Thursday, June 16, 2022

"Letting Offenders Choose Their Punishment?"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN and authored by Gilles Grolleau, Murat C. Mungan and Naoufel Mzoughi. Here is its abstract:

Punishment menus allow offenders to choose the punishment to which they will be subjected from a set of options.  We present several behaviorally informed rationales for why punishment menus may serve as effective deterrents, notably by causing people to refrain from entering a calculative mindset; reducing their psychological reactance; causing them to reconsider the reputational impacts of punishment; and reducing suspicions about whether the act is enforced for rent-seeking purposes.  We argue that punishment menus can outperform the traditional single punishment if these effects can be harnessed properly. 

Our observations thus constitute a challenge, based on behavioral arguments, to the conventional view that adding (possibly unexercised) punishment options to an existing punishment scheme is unlikely to increase deterrence or welfare.  We explain how heterogeneities among individuals can pose problems to designing effective punishment menus and discuss potential solutions.  After explaining how punishment menus, if designed and implemented benevolently, can serve socially desirable goals, we caution against their possible misuse by self-interested governments.

June 16, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 11, 2022

"The Dangerous Few: Taking Seriously Prison Abolition and Its Skeptics"

The title of this post is the title of this new essay by Thomas Ward Frampton just published in the Harvard Law Review.  Here is its abstract:

Prison abolition, in the span of just a few short years, has established a foothold in elite criminal legal discourse.  But the basic question of how abolitionists would address “the dangerous few” often receives superficial treatment; the problem constitutes a “spectral force haunting abolitionist thought . . . as soon as abolitionist discourses navigate towards the programmatic and enter the public arena.”  This Essay offers two main contributions: it (1) maps the diverse ways in which prison abolitionists most frequently respond to the challenge of “the dangerous few,” highlighting strengths and infirmities of each stance, and (2) proposes alternative, hopefully more productive, responses that interrogate and probe the implicit premises (empirical, ideological, or moral) embedded in and animating questions concerning “the dangerous few.”

June 11, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

"Sounds of Silence: A Thematic Analysis of Victim Impact Statements"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN and authored by Tali Gal and Ruthy Lowenstein Lowenstein lazar.  Here is its abstract:

Victim Impact Statement (VIS) is a legal document which crime victims submit to court as part of the sentencing stage, informing the court about the harms they have suffered.  VIS enhances victims’ sense of procedural justice, voice, and inclusion in the process, as well as their overall wellbeing.  At the same time, their use raises concern about defendants’ due process rights. 
The Article argues that VIS make a novel contribution to the criminal proceeding, beyond their formal goals of providing information to the court about the impact of the crime on its victims.  Using a thematic analysis of 25 VISs which were submitted to Israeli criminal courts by victims of sexual, physical and property offenses as well as by relatives of homicide victims, the Article identifies four types of functions that VISs play for the victims who submit them.  VISs were used to portray the offense as a life-changing event; to describe the hardships of the criminal justice process; to transform the victim into 'more than just a name’; and to deliver a message or request.  By bringing this content to the courtroom, the statements expanded the legal discourse and created an integrated therapeutic-legal discourse, which was accepted and formally acknowledged by the justice system.  The openness of the legal system to accept and acknowledge exogenous content that is not required by law, even if indirectly, suggests a need to rethink the social function of the court for victims and communities.  It is possible that the courts may be more inclusive of and more attentive to non-legal narratives, emotional expression, and interpersonal connectedness than it is generally believed.

May 31, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 29, 2022

"A Lost Chapter in Death Penalty History: Furman v. Georgia, Albert Camus, and the Normative Challenge to Capital Punishment"

Though we are still a full month away from the exact date marking the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark Eighth Amendment ruling in Furman v. Georgia, this new article on SSRN (which shares the title of this post) seem like a fitting way to start reflecting on capital punishment.  The article is authored by Mugambi Jouet, and here is its abstract:

Overlooked historical sources call into question the standard narrative that the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Furman v. Georgia (1972), which temporarily abolished the death penalty, reflected a challenge to its arbitrary, capricious, and discriminatory application.  This Article examines materials that scholars have neglected, including the main brief in Aikens v. California, a companion case to Furman that presented the fundamental constitutional claim: the death penalty is inherently cruel and unusual.

Aikens was largely forgotten to history after it became moot, leaving Furman as the main case before the Court.  The Aikens brief’s humanistic claims and rhetoric are at odds with the widespread idea that Furman was a case about administrative or procedural problems with capital punishment.  This is truer of the Furman decision itself than of the way the case was litigated.  Depicting any execution as “barbarity,” as an “atavistic horror,” the Aikens brief marshaled an argument that has garnered much less traction in modern America than Europe: the death penalty is an affront to human dignity.  Yet the transatlantic divergence in framing abolitionism was not always as pronounced as it came to be in Furman’s aftermath.  Since the Enlightenment, American and European abolitionists had long emphasized normative arguments against capital punishment, thereby revealing why they played a central role in Aikens-Furman.

Strikingly, the Aikens brief insistently quoted a European figure whose role in this seminal Supreme Court case has received no attention: Albert Camus.  “Reflections on the Guillotine,” Camus’s denunciation of the death penalty’s inhumanity, is among the sources prominently featured in the Aikens-Furman briefs.  The architect of this strategy was Anthony Amsterdam, a famed litigator.  Subsequent generations of American abolitionists have placed less weight on humanistic objections to executions, instead stressing procedural and administrative claims.  This shift has obscured how a lost chapter in death penalty history unfolded.

These events are key to understanding the evolution of capital punishment, from its resurgence in the late twentieth century to its present decline as the number of executions nears record lows.  On Furman’s fiftieth anniversary, the Article offers another window into the past as scholars anticipate a future constitutional challenge to the death penalty in one or two generations. 

May 29, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Friday, May 27, 2022

Helping to spread a federal sentencing "message" for a "corruption superspreader"

I always find it is interesting when judges in relatively low-profile cases talk about "sending a message" at sentencing, and I suppose I should try to make a habit of helping judges spread the messages they hope to be sending.  To that end, here I will flag this recent sentencing story out of Chicago headlined "‘You were a corruption superspreader’: Judge sentences ex-state Rep. Luis Arroyo to 57 months in prison in bribery case involving sweepstakes machine bill."  Here are excerpts:

Saying he needed to send a message on the cost of public corruption, a federal judge on Wednesday sentenced former state Rep. Luis Arroyo to nearly five years in federal prison for trying to bribe a state senator to help with legislation expanding the shadowy world of sweepstakes gambling machines.

Rejecting a defense plea for probation, U.S. District Judge Steven Seeger railed against Arroyo’s “dirty” conduct, saying in a lengthy speech that he sold out an already corruption-weary public and committed a “frontal assault on the very idea of representative government.”

“You were a corruption superspreader,” Seeger said near the end of a nearly four-hour hearing at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse.  “The public did not get what they deserved.  They voted for an honest representative, and what they got was a corrupt politician.”

Arroyo’s lawyers had maintained that a prison sentence for the longtime Chicago Democrat would do nothing to stop the state’s seemingly intractable corruption problem and would be akin to “draining Lake Michigan with a spoon.”

But the judge took particular umbrage with attempts to downplay what Arroyo did, and at one point asked defense attorney Michael Gillespie specifically about the spoon comment.  “What does that mean?” the judge asked.  ”What am I supposed to do with that?”  As Gillespie fumbled for an answer, Seeger interrupted in a stern voice: “Maybe judges need a bigger spoon.”

Arroyo, 67, entered a blind guilty plea in November to one count of honest services fraud, a move that came without an agreement with prosecutors on what sentencing recommendations should be made to the judge.  The 57-month term imposed by Seeger was above the four years in prison recommended by prosecutors on Wednesday....

Arroyo resigned his seat shortly after he was arrested in 2019 on the bribery charges. A superseding indictment later added new wire and mail fraud charges against Arroyo and also charged James T. Weiss with bribery, wire fraud, mail fraud and lying to the FBI....

The case centers on the largely uncharted world of sweepstakes machines, sometimes called “gray machines,” for which Arroyo was moonlighting as a lobbyist.  The machines allow customers to put in money, receive a coupon to redeem for merchandise online and then play electronic games like slot machines.... According to the 15-page indictment, Weiss paid bribes to Arroyo beginning in November 2018 in exchange for Arroyo’s promotion of legislation beneficial to Weiss’ company, Collage LLC, which specialized in the sweepstakes machines....

In his remarks, Seeger said it was clear that Arroyo was a devoted family man and “a pillar of his community,” but chastised him repeatedly for trying to downplay the severity of his corrupt acts. The judge also noted that while there was no evidence of any other crimes committed in the wiretapped conversations, Arroyo certainly knew the language of corruption and seemed to be “in familiar territory.”

“I need to make sure that the message gets out that public corruption isn’t worth it,” Seeger said. “For whatever reason, that message isn’t getting through.”

May 27, 2022 in Booker in district courts, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

"Criminal Law Exceptionalism"

The title of this post is the title of this new article on SSRN authored by Benjamin Levin.  Here is its abstract:

For over half a century, U.S. prison populations have ballooned and criminal codes have expanded.  In recent years, a growing awareness of mass incarceration and the harms of criminal law across lines of race and class has led to a backlash of anti-carceral commentary and social movement energy.  Academics and activists have adopted a critical posture, offering not only small-bore reforms, but full-fledged arguments for the abolition of prisons, police, and criminal legal institutions.  Where criminal law was once embraced by commentators as a catchall solution to social problems, increasingly it is being rejected, or at least questioned.  Instead of a space of moral clarity, the “criminal justice system” is frequently identified by critical scholars and activists as a space of racial subordination, widespread inequality, and rampant institutional violence.

In this Article, I applaud that critical turn.  But, I argue that, when taken seriously, contemporary critiques of the criminal system raise foundational questions about power and governance — issues that should transcend the civil/criminal divide and, in some cases, even the distinction between state and private action.  What if the problem with the criminal system isn’t exclusively its criminal-ness, but rather is the way in which it is embedded in and reflective of a set of problematic beliefs about how society should be structured and how people should be governed? What if the problems with criminal law are illustrative, rather than exceptional? Ultimately, I argue that the current moment should invite a de-exceptionalization of criminal law and a broader reckoning with the distributive consequences and punitive impulses that define the criminal system’s functioning — and, in turn, define so many other features of U.S. political economy beyond criminal law and its administration.

May 18, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 01, 2022

"Donald Trump’s Clemencies: Unconventional Acts, Conventional Justifications"

The title of this post is the title of this paper now available via SSRN and authored by Austin Sarat, Laura Gottesfeld, Carolina Kettles and Olivia Ward.  Here is its abstract:

During his four years as president Donald Trump’s use of the clemency power generated considerable controversy.  Much scholarship documents the fact that he ignored the traditional procedures for reviewing and approving requests for pardons and commutations and used clemency to favor a rogues’ gallery of cronies, celebrities and those whose crimes showed particular contempt for the law.  However, few scholars have examined the justifications he offered when he granted pardons and commutations.  This paper fills that gap.  We argue that because the clemency power sits uneasily with democracy and the rule of law when presidents use this power they feel the need to supply justifications.  We report on a study of Trump’s clemency justifications that suggests that while his clemencies themselves were often controversial and his means of communicating about them unconventional, the reasons he gave for them were generally quite conventional and continuous with the justifications offered by his predecessors for their pardons and commutations.

May 1, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Abolishing the Evidence-Based Paradigm"

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

The belief that policies and procedures should be data-driven and “evidence-based” has become criminal law’s leading paradigm for reform.  This evidence-based paradigm, which promotes quantitative data collection and empirical analysis to shape and assess reforms, has been widely embraced for its potential to cure the emotional and political pathologies that led to mass incarceration.  It has influenced reforms across the criminal procedure spectrum, from predictive policing through actuarial sentencing.  The paradigm’s appeal is clear: it promises an objective approach that lets data – not politics — lead the way and purports to have no agenda beyond identifying effective, efficient reforms.

This Article challenges the paradigm’s core claims.  It shows that the evidence-based paradigm’s objectives, its methodology, and its epistemology advance conventional assumptions about what the criminal legal system should strive to achieve, whom it should target, and whose voices and interests matter.  In other words, the evidence-based paradigm is political, and it does have an agenda.  And that agenda, informed by neoliberalism and the enduring legacy of white supremacy in the criminal legal system, strengthens — rather than challenges — the existing system.

The Article argues that, if left unchallenged, the evidence-based paradigm will continue to reproduce the system’s disparities and dysfunctions, under the veneer of scientific objectivity.  Thus, it must be abolished and replaced with a new approach that advances a true paradigm shift about the aims of criminal legal reform and the role and definition of data and empiricism in advancing that vision.

May 1, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, April 28, 2022

"Criminal Acts and Basic Moral Equality"

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

Modern criminal justice presupposes that persons are not morally equal.  On the contrary, those who do wrong are viewed by the law as less worthy of respect, concern and decent treatment: Offenders, it is said, “deserve” to suffer for their misdeeds.  Yet, there is scant logical or empirical basis for the law’s supposition that offenders are morally inferior.  The usual reasoning is that persons who intentionally or knowingly do wrong are the authors and initiators of their acts and, as such, are morally responsible for them.  But this reasoning rests on the assumption that a person’s mental states, such as intentions, can cause physical effects (bodily movements)— a factual assumption that is at odds with the evidence of neuroscience and whose only empirical support rests on a fallacious logical inference (post hoc ergo propter hoc).  There is, in fact, no evidence that mental states like intentions have anything to do with causing the bodily movements that constitute behavior.  Nonetheless, the mental-cause basis for moral responsibility, though it rests on a false factual inference, has enormous implications for criminal justice policy.

While society must obviously protect itself from dangerous people, it does not have to torment them.  The imperative to punish, a dominant theme of criminal justice policy, is not supported by evidence or logic, and it violates basic moral equality.

April 28, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

"Modern Sentencing Mitigation"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by John B. Meixner Jr. now available in the Northwestern University Law Review. Here is its abstract:

Sentencing has become the most important part of a criminal case.  Over the past century, criminal trials have given way almost entirely to pleas.  Once a case is charged, it almost always ends up at sentencing.  And notably, judges learn little sentencing-relevant information about the case or the defendant prior to sentencing and have significant discretion in sentencing decisions.  Thus, sentencing is the primary opportunity for the defense to affect the outcome of the case by presenting mitigation: reasons why the nature of the offense or characteristics of the defendant warrant a lower sentence.  It is surprising, then, that relatively little scholarship in criminal law focuses on mitigation at sentencing.  Fundamental questions have not been explored: Do the Sentencing Guidelines — which largely limit the relevance of mitigating evidence — make mitigation unimportant?  Does the extent or type of mitigation offered have any relationship with the sentence imposed?

This Article fills that gap by examining a previously unexplored data set: sentencing memoranda filed by defense attorneys in federal felony cases.  By systematically parsing categories of mitigating evidence and quantitatively coding the evidence, I show that mitigation is a central predictor of sentencing outcomes and that judges approach mitigation in a modern way: rather than adhering to the strict, offense-centric structure that has dominated sentencing since the advent of the Sentencing Guidelines in the 1980s, judges individualize sentences in ways that consider the personal characteristics of each defendant, beyond what the Guidelines anticipate.  And particular types of mitigation, such as science-based arguments about mental and physical health, appear especially persuasive.

The results have significant implications for criminal justice policy: while my data show that mitigation is critical to judges’ sentencing decisions, both the Guidelines and procedural rules minimize mitigation, failing to encourage both defense attorneys and prosecutors to investigate and consider it.  I suggest reforms to make sentencing more equitable, such as requiring the investigation and presentation of mitigation to constitute effective assistance of counsel, easing the barriers to obtaining relevant information on mental and physical health mitigation, and encouraging prosecutors to consider mitigation in charging decisions and sentencing recommendations.

April 27, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, April 23, 2022

"The End of Liberty"

The title of this post is the title of this recent piece authored by Adam Kolber and just posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Theorists treat liberty as a great equalizer.  We can’t easily distribute equal welfare, but we can purport to distribute equal liberty. In fact, however, nothing about “equal liberty” is meaningfully equal.  To demonstrate, I turn not to familiar cases of distributing positive goods but to the distribution of a negative good, namely carceral punishment.  Many theorists believe we should impose proportional punishment by depriving offenders of liberty in proportion to their blameworthiness.  In this manner, equally blameworthy offenders are said to receive equal punishment when incarcerated for the same period of time.  Equal periods of incarceration do not yield equal punishments, however, because liberty cannot serve as the great equalizer theorists hope for.  Pretending it can prevents us from justifying the full harms of punishment or leads to such counterintuitive results that it makes proportional punishment an unattractive goal.

April 23, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

"Punitive Restoration"

The title of this post is the title of this new book chapter authored by Thom Brooks.  Here is its abstract:

Restorative justice is highly promising as an effective approach to better support victims, reduce reoffending, and lower costs.  The challenge it faces is a dual hurdle of limited applicability and lack of public confidence.  The issue is how we might better embed restorative justice in the criminal justice system so its promising effectiveness could be shared more widely while increasing public confidence.  This chapter explores the new approach of punitive restoration, which gives more tools for restoration including a wider punitive element.  Its goal is to win support for greater use of restorative practices and a less punitive criminal justice system overall.

April 20, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 17, 2022

"Entitlement to Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posted to SSRN and authored by Kyron Huigens. Here is its abstract:

This Article advances the idea of entitlement to punishment as the core of a normative theory of legal punishment's moral justification.  It presents an alternative to normative theories of punishment premised on desert or public welfare; that is, to retributivism and consequentialism.  The argument relies on H.L.A. Hart's theory of criminal law as a "choosing system," his theory of legal rules, and his theory of rights.  It posits the advancement of positive freedom as a morally justifying function of legal punishment.

An entitlement to punishment is a unique, distinctive legal relation.  We impose punishment when an offender initiates an ordered sequence of rights- power, claim, duty, power, liability-by means of committing a crime.  This sequence ends with the offender's holding both a claim to be punished and a liability for punishment.  This pair of legal relations is not a right to punishment, because it is more than a claim with a corresponding duty.  To hold this claim and this liability to punishment in tandem, as cognate legal relations, is better described by the more comprehensive term "entitlement." Neither desert nor good consequences is part of this account of how and why we punish.  It is enough to say that an offender is entitled to punishment.

Entitlement to punishment is a more accurate and honest description of the reason we punish than either desert or good consequences is.  The belief that legal punishment is imposed because and only when it is deserved obscures the extent to which legal punishment is a consequence of moral luck.  The word "entitlement" better describes the situation of a person who has entangled himself in criminal law's stringent rules as a consequence of his limited power to overcome unpredictable outcomes, his circumstances, the influences on his character, or his personal history.

Finally, entitlement to punishment reflects the moral salience of criminal law.  Entitlement to punishment conveys respect for the rationality of criminal offenders and their capacity for self-determination-particularly when criminal law is cast as a choosing system and as part of a conception of positive liberty centered in autonomy.

April 17, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 14, 2022

"New Originalism: Arizona's Founding Progressives on Extreme Punishment"

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

Originalism, together with textualism, has been of growing interest to legal scholars and jurists alike.  Discerning and putting forth the views of “the founders” has become part and parcel of effective advocacy, particularly with regards to constitutional questions.  Arizona is no exception, with its courts explicitly giving originalism primacy over all other interpretive doctrines for discerning the meaning of an ambiguous provision of its constitution.

Yet, the Arizona state courts have not engaged with the views of the state’s founders on key issues concerning the purposes of punishment, as demonstrated by the founders’ words and deeds.  Arizona was founded in 1912 as a progressive project and the founding generation — from the convenors of the 1910 constitutional convention and the courts to the people themselves — held and acted on progressive views of punishment.  They rejected the idea that any person was beyond reform and insisted that the state had an obligation to bring about reform of persons convicted of crime.  Progressive ideals were a core aspect of the founding of Arizona, and those ideals provide a compelling reason to give independent meaning to Arizona’s bar on cruel and unusual punishment in ways that call for judicial skepticism of any punishment that does not serve the progressive ideals of rehabilitation and reformation.

April 14, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

"Trauma and Blameworthiness in the Criminal Legal System"

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

Violence can result in trauma, but so too can trauma lead to violence.  Neuroscience offers an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the biology of behavior, including the nexus between trauma and criminal behavior.  Yet the criminal legal system consistently fails to account for the traumatic backgrounds of many people charged with crimes. Instead, people who experience trauma as a result of community violence, along with so many others, are ignored or ridiculed when they argue that their traumatic experiences should mitigate their blameworthiness.  Military veterans, on the other hand, provide a unique example of a class of people for whom judges, prosecutors, and other actors in the criminal legal system recognize that context and circumstances matter — that even when someone is criminally responsible for a wrongdoing, their traumatic experiences may mitigate their blameworthiness.

In this article, I explore why we treat trauma as a reason for leniency for some people but not for others, and whether it is morally justifiable for us to approach criminal behavior as situational (a result of environmental circumstances) for certain groups, while insisting that it is characterological (the result of individual character traits) for others. Offering a novel perspective on the issue, I contend that what distinguishes military veterans from defendants for whom trauma and other environmental factors are routinely disregarded is not a difference in the kind or degree of the impact of their circumstances, but rather cognitive assumptions about who is and is not a criminal.  These assumptions in turn lead to a false dichotomy between people whose criminal behavior we deem characterological, and therefore fully morally blameworthy, and people whose criminal behavior we accept as situational, and therefore less blameworthy. I situate the roots of these categorizations in structural racism and show how this dichotomous thinking perpetuates racial injustice.

April 12, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 02, 2022

"The Trouble with Time Served"

The title of this post is the title of this new article recently posted to SSRN and authored by Kimberly Kessler Ferzan. Here is its abstract:

Every jurisdiction in the United States gives criminal defendants “credit” against their sentence for the time they spend detained pretrial.  In a world of mass incarceration and overcriminalization that disproportionately impacts people of color, this practice appears to be a welcome mechanism for mercy and justice.  In fact, however, crediting detainees for time served is perverse.  It harms the innocent.  A defendant who is found not guilty, or whose case is dismissed, gets nothing.  Crediting time served also allows the state to avoid internalizing the full costs of pretrial detention, thereby making overinclusive detention standards less expensive.  Finally, crediting time served links prevention with punishment, retroactively justifying punitive, substandard conditions.  The bottom line is this: Time served is not a panacea.  To the contrary, it contributes to criminal justice pathologies.

This Article systematically details the rationales for pretrial detention and then analyzes when, given those rationales, credit for time served is warranted.  The analysis reveals that crediting time served is a destructive practice on egalitarian, economic, expressive, and retributive grounds.  Time served should be abandoned.  Detainees should be financially compensated instead.  Given that many detentions are premised upon a theory similar to a Fifth Amendment taking, compensation is warranted for all defendants — both the innocent and the guilty — and can lead to positive reforms.  Only by abandoning credit for time served can the link between prevention and punishment be severed, such that detention will be more limited and more humane.

April 2, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, March 19, 2022

"Proportionality, Constraint, and Culpability"

The title of this post is the title of this new essay authored by Mitchell Berman now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Philosophers of criminal punishment widely agree that criminal punishment should be “proportional” to the “seriousness” of the offense.  But this apparent consensus is only superficial, masking significant dissensus below the surface.  Proposed proportionality principles differ on several distinct dimensions, including: (1) regarding which offense or offender properties determine offense “seriousness” and thus constitute a proportionality relatum; (2) regarding whether punishment is objectionably disproportionate only when excessively severe, or also when excessively lenient; and (3) regarding whether the principle can deliver absolute (“cardinal”) judgments, or only comparative (“ordinal”) ones.

This essay proposes that these differences cannot be successfully adjudicated, and one candidate proportionality principle preferred over its rivals, in the abstract; a proportionality principle only makes sense as an integrated part of a more complete justificatory theory of criminal punishment.  It then sketches a proportionality principle that best fits the responsibility-constrained pluralist theories of criminal punishment that currently predominate. The proportionality principle it favors provides that punishments should not be disproportionately severe, in noncomparative terms, relative to an agent’s culpability in relation to their wrongdoing.

March 19, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 14, 2022

"The Constitutional Guarantee of Criminal Justice Transparency"

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

This article identifies and explores a transparency guarantee that permeates the Constitution’s criminal procedure provisions.  This trans-substantive guarantee protects multiple dimensions of transparency — which I categorize as participatory, informational, and corporal — through overlapping structural safeguards and individual rights, and through protections afforded to both the public and the accused. 

Despite the strength and pervasiveness of the overarching transparency guarantee, the discrete provisions from which it is derived are often peripheral in today’s criminal justice system, which is dominated by plea bargaining and incarceration, rather than trials and public-square punishment.  And, because the constitutional transparency protections are viewed in clause-bound isolation, modern transparency deficits are generally viewed as policy problems, not constitutional ones.  I urge that renewed attention to the overarching constitutional transparency guarantee can support doctrinal and legislative efforts to strengthen criminal justice transparency in modern times.

March 14, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 05, 2022

New Federal Sentencing Reporter double issue explores "Financial Sanctions in Sentencing and Corrections"

I am very pleased to now be able to spotlight the newest Federal Sentencing Reporter issue, which is actually a special double issue devoted to the topic "Financial Sanctions in Sentencing and Corrections: Critical Issues, Innovations, and Opportunities." This amazing issue has nearly two dozen article authored by more than three dozen leading academics and researchers. 

Professors Jordan Hyatt and Nathan Link deserve worlds of credit for putting this amazing issue together, and their "Editors’ Observations"  which introduces the issue is titled "The Cost of Financial Sanctions in Sentencing and Corrections: Avenues for Research, Policy, and Practice." Here is its abstract:  

Financial and monetary obligations, a class of sanctions that includes fines, restitution, and a range of fees, are increasingly recognized as playing a significant role in the operation of the justice system, the lives of the people against whom they are levied, and their communities.  While some financial sanctions play a role in the tailoring of a punishment to the particular individual and the offenses they have been convicted of, others lack this grounding in ideology and serve a more pragmatic- and potentially revenue-driven-goal.  These observations reflect on the current state of research and policy regarding financial sanctions and seek to identify meaningful gaps in the current knowledge base as a foundation for future inquiry.

I highly recommend the full double issue.

March 5, 2022 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 24, 2022

"Social Trust in Criminal Justice: A Metric"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available via SSRN authored by Joshua Kleinfeld and Hadar Dancig-Rosenberg. Here is its abstract:

What is the metric by which to measure a well-functioning criminal justice system?  If a modern state is going to measure performance by counting something — and a modern state will always count something — what, in the criminal justice context, should it count?  Remarkably, there is at present no widely accepted metric of success or failure in criminal justice.  Those there are — like arrest rates, conviction rates, and crime rates — are deeply flawed.  And the search for a better metric is complicated by the cacophony of different goals that theorists, policymakers, and the public bring to the criminal justice system, including crime control, racial justice, retributive justice, and social solidarity.

This Article proposes a metric based on the concept of social trust.  The measure of a well- or poorly functioning criminal system is its marginal effects on (1) the level of trust a polity’s members have toward the institutions, officials, laws, and actions that comprise the criminal justice system; (2) the level of trust a polity’s members have, in virtue of the criminal system’s operations, toward government generally (beyond the criminal justice system); and (3) the level of trust a polity’s members have toward one another following incidents of crime and responses to crime.  Social trust, we argue, both speaks to an issue at the philosophical core of crime and punishment and serves as a locus of agreement among the many goals people bring to the criminal justice system.  The concept can thus be a site of overlapping consensus, performing the vital function of enabling liberal societies to make policy despite disagreement about first principles.

February 24, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 17, 2022

Latest issue of Dædalus explores "Reimagining Justice: The Challenges of Violence & Punitive Excess"

Wi22_Cover_ForWebThe Winter 2022 issue of the journal Dædalus has a series of essay on the topic of "Reimagining Justice: The Challenges of Violence & Punitive Excess."  Here is the issue's introduction from this issue page and a listing of the article titles and authors:

America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Criminal justice policies of punitive excess and unequal protection under the law have sustained racial exclusion and added to the harsh conditions of poverty.  The Winter 2022 issue demands that we imagine a different kind of public safety that relies not on police and prisons, but on a rich community life that has eliminated racism and poverty.  Many of the solutions will lie beyond the boundaries of the criminal justice system and public policy, yet much of the work is already being done in communities around the country. And these efforts share, as the essays in this issue suggest, a common commitment to the values of healing, reconciliation, and human dignity.

Violence, Criminalization & Punitive Excess by Bruce Western and Sukyi McMahon

The Story of Violence in America by Kellie Carter Jackson

The Problem of State Violence by Paul Butler

Public Health Approaches to Reducing Community Gun Violence by Daniel W. Webster

Seeing Guns to See Urban Violence: Racial Inequality & Neighborhood Context by David M. Hureau

Developmental & Ecological Perspective on the Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma & Violence by Micere Keels

The Effects of Violence on Communities: The Violence Matrix as a Tool for Advancing More Just Policies by Beth E. Richie

Faces of the Aftermath of Visible & Invisible Violence & Loss: Radical Resiliency of Justice & Healing by Barbara L. Jones

The Foundational Lawlessness of the Law Itself: Racial Criminalization & the Punitive Roots of Punishment in America by Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Criminal Law & Migration Control: Recent History & Future Possibilities by Jennifer M. Chacón

Due Process & the Theater of Racial Degradation: The Evolving Notion of Pretrial Punishment in the Criminal Courts by Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve

Recognition, Repair & the Reconstruction of “Square One” by Geoff K. Ward

Knowing What We Want: A Decent Society, A Civilized System of Justice & A Condition of Dignity by Jonathan Simon

All of these articles (along with abstracts) can be accessed at this webpage.

January 17, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 13, 2022

California Gov Newsom reverse parole grant to Sirhan Sirhan, RFK's assassin

Under California law, the Governor reviews any recommendation of parole by a convicted murderer.  As explained in this new Los Angeles Tomes op-ed, California Governor Gavin Newsom has decided to reverse a parole decision in the high-profile case of Sirhan Sirhan.  Here is how the op-ed starts:

In 1968, Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Sen. Robert F. Kennedy just moments after Kennedy won the California presidential primary.  Sirhan also shot and injured five bystanders. Decades later, Sirhan refuses to accept responsibility for the crimes.

California’s Board of Parole Hearings recently found that Sirhan is suitable for parole. I disagree. After carefully reviewing the case, including records in the California State Archives, I have determined that Sirhan has not developed the accountability and insight required to support his safe release into the community. I must reverse Sirhan’s parole grant.

A copy of the Governor’s parole reversal decision can be found here.  Interestingly, and surely not coincidentally, Gov Newsom also decided today to announce a large number of clemency grants, as this press release details: "Governor Gavin Newsom today announced that he has granted 24 pardons, 18 commutations and 5 reprieves."

Prior related posts:

January 13, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, January 06, 2022

"Error Aversions and Due Process"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now on SSRN authored by Brandon Garrett and Gregory Mitchell. Here is its abstract:

William Blackstone famously expressed the view that convicting the innocent constitutes a much more serious error than acquitting the guilty.  This view is the cornerstone of due process protections for those accused of crimes, giving rise to the presumption of innocence and the high burden of proof required for criminal convictions.  While most legal elites share Blackstone’s view, the citizen-jurors tasked with making due process protections a reality do not share the law’s preference for false acquittals over false convictions.

Across multiple national surveys, sampling more than 10,000 people, we find that a majority of Americans views false acquittals and false convictions to be errors of equal magnitude.  Contrary to Blackstone, most people are unwilling to err on the side of letting the guilty go free to avoid convicting the innocent.  Indeed, a sizeable minority views false acquittals as worse than false convictions; this group is willing to convict multiple innocent persons to avoid letting one guilty person go free.  These value differences translate into behavioral differences: we show in multiple studies that jury-eligible adults who reject Blackstone’s view are more accepting of prosecution evidence and more conviction prone than the minority of potential jurors who agrees with Blackstone.

These findings have important implications for our understanding of due process and criminal justice policy.  Due process currently depends on jurors faithfully following instructions on the burden of proof, but many jurors are not disposed to hold the state to its high burden.  Courts should do away with the fiction that the reasonable doubt standard guarantees due process and consider protections that do not depend on jurors honoring the law’s preference for false acquittals, such as more stringent pre-trial screening of criminal cases and stricter limits on prosecution evidence.  Furthermore, the fact that many people place crime control on par with, or above, the need to avoid wrongful convictions helps explain divisions in public opinion on important policy questions such as bail and sentencing reform.  Criminal justice proposals that emphasize deontic concerns without addressing consequentialist concerns are unlikely to garner widespread support.

January 6, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Making the case, because "upper-class offenders ... might be even more reprehensible," for a severe sentence for Elizabeth Holmes

Former federal prosecutor Barbara McQuade has this notable MSNBC opinion piece that makes a full-throated argument for throwing the book ay former Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Some people steal money with guns.  Other people steal money with lies.  In a court of law, they’re all crooks. But not all crooks are treated the same by the justice system, a fact Elizabeth Holmes may be counting on when it comes to her sentencing....  White-collar criminals like Holmes may not get their hands dirty in the traditional sense, but their conduct is no less criminal than a stickup in an alley.  In fact, upper-class offenders like Holmes might be even more reprehensible; while street crime is often motivated by need, white-collar crime is usually motivated by greed....

The government quantified Holmes’ investor fraud, arguing it amounted to more than $140 million, a figure that will largely influence her eventual sentence. Federal sentencing guidelines consider a number of factors, including the amount of money involved in the scheme. Based on that number, as well as enhancements and the sophistication of her scheme, Holmes is likely looking at a sentence between 14 and 17 years.

Sentencing is a key inflection point for disparities in the criminal justice system.  But will a judge actually give Holmes a 15-year sentence? Holmes’ defense attorneys, like the attorneys of many criminals before her, will certainly try to argue that the sentencing guidelines in white-collar cases are simply “too high.”  This argument has worked with judges in the past, and high-priced attorneys know that judges can reduce the sentence considerably in a fraud case, as long as they articulate a good reason. (Unlike in criminal cases involving drugs or guns, for example, Holmes does not face a mandatory minimum sentence.)...

Perhaps because judges see offenders who look like them or who share similar backgrounds, they often bite on the argument that sentences for white-collar crimes should be something less than the guidelines range.  I have heard defense attorneys argue that their clients have already been punished enough through societal shame.  You can imagine one of these white-collar defendants lamenting to his lawyer that he can’t even walk through the country club dining room without getting a nasty look from a fellow member.

The other advantage white-collar defendants enjoy at sentencing is their ability to showcase a life of good deeds and letters of support.  An upper-income defendant can often point to service on boards or donations to charitable causes as mitigating factors.  Here again we find problematic disparities baked into the justice system: A low-income defendant lacks the resources to amass anything resembling that kind of track record.  Similarly, while a defendant like Holmes can likely find prominent people to write her letters of support, a defendant lacking her resources usually also lacks the connections needed to mount a similar campaign.

Another argument often made by defense attorneys in white-collar cases is that incarcerating their clients would be a waste of resources because they pose no threat to public safety.  This may be true, but the federal sentencing statute provides that the purpose of sentencing also includes deterrence and just punishment.  Deterrence is especially important in white-collar cases because these are crimes that are carefully planned. No one commits investor fraud in the heat of passion. If defendants who perpetrate massive fraud can get away with a slap on the wrist, then others will calculate that it is worth the gamble to do the same.  A strong sentence in white-collar cases can provide an important data point in that calculation. And fraud is not an inherently victimless crime.

As we think about ways to address racial and economic disparities in the criminal justice system, we should consider not only the disproportionately long sentences that are imposed on street criminals.  We should also consider the paltry ones that are meted out to the wealthy.  We will find out soon enough how Elizabeth Holmes’ sentence does or does not contribute to this pattern.

Because I do not think all that many federal defendants (even "wealthy" ones) actually do get "paltry" sentences — unless and until they cut a special deal with a federal prosecutor, see, e.g., Jeffrey Epstein's first pass — I think we generally need to worry a whole lot more about disproportionately long federal sentences than about problematically short ones.  Still, this commentary  does usefully highlights how advantaged defendants are often better able to present mitigating sentencing factors than disadvantages ones.  For me, that provides a reason for the system to work harder to help the disadvantaged, not a reason to slam the advantaged.  As I expressed in an article nearly 15 years ago, it always worries me when an emphasis on sentencing consistency  fuels "a leveling up dynamic"  that pushes sentences to be more consistently harsh.

Prior related post:

January 5, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (8)

“A Family-Centered Approach to Criminal Justice Reform.”

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new report authored by Christopher Bates, a legal fellow at the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation.  This 100+-page report is styled a "Hatch Center Policy Review," and here is part of its introduction:

Conversations about criminal justice typically center around two groups of individuals: individuals who are convicted of crimes, and individuals who are victims of crime.  The former receive perhaps the lion’s share of attention, as policymakers and commentators debate what consequences they should face, how such consequences should be meted out, what procedural protections should apply, and what can be done to reduce the likelihood that an individual will offend or reoffend. As to victims of crime, discussions may focus on the individual level — how to ensure justice is done in particular cases — or on a broader level—what can be done to reduce crime and improve public safety.

There is another group, however, that can and must be part of the conversation — the family members of convicted individuals.  These include spouses and intimate partners, parents and siblings, and, perhaps most importantly, children....

For decades, researchers have documented the deleterious effects that incarceration and criminal involvement have on the families of individuals who engage in criminal activity. They have also recorded the ways in which strong family ties benefit communities and reduce recidivism. Taking into account both sides of this equation—the impacts on, and the impacts of, family members — is essential to designing effective criminal justice policy.

This paper seeks to do just that — to suggest an approach to criminal justice policy that builds on the decades of research regarding the interrelationship between family ties, incarceration, and criminal behavior....

This paper proceeds in five parts.  Part I surveys the research on family relationships, incarceration, and recidivism, with a focus on how incarceration impacts family members and children and how family relationships affect recidivism.  It also discusses the research on prison visitation and recidivism and how maintaining stronger family ties during incarceration can lead to better reentry outcomes.  Part II turns to the topic of prison policy and how this research can inform decisions about inmate placement, visitation, and contact with family members.  Part III considers the issue of reentry and how policymakers can design laws and programs that aid, rather than impede, the ability of formerly incarcerated individuals to find employment, housing, and other necessities so they can provide for their families and avoid cycles of recidivism and reincarceration.  Part IV turns to punishment and asks what insights a family-centered approach to criminal justice reform can offer regarding sentencing practices and determining what conduct should be subject to criminal penalties in the first place.  It suggests that a principle called parsimony — which says policymakers should seek the least amount of criminal punishment necessary to accomplish a law’s legitimate ends — can fit well with a family-centered approach because it seeks to avoid inflicting more harm than is necessary on convicted individuals and their families.  Part V discusses police reform and offers suggestions for how the principles that can be drawn from the research described in this paper can inform discussions about improving police transparency, accountability, and officer-resident interactions.  A brief conclusion follows.

January 5, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Fascinating sentencing sentiments and commitments in new policy memo from new Manhattan DA

A notable new staff memo from the new Manhattan DA is making new headlines, such as this notable one from the New York Post: "Manhattan DA to stop seeking prison sentences in slew of criminal cases."  Here is a bit of context from the press piece:

Manhattan’s new DA has ordered his prosecutors to stop seeking prison sentences for hordes of criminals and to downgrade felony charges in cases including armed robberies and drug dealing, according to a set of progressive policies made public Tuesday.

In his first memo to staff on Monday, Alvin Bragg said his office “will not seek a carceral sentence” except with homicides and a handful of other cases, including domestic violence felonies, some sex crimes and public corruption. “This rule may be excepted only in extraordinary circumstances based on a holistic analysis of the facts, criminal history, victim’s input (particularly in cases of violence or trauma), and any other information available,” the memo reads.

Assistant district attorneys must also now keep in mind the “impacts of incarceration” including on public safety, barriers to housing and employment, financial cost and race disparities, Bragg instructed.

In cases where prosecutors do seek to put a convict behind bars, the request can be for no more than 20 years for a determinate sentence, meaning one that can’t be reviewed or changed by a parole board. “The Office shall not seek a sentence of life without parole,” the memo states.

This "first memo to staff" includes a three-page introductory accounting of DA Bragg's vision of the work of his office, as well as a seven page "Policy & Procedure Memorandum." These documents, both available here, are fascinating reads and here are just a few notable excerpt from these documents (with footnotes, numbering and some context left out):

I have dedicated my career to the inextricably linked goals of safety and fairness. This memo sets out charging, bail, plea, and sentencing policies that will advance both goals. Data, and my personal experiences, show that reserving incarceration for matters involving significant harm will make us safer....

Invest more in diversion and alternatives to incarceration: Well-designed initiatives that support and stabilize people – particularly individuals in crisis and youth – can conserve resources, reduce re-offending, and diminish the collateral harms of criminal prosecution....

Focus on Accountability, Not Sentence Length: Research is clear that, after a certain length, longer sentences do not deter crime or result in greater community safety.  Further, because survivors and victims of crime often want more than the binary choice between incarceration and no incarceration, we will expand our use of restorative justice programming....

The Office will not seek a carceral sentence other than for homicide or other cases involving the death of a victim, a class B violent felony in which a deadly weapon causes serious physical injury, domestic violence felonies, sex offenses in Article 130 of the Penal Law, public corruption, rackets, or major economic crimes, including any attempt to commit any such offense under Article 110 of the Penal Law, unless required by law.  For any charge of attempt to cause serious physical injury with a dangerous instrument, ADAs must obtain the approval of an ECAB supervisor to seek a carceral sentence....

ADAs shall presumptively indict both top counts and lesser included counts when presenting cases to the grand jury, permitting a wider range of statutorily permissible plea bargaining options. This presumption can be overcome with supervisory approval....

For any case in which a person violates the terms of a non-carceral sentence or pre-plea programming mandate, the Office will seek a carceral “alternative” only as a matter of last resort. The Office will take into account that research shows that relapses are a predictable part of the road to recovery for those struggling with substance abuse, and the Office will reserve carceral recommendations for repeated violations of the terms of a mandate.

January 4, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tenth Circuit panel finds sentence increase for open plea to be procedurally unreasonable

One of many challenges in the world of sentencing policy and practice, especially when it comes to appellate review, is that a sentencing judge who often extensively explains his or her sentencing decision-making at length is often more likely to articulate a legally problematic reason that then provides the basis for a sentence reversal.   This reality is demonstrated in a new Tenth Circuit panel decision in US v. Cozad, No. 20-3233 (10th Cir. Jan. 3, 2022) (available here).  Cozad is a really interesting opinion for lots of reasons, and it starts with the district court at sentencing explaining why the defendant was here getting a sentence a few months above the bottom of the guideline range in this particular way:

[I]t’s always been my practice to say if someone agrees to a plea agreement, the additional conditions that are obtained in that, they’re entitled to additional consideration, which is where I start at a low end guideline range.  But in my calculation, without a plea agreement, I have always started with looking more at the mid-tier of the guideline range, which is where I think the guidelines initially envisioned that courts would operate, and not giving them the additional credit for actually entering into a plea agreement to do that.

Here is how the Tenth Circuit panel framed the issue that this statement of sentencing reasons presented on appeal:

This appeal raises one issue: whether, under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), it is unreasonable for a district court to impose a harsher sentence based on a defendant’s decision to plead guilty without a plea agreement. For the reasons explained below, we hold that it is.

There are lots of parts to the opinion that follows which serves as an effective overview of various aspects of reasonableness review and plea policies and practices. I highly recommend the full opinion for federal sentencing fans, and here are some notable excerpts (with lots of cites omitted):

[A]lthough the district court stated that its practice was not “a hard-and-fast rule by any means,” the court did not explain why it was applying the rule in Ms. Cozad’s case.  Similarly, although the district court made a passing reference to “the agreements that typically happen in a plea agreement,” the court did not specify what those “agreements” are. On this record, therefore, we cannot but conclude that the district court gave Ms. Cozad a longer sentence than she otherwise would have received simply because she pled guilty without a plea agreement. Whether it was permissible for the district court to do so appears to be a question of first impression in this or any other circuit....

For reasons of history, as well as congressional intent, appellate courts have interpreted § 3553(a) liberally.  Nevertheless, a district court does not enjoy boundless discretion with respect to the facts it relies on at sentencing.... Even when the fact ostensibly relates to the defendant’s conduct or characteristics, its consideration may be grounds for remand when the fact has no bearing on any of the aims of punishment set forth in § 3553(a)(2)....

The government argues that a district court may consider the absence of a plea agreement because such agreements often include certain conditions, such as appellate waivers.... When the parties reach an agreement, a district court can evaluate the terms, including any waivers, in the context of the agreement as a whole to determine the degree to which the waivers may show some additional acceptance of responsibility. By contrast, when the defendant enters an open plea, the court may not know whether any plea agreement was offered, let alone under what terms. Indeed, there is no evidence in this case that an appellate waiver was ever discussed. In these circumstances, without more information, it is unreasonable to penalize the defendant for the absence of an appellate waiver in a nonexistent agreement....

The government further argues that courts may “for uniformity purposes” grant “additional leniency” to defendants who enter into plea agreements and withhold it from those who do not.  The government reasons that, were a court required to sentence a defendant who pleads open “to the same sentence he would have had, had he taken a plea agreement,” there would be “no compelling reason” for a defendant to accept the conditions of a plea bargain.  We are not convinced....

[E]ven in cases where there is only a single viable charge, the government could threaten to recommend a harsher sentence or to pursue an aggressive interpretation of the guidelines.  Consequently, because courts are free to take the government’s recommendation into account, a defendant who refuses to plea bargain would still risk receiving a higher sentence in many cases.

More fundamentally, the government’s argument fails because providing a “compelling reason” for a defendant to enter a plea agreement, whether by granting “additional leniency” or withholding it, is not a valid sentencing rationale.  Section 3553(a) provides that courts are to impose no more punishment than is necessary to comply with the four penological goals enumerated in § 3553(a)(2). When a court imposes a sentence to achieve some other purpose, that sentence is unlawful.

January 4, 2022 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 03, 2022

"Racial Attitudes and Criminal Justice Policy"

The title of this post is the title of this lengthy new paper soon to be published in the journal Crime and Justice.  The article is authored by Francis Cullen, Leah Butler and Amanda Graham, and here is its abstract:

Empirical research on public policy preferences must attend to Whites’ animus toward Blacks.  For a quarter-century, studies have consistently found that Kinder and Sanders’s four-item measure of “racial resentment” is a robust predictor of almost every social and criminal justice policy opinion.  Racial animus increases Whites’ opposition to social welfare policies that benefit Blacks and their support for punitive policies that disadvantage this “out-group.”  Any public opinion study that fails to include racial resentment risks omitted variable bias.  Despite the continuing salience of out-group animus, recent scholarship, especially in political science, has highlighted other racial attitudes that can influence public policy preferences.  Two developments are of particular importance.  First, Chudy showed the progressive impact of racial sympathy, a positive out-group attitude in which Whites are distressed by incidents of Blacks’ suffering (such as the killing of George Floyd).  Second, Jardina and others documented that Whites’ in-group racial attitudes, such as White identity/consciousness or white nationalism, have political consequences, reinforcing the effects of racial resentment.  As the United States becomes a majority-minority nation, diverse in-group and out-group racial attitudes are likely to play a central role in policies — including within criminal justice — that the public endorses.

January 3, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, December 30, 2021

"How the Economic Loss Guideline Lost its Way, and How to Save It"

I have been overdue in blogging about this recent article which shares the title of this post and was published earlier this year in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law.  This piece was authored by Barry Boss and Kara Kapp, and it is still very timely as we think about priority concerns for a new US Sentencing Commission (whenever it gets members).  In addition, the enduring issues discussed in this article could soon become a focal point of a very high-profile sentencing if a jury brings back fraud convictions against Elizabeth Holmes.  Here is this article's introduction:

This Article revisits a stubborn problem that has been explored by commentators repeatedly over the past thirty years, but which remains unresolved to this day.  The economic crimes Guideline, Section 2B1.1 of the United States Sentencing Manual, routinely recommends arbitrary, disproportionate, and often draconian sentences to first-time offenders of economic crimes.  These disproportionate sentences are driven primarily by Section 2B1.1’s current loss table, which has an outsized role in determining the length of an economic crime offender’s sentence.  Moreover, this deep flaw in the Guideline’s design has led many judges to lose confidence entirely in the Guideline’s recommended sentences, leading to a wide disparity of sentences issued to similarly situated economic crime offenders across the country.  Accordingly, this Guideline has failed to address the primary problem it was designed to solve — unwarranted disparities among similarly situated offenders.  Worse still, it not only has failed to prevent such unwarranted disparities, its underlying design actively exacerbates them.  In the wake of the United States Sentencing Commission’s recent launch of its Interactive Data Analyzer in June 2020, the authors have identified new evidence that this pernicious problem continues to persist.

In Part I, we review the history and purposes of the Sentencing Guidelines, generally, and the economic crimes Guideline specifically.  In Part II, we explain how the current version of the economic crimes Guideline operates in practice, the extraordinarily high sentences it recommends in high-loss cases, and the resulting overemphasis on loss that overstates offenders’ culpability.  In Part III, we analyze data made available through the Commission’s Interactive Data Analyzer and discuss our findings.  In Part IV, we offer a series of reforms designed to restore the judiciary’s and practitioners’ respect for this Guideline so that it may serve its animating purpose — to reduce unwarranted sentencing disparities among similarly situated offenders

December 30, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 27, 2021

Early preview of SCOTUS cases considering criminal convictions for doctors opioid prescribing practices

I briefly noted the interesting federal criminal drug cases that the Supreme Court took up in early November in this post.  With the top-side briefs now being submitted to SCOTUS, this local press article, headlined "U.S. Supreme Court will hear case of Alabama doctor who prescribed powerful opioids," provides a somewhat fuller preview. Here are excerpts:

Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court have agreed to hear the appeal of an Alabama pain doctor convicted of running a pill mill, a case that could change how federal prosecutors handle opioid cases.  A federal judge in 2017 sentenced Dr. Xiulu Ruan of Mobile to 21 years in prison for several charges including drug distribution and money laundering related to operations at Physicians Pain Specialists of Alabama.  Ruan appealed his conviction last year to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals but lost.  The U.S. Supreme Court agreed earlier this year to hear Ruan’s appeal.

The doctor claims his prescriptions of fentanyl and other opioids were supposed to help patients with severe pain.  In a brief, his lawyers said physicians should not risk arrest and prosecution for unconventional treatments when other approaches have failed.  In Ruan’s case, he prescribed fentanyl approved for patients with cancer pain to people suffering from back, neck and joint pain, according to the U.S. Department of Justice....

Ruan’s appeal has been consolidated with another case, Dr. Shakeel Kahn, who practiced in Arizona and Wyoming.  Both men were found guilty of violating the federal Controlled Substances Act and said juries were not allowed to consider a “good faith” defense, which is aimed at protecting doctors trying to help patients.  The supreme court could uphold his conviction or send his case back to trial.

Ruan’s criminal trial lasted seven weeks in 2017 and featured testimony from patients who supported the doctor and family members who said loved ones received dangerous doses of addictive painkillers.  Prosecutors acknowledged that many patients received good care at the two clinics, but said some prescriptions fell far outside the norm.  Ruan and another practitioner at the clinic, Dr. John Patrick Couch, were among the nation’s top prescribers of fentanyl painkillers.  Couch was also convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.  He has also appealed his case.

In its response, attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice said Ruan prescribed much higher rates of opioids than other doctors and earned more than $4 million as a result. Ruan and his partner issued almost 300,000 prescriptions for controlled substances, they wrote. Prosecutors said Ruan had deep ties to drug companies that created fentanyl medications. After his conviction, they seized assets that included exotic cars, residential and commercial property....

In his brief, Ruan’s attorney wrote that Physicians Pain Specialists of Alabama did not operate as pill mills. The clinics only accepted patients with insurance, refused cash payment and used diagnostic tools to find the sources of patients’ pain.  Only patients with intractable pain received fentanyl, Ruan testified at his trial. “He also testified that the medication was a ‘lifesaver’ for patients who would otherwise ‘have to go to [the] ER’ during such an episode,” the brief said.

Pain patients have criticized crackdowns on pain clinics and doctors.  Compassion & Choices, an organization that advocates for dying patients, submitted a brief in support of Ruan. “Medical practitioners prescribing opioids to such patients in good faith are not drug pushers under the Act,” according to the Compassion & Choices brief.  “Practitioners thus should not have to suffer the specter of criminal liability simply for treating such patients at such a vulnerable, critical, and private time in their lives.”...

Arguments in Ruan’s case are scheduled for March 1, 2022.

The briefing in Ruan v. US, No. 20-1410, is available at this SCOTUSblog link, and the brief from the defense sets up the issue this way in its Introduction:

To ensure that licensed medical professionals do not risk criminal prosecution and felony conviction based on simple malpractice, nearly all courts, construing the CSA and the implementing regulations, require that the government prove that the physician lacked a good faith basis for her prescription.  See Pet. 4-5, 18-27.  But not the Eleventh Circuit. According to the court of appeals, a doctor may be convicted under the CSA if her prescription fell outside of professional norms — without regard to whether she believed in good faith that the prescription served a bona fide medical purpose.  That outlier position, if sustained, would result in the kind of “sweeping expansion of federal criminal jurisdiction” that this Court has repeatedly condemned. Kelly v. United States, 140 S. Ct. 1565, 1574 (2020) (quoting Cleveland v. United States, 531 U.S. 12, 24 (2000)); see also Bond v. United States, 572 U.S. 844, 862-865 (2014). It would also chill medical progress, disrupt the doctor-patient relationship, and criminalize prescriptions whenever a lay jury is persuaded that the physician exceeded the “usual” practice of medicine.

Though these cases are formally about the standards for criminal liability for these doctors, there are sentencing stories lurking here.  First, of course, are the high sentencing stakes for any doctors found guilty of illegal drug distribution.  Decades-long federal sentences are common — but not at all consistent as Prof Adam M. Gershowitz has detailed — and local press indicates federal prosecutors wanted sentences considerably longer than the two decades given to Drs. Ruan and Couch.  But why might such extreme prison terms be needed, given that, once these doctors lose their prescribing licenses, they are functionally unable to repeat their crimes and their risk of recidivism is very low at their age?  Simply put, some vision of retribution must be driving the severity of the sense, especially since deterrence of doctors is likely achieved by any criminal prosecutions and over-deterrence seems like a real risk here.

In the end, the fact that the sentencing stakes are so high likely helps explain why these cases got the Supreme Court's attention.  And the debate over the whether the law requires proving a lack of good faith would, in a sense, get the the heart of the retributivist question of just how blameworthy these doctors really are.  For all those reasons (and others), when oral argument takes place in a couple months, I will be interested to see if any Justices bring up any of the sentencing issues lurking beneath these cases. 

Prior related post:

December 27, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 17, 2021

Sixth Circuit reversal of denial of compassionate release shows how appellate review can sometimes reduce sentencing disparities

A few months ago in this post I flagged a lengthy CNN article discussing disparities in who was receiving compassionate release sentencing reductions in federal courts.  That CNN article featured the case of Horacio Estrada-Elias, an ill 90-year-old inmate serving a life sentence for marijuana trafficking crime, who had his request for compassionate release denied by Judge Danny Reeves in July 2021.  I was pleased to learn this week about notable updates to this story, reported in this new CNN piece headlined "A 90-year-old was serving life for marijuana despite serious illness. Now he's going home."   Here are some of the details:

In a dramatic reversal, a 90-year-old, seriously ill federal inmate serving life in prison for a nonviolent marijuana trafficking crime will go free after a judge granted him compassionate release on Tuesday -- overturning his previous order denying release.  Horacio Estrada-Elias, who was the subject of a CNN investigative story in September, is set to be freed this week after more than a dozen years behind bars....

Estrada-Elias suffers from congestive heart failure, atrial fibrillation and chronic kidney disease, and also contracted the coronavirus while in prison, according to court affidavits filed by doctors.  His prison doctor predicted in April 2020 that he had "less than 18 months" to live, and his warden recommended release, noting his spotless disciplinary record and writing last year that "he has been diagnosed with an incurable, progressive illness in which he will not recover."

Federal Judge Danny Reeves denied Estrada-Elias' motion for compassionate release in July, arguing that a life sentence is "the only sentence that would be appropriate."  But last month, an appeals court ordered Reeves to reconsider.  Two judges on a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that Reeves had "abused (his) discretion" by ignoring the fact that Estrada-Elias is unlikely to reoffend and "overly emphasizing" his nonviolent crimes. One judge dissented.

On Tuesday, the day after the formal appeal mandate was transmitted to his court, Reeves issued a new opinion approving compassionate release.  "The defendant's medical condition constitutes an extraordinary and compelling reason for release... when considered in conjunction with the defendant's advanced age," Reeves wrote, reducing Estrada-Elias' sentence to time served....

Reeves has an especially tough record on compassionate release, rejecting the vast majority of more than 100 release motions that came before him since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a CNN analysis of court records.  In his earlier opinion, he had argued that the large volume of marijuana that Estrada-Elias trafficked had shown "a flagrant disrespect for the law that can only be reflected in an equally severe sentence."

His reversal "seems to be rooted in common sense and human dignity as opposed to legal formalities," said Alison Guernsey, a University of Iowa law professor who has studied compassionate release cases and reviewed Reeves' opinion.  She said it is uncommon for inmates who are denied compassionate release to win on appeal.

Estrada-Elias was sentenced to life in April 2008 after pleading guilty to a conspiracy to traffic tens of thousands of pounds of marijuana into and around the United States. Reeves, who handled his case, was required to give him a life sentence because he had previous drug convictions.  But the mandatory minimum law that applied was taken off the books in 2018.  If Estrada-Elias hadn't been subject to the mandatory minimum, the guideline for his sentence range would have been about 12 to 16 years in prison, according to court documents.

Estrada-Elias' case is an example of the wide disparities across the country in compassionate release during the pandemic.  In 2020 and the first half of 2021, some federal courts granted more than 40 percent of compassionate release motions in their districts, while others granted less than 3 percent, according to data from the US Sentencing Commission -- even though judges in all of the districts are applying the same laws, which allow compassionate release in "extraordinary and compelling" cases.

In Estrada-Elias' district, the Eastern District of Kentucky, judges granted about 6% of compassionate release motions, the data shows. Guernsey, the law professor, said the vast disparity in grant rates between courts "really calls into question the equity of compassionate release." "It appears to depend not on the gravity of your medical condition or the type of extraordinary and compelling circumstances that will dictate whether you're released," she said, "but almost a fluke of geography."

As the title of this post is meant to highlight, I think appellate review can and should play a significant role in reducing extreme sentencing outcomes that seem like a "fluke of geography." Notably, Justice Breyer's opinion for the Supreme Court in the remedial section of Booker stated that appellate review for reasonableness "would tend to iron out sentencing differences," but harsh sentencing outcomes are almost never reversed as unreasonable.  The panel Sixth Circuit opinion in US v. Estrada-Elias, No. 21-5680 (6th Cir. Nov. 24, 2021) (available here), which is unpublished(!?!) and a split decision, is a real rarity that shows reasonableness review can function to improve equity.  The majority opinion in this case starts this way:

Horacio Raul Estrada-Elias, a ninety-year-old man suffering from a terminal illness, appeals the district court’s order denying his motion for compassionate release filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  Estrada-Elias has spent fifteen years in prison for conspiracy to distribute marijuana.  Because of his illness, Estrada-Elias is bedridden.  He has never been convicted of a violent crime and has not received a single disciplinary infraction in prison.  The warden of the prison in which Estrada-Elias is incarcerated agrees that Estrada-Elias should be released from custody.  Despite Estrada-Elias’s age, illness, incapacity, and lack of any violent convictions, the district court denied his compassionate-release motion, finding that life in prison is “the only sentence that would be appropriate and that would protect the public” from this ninety-year-old terminally ill grandfather. R. 210 (Dist. Ct. Order at 14) (Page ID #2214) (quotation omitted).  We hold that the district court abused its discretion in denying Estrada-Elias’s compassionate-release motion.

December 17, 2021 in Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 13, 2021

Notable new report from For The People about early implementation of California’s Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing law

I just learned about this notable new report from For The People under the title "Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing: California’s Opportunity to Expand Justice and Repair Harm."  Here is part of the report's executive summary and key findings:

Until relatively recently, California was home to the largest prison system in the U.S. From 1975 to 2006, California’s prison population saw an 800% increase, from less than 20,000 people to 163,000, as the state built 22 of its 34 prison facilities.  Though California has enacted a series of reforms in the last decade, over 99,000 people remain incarcerated in the state’s prisons. Many of these people, disproportionately people of color, are serving excessively long sentences and could be released without posing a threat to public safety.

California’s Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing (PIR) law (AB 2942), championed by For The People’s founder and passed in 2018, gives District Attorneys (DAs) a groundbreaking tool to directly and immediately redress the harm caused by mass incarceration and excessive sentences.  The law allows DAs to take a “second look” at past sentences that may no longer be in the interest of justice and ask the court to recall sentences and resentence people, resulting in their earlier release and reunification with family and community. 

This report looks at how specific policies led to mass incarceration in California, reviews the evidence in support of releasing people who no longer need to be incarcerated, examines the opportunity for PIR, and shares the real impacts of resentencing on people who have already been released. Finally, the report offers recommendations on implementation and opportunities for further reform.

This press release provides a partial accounting of "key report finding":

And this Washington Post opinion piece by Hillary Blout, a former prosecutor who founded For The People, makes the case for Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing (PIR) under the headline "Thousands of incarcerated people deserve to come home. Here’s how prosecutors can help." Here are excerpts with links from the original:

Beyond California, For The People has supported the passage of three laws just like the original. Today, IllinoisOregon and Washington state have all passed laws giving prosecutors the ability to revisit old cases — and more states, including New YorkMinnesota and Massachusetts, are considering PIR bills.

As this movement spreads, many may wonder, “Is this safe?”  The myth goes that long sentences are crucial to increasing public safety.  But research has shown that the length of a sentence doesn’t actually have the effect of deterring more crime.  Research also shows that people age out of crime, and that recidivism rates decline with age and are the lowest among people who have served the longest sentences for serious crimes.

The PIR process includes a meticulous review of an incarcerated person’s history, rehabilitation and in-prison behavior, as well as robust reentry planning. It also considers mitigating factors from the person’s childhood and develops safeguards for the future.  This helps ensure that our communities will be protected and even benefit from the person’s return home.

Regular readers know I am a big fan of second-look sentencing mechanisms, and some may recall that many years ago I gave a talk arguing that prosecutors should be much more involved in reviewing past sentences, which got published as Encouraging (and Even Requiring) Prosecutors to Be Second-Look Sentencers, 19 Temple Political & Civil Rights L. Rev. 429 (2010).  So I am extremely pleased to see this idea in actual practice in a growing number of jurisdictions. 

December 13, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Accounting for the first 50 sentences imposed on January 6 rioters

This new CNN piece, headlined "After 50 rioters sentenced for January 6 insurrection, a debate rages over what justice looks like," reports on a new analysis of sentences for the high-profile crimes that kicked off 2021.  I recommend the lengthy piece in full, and here are parts of how it gets started:

Of the 50-plus defendants who have been sentenced for their role in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, fewer than half were sent to jail for their crimes. Most received an assortment of lesser penalties, including brief terms of house arrest, a couple years of probation, four-figure fines or court-ordered community service, according to a CNN analysis.

The milestone of 50 sentencings was hit on Friday, a busy day in court, with six hearings on the schedule. Four defendants got probation Friday, including a pair of veterans from Wisconsin, while one man who stole a beer from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office got 20 days in jail.

As federal prosecutors have brought cases against nearly 700 rioters, a heated debate has emerged over what justice should look like for such an unprecedented assault on democracy. This debate has raged on social media and in the halls of Congress. It has also played out among the two dozen judges handling the cases at the federal courthouse in Washington, DC.

After 50 sentencings, a split has developed on the bench: One group of judges has handed down stiffer punishments to rioters, including time behind bars. While a more skeptical group of judges have rebuffed the Justice Department and instead imposed fines and probation, which means the rioters will avoid jail but stay under government supervision for years to come.

This dynamic won't last forever -- this initial wave of guilty pleas and sentencings will eventually be followed up by dozens of more serious felony cases with longer prison terms. But for now, the dizzying array of outcomes has caused some headaches. Judges are questioning the department's approach to January 6, and politicians from both sides have fanned the flames....

These wings of the court don't fall along political lines. There are GOP-appointed skeptics, and some Democratic appointees handing down tough punishments. But the dynamic is nuanced. This has also forced partisan players on both sides to contort their ideological views to fit the moment.

Democratic lawmakers and activists are calling for more incarceration and want judges to throw the book at rioters, while many Republican officials and right-wing influencers have become newfound supporters of improving jail conditions for what they call "political prisoners."

Some of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: I just notice this recent AP article discussing some of the sentencings for some of the January 6 crimes under the headline "Capitol rioters’ social media posts influencing sentencings." Here is how the extended piece gets started:

For many rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, self-incriminating messages, photos and videos that they broadcast on social media before, during and after the insurrection are influencing even their criminal sentences.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Amy Jackson read aloud some of Russell Peterson’s posts about the riot before she sentenced the Pennsylvania man to 30 days imprisonment. “Overall I had fun lol,” Peterson posted on Facebook.  The judge told Peterson that his posts made it “extraordinarily difficult” for her to show him leniency.

“The ’lol’ particularly stuck in my craw because, as I hope you’ve come to understand, nothing about January 6th was funny,” Jackson added.  “No one locked in a room, cowering under a table for hours, was laughing.”

Among the biggest takeaways so far from the Justice Department’s prosecution of the insurrection is how large a role social media has played, with much of the most damning evidence coming from rioters’ own words and videos.

December 12, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (12)

Saturday, December 11, 2021

New Harvard Law Review article details "The Incoherence of Prison Law"

The new issue of the Harvard Law Review has this notable new article authored by Justin Driver and Emma Kaufman and titled "The Incoherence of Prison Law."  Here is its abstract:

In recent years, legal scholars have advanced powerful critiques of mass incarceration.  Academics have indicted America’s prison system for entrenching racism and exacerbating economic inequality.  Scholars have said much less about the law that governs penal institutions.  Yet prisons are filled with law, and prison doctrine is in a state of disarray.

This Article centers prison law in debates about the failures of American criminal justice.  Bringing together disparate lines of doctrine, prison memoirs, and historical sources, we trace prison law’s emergence as a discrete field — a subspeciality of constitutional law and a neglected part of the discipline called criminal procedure.  We then offer a panoramic critique of the field, arguing that prison law is predicated on myths about the nature of prison life, the content of prisoners’ rights, and the purpose of penal institutions.  To explore this problem, we focus on four concepts that shape constitutional prison cases: violence, literacy, privacy, and rehabilitation.  We show how these concepts shift across lines of cases in ways that prevent prison law from holding together as a defensible body of thought.

Exposing the myths that animate prison law yields broader insights about judicial regulation of prisons.  This Article explains how outdated tropes have narrowed prisoners’ rights and promoted the country’s dependence on penal institutions. It links prison myths to the field’s central doctrine, which encourages selective generalizations and oversimplifies the difficult constitutional questions raised by imprisonment.  And it argues that courts must abandon that doctrine — and attend to the realities of prison — to develop a more coherent theory of prisoners’ constitutional rights.

December 11, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, December 03, 2021

"Moral Panic and the War on Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this new article now available at SSRN authored by Phil Lord.  Here is its abstract:

This Article analyzes the War on Drugs as a social phenomenon. It argues that such an analysis, which rejects the assumption that collective, institutionalized behavior is generally rational, can help us understand key aspects of why we continue to marginalize disadvantaged individuals.  If the War on Drugs is a war and wars are won or lost, there is no question we lost.  Whatever drug-related evil that war sought to eradicate, whether drug consumption, trafficking, or addiction, the data clearly shows that “drugs won.”

Along the way, we nonetheless persisted — and largely still do. We filled prisons, lost lives, and shattered hopes and dreams.  Those we hurt the most were already marginalized.  To state that we lost is unhelpful and insufficient.  Of course, we did.  And we can draw obvious lessons that medicine and psychology work better than carceral institutions and that no one benefits from marginalizing already marginalized and often sick individuals. 

If the War on Drugs never worked, more salient questions are to be asked about why we fought it. This Article posits that the War on Drugs is not about drugs, crime, or addiction: it is about us.  It is about why we cede to fear, anxiety, and irrationality. It is about why we stigmatize and hurt the most vulnerable. Like other irrational and counterproductive policies, the War on Drugs is not an anomaly.  It bears close resemblance to other wars we fought (and fight) against the disempowered: witches, gays, Muslims, and others.

December 3, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (25)

Friday, November 26, 2021

"A New Generation of Prosecutors Is Leading the Charge to Reimagine Public Safety"

The title of this post is the title of this notable recent report from Data for Progress authored by Prerna Jagadeesh, Isa Alomran, Lew Blank and Gustavo Sanchez. Here is part of its introductions:

Local prosecutors possess unparalleled power within criminal legal systems across the country.  Also commonly referred to as District Attorneys, State’s Attorneys, Commonwealth Attorneys and County Attorneys, local prosecutors are responsible for the vast majority of criminal cases brought in the United States.  They have nearly unlimited discretion in deciding who to charge, the type of crimes to charge, and the severity of punishment at sentencing.  They are also primarily responsible for determining who stays in jail and who can be released back to their communities while awaiting trial, and they wield unmatched influence in determining the kind of criminal laws and penalties enacted by state legislatures.

Over the past five decades, prosecutors have deployed their power to charge and sentence even more people, relying heavily on incarceration or correctional supervision to control and punish people convicted of crimes.  While public safety was the purported justification for this approach, a growing body of research is finding that incarceration is ineffective at deterring crime and fails to prevent violent crime in the long-term.  Meanwhile, it has generated devastating consequences for many communities — particularly communities of color — in both direct and indirect ways. Mass incarceration has destabilized communities, worsened outcomes for children with incarcerated parents, increased morbidity and mortality, perpetuated generational wealth gaps, exacerbated mental illness among those incarcerated, and increased homelessness, alongside many other collateral consequences. ...

Notably, the prosecute-and-convict approach has also neglected the interests of those who have experienced and survived crime.  According to a groundbreaking survey of crime survivors conducted by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, the vast majority of victims –– who are more likely to be low-income, young, people of color –– prefer solutions that focus on alternatives to incarceration, such as job creation, crime prevention, rehabilitation, drug use and mental health treatment, among others.  In particular, seven out of ten would rather see prosecutors invest in solving neighborhood problems through rehabilitation, not prosecution and incarceration.

As a result, a growing number of prosecutors have begun to reimagine public safety in ways that reduce the use of prosecution and incarceration, create more effective and less destructive accountability strategies, end racial disparities, and address the drivers of criminal behavior as well as the needs of those most impacted by crime....

In the summer of 2021, Data for Progress surveyed 19 of these reform-minded prosecutors to identify their approaches to community safety, key policy changes, goals for the future, and obstacles impeding their efforts to achieve transformational change.  Their responses are detailed more fully below.

November 26, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 04, 2021

Checking in with Oregon's drug decriminalization effort one year in

Stateline has this effective piece, headlined "Oregon’s Drug Decriminalization May Spread, Despite Unclear Results," providing an update of sorts on Oregon's experience one year after a ballot initiative enacted statewide drug decriminalization.  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

Progressive lawmakers and civil rights groups want more states to follow Oregon’s recent example and drop criminal penalties for carrying small amounts of heroin, cocaine or other drugs, and to spend more money on addiction recovery services.  They say substance use disorder should be treated as a disease, rather than as a crime.

Democratic lawmakers in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont all proposed decriminalization bills this year.  Advocacy groups hope to get a decriminalization measure on the ballot in Washington in 2022 and in California in 2024, said Matt Sutton, director of public relations for the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit.  The Drug Policy Alliance helped fund the ballot initiative that resulted in Oregon’s new law, which took effect in February.

But Oregon’s experience shows that it’s easier to eliminate criminal penalties than to ramp up behavioral health services and get more people to use them.  In fact, critics of decriminalization say such policies could decrease access to treatment, because fewer low-level offenders will be pushed into court-ordered programs....

The law will use marijuana tax revenue — plus any criminal justice money saved through decriminalization — to fund organizations that help people seek and maintain sobriety. Those services could include peer support groups and transitional housing programs. Such organizations will get about $300 million over the next two years [which is estimated to be] about five times the amount Oregon is currently spending on services that aren’t provided through Medicaid, the public health insurance program for people who have low incomes or disabilities. About $30 million already has been disbursed....

Drug arrests and convictions have plummeted in Oregon since February.  The ballot measure made possessing small amounts of drugs — such as less than a gram of heroin, or less than two grams of cocaine — a civil citation punishable by a $100 fine rather than a crime.  It also downgraded felony charges to misdemeanors for possessing slightly larger amounts.

The measure established a hotline that people whom police ticket for possession can call to undergo a health assessment.  If they complete the assessment, they can get their citations waived, even without further treatment or other services.  The law also requires the state to establish addiction recovery centers to connect people who use drugs with treatment or other assistance, such as housing or overdose prevention education.

Before decriminalization, in 2019, Oregon law enforcement officers made more than 6,700 arrests and courts issued more than 4,000 convictions for drug possession in cases where possession was the most serious potential charge, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission....  Between February and August this year, law enforcement made 1,800 arrests for such possession crimes and courts issued 364 convictions.  Defendants most likely were arrested for carrying large amounts of drugs or for drug dealing offenses, said Ken Sanchagrin, executive director of the commission. 

Decriminalization doesn’t appear to be leading to a rise in drug-related crime, such as property crime.  Property crimes in the state actually decreased this year, according to data provided by the criminal justice commission and the judicial department.

It’s less clear whether decriminalization has led more people to seek help for substance use disorders.  Defendants failed to show up in court to make their case against about half of 1,300 citations issued through September for possession of small amounts of drugs, according to the Oregon Judicial Department.  In only seven cases did defendants submit a health assessment to get their fines waived.  To critics of the new law, the seldom-used hotline proves that decriminalization isn’t working....

Policymakers nationwide likely will be watching Oregon for policy insights, said Beau Kilmer, director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center at the RAND Corporation, a California-based research group.  But the Oregon law is so new — and is being implemented at such an unusual time, during a global pandemic — that it’s hard to tell whether it’s working as intended, he said.  “I suspect voters in other states will be considering this before we have hard evidence on it.”

November 4, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Should veteran status justify reducing or increasing the sentences of January 6 rioters?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new AP piece headlined "Feds seek tougher sentences for veterans who stormed Capitol."  The piece merits a full read, and here are excerpts:

During his 27 years in the U.S. Army, Leonard Gruppo joined the Special Forces, served in four war zones and led a team of combat medics in Iraq before retiring in 2013 as a lieutenant colonel.

During his six minutes inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Gruppo joined a slew of other military veterans as a mob of pro-Trump rioters carried out an unparalleled assault on the bastion of American democracy.  He’s among dozens of veterans and active-service members charged in connection with the insurrection.

Now, cases like his are presenting a thorny question for federal judges to consider when they sentence veterans who stormed the Capitol: Do they deserve leniency because they served their country or tougher punishment because they swore an oath to defend it?

The Justice Department has adopted the latter position. In at least five cases so far, prosecutors have cited a rioter’s military service as a factor weighing in favor of a jail sentence or house arrest.  Prosecutors have repeatedly maintained that veterans’ service, while commendable, made their actions on Jan. 6 more egregious....

Prosecutors’ arguments about rioters’ military service didn’t sway one of the first judges to hear them — at Gruppo’s sentencing hearing last Friday.  “I don’t view his military service that way. I just can’t bring myself to do that,” Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell said before sentencing Gruppo to two years of probation, including 90 days of house arrest....

In most criminal cases, judges typically view a defendant’s military service as a mitigating factor that favors leniency, said James Markham, a professor of public law and government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  But he recognizes how the Justice Department could conclude that rioters with military experience should be held to a higher standard than those without it.  “It’s obviously not related to their military service directly, but it’s also not entirely conceptually unrelated that somebody who is a veteran or had military service could be viewed as having a more refined understanding of the importance of civilian control and electoral stability,” said Markham, a lawyer and Air Force veteran.

More than 650 people have been charged in the Jan. 6 attack. Some of the rioters facing the most serious charges, including members of far-right extremist groups, have military backgrounds.  A handful of riot defendants were on active duty, including an Army reservist who wore a Hitler mustache to his job at at a Navy base.

More than 100 riot defendants have pleaded guilty, mostly to misdemeanors punishable by a maximum of six months of incarceration. Two dozen had been sentenced as of Friday.  At least three of the sentenced defendants are veterans, according to an Associated Press review of court records.

In September, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg sentenced Air Force veteran Derek Jancart to 45 days in jail for joining the riot.  Prosecutors had sought a four-month jail sentence for Jancart, an Ohio steelworker....  Another Air Force veteran, Thomas Vinson, was sentenced on Oct. 22 to five years of probation.  Prosecutors had recommended three months of house arrest for Vinson, a Kentucky resident who served in the Air Force from 1984 through 1988....

At least two other rioters who served in the military are scheduled to be sentenced in the coming days.  Prosecutors have recommended two months in jail for Boyd Camper, who served in the U.S. Marines from 1987 to 1990...  Prosecutors are seeking two months of house arrest for Air Force veteran Jonathan Ace Sanders Sr., who is scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday. 

Some of many prior related posts:

November 4, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, October 31, 2021

"Bloody Lucre: Carceral Labor and Prison Profit"

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

The pursuit of profit is inextricably intertwined with America’s system of carceral labor and criminal punishment.  Along with the institution of slavery, the harnessing of involuntary carceral labor yielded enormous proceeds through transformation of human toil into financial gain.  Profit incentives have exerted a profound influence on the shape of American carceral labor.  From 16th-century British convict transportation to 21st-century private corrections companies, profitable returns from involuntary carceral servitude have been an important feature of criminal punishment.

This Article traces the coruscating power of the private profit motive within the criminal justice system, one of the first to chart the ways this focus on revenues has shaped the forced toil of those under correctional control.  By thoroughly evaluating our carceral history, and dissecting the financial currents that have shaped the many forms of involuntary inmate servitude, we will be better able to disentangle how money has influenced and warped our system into one of mass incarceration.  Moreover, a full understanding of our carceral past could help us begin to rechart the course of modern criminal justice, eliminating this kind of involuntary servitude in our system.

October 31, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 18, 2021

Notable new essays in Brennan Center's "Punitive Excess" series focused on responding to violent crime and mandatory minimums

highlighted here back in April the terrific essay series assembled by the Brennan Center for Justice under the title "Punitive Excess."  I have blogged about sets of new essays repeatedly (as linked below) because each new set of new essays are must reads (like all that come before).  The latest pair of piece ought to be of particular interest to sentencing fans:

Both of these pieces are must reads, and the piece on mandatory minimums has links to research and other materials that might be useful for those litigating against such sentences or seeking reductions therefrom.  Here is a segment (with links) from that piece:

[P]rosecutors’ power over mandatory minimums in turn creates racial disparities, obliterating any pretense of an unbiased system.  A recent study finds that prosecutors’ mandatory minimum charges resulted in Black individuals spending more time in prison than whites for the exact same crimes.  In fact, prosecutors bring mandatory minimums 65 percent more often against Black defendants, all else remaining equal. Another study similarly finds that some federal prosecutors charge Black and Latino individuals more often than white individuals with possession or sale of a quantity of drugs just sufficient to trigger a mandatory minimum; the disparity is highest “in states with higher levels of racial animus.”

Finally, mandatory minimums do not promote community safety.  Rather, any prison time at all increases the risk of future crime because “incarceration is inherently criminogenic”; mandatory minimums only exacerbate this situation.  Florida experienced a 50 percent spike in crime after enacting mandatory minimums.  Long sentences also make it more difficult for people to reintegrate into society.  And our overreliance on prisons makes us less safe by diverting resources from other critical public safety needs.  In contrast, studies show that shorter sentences in drug cases neither diminish public safety nor increase drug abuse.

The dominant paradigm is vulnerable, and instituting a new paradigm is both possible and crucial. President Biden and his attorney general have denounced mandatory minimums, as did former Attorney General Eric Holder.  Even though federal prosecutors — all of whom are subject to supervision by the Department of Justice — have long been the primary proponents of mandatory minimums, Attorney General Merrick Garland affirmed this position during his confirmation hearings: “We should . . . , as President Biden has suggested, seek the elimination of mandatory minimum[s].”

However, despite Garland’s testimony, his Department of Justice has given no sign that it will stop pursuing mandatory minimums. In fact, earlier this year, Garland reinstated a 2010 Holder policy that incorporated a long-standing directive to federal prosecutors: “Where two crimes have the same statutory maximum and the same guideline range, but only one contains a mandatory minimum penalty, the one with the mandatory minimum” should be charged.  To make matters worse, Garland chose not to reinstate a 2013 Holder policy that both directed prosecutors to decline to charge a mandatory minimum in “low-level, non-violent drug offenses” and explicitly acknowledged that such sentences “do not promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation.”  After twenty years defending people charged with federal crimes, I’ve learned that prosecutors are rarely agents of change.  This is unfortunate because Garland has real power to reduce racialized mass incarceration. He can and should instruct federal prosecutors to refrain from charging and seeking mandatory sentences, especially in drug cases, where popular opposition to mandatory minimums is strongest.

Prior related posts:

October 18, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Towards A New Framework for Achieving Decarceration: A Review of the Research on Social Investments"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper from the Square One Project at Columbia University authored by Laura Hawks, Evangeline Lopoo, Lisa Puglisi and Emily Wang. Here is a portion of the long paper's introduction:

[T]his paper aims to examine the science behind sustainable decarceration — and the extent to which there is scientific support for how community organizations and societal entities can lead decarceration efforts in concert with continued legal reforms to descale facility-based and community corrections populations.  To be sure, academics of disparate ideology have previously studied sections of this road map.  Some support the need for improving correctional programming, including a risk-needs-responsivity model of correctional programming, which aims to optimize resources within correctional systems to rehabilitate those incarcerated.  Others, including Professors Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, conceptually reject reforms within the correctional sector and propose a framework for dismantling the prison industrial complex that emphasizes investments in alternate sectors, prioritizing economic and political liberation of the historically oppressed (Davis 2005; Wilson Gilmore 2007).  With this paper, we intend to add to this latter school of thought by systematically cataloguing community investments detached from the criminal legal system which promote decarceration.  We then highlight what academics have not yet sought to study.  We undertake this study with the belief that decarceration is as worthy of careful study and investment as the prevention of cardiovascular disease and warrants experimentally designed studies at the individual and community level which tests the short and long-term benefits of intervention, dose of intervention, and the costs and benefits to society.

To our knowledge, no review has identified and synthesized the experimental evidence to determine which community investment efforts effectively support ongoing decarceration efforts and which do not.  To fill this gap, we have conducted a scoping review to identify interdisciplinary interventions, detached from the correctional control system, in the domains of education, housing, healthcare, employment, and social support programs that help reduce incarceration by reducing likelihood of becoming involved in the criminal legal system (referred to in this paper as incident incarceration) or repeat involvement in the criminal legal system (referred to in this paper as recidivism).  We centered our review on the following research question:

Which interventions (including social policies) grounded in community investment have been shown to achieve decarceration as measured by reduced incident incarceration or reduced recidivism?

October 18, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 17, 2021

"Doing Justice in Sentencing"

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

Anyone who would read a paper on this subject or with this title knows that sentences received by people convicted of crimes in American courts, especially serious ones, are much too often cruelly severe, racially disparate, and reflective more of a prosecutor’s or judge’s idiosyncrasies than of a reasoned assessment of what considerations of justice concerning this offense by this person require or permit.  The process is ultimately casual, as if invasive intrusion into someone’s life is a matter of no great importance.  To people sentenced, their families, and others who love them it is devastatingly important.  Relatively simple ideas about justice, fairness, equality, and parsimony provide a framework to replace contemporary casual justice with a jurisprudence that takes human dignity seriously.

October 17, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 11, 2021

"Fatalism and Indifference — The Influence of the Frontier on American Criminal Justice"

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

American criminal laws and criminal justice systems are harsher, more punitive, more afflicted by racial disparities and injustices, more indifferent to suffering, and less respectful of human dignity than those of other Western countries.  The explanations usually offered — rising crime rates in the 1970s and 1980s, public anger and anxiety, crime control politics, neoliberal economic and social policies — are fundamentally incomplete.  The deeper explanations are four features of American history and culture that shaped values, attitudes, and beliefs and produced a political culture in which suffering is fatalistically accepted and policy makers are largely indifferent to individual injustices.

The four elements are the history of American race relations, the evolution of Protestant fundamentalism, local election of judges and prosecutors, and the continuing influence of political and social values that emerged during three centuries of western expansion.  The last, encapsulated in Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis,” is interwoven with the other three.  Together, they explain long-term characteristics of American criminal justice and the extraordinary severity of penal policies and practices since the 1970s.

October 11, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

"Toward an Optimal Decarceration Strategy"

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

With mounting support for dramatic criminal justice reform, the question is no longer whether we should decarcerate American prisons but how.  This question is far more complicated than it might seem.  We could cut the prison population in half, for example, by drastically shortening sentences.  Or we could reduce prison admissions.  Or we could do both.  And we could do either or both for countless combinations of criminal offenses.  Moreover, even when they reach the same numeric target, these strategies are not equivalent.  They would have vastly different consequences for both prisoners and the public and widely varying timeframes to take effect.  To pick among them, we need richer metrics and more precise empirical estimates to evaluate their consequences.

This Article begins by proposing metrics to evaluate the relative merits of competing decarceration strategies.  The public debate has focused almost exclusively on how we might decarcerate while minimizing any increases in crime and has, therefore, underappreciated the costs of prison itself.  We should consider at least three more metrics: the social harm of incarceration, racial disparity, and timing.  Next, the Article develops an empirical methodology to identify the range of strategies that would reduce the national prison population by 25, 50, and 75%.  Finally, it identifies the best performing strategies against each metric.

The results have several broader takeaways.  First, the optimal approach to decarceration depends heavily on which metrics we value most.  The results thus quantify a stark set of policy choices behind a seemingly simple objective. Second, the results confirm that, to dramatically shrink prisons, it is critical to decarcerate a substantial number of people convicted of violent offenses — a fact that may surprise the majority of Americans who believe people convicted of drug offenses occupy half of prison beds.  Finally, the results show that race-neutral decarceration strategies are likely to exacerbate rather than mitigate racial disparities.  Armed with the conceptual tools and methodologies developed in this Article, we can make more informed decisions about how to best scale down prisons, given our priorities and constraints.

September 29, 2021 in National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 26, 2021

"Custodial Sanctions and Reoffending: A Meta-Analytic Review"

The title of this post is the title of this forthcoming publication in Crime & Justice authored by Damon Petrich, Travis Pratt, Cheryl Lero Jonson, and Francis Cullen. Here is its abstract:

Beginning in the 1970s, the United States began an experiment in mass imprisonment.  Supporters argued that harsh punishments such as imprisonment reduce crime by deterring inmates from reoffending.  Skeptics argued that imprisonment may have a criminogenic effect.  The skeptics were right.  Previous narrative reviews and meta-analyses concluded that the overall effect of imprisonment is null.  Based on a much larger meta-analysis of 116 studies, the current analysis shows that custodial sanctions have no effect on reoffending or slightly increase it when compared with the effects of noncustodial sanctions such as probation.  This finding is robust regardless of variations in methodological rigor, types of sanctions examined, and sociodemographic characteristics of samples.  All sophisticated assessments of the research have independently reached the same conclusion.  The null effect of custodial compared with noncustodial sanctions is considered a “criminological fact.”  Incarceration cannot be justified on the grounds it affords public safety by decreasing recidivism.  Prisons are unlikely to reduce reoffending unless they can be transformed into people-changing institutions on the basis of available evidence on what works organizationally to reform offenders.

September 26, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 16, 2021

"Punishment and the Body"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Christopher Belshaw that I just saw in the new Journal of Controversial Ideas.  Here is its abstract:

Suppose we accept that punishment can be legitimate.  What form should it take?  Many of us believe that it can be acceptable to fine or imprison someone, but that capital punishment, along with corporal punishment in its various manifestations, is wholly unacceptable.  I suggest that it is hard to account for or justify this distinction.  But granting that resistance to these latter forms is unlikely to be dislodged, and granting too that imprisonment in particular is hardly problem-free, it is worth considering whether there might be alternatives.  And I argue here that we should consider enforced coma as a procedure having many advantages over the more familiar methods of delivering a penalty.  Of course, there are disadvantages also.  The aim isn’t to offer a detailed and practical solution to the problem of crime, but to explore some of the presumptions and principles involved in our thinking about punishment.

September 16, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | 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)

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Notable response to notable attack on conservatives role in modern criminal justice reform

Lars Trautman and Brett Tolman have this interesting new Washington Examiner commentary headlined, "No, criminal justice reform isn’t causing the current crime wave." Here are excerpts (with links from the original):

Conservative criminal justice reformers have faced occasional skepticism over our tried-and-true criminal justice solutions, but never something quite so outlandish as a recent suggestion, by an avowed conservative, no less, that conservative reformers somehow bear blame for rising violent crime in liberal bastions such as New York City and Portland.

Sean Kennedy, in his recent Washington Examiner article , attacks our organization, Right on Crime, using just such an argument.  Kennedy actually acknowledges our record of helping Texas and other conservative states simultaneously reduce their crime rates, prison populations, and criminal justice spending.  But he then claims, without evidence and employing a classic logical fallacy , that this activity then caused subsequent increases in crime in Texas.  Note that he makes this claim even though crime spiked at exactly the same time he refers to in many states where none of our reforms were enacted....

But those of us who have served in law enforcement, as prosecutors or in corrections, have learned that if you invest properly in police, evidence-based programming, and prison alternatives, you can consequently achieve reductions in crime, recidivism, and ultimately prison construction costs.  Further, the evidence is clear that it is the certainty and not the severity of punishment that deters potential criminals.  A few more years on a potential sentence doesn’t change many minds about crime — it’s the long odds of getting away with it entirely.

Too often, people do get away with murder and a host of other crimes.  Homicide clearance rates nationally hover around 50%. Whether a killer meets justice is a coin flip . If you’re worried about public safety, it’s more productive to spend your time improving clearance rates, not bemoaning the elimination of ineffective mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses.

This is why we are so adamant about reducing our overreliance on prison beds and other costly, unproductive interventions so that we can redirect this money and focus toward law enforcement and other strategies that actively improve our crime prevention and investigative capabilities.  Practically speaking, this means more funding for police departments, especially homicide and other specialized units focusing on serious and violent crime — a commonsense solution backed by research.  It also means helping shift to others, such as social workers and truant officers, at least a few of the dozen different jobs we currently expect law enforcement to complete, so that police can concentrate on actual police work.

August 31, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 23, 2021

Deep thoughts about "criminal legal education" as we head back to school

I am very excited to be back to school this week with the extra pleasure and honor of teaching a (small section) of 1L Criminal Law (though I am frustrated that this semester will now be the fourth beset with COVID challenges).  My very first class ― way back in Fall 1997! ― was a small section of Criminal Law to 1Ls, and I surely want to believe I have done more good than harm in well over a dozen iterations of this great class.  However, this notable new Inquest essay by Shaun Ossei-Owusu should perhaps lead every criminal law professor to give some thought to whether and how we are just "Making Penal Bureaucrats."  This essay builds on some points he made in a recent law review article, "Criminal Legal Education," and here are excerpts:

Many lawyers play a central role in creating and sustaining mass incarceration; and many will leave law school with the ability to do the opposite. The high-profile death [of George Floyd] confirmed the brutality, inequality, and, for some, irredeemability of the very things many professors teach.  And criminal legal educators, some believe, need to read the room and offer instruction that better conveys the unjust realities of our legal system.  Alice Ristroph, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, may have offered the most forceful of these critiques, arguing that the detachment from reality and supposed race-neutrality of criminal-law teaching produces “pro-carceral” lawyers who help sustain mass incarceration.

My own work, published and forthcoming, moves in a similar direction, but also examines the race, poverty, and gender oversights in criminal legal education more broadly.  Some fellow academics will take issue with the idea that law professors have a hand in mass incarceration, to say nothing of other social ills, while others will applaud and nod in approval.  Whatever side they’re on, the undeniable reality is this: Law professors have trained and will continue to educate public defenders, prosecutors, and judges.  The legal education of these penal bureaucrats matters in the larger conversation around criminal justice policy and its deep, structural failings. And so the obstacles to changing legal education are really obstacles for the effort to tear down the legal edifice that made Floyd’s murder possible in the first place. As history shows, those challenges are not insignificant. To overcome them, we need a clear-eyed sense of what the precise obstacles are standing in the way to a more justice-oriented legal education.

Simply put, we can’t afford to ignore curricular reform in this moment, as navel-gazing as such a project may seem to those outside of law school.  I don’t profess to have all the answers.  Instead, I hope to sketch some issues we must confront if legal educators hope to meaningfully leverage this new energy in favor of effective curricular reform.  There have been various proposals and calls for action, but it seems necessary to raise questions that are sometimes muted or skipped over in the rush to reform a curriculum that has real shortcomings. The answers to these questions might lead us closer to capturing what legal historian Bob Gordon has described as “the motors of curricular change.”...

 With the exception of untenured faculty, law professors enjoy considerable latitude in their classrooms. A dean or administration has some carrots and sticks at their disposal, but few are game changers. These professors can be fussy and persnickety about teaching, and rightfully so.  Teaching comprises a substantive portion of professorial duties (the other two standard activities being research and service). As one professor observed in 1968, “I have seen law teachers, who have no peers in nitpickery, verge on purple apoplexy in debate over the curriculum. The whole academic business is fraught with vested interests, gored oxen, ground axes, pet peeves, visionary schemes, and intractable inertia.”

All this power-wielding exists in a context where there are competing ideas about the role of the professor.  A mere transmitter of what the law is?  A camouflaged activist who blends instruction with the inculcation of a particular set of values that makes students want to improve the criminal justice system, independent of how many people actually want to go in that line of work?  An instructor whose teaching discourages students from certain kinds of work as undesirable — where progressive prosecution and indigent defense alike are “system-reifying”?

In view of this morass of challenges, it is no wonder that urging legal instructors to talk more about racism, poverty, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia in their classrooms — even if they engage those topics already — is no stroll in the park.  Looking to the broader aim of criminal legal reform, explaining why the rest of the public should care or enter this discussion at all is tricky.  Law schools can be cordoned off from their local communities.  The key here is to recognize that this is a site of struggle where change-oriented people and organizations can develop allyships with like-minded students and faculty to help craft solutions to the multilayered problems of our penal system.

For students, I hope that identifying these challenges will clarify two things.  The first, which is something that I’ve consistently argued, is that legal education is unlikely to provide students with the kind of social justice-oriented training that some are demanding.  Self-led learning and organizing by student groups within and across law schools may have to be the second-best option. But this is not simply nudging students toward neoliberal self-help.  My second hope, instead, is for students to better understand these constraints — and in the process, to get a better sense of how to organize for and demand desired changes from their institutions.  Issues such as faculty composition, faculty governance, the professional pathways of graduates, and ideological variation within student bodies are some of the many issues that shape what they learn in a criminal legal education course.  But these factors may not be readily apparent to students who don’t have a sense of the “backstage” of legal education.  The short-term nature of legal education — three years, or two if you do not count the overbearing first year or a third year some students often check out of — demands cooperation with change-minded people outside of law schools and intentional strategies that withstand law school’s running out the clock on curricular change and hoping that the next cohort of students does not notice.

My fellow legal educators are likely to understand where I’m coming from. For those who care about this issue, my desires are also twofold.  First, I hope that these reflections will spur them to honestly assess where they might fit on a rough spectrum of this kind of curricular reform: active implementer, passive supporter, or outright adversary.  I have my own beliefs on the desirability of revamping criminal legal education; and yet I think there are principled justifications for each of these dispositions.  Let us just be intellectually honest about where we stand.  Second, I hope that we can all see that we are part of a vocation that has long professed ideas about intellectual curiosity, social justice, and equality under the law.  Nevertheless, our field has not been fully responsive to longstanding appeals to include legally relevant conversations about social inequality in our teaching.  Our response to this moment will partially dictate whether our profession can march closer toward social justice-oriented legal education — one that could mold not only the next generation of penal bureaucrats but also the change agents who will engage them and help to build new decarceral futures.  Or whether that curricular goal will simply result in yet another round of panels, symposia, and hashtags that merely scratch the surface.

August 23, 2021 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 19, 2021

"Individualizing Criminal Law’s Justice Judgments: Shortcomings in the Doctrines of Culpability, Mitigation, and Excuse"

The title of this post is the title of this new article on SSRN authored by Paul Robinson and Lindsay Holcomb. Here is its abstract:

In judging an offender’s culpability, mitigation, or excuse, there seems to be general agreement that it is appropriate for the criminal law to take into account such things as the offender’s youthfulness or her significantly low IQ.  There is even support for taking account of their distorted perceptions and reasoning induced by traumatic experiences, as in battered spouse syndrome.  On the other hand, there seems to be equally strong opposition to taking account of things such as racism or homophobia that played a role in bringing about the offense.  In between these two clear points, however, exists a large collection of individual offender characteristics and circumstances for which there is lack of clarity as to whether the criminal law should take them into account.  Should our assessment of an offender’s criminal liability be adjusted for their cultural background?  Their religious beliefs?  Their past life experiences?  The pedophilic tendencies they have always had but usually suppressed?

The question of how much to individualize the criminal liability judgment is not peripheral or unusual but rather common in a wide range of formal criminal law doctrines including, for example, the culpability requirements of recklessness and negligence, the mitigation of provocation and its more modern form of extreme emotional disturbance, and the excuse defenses of mistake as to a justification, duress, and involuntary intoxication.  Indeed, it turns out that the problem of individualizing factors is present, if often obscured, in all criminal law doctrines of culpability, mitigation, and excuse.

The Article reviews the appeal of criminal law adhering to a purely objective standard, where the problem of the individualizing factors is sought to be avoided altogether. But the resulting stream of injustices has forced most jurisdictions to adopt a partially individualized standard in some cases involving some doctrines.  But this leaves the jurisdiction’s criminal law in an awkward and unstable state.  Without a guiding principle for determining which individualizing factors are to be taken into account under what circumstances, the law is inevitably unprincipled and internally inconsistent. And without guidance, different decision-makers inevitably come to different conclusions in similar cases.  The Article proposes a solution to the individualizing factors puzzle and a statutory codification that would provide guidance in the adjudication of the many cases in which the issue arises.

August 19, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)