 in Almendarez-Torres and the prior conviction exception, Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Seventh Circuit panel states (in dicta?) that vaccine availability "makes it impossible" for COVID risks to create eligibility for compassionate release

The Seventh Circuit yesterday released a short panel opinion affirming the denial of a compassionate release motion in US v. Broadfield, No. 20-2906 (7th Cir. July 21, 2021) (available here) (Hat tip: How Appealing).  The opinion has a number of notable passages that make this ruling a useful read in full for those working in this arena, but the closing paragraph seemed especially worth highlighting here:

Section 3582(c)(1)(A) was enacted and amended before the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, and it will continue to serve a beneficent function long after the pandemic ends.  But for the many prisoners who seek release based on the special risks created by COVID-19 for people living in close quarters, vaccines offer relief far more effective than a judicial order.  A prisoner who can show that he is unable to receive or benefit from a vaccine still may turn to this statute, but, for the vast majority of prisoners, the availability of a vaccine makes it impossible to conclude that the risk of COVID-19 is an “extraordinary and compelling” reason for immediate release.

This final paragraph seems to me to be dicta (though what precedes it might lead some to conclude it is part of the holding).  I suspect the final clause will garner considerable attention no matter how characterized.  Critically, by using the phrase "the vast majority of prisoners," this final sentence still suggests that, at least for a few prisoners, the risk of COVID-19 can still provide an "extraordinary and compelling" reason for compassionate release.  Even more important may be whether lower courts might read this paragraph to mean that COVID risks cannot be combined with other factors to make out extraordinary and compelling reasons. Even if COVID risks are low for the vaccinated, they are not zero and so should be, as I see it, still a potential contributor to assessing what qualifies as an extraordinary and compelling reason when combined with other factors.

July 22, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

"Prosecutorial Roles in Reducing Racial Disparities in the Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new R Street report authored by Nila Bala, Casey Witte and Lars Trautman.  Here is its executive summary:

The most pressing problems facing criminal justice policymakers and practitioners are racial disparities within the criminal justice system.  In many instances, the data on outcomes at each stage of the criminal justice process are stark, with Black individuals disproportionately bearing the brunt of system involvement and severe sentences.  While nearly every actor and policymaker associated with the criminal justice system can play a part in addressing this issue, prosecutors remain some of the most powerful.  With a hand in decisions ranging from charging to plea bargaining, the policies and practices of prosecutors inevitably influence the existence and extent of any racial disparities.  This paper examines the sources of racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the ways in which prosecutors may contribute to them and finally, actions that prosecutors can take to help reduce these disparities.  These recommendations include better understanding of disparities, decreasing reliance on cash bail and pretrial detention, prioritizing diversion programs and implementing algorithmic color-blind charging.

July 21, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

"Building exits off the highway to mass incarceration: Diversion programs explained"

The title of this post is the title of this great new report authored by Leah Wang and Katie Rose Quandt for the Prison Policy Initiative. I recommend the report in full, and here is how it gets started:

Our nation’s mass incarceration crisis has led to far too many people locked up in jails and prisons.  As public outrage grows regarding the unfairness of the criminal justice system, counties and municipalities are adopting a wide range of programs that divert people out of the system before they can be incarcerated, pitching these as solutions to reduce the number of people in confinement.  But these programs are not all created equal, and the design and implementation of diversion can be wildly different in its impact on justice-involved people.

We envision the criminal justice system as a highway on which people are heading toward the possibility of incarceration; depending on the state or county, this highway may have exit ramps in the form of diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration.  Diversion is a broad term referring to any means of exiting the criminal justice system without a criminal conviction, while an alternative to incarceration can be offered to someone who has been convicted.

The further someone travels down the highway, the more collateral consequences they will experience: a police encounter that may turn dangerous; the trauma of being booked; their mugshot published on the internet; massive amounts of time spent away from work and family for jail time or court appearances; the financial burden of bail and court costs; and a criminal record that generates numerous other challenges like exclusion from the workforce, ineligibility for public benefits, disenfranchisement, and denial of the right to serve on a jury.

The earlier someone can take an exit ramp, the more devastating impacts they can avoid — and the more we can shrink the massive footprint of the criminal justice system.  This report provides a general overview of diversion and alternative-to-incarceration programs, and key differences in how they might alleviate (or complicate) someone’s experience going through the system.

In an ideal world, a community would implement all or almost all of these programs, to help divert people at every stage.  But when resources — financial or political — are limited, it is important that policymakers make choices that will have the largest impact.  While all diversions are better than incarceration, the most powerful are the earliest interventions (which we’re calling “Exit 1”) that prevent encounters with police and the criminal justice system in the first place.

July 20, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 19, 2021

"The Evolving Standards, As Applied"

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

In Jones v. Mississippi, the Supreme Court adopted a narrow reading of its Eighth Amendment categorical bar on mandatory juvenile life-without-parole (JLWOP) sentences.  Specifically, the Court rejected the Jones’ claim that the Eighth Amendment categorical limit required a sentencing jury or judge make a finding of permanent incorrigibility — that the defendant is beyond hope of rehabilitation — as a prerequisite to imposing a JLWOP sentence.

In dicta, the Court suggested that Jones could have made an individual as-applied challenge to his sentence under the Eighth Amendment by claiming that his JLWOP sentence was disproportionate to the crime he committed.  While the Court has used a narrow disproportionality standard in non-capital, non-JLWOP cases, it is not clear what standard would apply to individual as-applied Eighth Amendment challenges in capital and JLWOP cases.  The Court customarily reviews such cases categorically under a heightened evolving standards of decency standard, which suggests that an individual as-applied challenge would also merit some heightened level of review.

Accordingly, this Article argues for the adoption of heightened standards of Eighth Amendment review for individual as-applied proportionality challenges in capital and JLWOP cases.  Specifically, the Article advocates for the adoption of an intermediate level of review for JLWOP cases and a strict scrutiny level of review for capital cases.  Further, the Article argues for a broadening of the kinds of sentences that receive heightened scrutiny under the Eighth Amendment, both for categorical challenges and for individual as-applied proportionality challenges.

Part One of the Article describes the Court’s evolving standards of decency doctrine and Eighth Amendment’s categorical limitations on capital and JLWOP sentences.  In Part Two, the Article explains the other side of the application of the Eighth Amendment, the narrow disproportionality test the Court uses to evaluate as-applied challenges in individual non-capital, non-JLWOP cases.  Part Three then argues for the adoption of heightened as-applied standards of review in individual capital and JLWOP cases as an application of the evolving standards of decency doctrine.  Finally, Part IV sketches some possible extensions of the Eighth Amendment’s evolving standards to other punishments and other classes of defendants.

July 19, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)