Thursday, June 13, 2019

"Is ‘Abolish Prisons’ the Next Frontier in Criminal Justice?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this effective Bloomberg commentary authored by Bill Keller.  Here are excerpts:

Five years ago, when the activist and cable TV host Van Jones launched the #cut50 campaign to reduce U.S. prison populations by half, many mainstream justice reform watchers rolled their eyes at what seemed to be a reckless overreach.... Now the campaign has attracted an A-list of celebrities, philanthropists and candidates pursuing the Democratic presidential nomination. These days, when Jones gets pilloried, it’s as likely to be for being too compromising: Why stop short of #cut100?

People who follow criminal justice policy for a living say the fastest growing subset of the reform movement consists of abolitionists who say a system that is inherently racist and based on retribution should be pulled up by the roots. Not just prisons and jails, but most of the institutions of law enforcement and criminal justice.

“Abolition has become a rallying cry for the progressive wing of the justice reform movement,” Jeremy Travis told me. “NO NEW JAILS. NO MORE MONEY FOR POLICE. ABOLISH ICE. ABOLISH PRISONS.” Travis, who oversees criminal justice issues for the Arnold Ventures philanthropy, has spent a career in the system, most recently as president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. (Disclosure: Laura and John Arnold, the founders of Arnold Ventures, are donors to the Marshall Project, my former employer.) “There is lots of energy behind this reframing of the ‘reform’ agenda,” Travis said.

Prison abolition has decades of antecedents, led by once-fringe figures like Angela Davis, the 1960s communist firebrand, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, the subject in April of a sympathetic profile in the New York Times Magazine. More recently abolition has been embraced by younger Americans who grew up after violent crime peaked in the early 1990s, and has helped kindle some fundamental rethinking in the mainstream.

Like other radical ideas — Medicare for All, the Green New Deal — abolition means different things to different people. Most of those who rally to the cause do not advocate a world where no one answers your 911 call and serial killers are set loose. Abolition is an ideal — like, say, “repeal and replace.” The real debate is what should replace the current institutions.

“There is always going to be some role for prisons, but maybe 10 percent of what we do now,” said Martin Horn, a former New York State parole director, now a professor at John Jay. “I think we need police. We may not need as many as we now have, and we want to use them differently.”

Abolitionists generally start the conversation with two immense objectives. The first is devolving responsibility for public safety to local communities. (“Civilianizing safety,” some experts call it.) One reason New York City has reduced its crime rate while simultaneously slashing arrests, incarceration and law-enforcement overreach is that the city has a nonprofit network on the ground, some of it subsidized by the city, to combat violence and to help the formerly incarcerated safely reenter society.

Abolitionists’ other aim is to redistribute government spending from police and prisons to narrowing the underlying, crime-breeding inequalities of wealth and opportunity. They would instead invest in housing, education, jobs and health — a goal that seems remote in the current political environment.

What is new, says Elizabeth Glazer, director of New York City’s criminal justice office, is that many of the ideas that animate the abolitionists “are now finding their way into established criminal justice structures” — not just scholars and activists but also prosecutors questioning what crimes should be prosecuted and judges seeking out-of-court remedies....

To reformists who work in or with the system, the abolitionists can be exasperating — a case of the ideal being the enemy of the good. DeAnna Hoskins, president of JustLeadershipUSA, which mobilizes former prisoners to press for reform, points to the campaign that persuaded New York to close the jail complex on Rikers Island. The plan depends on building smaller, more humane jails in four boroughs to house a much-reduced population of prisoners. Along with the inevitable resistance of prospective new neighbors, the city now faces vocal opposition from abolitionists who object to any new jails on principle. “That’s just not realistic,” Hoskins said. “We’re not going to close Rikers on Monday and not have any type of detainment.” She added, “When we talk about abolishing prisons and abolishing law enforcement, it’s actually reducing the power and the reach of those entities.”

One of the liveliest abolition debates concerns parole and probation, which get less attention than incarceration but regulate the lives of 4.5 million Americans, twice as many as are confined in prisons and jails. Because a parolee can be returned to prison for a technical infraction such as a missed appointment or a trace of drugs in a urine sample, the parole-to-prison pipeline is a major feeder of mass incarceration....

Although polling is scarce, it’s a fair bet that “abolition” is not a voter magnet. The electorate may want the system to be less cruel and more rehabilitative, but voters also want a professional answering that 911 call when their kid gets shot — and not a member of neighborhood watch. The bipartisan coalition that has found common ground on criminal justice would be severely strained by such a lurch to the left. The conservative attack ads write themselves.

But in recent years, with crime near historic lows, the iniquities and unintended consequences of American punishment have so captured public concern that even President Donald Trump coughs up an occasional platitude about “giving our fellow citizens a chance at redemption.”

There is a place for higher aspirations, if only to keep moving the middle. Closing Rikers was a radical idea, until it wasn’t. The #cut50 campaign was mocked as unrealistic until people realized that it was essentially restoring incarceration to 1980s levels.  “I don’t think that in my lifetime we’ll ever abolish prisons, but it’s a really important question, why we put people in prisons,” said Travis, adding that the abolition debate is “a healthy tension that is really challenging the pace of reform and the status quo.”

A few prior related posts:

June 13, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Federal district judge rejects feds request for significant prison term in first sentencing of college bribery scandal

As reported in this NBC News piece about the first sentencing in a high-profile federal criminal matter, "Stanford University's former sailing coach avoided significant prison time and was sentenced to just one day behind bars on Wednesday for his role in a massive college admissions scandal."  Here is more:

John Vandemoer was the first person to be sentenced in the sweeping corruption scandal that exposed the sophisticated network of college admissions ringleader William Rick Singer, who helped children of well-heeled clients cheat their way into elite universities.

U.S. District Court Judge Rya W. Zobel sided with defense lawyers who said their client should not get more than the one day, which the judge dismissed as time served. The government had asked the judge to sentence Vandemoer to 13 months in prison.

Before Wednesday, Vandemoer had already pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy for accepting $770,000 in bribes in funds that all went into the school's sailing program. The money did not directly line Vandemoer's pockets, the judge and lawyers on both sides agreed. "From what I know about the other cases, there is an agreement that Vandemoer is probably the least culpable of all the defendants in all of these cases," Zobel said. "All the money he got went directly to the sailing program."

In court on Wednesday, Vandemoer's voice choked with emotion as apologized for his actions. "I want to be seen as someone who takes responsibility for mistakes," he said. "I want to tell you how I intend to live from this point forward. I will never again lose sight of my values."...

Vandemoer received three separate payments of $500,000, $110,000 and $160,000 between fall 2016 and October 2018 on behalf of the Stanford sailing program to falsely represent that three clients of Singer's were elite sailors — and thus deserving of special admission to the private school, according to court documents....

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen pleaded with Judge Zobel to send Vandemoer to prison and send a message about the case. "The sentence that you impose will set the tone moving forward," Rosen said. The prosecutor added: "This case goes far beyond John Vandemoer. The damage on Stanford goes much further. The actions undermine the confidence in the college admissions process."

The defense asked for leniency, arguing that the money Vandemoer received didn't go into his pocket, but instead went to a fund that supported Stanford's sailing program. "It cannot be overstated: all parties agree that Mr. Vandemoer did not personally profit from the scheme," defense lawyer Robert Fisher wrote in his sentencing memo to the court. "Mr. Singer sent Mr. Vandemoer money, and he consistently turned that money over to Stanford."...

Zobel also sentenced Vandemoer to two years of supervised release and six months of home confinement. The former coach was also fined $10,000. "I am aware that these are serious offenses," Zobel said. "I find it hard in this case that Vandemoer should go to jail for more than a year."

Of the three students whose parents tried to bribe their way into Stanford, none them actually benefited from Singer and Vandemoer's scheme.  The first one's fake sailing application came too late in the recruiting season and "the student was later admitted to Stanford through the regular application process," according to prosecutors.  The next two opted to go to Brown University and Vanderbilt University, despite Vandemoer's help.

Vandemoer was fired by Stanford on March 12, hours after federal prosecutors unsealed indictments.  "Although Mr. Vandemoer's conduct resulted in donations to the Stanford sailing team, Stanford views those funds as tainted," according to a victim impact statement written to Judge Zobel by Stanford's general counsel, Debra Zumwalt. "Stanford takes no position regarding any specific sentence that this Court may impose."

Because Vandemoer does not pose any real threat to public safety, and because he has already suffered (and will continue to suffer) an array of formal and informal collateral consequences, this sentence certainly strikes me as "sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes set forth" in federal sentencing law.  I suppose I am not surprised that the feds wanted a significant prison term in this first of many related sentencings, but the recommendation here of 13 months in prison is a reminder that the feds seem to think that just about every convicted defendant ought to be sent to prison for some significant period.

June 12, 2019 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

"IQ, Culpability, and the Criminal Law’s Gray Area: Why the Rationale for Reducing the Culpability of Juveniles and Intellectually Disabled Adults Should Apply to Low-IQ Adults"

The title of this post is the title of this new article available via SSRN authored by Adam Lamparello.  Here is its abstract:

For too long, the criminal law has only provided legal protections for defendants who exist on the margins, namely, those who suffer from mental retardation, insanity, or are too young to appreciate the consequences of criminal conduct.  In so doing, the criminal law has failed to address the gray area in which most defendants reside, and for which all defendants lack sufficient legal protections.  For example, at the guilt/innocence phase of a criminal trial, the legal system offers little, if any protections, for defendants afflicted with mental illnesses, personality disorders, neurological impairments, and borderline intellectual functioning.  This is fundamentally unjust, contrary to relevant empirical evidence regarding the effects of cognitive, psychiatric, and psychological disorders on culpability, and results in profoundly unjust sentences that, in many cases, are entirely disproportionate to a defendant’s culpability.  As such, the time has arrived for the courts and legislators to recognize that defendants need not be intellectually disabled, insane, or under the age of eighteen to trigger legal and constitutional protections at the guilt/innocence phase that account for a defendant’s reduced or, even, zero culpability in certain cases.

June 5, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Spotlighting the "modern-day gulags" that hold sex offenders indefinitely in "civil commitment"

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this new extended Washington Spectator piece headlined "Modern-Day Gulags In the Golden State."  I recommend the full piece, which gets started this way:  

Back in 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the practice known as civil commitment was legal.  This meant that 20 states — which had passed laws permitting the ongoing incarceration of sex offenders — could continue to keep the men confined even after they completed their prison terms.  (See “Sex Crimes and Criminal Justice,” from the May 2018 issue of The Washington Spectator, available here.)

All it took (and still takes) is for two psychologists to claim the men might commit a new crime and a judge to say their cases can move forward.  They are then labeled sexually violent predators (SVPs) and reincarcerated in prisonlike facilities until new trials are held — supposedly to determine if they will be civilly committed or released.  The result? Some men have been waiting for their day in court for 15 to 20 years. In the meantime, many have died.

No matter that the men already served their prison time.  Or that psychologists, psychiatrists and lawyers I interviewed insist that very few should be confined — that instead, the vast majority, many of whom are elderly or ill, should be let out.

Eric Janus, former president and dean of Mitchell Hamline Law School in St. Paul, Minn., says that continuing to incarcerate the men to comfort fearful constituents doesn’t make the public safer.  The bottom line?  “I’ve never seen numbers that show there are fewer sex offenses or re-offenses in the 20 states that have the SVP laws than in the other 30 states that don’t,” Janus says.

Then why are roughly 2,500 men still stashed away across the country?  Locking up sex offenders is always good politics, but it is also extraordinarily profitable.  And since California has the biggest budget and locks up the biggest number — three times the next three states’ combined — the Golden State offers the biggest boondoggle to explore.

To document a system awash in double-talk and dollars, I interviewed 45 lawyers, psychologists, psychiatric technicians, rehabilitation therapists, nurses, journalists, prison reform advocates and civilly committed men over eight months. Nearly all feared retaliation and asked not to be named.

As the first paragraph above indicates, this is the second piece in a series, and folks should be sure to also check out this first piece "Sex Crimes and Criminal Justice."

June 5, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Latest (double) issue of FSR covers "The Tyranny of the Trial Penalty": An introduction

4-5.cover-sourceI am extraordinarily excited to be able to report the exciting news that the latest extraordinary issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter is now fully available on-line at this link.  The cover page from the Issue, which lists the 16(!) original pieces on various aspects of "The Trial Penalty," can be accessed here.

This issue of FSR emerges from the publication of a great report last year by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) titled "The Trial Penalty: The Sixth Amendment Right to Trial on the Verge of Extinction and How to Save It" (blogged here).  Folks at FSR contacted the folks at NACDL to explore the idea of developing a set of new commentaries using "The Trial Penalty" report as a springboard.

Wonderfully, Norman Reimer, executive director of NACDL, working with his colleague Martín Sabelli, NACDL's second vice president, worked tirelessly to solicit an outstanding array of original articles for this issue.  They were so productive, the project became a special FSR double issue so that a lengthy reprint of the "The Trial Penalty" report could appear together with all the terrific solicited commentaries addressing the importance of criminal trials and their disappearance from historical, practical, empirical, and international perspectives.

As the title of this post hints, I think this new FSR double issue merits a series of posts to highlight all of its terrific contents.  So here I will start by recommending the issue's terrific introduction authored by Norman Reimer and Martín Sabelli, which is fully titled "The Tyranny of the Trial Penalty: The Consensus that Coercive Plea Practices Must End."  Here is its opening paragraphs:

Every day, in virtually every criminal court throughout the nation, people plead guilty solely as a consequence of a prosecutor’s threat that they will receive an exponentially greater post-trial sentence compared to the pre-trial offer.  The process is simple and the logic inexorable: the prosecutor conveys a settlement offer to the defense attorney–very often at the outset of the case before the defense has investigated or received discovery–threatening a post-trial sentence much greater than the pre-trial offer.  The defense attorney–often before having had an opportunity to establish a relationship with the client–conveys that offer to her client who must choose between the opportunity and right to defend and the risk of adding years to the sentence if not decades after trial.  That differential is known as the trial penalty, and this scene unfolds routinely in courtrooms across the country as if the Framers had intended this legalized coercion to be the fulcrum of the criminal justice system.

The Framers did not so intend. The Framers, surprisingly for a modern reader, considered jury trials to be every bit as important as the right to cast votes for our representatives. In fact, John Adams declared that ‘‘[r]epresentative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty. Without them we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like swine and hounds.’’  President Adams’ colorful language reflects the strength of his view — a view shared by his contemporaries and the Framers — that the right to trial by jury protects the liberties of all individuals, not just the accused.  The Framers imagined a process in which the accused, assisted by counsel, evaluated the charges, received the evidence, and elected to exercise or not exercise the right to compel the government to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

June 4, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Reconsidering The 'Violent Offender'"

In this post from last fall, I noted the new Square One Project working to "reimagine justice" and conducting executive sessions and roundtables on the future of justice policy.  In that post, I noted some early draft of interesting papers from the project (which linked here in final form), and I just recently saw a new paper with the title that serves as the title of this post.  This new paper is authored by James Austin, Vincent Schiraldi, Bruce Western and Anamika Dwivedi, and here is part of its starting text:

People convicted of violent crimes have always been treated harshly by the criminal justice system, but in the four decades of rising incarceration rates from the early 1970s, punishment of the violent offender intensified disproportionately. Under President Bill Clinton, bipartisan consensus cemented the 1994 federal crime bill, enacting stricter sentencing laws for violent offenses at the federal level and incentivizing the same in the states.

Two decades later, even as President Barack Obama called for a reexamination of U.S. sentencing laws in 2015, he noted, “there are people who need to be in prison, and I don’t have tolerance for violent criminals” (C-SPAN 2015).  That same year, a Washington Times opinion piece by Newt Gingrich described criminal justice reform as a “rare area of bipartisan agreement in an otherwise sharply divided Congress,” but added, “we all agree that violent, dangerous criminals should be in prison, and the cost of incarcerating them is money well spent” (Gingrich and Nolan 2015).  Following suit, in 2017, Senator Kamala Harris, a self-identified “progressive” prosecutor stated that “we must maintain a relentless focus on reducing violence and aggressively prosecuting violent criminals” (Marcetic 2017).

Demonizing people as violent has perpetuated policies rooted in fear rather than fact. In this paper, we break from the tradition of punitiveness toward people convicted of violent offenses and argue that the violent offender label breaches the principle of parsimony, distorts proportionality, and fails as a predictive tool for future violent behavior. The label disproportionately affects people of color — black and Hispanic people comprise larger shares of people incarcerated for violent offenses in state prisons than white people (Bronson and Carson 2019).  In short, the violent offender label offers little to criminal justice policy.  Instead, justice policy should focus on those who actually commit violence, mitigate responses based on the experience of violent victimization, and discount the violent offender label as predictive of future violence.

Convincing policymakers and the public to change the approach to people charged with or convicted of violent offenses will require active education around the truths of violent offending alongside a significant cultural change. Affirming well-established criminal justice principles of parsimony and proportionality should take priority over a politics of fear.

We begin by detailing the social context and life histories that surround violent offending, and argue the case for parsimonious use of punishment.  While more serious and violent offenses may merit a proportionally greater response, the principle of parsimony reminds us that the punishment for violent offending should be the least coercive response necessary to achieve justice (Travis, Western, and Redburn 2014).  When we account for the life histories of victimization among incarcerated people, and the situational character of the violence in their lives, the principle of parsimony must admit mercy and forbearance.

June 4, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, June 02, 2019

"How to Convince Americans to Abolish the Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the headline of this New Republic commentary authored by Austin Sarat. Here are excerpts:

When New Hampshire abolished the death penalty on Thursday, the reaction to the news — at least nationally — was rather muted.  Here was a New England state, after all, whose machinery of death had rusted long ago.  “This debate has been largely symbolic, because New Hampshire has neither an active death penalty system nor any executions on the horizon,” The Washington Post reported.  “The state has only one person on death row … and last carried out an execution in 1939.”...

But there is greater significance here than it seems.  For starters, New Hampshire joins a growing trend.  Now, since 2007, seven states have abolished capital punishment by legislative action, and three by judicial decree.  (Nebraska abolished it legislatively, but voters subsequently reinstated it in a referendum.)  Four other states have a moratorium in place preventing anyone from being executed.  This period has been one of the most successful in the modern history of death penalty abolitionism.

And the politics of New Hampshire are not those of, say, Massachusetts.... While the state Senate and House are both controlled by Democrats, they needed votes from across the aisle to reach the two-thirds threshold to override Republican Governor Chris Sununu.  There are thus important lessons from New Hampshire about how abolitionists can be successful across the country — namely, by shifting the grounds of the debate so as not to be painted as soft on crime or out of touch with mainstream American values....

Traditionally, opponents of the death penalty have responded to [soft-on-crime] arguments by claiming that even the most heinous criminals are entitled to be treated with dignity or that there is nothing that anyone can do to forfeit their “right to have rights.”  Each of these arguments rejects the simple and appealing rationale for capital punishment: retribution.  But in doing so, it puts opponents of the death penalty on the side of society’s most despised and notorious criminals, of cop killers and of child murderers.  It is not surprising, then, that such arguments, while popular in philosophical and political commentary, have never carried the day in the debate about capital punishment in the United States.

New Hampshire abolitionists avoided this pitfall, changing the argument in ways that can and do appeal to a broader range of citizens.  They allied themselves with the plight of the families of murder victims.  “I am grateful to the many survivors of murder victims who bravely shared their stories with the Legislature this session, many of whom told us that the death penalty, with its requisite long legal process, only prolongs the pain and trauma of their loss,” said Democratic Senator Martha Hennessey in explaining her vote to override the veto.

They also avoided the soft-on-crime label by noting that the death penalty does not make citizens safer and that it is “archaic, costly, discriminatory and violent.”  And they enlisted conservative allies.  As one New Hampshire abolitionist said, “more conservatives than ever know the death penalty is a failed government program that does not value life, threatens innocent people, and wastes money.”

The campaign to abolish capital punishment succeeded in New Hampshire, just as it has succeeded elsewhere, because abolitionists resisted the temptation to engage with the red meat arguments of many death penalty supporters.  They appealed to American values of fairness, equal treatment, and pragmatism.  In so doing, they formed a coalition of legislators, political leaders, and citizens who shared the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun’s view that it is time to “stop tinkering with the machinery of death.”

Prior related post:

June 2, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, June 01, 2019

"Moral Restorative Justice: A Political Genealogy of Activism and Neoliberalism in the United States"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by my Ohio State colleague Amy Cohen. Here is its abstract:

For decades, left proponents of restorative justice have wondered if their preference for “less state” would attract complex bedfellows and political alliances.  But it was only as the crisis of mass incarceration hit American cultural and political consciousness that a wide range of libertarian and conservative political organizations and actors began to promote restorative ideals.  This Article traces changing political, theological, and ideological articulations of restorative justice from the 1970s to now, knit together by a common grammar of relationality.  It argues that today, restorative justice exemplifies a distinctively moral form of neoliberalism, complicating the arguments of scholars who describe rightwing criminal justice reform as exemplifying cost-cutting and efficiency.  This account of restorative justice, in turn, reveals different possibilities and dangers for bipartisan collaborations: moral-relational values may be genuinely shared as they compete to establish highly disparate political, economic, and social visions.

June 1, 2019 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 20, 2019

Exciting agenda for "Rewriting the Sentence Summit on Alternatives to Incarceration"

In this post a few weeks ago, I flagged this great event, titled ""Rewriting the Sentence Summit on Alternatives to Incarceration," taking place next month in New York City hosted by Columbia University and The Aleph Institute at Columbia Law School.  In my prior post, I spotlighted the many great speakers scheduled to be at the event (as detailed at this link), and noted that the event website provides this overview

I now see that this link provides the detailed schedule for all the panels, and I think sentencing fans will find interesting and important every one of the planned panels.  Here are just a few panel titles from the detailed agenda to whet appetites (click through to see all the big names under each panel title):

A New Wave of Prosecutorial Thinking: Views of Recently Elected District Attorneys

A Federal Legislative Look: The First Step Act, and the Next Steps

Risk Assessment: A Feature or a Bug? Perspectives on A Complex Debate

Sentencing Second Chances: Addressing Excessive Sentencing With Escape Valves

The Role of Mercy and Dignity in Criminal Justice: From Restoration to Clemency

May 20, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Two great new policy briefs from Right on Crime discussing best practices for parole and probation

Marc Levin, who serves as Vice President for Right on Crime, has two great new "Policy Perspective" briefs on parole and probation systems. Below are the titles, links and "Key Points" from the start of both great documents:

Ten Tips for Policymakers for Parole

Key Points

• The criteria for deciding who is paroled should be objective and focused on reducing risks to public safety going forward.

• Parole boards should possess a diverse range of relevant areas of expertise and provide opportunities for meaningful participation by parole candidates and others with an interest in the outcome.

• Parole supervision and reentry should emphasize removing barriers to employment, incentives for performance, quality interactions between parole officers and those they supervise, and avenues for community-based organizations to assist people coming out of prison.

Ten Tips for Policymakers for Improving Probation

Key Points

• Probation can be an alternative or gateway to incarceration.

• Probation should be right-sized to serve only those individuals who require supervision for only the limited time period that their assessment and conduct indicate a continued need for supervision.

• Incentives should drive probation policy, both for agencies and those they supervise.

May 19, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 16, 2019

"Promoting Equality Through Empirical Desert"

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

According to empirical desert theory, good utilitarian grounds exist for distributing criminal punishment pursuant to the (retributive) intuitions of the lay community on criminal liability.  This theory’s insights, based on original empirical research and informed by social science, have significantly influenced contemporary criminal law theory.   Yet, ostensibly, the theory is hampered by serious limitations, which may have obstructed its progress and its potential to guide criminal justice reform.  Chief among them: it draws from community intuitions, and community intuitions — as the theory acknowledges — are sometimes immoral.  In addition to these “immorality objections,” (commonly illustrated by alluding to the antebellum South and Nazi Germany), critics have alleged, inter alia, that the theory is self-defeating, uses incongruous justifications, and engages in deceptive and exploitative practices.

This Article argues that these critiques are misplaced and overstated, and that empirical desert theory can be safely relied on in criminal justice — and beyond.  Despite the captivating historical illustrations and the intuitive appeal of immorality objections, this Article demonstrates that empirical desert theory is nearly immune to them, by virtue of previously underappreciated features of its scientific methodology.   Moreover, it can do even better. T  his Article presents an innovative proposal to reconceptualize the theory by incorporating into its scientific methodology a minimalistic normative commitment to equality and non-discrimination.  It provides theoretical support and specific parameters for this reconceptualization, which imbues the theory with qualities capable of further safeguarding it from immorality objections.  Furthermore, the Article explores ten additional criticisms of the theory, seriatim, and demonstrates that the proposed reconceptualization substantially strengthens the theory’s ability to overcome them.  In its conclusion, the Article outlines two future paths for the theory’s application beyond criminal law, discussing the possibility to “export” its insights to international humanitarian law and its potential to reframe the interaction between criminal law theory and philosophy.

May 16, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

An illuminating study highlighting bright ways to deter and prevent crime other than through prison punishments

Some of the (shrinking?) fans of incarceration, if pressed about the utilitarian crime-control value of this costly form of punishment, can sometimes be heard to say that even if prison does not effectively deter or rehabilitate offenders, at least it serves to incapacitate and prevent repeat offenses.  One important response to such a claim is that prisoners can and do still commit crimes in prison.  But an even more important and satisfying response is that monies used to imprison might often be much better used on other government activities that will better deter and prevent crime, and that kind of response is supported by this interesting new National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper.  The paper, titled "Reducing Crime Through Environmental Design: Evidence from a Randomized Experiment of Street Lighting in New York City," is authored by Aaron Chalfin, Benjamin Hansen, Jason Lerner and Lucie Parker, and here is its abstract:

This paper offers experimental evidence that crime can be successfully reduced by changing the situational environment that potential victims and offenders face.  We focus on a ubiquitous but surprisingly understudied feature of the urban landscape — street lighting — and report the first experimental evidence on the effect of street lighting on crime. Through a unique public partnership in New York City, temporary streetlights were randomly allocated to public housing developments from March through August 2016.  We find evidence that communities that were assigned more lighting experienced sizable reductions in crime.  After accounting for potential spatial spillovers, we find that the provision of street lights led, at a minimum, to a 36 percent reduction in nighttime outdoor index crimes.

May 15, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, May 10, 2019

Split Eighth Circuit panel explores lifetime supervised release conditions for child porn offender

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss an Eighth Circuit panel's work today in US v. Carson, No. 17-3589 (8th Cir. May 10, 2019) (available here). Like many federal sentencing cases, there are lots of small stories wrapped within the numbing reality of an offender with an affinity for child porn and teenage girls receiving mass punishment: e.g., the defendant here got "only" 20 years in prison when his guideline range called for 30 years; even though facing the real possibility of imprisonment until nearly 2045, for some reason "Carson did not submit his own sentencing memorandum"; counsel at sentencing did not object to broad conditions of lifetime supervised release, so they get reviewed only for plain error.

The heart of the legal dispute on appeal is defendant's claim that sentencing court should have had to provide a distinct analysis and justifications for his special conditions of supervised release, one of which included social media restrictions seemingly comparable to what the Supreme Court stuck down as unconstitutional in Packingham v. North Carolina. Here is a portion of the majority's rejection of the claims on appeal:

We next turn to Carson’s argument that Special Condition 16 (the social media restriction) “suffers the same flaws as the North Carolina statute held to be unconstitutional in Packingham.”  The Supreme Court in Packingham considered the constitutionality of a statute prohibiting registered sex offenders from “access[ing] a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members” or from “creat[ing] or maintain[ing] personal Web pages” on such sites.  Packingham, 137 S. Ct. at 1733 (quoting N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 14-202.5(a), (e)).  The Supreme Court held the statute burdened substantially more speech than necessary to further the government’s interests in protecting minors from sexual abuse.  Id. at 1737–38.  The Court reasoned that “to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights,” given the importance of social media for accessing information and communicating with others. Id. at 1737.  Carson argues his court-imposed inability to maintain or create a user account on any social media site falls squarely under the holding of Packingham.

We disagree.  Several of our sister circuits have rejected a similar argument in challenges to supervised release conditions forbidding access to the internet — and effectively to social media sites — without prior approval or monitoring by a court or probation officer.  See United States v. Antczak, 753 F. App’x. 705, 715 (11th Cir. 2018) (unpublished); United States v. Halverson, 897 F.3d 645, 657–58 (5th Cir. 2018); United States v. Browder, 866 F.3d 504, 511 n.26 (2d Cir. 2017); United States v. Rock, 863 F.3d 827, 831 (D.C. Cir. 2017).  These courts have noted Packingham invalidated only a post-custodial restriction and expressed concern that the statute applied even to “persons who have already served their sentence.”  Halverson, 897 F.3d at 658 (quoting Packingham, 137 S. Ct. at 1737).  Because supervised release is part of a defendant’s sentence, Packingham does not render a district court’s restriction on access to the internet during a term of supervised release plain error.  See id.; Rock, 863 F.3d at 831.  We find this reasoning applies with equal force here.  Thus, even assuming the district court’s prohibition on creating or maintaining a social media profile implicates the same First Amendment interests as a restriction on accessing social media altogether, the district court did not commit plain error by imposing Special Condition 16.

And here is the closing paragraph of Judge Kelly's dissent:

I do not minimize the seriousness of Carson’s crimes.  For those he will serve a twenty-year prison term followed by a lengthy term of supervised release.  I also recognize the need to monitor Carson’s conduct upon release.  But Carson was thirty- three at the time of his arrest, and his lifetime term of supervised release could very well last decades. We can only imagine the universe of internet-reliant electronic devices that will pervade everyday life by then.  The length and conditions of Carson’s supervised release may well be justified, but such punishment deserves, at minimum, some reasoned explanation from the sentencing court.  Accordingly, I respectfully dissent.

May 10, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

"Rewriting the Sentence Summit on Alternatives to Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this great event taking place next month in New York City hosted By Columbia University and The Aleph Institute at Columbia Law School.  Though I have played a small role in helping to plan the event, some folks much more talented than me have arranged for an extraordinary array of great speakers to be at the event (as detailed at this link). The event website provides this overview:

What is the Rewriting the Sentence Summit on Alternatives to Incarceration?

This is a high-level summit that aims to highlight the range of alternative sentencing policies and programs that are currently operating in the U.S. and abroad, and look more deeply at their effectiveness and functional requirements.  It will include a wide range of perspectives on these issues.

Who will participate in the summit?

The summit will bring together an unprecedented number of current and former leaders and senior government officials who have served on the front lines of day-to-day operations in the criminal justice system, including law enforcement, government, judiciary, defense, forensic social workers and psychologists, and nonprofits, as well as formerly incarcerated people, victims and advocacy groups.

What are the summit’s objectives?

Beyond education, The Rewriting the Sentence Summit on Alternatives to Incarceration will use plenary, breakout and interactive sessions to generate substantive dialogue between all delegates and identify key priorities for:

  • Expanding the use of effective alternative sentencing programs while enhancing public safety, including the mechanisms of discretion (police, prosecutorial and judicial) and legislative reforms;
  • Addressing public safety concerns over its broadened use and practical barriers to expansion and launching effective new programs in new jurisdictions, including operational limitations, program evaluation and public education;
  • NGOs that can help to support broader application of effective alternative sentencing, e.g., ubiquity of access and other measures and peripheral programs to help ensure successful reentry.

What sets the summit apart from other events?

The number of high-level participants; the balance between reformers and healthy skeptics; the interactive session; and the focus on making connections and producing outcomes that include the development of a database of best practices and an informal network for future coordination and support.

May 8, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Does our county really need a bigger jail?"

Pretrial_detention_growth450x337The question in the title of this post is the title of a new Prison Policy Initiative report that seeks to provide cities and counties with a guide for preventing unnecessary jail expansion.  This press release about the report reviews the essentials (and provides a link):

The report, Does our county really need a bigger jail?, lays out 33 questions that local decision-makers should ask in evaluating proposals for new or bigger jails.  “It’s very common today for jails to be overcrowded, because the number of people in jails nationwide has tripled in the last 30 years,” said report author Alexi Jones. “But in too many counties, jail growth is rooted in known policy failures like an overreliance on money bail. Local policymakers owe it to their constituents to find out if there is a better fix to overcrowding than just building a new or bigger jail.”

The report’s 33 questions for policymakers include:

  • On a typical day, how many people are confined in the existing jail who have not been convicted?
  • How many people in the county are incarcerated because they cannot afford to pay fines and fees?
  • What specialized “diversion” courts and treatment programs is the county using to divert people struggling with substance use and mental illness into more effective treatments than jail?
  • Do official cost estimates for building new jail space include not only the cost of construction, but the cost of debt service on the loan, annual operation costs, and collateral costs such as adverse impacts on public health?

“Building new jail space typically costs tens of millions of dollars or more, even as other options that are both more cost-effective and more compassionate are ignored,” said Jones. “If policymakers can’t answer these questions about why more jail space is necessary, they should not be undertaking jail expansion.”

For all 33 questions, the report also offers a set of alternatives and best practices, including:

  • Releasing more pretrial defendants on their own recognizance, and investing in pretrial services to help them make their court dates;
  • Requiring judges to set fines and fees based on a defendant’s ability to pay;
  • Investing in specialized “problem-solving” courts for people with mental health or substance use disorders that serve as true alternatives to jail time.

The report’s recommendations are accompanied by helpful graphics, as well as examples of local and state governments successfully implementing alternatives to jail expansion. “We know that the answer to mass incarceration begins at the local level,” said Jones. “That’s why it’s critical to help cities and counties think beyond jail expansion when it comes to improving public safety.”

May 8, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

"Report on Algorithmic Risk Assessment Tools in the U.S. Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report "written by the staff of the Partnership on AI (PAI) and many of [its] Partner organizations."  Here is part of the report's executive summary:

This report documents the serious shortcomings of risk assessment tools in the U.S. criminal justice system, most particularly in the context of pretrial detentions, though many of our observations also apply to their uses for other purposes such as probation and sentencing.  Several jurisdictions have already passed legislation mandating the use of these tools, despite numerous deeply concerning problems and limitations. Gathering the views of the artificial intelligence and machine learning research community, PAI has outlined ten largely unfulfilled requirements that jurisdictions should weigh heavily and address before further use of risk assessment tools in the criminal justice system.

Using risk assessment tools to make fair decisions about human liberty would require solving deep ethical, technical, and statistical challenges, including ensuring that the tools are designed and built to mitigate bias at both the model and data layers, and that proper protocols are in place to promote transparency and accountability.  The tools currently available and under consideration for widespread use suffer from several of these failures, as outlined within this document.

We identified these shortcomings through consultations with our expert members, as well as reviewing the literature on risk assessment tools and publicly available resources regarding tools currently in use. Our research was limited in some cases by the fact that most tools do not provide sufficiently detailed information about their current usage to evaluate them on all of the requirements in this report.  Jurisdictions and companies developing these tools should implement Requirement 8, which calls for greater transparency around the data and algorithms used, to address this issue for future research projects.  That said, many of the concerns outlined in this report apply to any attempt to use existing criminal justice data to train statistical models or to create heuristics to make decisions about the liberty of individuals.

Challenges in using these tools effectively fall broadly into three categories, each of which corresponds to a section of our report:

-- Concerns about the validity, accuracy, and bias in the tools themselves;

-- Issues with the interface between the tools and the humans who interact with them; and

-- Questions of governance, transparency, and accountability.

Although the use of these tools is in part motivated by the desire to mitigate existing human fallibility in the criminal justice system, it is a serious misunderstanding to view tools as objective or neutral simply because they are based on data.  While formulas and statistical models provide some degree of consistency and replicability, they still share or amplify many weaknesses of human decision-making.  Decisions regarding what data to use, how to handle missing data, what objectives to optimize, and what thresholds to set all have significant implications on the accuracy, validity, and bias of these tools, and ultimately on the lives and liberty of the individuals they assess....

In light of these issues, as a general principle, these tools should not be used alone to make decisions to detain or to continue detention.  Given the pressing issue of mass incarceration, it might be reasonable to use these tools to facilitate the automatic pretrial release of more individuals, but they should not be used to detain individuals automatically without additional (and timely) individualized hearings.  Moreover, any use of these tools should address the bias, human-computer interface, transparency, and accountability concerns outlined in this report.

This report highlights some of the key problems encountered using risk assessment tools for criminal justice applications.  Many important questions remain open, however, and unknown issues may yet emerge in this space.  Surfacing and answering those concerns will require ongoing research and collaboration between policymakers, the AI research community, and civil society groups.  It is PAI’s mission to spur and facilitate these conversations and to produce research to bridge these gaps.

May 7, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, May 03, 2019

"When Plea Bargaining Became Normal"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article authored by William Ortman and now available on SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Plea bargaining is the criminal justice system, the Supreme Court tells us, but how did it get to be that way?  Existing scholarship tells only part of the story.  It demonstrates that plea bargaining emerged in the nineteenth century as a response to (depending on one’s theory) increasing caseloads, expanding trial procedures, or professionalizing law enforcement.  But in order for plea bargaining to truly become the criminal justice system, the legal profession would have to accept and internalize it.  That was not its first reaction. When legal scholars and reformers in the 1920s discovered that bargaining dominated America’s criminal courts, they quickly denounced it as abusive.  By the 1960s, only four decades later, the legal profession had learned to love it.

This article investigates the process that made plea bargaining the normal way of doing American criminal justice.  The story unfolds in three parts—plea bargaining’s discovery by and frosty reception from the “crime commissions” of the 1920s; its rehabilitation by the Legal Realists in the 1930s; and finally its decisive embrace by scholars and judges in the 1950s and ‘60s.  The Realists’ starring role is surprising, as they are not usually recognized for contributing to criminal law or procedure.  This article shows that they deserve credit (or plausibly blame) for taking the first major steps towards normalization.  The article also pays close attention to an objection to plea bargaining that arrived late — that it depends on coercing defendants to plead guilty.  By the time this objection emerged in the 1950s, plea bargaining’s momentum was too strong; legal elites, and, ultimately, the Supreme Court, saw no option but to rationalize it away. Above all, this article reveals that normalized plea bargaining is newer and more historically contingent than it seems.

May 3, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Summer sentencing (with notable particulars) for first college admission scandal parents to enter pleas in court

This Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Bay Area couple first to plead guilty in college admissions scandal," reports on a huge high-profile federal fraud case now getting ever closer to sentencing for one pair of defendants. Here are the details:

A Northern California couple who secured their daughters’ spots at UCLA and USC with bribes and rigged tests pleaded guilty Wednesday to fraud and money laundering offenses, the first parents to admit their guilt before a judge in an investigation that has sent shivers through circles of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Hollywood and some of the country’s most elite universities.

Davina Isackson of Hillsborough, Calif., pleaded guilty to one count of fraud conspiracy. Her husband, real estate developer Bruce Isackson, pleaded guilty to one count of fraud conspiracy, one count of money laundering conspiracy and one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States. They will be sentenced July 31. In Davina Isackson’s plea agreement, prosecutors recommended a sentence at the low end of federal guidelines that call for 27 to 33 months in prison. For Bruce Isackson, they suggested a sentence at the low end of 37 to 46 months in prison.

Of the 33 parents charged in the investigation, the Isacksons are the only ones to have signed cooperation deals with prosecutors. If prosecutors decide the couple provided useful and credible information, they can recommend that a judge sentence them below the federal guidelines.

Investigators want to learn from the couple who at UCLA and USC knew of an alleged recruiting scheme they used to slip their two daughters into the universities as sham athletes, The Times has reported. The Isacksons’ older daughter, Lauren, was admitted to UCLA as a recruited soccer player, given a jersey number and listed on the team roster as a midfielder for an entire season, despite never having played the sport competitively, prosecutors alleged.

To ensure she got in, they said, her parents transferred $250,000 in Facebook stock to the foundation of Newport Beach college consultant William “Rick” Singer, which Bruce Isackson later wrote off on the couple’s taxes as a charitable gift....

The Isacksons tapped Singer’s “side door” the following year to have their younger daughter admitted to USC as a recruited rower, prosecutors alleged. The couple also availed themselves of Singer’s test-rigging scheme, prosecutors said, in which he bribed SAT and ACT administrators to turn a blind eye to his 36-year-old, Harvard-educated accomplice.

With the help of the accomplice, Mark Riddell, the Isacksons’ younger daughter scored a 31 out of 36 on the ACT, prosecutors said. Her father paid Singer’s foundation $100,000 and wrote it off on taxes as a charitable gift.

I find notable that federal prosecutors think that two+ years of imprisonment is necessary for one of these the Isacksons and that three+ years is necessary for the other in accord with guideline calculations. But, because it appears that these defendants may be providing "substantial assistance," the feds may ultimately be recommending lower sentences as a kind of compensation for this kind of cooperation.

Prior related posts:

May 2, 2019 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

"How to Argue with an Algorithm: Lessons from the COMPAS ProPublica Debate"

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

The United States optimizes the efficiency of its growing criminal justice system with algorithms however, legal scholars have overlooked how to frame courtroom debates about algorithmic predictions.  In State v Loomis, the defense argued that the court’s consideration of risk assessments during sentencing was a violation of due process because the accuracy of the algorithmic prediction could not be verified.  The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the consideration of predictive risk at sentencing because the assessment was disclosed and the defendant could challenge the prediction by verifying the accuracy of data fed into the algorithm.

Was the court correct about how to argue with an algorithm?

The Loomis court ignored the computational procedures that processed the data within the algorithm.  How algorithms calculate data is equally as important as the quality of the data calculated.  The arguments in Loomis revealed a need for new forms of reasoning to justify the logic of evidence-based tools.  A “data science reasoning” could provide ways to dispute the integrity of predictive algorithms with arguments grounded in how the technology works.

This article’s contribution is a series of arguments that could support due process claims concerning predictive algorithms, specifically the Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (“COMPAS”) risk assessment.  As a comprehensive treatment, this article outlines the due process arguments in Loomis, analyzes arguments in an ongoing academic debate about COMPAS, and proposes alternative arguments based on the algorithm’s organizational context.

Risk assessment has dominated one of the first wide-ranging academic debates within the emerging field of data science.  ProPublica investigative journalists claimed that the COMPAS algorithm is biased and released their findings as open data sets.  The ProPublica data started a prolific and mathematically-specific conversation about risk assessment as well as a broader conversation on the social impact of algorithms.  The ProPublica-COMPAS debate repeatedly considered three main themes: mathematical definitions of fairness, explainable interpretation of models, and the importance of population comparison groups.

While the Loomis decision addressed permissible use for a risk assessment at sentencing, a deeper understanding of daily practice within the organization could extend debates about algorithms to questions about procurement, implementation, or training.  The criminal justice organization that purchased the risk assessment is in the best position to justify how one individual’s assessment matches the algorithm designed for its administrative needs.  People subject to a risk assessment cannot conjecture how the algorithm ranked them without knowing why they were classified within a certain group and what criteria control the rankings.  The controversy over risk assessment algorithms hints at whether procedural due process is the cost of automating a criminal justice system that is operating at administrative capacity.

April 24, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

"Justice Denied: The Harmful and Lasting Effects of Pretrial Detention"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new "evidence brief" from the Vera Institute of Justice.  Here is its overview:

The pretrial population — the number of people who are detained while awaiting trial — increased 433 percent between 1970 and 2015.  This growth is in large part due to the increased use of monetary bail.  But pretrial detention has far-reaching negative consequences.  This evidence brief presents information on the way that pretrial detention is currently used and summarizes research on its impacts.  These studies call into question whether pretrial detention improves court appearance rates, suggests that people who are detained are more likely to be convicted and to receive harsher sentences, and indicate that even short periods of detention may make people more likely to become involved with the criminal justice system again in the future.  The brief concludes by highlighting strategies that some jurisdictions have employed to reduce the use of monetary bail and increase pretrial release.

April 23, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, April 22, 2019

"The case against solitary confinement"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy and effective Vox piece from last week.  I call the piece effective in part because, in addition to being well-structured and well-written, it includes lots and lots of links.  Here is how the piece starts (with links retained):

Albert Woodfox was held in solitary confinement for more than 40 years in a Louisiana prison before being released in 2016, when he was 69 years old.  In his book Solitary, published last month, Woodfox writes that every morning, “I woke up with the same thought: will this be the day? Will this be the day I lose my sanity and discipline? Will I start screaming and never stop?”

Thousands of people — at least 61,000 on any given day and likely many thousands more than that — are in solitary confinement across the country, spending 23 hours per day in cells not much bigger than elevators.  They are disproportionately young men, and disproportionately Hispanic and African American.  The majority spend a few months in it, but at least a couple of thousand people have been in solitary confinement for six years or more. Some, like Woodfox, have been held for decades.

Solitary confinement causes extreme suffering, particularly over prolonged periods of months or years.  Effects include anxiety, panic, rage, paranoia, hallucinations, and, in some cases, suicide.

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, deemed that prolonged solitary confinement is a form of torture, and the UN’s Mandela Rules dictate that it should never be used with youth and those with mental or physical disability or illness, or for anyone for more than 15 days.  Méndez, who inspected prisons in many countries, wrote, “[I]t is safe to say that the United States uses solitary confinement more extensively than any other country, for longer periods, and with fewer guarantees.”

Many practices in the US criminal justice system are harsh, ineffective, even absurd, from the widespread use of money bail to detain unconvicted people to extremely long sentences and parole terms, and a host of other outrages.  But placing people in solitary stands out as a violation of human rights.

Well over a century ago in the US, the practice fell out of favor, partly because of its capacity for psychological harm. Yet starting in the 1980s, its use in prisons and jails exploded again.

Over the past decade, there has been a movement to (again) stop the widespread use of solitary. There have been major steps forward in some states.  But there’s considerable need for more progress — and wider acknowledgment that this is something that we are all accountable for. As Laura Rovner, a law professor at the University of Denver, put it in a recent talk, “We torture people here in America, tens of thousands of them every day … it’s done in our names, with our tax dollars, behind closed doors.”

April 22, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, April 21, 2019

"Misdemeanors by the Numbers"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article now available via SSRN authored by Sandra Mayson and Megan Stevenson.  Here is its abstract:

Recent scholarship has underlined the importance of criminal misdemeanor law enforcement, including the impact of public-order policing on communities of color, the collateral consequences of misdemeanor arrest or conviction, and the use of misdemeanor prosecution to raise municipal revenue.  But despite the fact that misdemeanors represent more than three-quarters of all criminal cases filed annually in the United States, our knowledge of misdemeanor case processing is based mostly on anecdote and extremely localized research.  This Article represents the most substantial empirical analysis of misdemeanor case processing to date.  Using multiple court-record datasets, covering several million cases across eight diverse jurisdictions, we present a detailed documentation of misdemeanor case processing from the date of filing through adjudication and sentencing.

The resulting portrait reveals a system that disproportionately impacts poor people and people of color.  Between 2011 and 2016, each jurisdiction studied relied on monetary bail, which resulted in high rates of pretrial detention even at relatively low amounts, and imposed court costs upon conviction.  There were substantial racial disparities in case-filing rates across locales and offense categories.  The data also, however, highlight profound jurisdictional heterogeneity in how misdemeanors are defined and prosecuted.  The variation suggests that misdemeanor adjudication systems may have fundamentally different characters, and serve different functions, from place to place. It thus presents a major challenge to efforts to describe and theorize the contemporary landscape of misdemeanor justice.  At the most fundamental level, the variation calls into question the coherence of the very concept of a misdemeanor, or of misdemeanor criminal justice.  As appreciation for the significance of low-level law enforcement builds, we urge scholars and policymakers to attend carefully to the complexity of this sub-felony world.

April 21, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Thoughtful look into prison abolitionism (and prison history) in theory and practice

The New York Times magazine has this week's must read under the headline "Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind."  The piece is a profile of a noted prison abolitionist along with a broader discussion of prison history and prison abolitionism.  I heartily recommend the terrific lengthy piece in full, and here is an extended excerpt:

Prison abolition, as a movement, sounds provocative and absolute, but what it is as a practice requires subtler understanding.  For Gilmore, who has been active in the movement for more than 30 years, it’s both a long-term goal and a practical policy program, calling for government investment in jobs, education, housing, health care — all the elements that are required for a productive and violence-free life. Abolition means not just the closing of prisons but the presence, instead, of vital systems of support that many communities lack.  Instead of asking how, in a future without prisons, we will deal with so-called violent people, abolitionists ask how we resolve inequalities and get people the resources they need long before the hypothetical moment when, as Gilmore puts it, they “mess up.”...

In the wake of the Enlightenment, European reformers gradually moved away from corporal punishment tout court; people would go to prison for a set period of time, rather than to wait for the punishment to come.  The penitentiary movement in both England and the United States in the early 19th century was motivated in part by the demand for more humanitarian punishment. Prison was the reform.

If prison, in its philosophical origin, was meant as a humane alternative to beatings or torture or death, it has transformed into a fixed feature of modern life, one that is not known, even by its supporters and administrators, for its humanity.  In the United States, we now have more than two million incarcerated people, a majority of them black or brown, virtually all of them from poor communities.  Prisons not only have violated human rights and failed at rehabilitation; it’s not even clear that prisons deter crime or increase public safety.

Following an incarceration boom that began all over the United States around 1980 and only recently started to level off, reform has become politically popular.  But abolitionists argue that many reforms have done little more than reinforce the system. In every state where the death penalty has been abolished, for example, it has been replaced by the sentence of life without parole — to many people a death sentence by other, more protracted means.  Another product of good intentions: campaigns to reform indeterminate sentencing, resulting in three-strike programs and mandatory-minimum sentencing, which traded one cruelty for another. Over all, reforms have not significantly reduced incarceration numbers, and no recent reform legislation has even aspired to do so.

For instance, the first federal prison reform in almost 10 years, the bipartisan First Step Act, which President Trump signed into law late last year, will result in the release of only some 7,000 of the 2.3 million people currently locked up when it goes into effect. Federal legislation pertains only to federal prisons, which hold less than 10 percent of the nation’s prison population, and of those, First Step applies to only a slim subset.  As Gilmore said to me, noting an outsize public enthusiasm after the act passed the Senate, “There are people who behave as though the origin and cure are federal.  So many are unaware of how the country is juridically organized, and that there are at least 52 criminal-legal jurisdictions in the U.S.”

Which isn’t to say that Gilmore and other abolitionists are opposed to all reforms. “It’s obvious that the system won’t disappear overnight,” Gilmore told me.  “No abolitionist thinks that will be the case.”  But she finds First Step, like many state reforms it mimics, not just minor but exclusionary, on account of wording in the bill that will make it even harder for some to get relief.  (Those convicted of most higher-level offenses, for example, are ineligible for earned-time credits, a new category created under First Step.)  “So many of these proposed remedies don’t end up diminishing the system.  They regard the system as something that can be fixed by removing and replacing a few elements.”  For Gilmore, debates over which individuals to let out of prison accept prison as a given.  To her, this is not just a moral error but a practical one, if the goal is to actually end mass incarceration. Instead of trying to fix the carceral system, she is focused on policy work to reduce its scope and footprint by stopping new prison construction and closing prisons and jails one facility at a time, with painstaking grass-roots organizing and demands that state funding benefit, rather than punish, vulnerable communities.

“What I love about abolition,” the legal scholar and author James Forman Jr. told me, “and now use in my own thinking — and when I identify myself as an abolitionist, this is what I have in mind — is the idea that you imagine a world without prisons, and then you work to try to build that world.”  Forman came late, he said, to abolitionist thinking. He was on tour for his 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Locking Up Our Own,” which documents the history of mass incarceration and the inadvertent roles that black political leaders played, when a woman asked him why he didn’t use the word “abolition” in his arguments, which, to her, sounded so abolitionist.  The question led Forman to engage seriously with the concept.  “I feel like a movement to end mass incarceration and replace it with a system that actually restores and protects communities will never succeed without abolitionists. Because people will make compromises and sacrifices, and they’ll lose the vision.  They’ll start to think things are huge victories, when they’re tiny. And so, to me, abolition is essential.”

The A.C.L.U.’s Smart Justice campaign, the largest in the organization’s history, has been started with a goal of reducing the prison population by 50 percent through local, state and federal initiatives to reform bail, prosecution, sentencing, parole and re-entry.  “Incarceration does not work,” said the A.C.L.U. campaign director Udi Ofer.  The A.C.L.U., he told me, wants to “defund the prison system and reinvest in communities.” In our conversation, I found myself wondering if Ofer, and the A.C.L.U., had been influenced by abolitionist thinking and Gilmore. Ofer even seemed to quote Gilmore’s mantra that “prisons are catchall solutions to social problems.”  When I asked him, Ofer said, “There’s no question.  She’s made tremendous contributions, even just in helping to bring about a conversation on what this work really is, and the constant struggle not to replace one oppressive system with another.”

April 20, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, April 15, 2019

Notable new advocacy against a "soft-on-crime prosecutorial agenda"

Kimberly Guilfoyle has this notable new Hill commentary under the headline "Avoid the slippery slope of 'soft-on-crime' policies that progressives want." Much of the piece is focused on immigration policy, but other domestic crime and punishment issues are covered, as revealed by these excerpts:

The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is adamant on upending decades of sound law enforcement policies in favor of a radical progressive approach.  Open borders, weak-on-crime prosecutors, and drug injection sites are on the table. It’s time to fight back against these misguided policies and take a stand for the rule of law.

By all measures, Americans are enjoying a golden era of safety.  Violent and property crime offenses have plummeted in the past 25 years.  In a recent Gallup poll, only 30 percent of Americans stated they would be afraid to walk alone at night within a mile of where they live, a historic low for this survey question.

As a former prosecutor, I know a thing or two about policies that keep people safe. To be clear: “Broken Windows” policing works. Locking up criminals works.  Strong sentencing guidelines work.  And yet, Democrats want to completely throw this time-tested playbook out the window to appease their growing progressive base....

Buoyed by liberal, wealthy donors and other special interest groups, progressive prosecutors are gaining traction across the country.  Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Philadelphia where District Attorney Larry Krasner has worked diligently to craft a soft-on-crime prosecutorial agenda.  Under Krasner’s guidelines, a grab bag of criminal offenses no longer are prosecuted.  Heinous crimes such as homicide even have gotten the “kid gloves” treatment because Krasner believes that we should not “overcharge” felons, even those who kill.  As a result, a shocking number of defendants have had their sentences reduced from murder to manslaughter.  Krasner has become the poster child for other progressive district attorneys across the country seeking to undermine the rule of law.

Progressives also have gained steam in their fight to open up so-called “safe” injection sites across the country, where addicts can use illegal street drugs in a medically sanctioned environment. Undeniably, safe injection sites further normalize the use of extreme drugs.  These sites offer no restrictions on who can shoot up and when. Should a minor be allowed to try black tar heroin for the first time uninterrupted? Are law enforcement officers going to be forced to watch while exploitative drug dealers sell dope to vulnerable addicts? How many times can an addict overdose in a single day?

Thankfully, the Trump administration has been pushing back against these radical policies and standing strong for the rule of law.  This means tougher punishments for criminal aliens and more funds for border security measures, stronger measures against those flooding our communities with opioids, and promises of a stringent crackdown on any city that supports a safe injection site.

These policies make our country safer and stronger. Law enforcement should always focus on putting the interests of families and children first.  With this in mind, we can’t let the radical left undue decades of steady progress.  We must stand with President Trump to keep our nation safe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this commentary does not mention that, according to Philadelphia Police Department data, violent crime in Philly reportedly went down by five percent in 2018 (though homicides were up 10%), and violent crime has remained at that lower rate so far in 2019 (though with homicide still moving up).  This commentary also, notably, makes no mention of the Trump Administration's support for the FIRST STEP Act.   In this context, I know I am happy to "stand with President Trump" when he stressed at the White House this important point earlier this month: "Americans from across the political spectrum can unite around prison reform legislation that will reduce crime while giving our fellow citizens a chance at redemption."

Specifics aside, I highlight this commentary because it provide a useful reminder of how readily we might slide back into the tired-old "soft-on-crime" rhetoric that defined domestic discourse on crime and punishment for decades in the United States. Though there are no shortage of wedge issues in our current political discussions, crime and punishment has a dangerously classic character.

April 15, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, April 13, 2019

"Introducing Disruptive Technology to Criminal Sanctions: Punishment by Computer Monitoring to Enhance Sentencing Fairness and Efficiency"

The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posted to SSRN authored by Mirko Bagaric, Dan Hunter and Colin Loberg.  Here is its abstract:

The United States criminal justice system is the most punitive on earth.  The total correctional population is nearly seven million, equating to a staggering one in thirty-eight adults.  Most of the correctional population comprises offenders who are on parole or probation.  The financial burden this imposes on the community is prohibitive.  Further, a high portion of offenders who are on parole or probation offend during the period of the sanction.  This Article proposes an overdue solution to the crisis which exists in relation to the imposition of criminal sanctions.  The solution is especially timely given that there is now a considerable consensus emerging among lawmakers and the wider community that reforms need to be implemented to reduce the cost of criminal sanctions and improve their effectiveness.  Moreover, the United States Sentencing Commission has recently proposed an amendment to increase the availability of sentences which are alternatives to incarceration. 

With little hint of exaggeration, the sentencing system remains in a primitive state when it comes to adopting technological advances.  This Article seeks to address this failing as a means of overcoming the main shortcomings of current common criminal sanctions.  Forty years ago, it was suggested that the most effective way to deal with crime was to assign a police officer to watch over the every move of each offender.  The proposal was dubbed “cop-a-con”.  This would nearly guarantee that offenders did not re-offend, while eliminating the adverse consequences of prison.  This proposal was manifestly unviable due to its excessive costs.  Technological advances now make the concept achievable in a cost-effective manner.

It is now possible to monitor the locations and actions of individuals in live time and to detect crime as it is in the process of being committed.  Adapted properly to the criminal justice system, technology has the potential to totally reshape the nature and efficacy of criminal sanctions.  The sanctions which are currently utilized to deal with the most serious offenders, namely imprisonment, probation and parole can be replaced with technological monitoring which can more efficiently, effectively and humanely achieve the appropriate objectives of sentencing.  Technological disruption in the criminal justice sector is not only desirable, it is imperative.  Financial pressures and normative principles mandate that the United States can no longer remain the world’s most punitive nation.  The sanction suggested in the Article (“the monitoring sanction”) has the potential to more efficiently and economically impose proportionate punishment than current probation and parole systems, while enhancing public safety.

April 13, 2019 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

"Vague Comparisons and Proportional Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this new theoretical paper authored by Jacob Bronsther now on SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The “small improvement problem” (“the Problem”) applies when no option in a comparison is best nor, it seems, are the options equal, because a small improvement to one would fail to make it the better choice.  I argue that vagueness causes the Problem, such that the options are vaguely equal or vaguely “related.” I then unpack an important instance of the Problem, the comparison between a crime and a punishment upon which the ideal of a retributively deserved sentence is based.  I argue that this comparison is not only vague, but remarkably vague, leading to an expansive array of “not undeserved” sentences.  I conclude, however, that retributivism can only justify the least harmful “not undeserved” sentence.

April 10, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 06, 2019

"Making Jail a Last Resort" or "If Prisons Don’t Work, What Will?"

The title of this post are the two somewhat different (bad) headlines I have seen for this great New York Times commentary authored by Emily Bazelon (whose great timely new book is titled "Charged: The New Movement to Transform Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration.")  I am much more partial to the first headline than the second, but neither comes close to capturing effectively the spirit and themes of the wide-ranging piece.  So, go read the full piece, and here are some extended excerpts:

The United States spends far too much money locking up far too many people for far too long. A few years ago, a politician had to be brave to say anything like that out loud. Now it’s a mainstream and bipartisan view....  It’s all pretty head-spinning after decades of elected officials competing to lock more people up and spotlight the scariest crimes. Now, with public opinion shifting far and fast and politicians hurrying to catch up, you could even argue that criminal justice reform has become the new marriage equality in terms of the turnaround in public attitudes.

That presents a major opportunity for Democratic presidential candidates.  But for all the energy behind reform, no presidential candidate has articulated a big, comprehensive vision for transformational change.  There’s a consensus that the system is broken, but no agreement on how to fix it.  The presidential candidate looking to distinguish herself might start by looking at a new wave of reform-minded district attorneys who are challenging conventional law-and-order approaches in red states and blue ones.

For the candidates, thematically, a starting point should be that wealth should not determine a person’s fate in court, and profit should not drive the system.  Bail bonds, privatized probation and corporate-run prisons are parasitic features of the justice system.  Ending cash bail should be at the top of every candidate’s criminal justice agenda.  So should getting rid of fines and fees that help fund local governments but trap people in cycles of debt....

To end mass incarceration, however, exempting nonviolent offenses from jail time isn’t enough.  People convicted of violent crimes make up more than half of the country’s state prison population. But the image of prisons overflowing with murderers and rapists is wrong.  In many states, “violent felonies” include offenses like breaking into an empty house or snatching a purse or iPhone on the street.  Reducing sentences for these offenses — and changing what counts as a violent felony to begin with — is a good way to start lowering this share of the prison population.

And that fits in with a second theme for candidates: People deserve a second chance, because many grow and change. They robbed to feed an addiction and then got sober. They assaulted someone because they were mentally ill and then got treatment and stabilized. They mature as they age beyond their teens and early 20s.  That’s why it makes sense to reconsider how long a person should stay in prison after doing some time....

Parole offers another opening for second chances. In Texas, says Scott Henson, an activist who blogs at the site Grits for Breakfast, “our parole rates have gone from 15 percent to the high 30s in the last decade,” He said the increase is “having more impact than any bill we’ve passed even through the legislature.” He thinks the reason for the rise is a humdrum logistical one: The state unofficially uses parole as a way to reduce prison overcrowding.

We should also focus on redefining the terms of the public safety debate.  Ending mass incarceration, and ensuring fairness throughout the criminal justice system, aren’t in tension with public safety.  They’re integral to it.  People tend to uphold the law when they believe it’s reasonable and applied evenly.  When people have that faith, they are more likely to help the police solve crimes....

Finally, incarceration should be the last resort, not the default.  In Brooklyn, District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has said this idea is central to his tenure.  His counterpart in Boston, Rachael Rollins, last month instructed prosecutors to ask for jail only “when any other recommendation would compromise” safety.  When no other option than jail or prison will do, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of people who go in also get out. Making sure they have the tools to lead productive lives when they emerge — like job training and access to decent housing — is a public good.

Presidents don’t actually control the key levers of the American punishment machine.  About 80 percent of the people who are locked up today are in state and local jails and prisons.  But presidents, and presidential campaigns, can raise the profile of an issue and set a tone.  The way they talk about repairing our broken criminal justice system speaks loudly to broader issues about racial and wealth inequality. Presidents can also shape the behavior of states and cities with funding and other incentives, like redirecting money to treatment and prevention programs.

Were I in charge of devising a headline for this piece, I might go with something like "How Prosecutors and Presidential Candidates Advance Criminal Justice Reform." But this is not the first, nor will it be the last, great newspaper piece without a headline to serve it well.  Of course, the piece itself leaves out some important stories like the achievement of the FIRST STEP Act and the need for clemency reform (points recently stressed by Senator and Prez canadide Amy Klobuchar).  But there is so much getting done and needing to be done in this space now, it is hard to fault any piece of writing for not covering everything.

April 6, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

"Limiting Identity in Criminal Law"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article recently posted to SSRN and authored by Mihailis Diamantis.  Here is its abstract:

People change with time. Their personalities, values, and preferences shift incrementally as they accrue life experience, discover new sources of meaning, and form/lose memories. Accumulated psychological changes eventually reshape not just how someone relates to the world about her, but also who she is as a person.  This transience of human identity has profound implications for criminal law.  Previous legal scholarship on personal identity has assumed that only abrupt tragedy and disease can change who we are. However, psychologists now know that the ordinary processes of growth, maturation, and decline alter us all in fundamental respects.  Many young adults find it hard to identify with their adolescent past. Senior citizens often reflect similarly on their middle years.  However tightly we hold on to the people we are today, at some tomorrow we inevitably find ourselves changed.

Criminal justice has not come to grips with this aspect of the human condition.  The law — by imposing lengthy sentences, allowing enduring consequences of conviction, and punishing long bygone violations — assumes that people’s identities remain fixed from birth to death.  If people do change with time, these policies must violate the criminal law’s most basic commitment to prosecute and punish present-day people only for crimes they (and not some different past person) committed.

Drawing on contemporary psychology and philosophy of personal identity, this Article concludes that criminal law punishes too often and too severely. Lengthy prison terms risk incarcerating people past the point at which their identity changes.  Elderly inmates who have languished on death row for decades should have a new claim for release — that they are now different people, innocent of the misdeeds of yesteryear.  One-time felons should recover lost civil rights sooner.  And defendants should benefit from juvenile process well into their twenties, when personal identity first begins to stabilize.  By confronting the challenges posed by the limits of personal identity, the criminal law can become more just and humane.

April 3, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

"The Next Step: Ending Excessive Punishment for Violent Crimes"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report written by Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Senior Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project.  Here is its executive summary:

While the First Step Act and other criminal justice reforms have limited the number of people imprisoned for drug crimes, they have yet to meaningfully reduce excessive penalties for violent crimes.  Nearly half of the U.S. prison population is now serving time for a violent offense, including assault and robbery.

Although the violent crime rate has plummeted to half of its early-1990s level, the number of people imprisoned for a violent offense grew until 2009, and has since declined by just 3%.  This trend stems from increased prison admissions and sentence lengths, despite evidence that excessive penalties are counterproductive.  Long sentences incapacitate older people who pose little public safety threat, produce limited deterrent effect since most people do not expect to be caught, and detract from more effective investments in public safety.

For those who seek to end mass incarceration, there are signs of hope.  In the past two decades, local, state, and federal lawmakers, governors, judges, and practitioners have rejected the death penalty, shortened excessive prison terms for violent convictions, scaled back collateral consequences, narrowed broad definitions of violence, and ended long term solitary confinement.  The 15 reforms featured in this report, implemented in over 19 states, represent more effective, fiscally sound, and morally just responses to violence.  While exceptions in a punitive era, these reforms serve as models for the future.  For example:

Rejecting torture in prison

In 2017, Colorado Department of Corrections’ executive director Rick Raemisch restricted solitary confinement to only serious violations in prisons and set a maximum duration of 15 days.

Using discretion to reduce extreme sentences

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner seeks to end the city’s heavy reliance on life without parole (LWOP) sentences.  He has made case-by-case evaluations when making resentencing offers to individuals convicted as juveniles, shown restraint in charging decisions and plea offers in homicide cases, and endorsed legislation to allow people serving LWOP to be evaluated for parole after 15 years of incarceration.

Legislators reducing excessive sentences

Mississippi legislators reformed the state’s truth-insentencing requirement for violent crimes in 2014, reducing the proportion of a sentence that individuals with certain violent convictions have to serve before becoming eligible for parole from 85% to 50%.

Recognizing the rehabilitative potential of youth and young adults

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that LWOP sentences were unconstitutional for non-homicide crimes committed by juveniles. The Court also later ruled that mandatory LWOP sentences for homicide failed to recognize young people’s “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.”  In 2018, California built on this precedent by directing individuals convicted under age 26 to “Youth Offender Parole Hearings.”

Scaling back collateral consequences

Floridians voted in 2018 to re-enfranchise people with felony convictions, including those convicted of most violent crimes.

The reforms identified in this report demonstrate that it is possible to undo excessive penalties for violent crimes while also promoting public safety. They are the next step of criminal justice reform and offer blueprints for policies that will better enable an end to mass incarceration within our lifetime.

April 2, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Encouraging developments in remarkable federal case that threatened old prison term after obvious rehabilitation

Download (13)I had been meaning to blog about this remarkable story first reported in the New Haven Independent under the headline "Glitch May Return Rehab’d Man To Prison." Here is the backstory from that piece: 

Jermaine Demetrius Anderson may have to leave his two jobs, his condo in Westville, his local “church family,” and the stable, crime-free life he has built for himself in the Elm City — and go to prison. All because of an apparent miscommunication over a decade ago between the Connecticut state judicial system and the federal court in Philadelphia.

His hope now is the federal government — maybe even President Donald Trump — will cut him a break.

On Feb. 28, Paul Diamond, a judge with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, signed a warrant for Anderson’s arrest for his failure to serve an outstanding 16-month federal sentence. The sentence dates to a crime that occurred 16 years ago.

The federal court issued that sentence to Anderson, now a 43-year-old employee for the city’s parks department, in 2005 after he pleaded guilty to two felony counts of possessing and passing counterfeit currency and one count of identity theft while living in Pennsylvania. He committed the crimes in 2003.

Anderson never served that federal sentence. Even though he thought he had. That’s because he spent three years in state prison in Connecticut after pleading guilty to similar but separate counterfeit currency charges in New Haven in 2003. He said he believed he was serving his state and federal sentences concurrently while locked up in Webster Correctional Institution in Cheshire.

After finishing that state sentence in November 2006, the state judicial system didn’t remand him to federal custody in Philadelphia. He said no one reached out to him and said he had to report to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to serve more time for the federal offense. He thought he had done his time. He set about rebuilding his life in New Haven.

Thirteen years later, U.S. marshals came pounding on his door in New Haven last week, claiming that he had evaded arrest and demanding that he report back to Pennsylvania to serve 16 months in federal prison.

Local attorney Michael Dolan said he has been in touch with Philadelphia federal attorneys, and has urged them to reconsider requiring Anderson to serve federal time so long after he was sentenced and so long after he served time in state prison on similar charges. “It would appear that the goals of the criminal justice system have been met,” he said about his thoroughly rehabilitated client....

Robert Clark, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, told the Independent that the marshals unearthed Anderson’s outstanding federal sentence and the slip-up between the Connecticut state judicial system and the Pennsylvania federal district court during a routine audit.

“During an internal audit of custody detainers by the U.S. Marshals in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania,” he said, “a case dating back to 2005 was found in which a sentenced man, Jermaine Demetrius Anderson, had been sent to Connecticut to face state charges. After a conviction and sentence served in Connecticut, Anderson should have been held for transfer back to federal custody; instead, he was mistakenly released. Upon the Marshals providing this information to a federal judge, the court issued a bench warrant for Anderson for failure to serve an outstanding federal sentence. Anderson was arrested in Connecticut March 20, released on bond and ordered to appear in U.S. district court in Philadelphia April 4. As the enforcement arm of the federal courts, the Marshals ensure that individuals with federal warrants are brought to face justice. Ultimately, the federal court system will make a determination on Anderson’s outstanding federal sentence.”

Dolan called Anderson’s case a prime example of someone who committed a crime, took responsibility by pleading guilty, served time in prison, and has subsequently successfully rehabilitated himself. “He’s been crime free, drug free, has employment,” Dolan said. “And now they want to take him back into custody.”

“It’s called corrections,” Anderson said. “I corrected myself. I don’t want pity. I just want people to be ethical.”

“I wasn’t evading,” he continued. “I wasn’t on the run.”

Encouragingly, this new CNN piece suggests an ethical outcome to this case may be in the works. The piece is headlined "Man who feared feds would finally impose sentence may have deal to avoid more prison," and here are the new developments:

A judge issued a bench warrant and Anderson was due back in court April 4, when it's possible he could be detained and sent to federal prison.

That apparently won't happen now after his lawyer said he reached a verbal agreement with prosecutors and the Bureau of Prisons to give Anderson credit for time "at liberty."

"I'm overjoyed but waiting for official paperwork," Anderson said, adding, "it's a blessing, but I want the blessing to be official. My heart is back in my chest where it should be." Attorney Michael Dolan said Friday he does not have an official agreement in writing.

CNN's efforts to reach the US attorney's office and the office of the federal judge overseeing the case were not immediately successful....

Dolan helped get Anderson released the day the marshals detained him, and he has been working with federal public defenders to keep his client from going to prison again.

"I certainly think it is cruel and unusual punishment," Dolan said Thursday.

I am pleased to see from this CNN piece that Anderson's attorney was apparently ready to argue that it would be unconstitutional to send him back to prison now under the Eighth Amendment. I do not think anyone would question a claim that this case is "unusual" and the facts described above certainly lead me to think it also "cruel" to require Anderson's imprisonment now under these circumstances. If a court were not prepared to rule that Anderson's reimprisonment was a violation of the Eighth Amendment, this case might alternatively be another setting for developing jurisprudence on what should be deemed "extraordinary and compelling reasons" warranting a sentence reduction under 18 USC 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  This case certainly seems extraordinary and compelling to me, and modifying Anderson's federal sentence now certain seems in keeping with the "factors set forth in section 3553(a)." 

March 30, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 28, 2019

"Decarcerating America: The Opportunistic Overlap Between Theory and (Mainly State) Sentencing Practise as a Pathway to Meaningful Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper available via SSRN and authored by Mirko Bagaric and Daniel McCord. Here is its abstract:

Criminals engender no community sympathy and have no political capital. This is part of the reason that the United States has the highest prison population on earth, and by a considerable margin. Incarceration levels grew four-fold over the past forty years. Despite this, America is now experiencing an unprecedented phenomenon whereby many states are now simultaneously implementing measures to reduce prison numbers. The unusual aspect of this is that the response is not coordinated; nor is it consistent in its approach, but the movement is unmistakable.

This ground up approach to reducing prison numbers suffers from the misgiving that it is an ineffective solution to a complex issue. While prison numbers are reducing, it is at a glacial rate. Pursuant to current trends, it would take five decades to reach incarceration levels that are in keeping with historical levels in the United States, and which are in line with prison numbers in most other countries. The massive growth in prison numbers during the latter half of the twentieth century was as a result of a coordinated tough on crime strategy, spawned by the War on Drugs and the implementation of harsh mandatory sanctions. The response to these policy failings must be equally coordinated and systematic in order to be effective.

This Article provides the theoretical and empirical framework that can be used by lawmakers to tap into the community appetite to reduce prison numbers to make changes that are efficient and normatively sound, and which will significantly accelerate the decarceration process. In broad terms, the Article proposes a bifurcated system of sentencing, whereby sexual and serious violent offenders are imprisoned while other offenders (such as those who commit property, immigration and drug offenses) are dealt with by other forms of sanctions. The changes will especially benefit African American and Hispanics, given that they are incarcerated at disproportionately high levels. The empirical evidence also suggests that the proposed reforms will not result in an increased crime rate.

March 28, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Suffolk County DA produces remarkable new prosecutorial polices memo

Around this time last year, as discussed in this post, Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner made public a remarkable five-page memo setting forth an array of remarkable progressive prosecutorial policies.  This week, Suffolk County DA has produced an even more remarkable statement of policies via this remarkable 66-page document titled simply "The Rachel Rollins Policy Memo." The document is not easily summarized, and is worth a complete read. These excerpts from the first section, titled "A New Lens," provides a feel for some of the particulars that follow:

A dramatic shift in thinking around criminal justice is occurring in the United States. Sweeping advances in data science and public health have revealed that decades of punitive incarceration are not effectively preventing recidivism and promoting public safety. A large number of criminal convictions secured by prosecutors nationally are for drug, property, and public order offenses, which are often driven by economic, mental health, and social needs....

Data show that a carceral approach to low-level, non-violent offenses can do more harm than good. A criminal record often presents barriers to education, future income, housing, and many other necessary assets and supports proven to help people thrive and succeed in society.

As a result, jurisdictions across the country are taking a smarter approach to punishment and accountability. Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors’ offices are collecting and analyzing new and varied sources of data, and they are safely beginning to move all but the most serious offenses away from carceral punishment and its downstream collateral harms.

In place of traditional criminal justice system outcomes such as arrest, detention, prosecution, probation, and incarceration, criminal justice practitioners and policymakers are working in collaboration with community partners to develop and implement innovative, evidence-driven diversionary alternatives that data show are more likely to promote safer and healthier communities....

[Recent data] shows that the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office can file fewer criminal charges, divert more people who need help into services and treatment, send fewer people to jail and prison, all while improving the health and public safety of Suffolk County residents.  I am pleased to announce, effective immediately, the following official guidelines and policies of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office.  These guidelines and policies, as with all of our office’s policies and decisions going forward, will be grounded in science and data, modeled after the best known local and national practices, and will build upon and expand the important work and relationships begun under the leadership of my predecessors

Prior related post:

March 26, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Effects of Voluntary and Presumptive Sentencing Guidelines"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical article authored by Griffin Sims Edwards, Stephen Rushin and Joseph Colquitt.  Here is its abstract:

This Article empirically illustrates that the introduction of voluntary and presumptive sentencing guidelines at the state-level can contribute to statistically significant reductions in sentence length, inter-judge disparities, and racial disparities.

For much of American history, judges had largely unguided discretion to select criminal sentences within statutorily authorized ranges.  But in the mid-to-late twentieth century, states and the federal government began experimenting with sentencing guidelines designed to reign in judicial discretion to ensure that similarly situated offenders received comparable sentences.  Some states have made their guidelines voluntary, while others have made their guidelines presumptive or mandatory, meaning that judges must generally adhere to them unless they can justify a departure.

In order to explore the effects of both voluntary and presumptive sentencing guidelines on judicial behavior, this Article relies on a comprehensive dataset of 221,934 criminal sentences handed down by 355 different judges in Alabama between 2002 and 2015.  This dataset provides a unique opportunity to address this empirical question, in part because of Alabama’s legislative history.  Between 2002 and 2006, Alabama had no sentencing guidelines. In 2006, the state introduced voluntary sentencing guidelines.  Then in 2013, the state made these sentencing guidelines presumptive for some non-violent offenses.

Using a difference-in-difference framework, we find that the introduction of voluntary sentencing guidelines in Alabama coincided with a decrease in average sentence length of around seven months.  When the same guidelines became presumptive, the average sentence length dropped by almost two years.  Further, using a triple difference framework, we show that the adoption of these sentencing guidelines coincided with around eight to twelve-month reductions in race-based sentencing disparities and substantial reductions in inter-judge sentencing disparities across all classes of offenders.  Combined, this data suggests that voluntary and presumptive sentencing guidelines can help states combat inequality in their criminal justice systems while controlling the sizes of their prison populations.

March 26, 2019 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 25, 2019

"Theories of Prosecution"

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

For decades, legal commentators sounded the alarm about the tremendous power wielded by prosecutors.  Scholars went so far as to identify uncurbed prosecutorial discretion as the primary source of the criminal justice system’s many flaws.  Over the past two years, however, the conversation shifted.  With the emergence of a new wave of “progressive prosecutors,” scholars increasingly hail broad prosecutorial discretion as a promising mechanism for criminal justice reform.

The abrupt shift from decrying to embracing prosecutorial power highlights a curious void at the center of criminal justice thought.  There is no widely-accepted normative theory of the prosecutorial role.  As a result, prosecutors are increasingly viewed as the criminal justice system’s free agents, deploying the powers of their office as they see fit to serve constituents, public safety or, most broadly, the cause of justice.

This Article uses the rapidly shifting views of prosecutors to explore normative theories of prosecution: what should prosecutors be doing?  It highlights the emptiness of the current “do justice” model, and proposes an alternative “servant-of-the-law” theory of prosecutorial behavior that could place real constraints on prosecutorial excess.  It also explores ways in which a servant-of-the-law model could, perhaps counterintuitively, contribute much-needed theoretical grounding to the progressive prosecution movement.

March 25, 2019 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 24, 2019

"What Is Relational Justice?"

The question in the title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Samuel Pillsbury now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The relational harms of crimes of violence should be met with relational remedies; this is the aim of relational justice.  Sexual and other forms of violence do grave harm to personal relations and relational capacities.  Wrongdoers may, and should, be blamed for acts of disregard for the basic relational good of others.  The final aim of relational justice is the return of those hurt by violence to full belonging in community, and if possible, the return of perpetrators as well.  This will alter predominant views of punishment for serious crimes.

Adopting a relational justice perspective should change how guilty pleas are taken and sentencing hearings are structured.  Relational justice promises better recognition of sexual violence by emphasizing the relational nature of harm and wrongdoing.  Relational justice also provides a new perspective on race and class discrimination in criminal justice through its emphasis on the connectedness of persons and groups in community and basic obligations to look out for the relational good of others.

March 24, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, March 22, 2019

Philly DA looking to curtail duration of probation and parole

Many years ago, I heard an academic a lot smarter than me say that the US would never make a serious dent in mass incarceration if and while we still had an even more massive number of persons subject to criminal justice supervision. He suggested that it was unavoidable that some percentage subject to community supervision would end up going back to prison, and so to reduce incarceration levels we had to also reduce supervision levels.

This story is salient this morning because of this notable new press report from Philadelphia headlined "Philly DA Larry Krasner: We took on mass incarceration. Now we’re addressing mass supervision." Here are the basics (with this from the original):

Over his first year in office, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner rolled out a series of internal policies described as “an effort to end mass incarceration": seeking shorter sentences, diverting low-level offenses from the justice system, and charging crimes at a lower level. 

Now, he’s looking to the next step. “One of our big priorities this year," he said, "is to try to address mass supervision — which, of course, would be both probation and parole.”

Philadelphia counted 42,000 people on county supervision at the end of 2017, or one in 22 adults. Statewide, Pennsylvanians are under correctional control at the second-highest rate in the nation, behind Georgia, and has the highest rate of parolees.

“I think people instinctively believed too much supervision is not enough. But it turns out too much supervision is too much. ... It does tremendous harm, and it costs a fortune,” Krasner said in an interview outlining policies to be announced Thursday. Nationally, about 40 percent of people on probation are reincarcerated, making community supervision a major driver of incarceration. About 40 percent of Philadelphia’s jail population is being held on a detainer for a violation of probation or parole.

His plan? To put his office’s weight behind a push to drastically curtail terms of supervision, which can stretch on for years or even decades, long after prison and jail sentences have been concluded.

Under the new policy, on top of any sentence of incarceration for a felony, assistant district attorneys will seek community supervision terms averaging 18 months, with a ceiling of three years. For misdemeanors, they’ll seek probation or parole terms around six months, not to exceed one year of combined community supervision.

March 22, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, March 17, 2019

"Criminal justice reform must do more than shrink prison populations"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Hill commentary authored by David Harding, Jeffrey Morenoff and Jessica Wyse. I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Next Step Act on March 7, an expansion of the criminal justice reform started with December’s First Step Act.  We applaud the Next Step Act for essential reforms, including reducing mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses.

Yet, reversing the harms that have been created by decades of mass incarceration and an overly punitive and racially-biased criminal justice system requires more than reversing past policy mistakes.  Reform should go beyond shrinking prisons to providing those whose lives have been impacted by mass incarceration with real opportunities that lead to reintegration into society after release....

[R]eintegration requires more than just determination and work ethic, a key finding of our three-year study of the day-to-day lives of formerly incarcerated individuals. About a third struggle with hunger, homelessness and housing instability.

Chronic physical and mental health problems are also common.  Jobs are scarce for those with criminal records, who disproportionately move into communities like Detroit with high unemployment.  Half of those released from prison return within three years.  The period immediately after release is both a time of great risk and an opportunity to ensure that each person starts with a strong foundation of health and material security.

This “re-entry moment” is one of optimism, commitment to a new life and family support, but also a critical time of struggle with hunger, homelessness, employment and sobriety.  Investments in housing, health and employment services during the re-entry moment can create that foundation.

The Next Step Act contains worthy provisions for removing barriers to employment, including certain occupational licensing barriers for those with criminal records.  Yet our research shows that securing a job is only part of the reason for low rates of employment after release.

Education is essential to improving reintegration into the labor force.  Formerly incarcerated workers experience high rates of job turnover, in part because that is common in the low-skill jobs they find.  To improve employment for those like Randall, we should empower more community colleges to offer prison education with a seamless transition into community programs.

Time in prison can be better used to prepare for release.  Research shows that intensive treatment and prison education programs reduce recidivism, and incarcerated individuals are eager to take part in them.  Yet too many prisoners sit idle during their time in prison or engage in make-work jobs like cleaning and gardening....

Just as the federal government supports local efforts in education, health care and policing, it can support state and local reintegration efforts through funding, technical support and evaluation of promising programs.

Can we afford to support reintegration?  Each federal prisoner costs almost $32,000 a year, and in some states that figure is over $80,000.  The money saved by reducing imprisonment can create a virtuous cycle if it is reinvested in reintegration, which will result in fewer people returning to prison.

March 17, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Finding lessons in the Manafort sentencing and California's capital moratorium

Brandon Garrett has this great new little piece at The New Republic under the headline "Beyond Hard Time: What the disparate reactions to Manafort's sentence and California's death penalty ban reveal about our broken system."  I recommend the piece in full, and here is a taste:

Is it hypocritical to call for less severe sentences for “regular” criminals while decrying leniency for white-collar defendants?  Those debates are now roiling the pundit world, but as a longtime student of disparities in judicial outcomes, I find the basis of the comparison deeply misleading.  The juxtaposition of the Manafort and Newsom stories should prompt us, rather, to question anew the impulse to frame years in prison as the most appropriate response to our most pressing social problems....

Instead of enacting more draconian sentences, we must invest in white-collar law enforcement the same way we invest in other measures to protect public safety.  Consider this: the Internal Revenue Service has had its budget cut over the past decade to the point where audits have decreased by 42 percent and the number of tax fraud cases the agency brings has been cut by nearly 25 percent.  Under such lax enforcement, tax fraud schemes — of the very sort repeatedly carried out by Paul Manafort — are able to thrive.  And while better white-collar crime enforcement is a key, neglected foundation of public safety, the rationale for more sustained and concerted pursuit of white-collar criminals doesn’t end there.  These offenses also pose much broader hazards to our well-being.  They endanger the national economy — and conspiring with other countries endangers national security — on a far greater scale than the harms wrought by drug possession and street crimes.

The way out of the double standard we apply to punishment is to reject the notion that true justice inheres in strictly hewing to a one-size-fits-all model of criminal sentencing. To begin using law enforcement as a means of meaningful social reform, we need, rather, to consistently apply the same standards of enforcement to all types of crime: police far more, prosecute and punish far less, utilize evidence-based treatment, and ask that violators give back and make the community whole.  Harsh sentences don’t deter crime, but changing the focus of our enforcement systems just might.

March 14, 2019 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

"Prosecutors and Frequent Utilizers: How Can Prosecutors Better Address the Needs of People Who Frequently Interact with the Criminal Justice and Other Social Systems?"

The title of this post is the title of this new publication from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice's Institute for Innovation in Prosecution emerging from its series on Reimagining the Role of the Prosecutor in the Community. This paper is authored by John Choi, Bob Gualtieri, Jeremy Travis, and Allison Goldberg, and here is part of the start of this document:

Criminal justice involvement is often the culmination of unmet needs, according to an increasing body of research, testimony, and other evidence.  For many individuals who are arrested and charged, a combination of challenges — including mental illness, substance use, poverty, and trauma — can lead to frequent stays in the local jail, emergency room, and homeless shelter.  But very few of these stays lead to adequate care or address long-term needs.  Rather, social systems — criminal justice, health, and housing, for example  — traditionally exist in silos and operate on an “event-by-event basis,” with little coordination between them about how to address the overlapping populations they serve.  For those who cycle between these systems, often referred to as “frequent utilizers,” these stays offer few off-ramps from the criminal justice system or long-term resources.

For jurisdictions, this results in an ineffective use of public funds and an inadequate response to the needs of frequent utilizers and their communities.  While practitioners, policymakers, academics, and people directly impacted have described this cycle for years, innovations in data and technology offer new avenues to better understand and address the needs of those who frequently interact with the criminal justice and other social systems.  Through collaboration between criminal justice stakeholders, service providers, community organizations, and researchers, jurisdictions across the country are harnessing the power of data to develop new strategies to combat this cycle, invest in long-term solutions, and better meet the needs of frequent utilizers and their communities....

This paper grapples with how prosecutors can develop and implement responses that better meet the needs of frequent utilizers in ways that are also consistent with the prosecutor’s broader responsibilities.

March 12, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Making progressive (but not political) case that the FIRST STEP Act "does much harm"

Marie Gottschalk has this new Jacobin commentary assailing the FIRST STEP Act under the headlined "Did You Really Think Trump Was Going to Help End the Carceral State?".  The piece reiterates at length a variety of the criticisms from the left waged against the risk assessment tools in FIRST STEP while its fate was being debated in Congress. I recommend the whole piece, and here is how it starts and some excerpts:

With much fanfare, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act into law in December. New Jersey senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker hailed the legislation as a milestone that marked a “meaningful break from decades of failed policies that led to mass incarceration.” Other supporters were more measured, characterizing it as a modest first step to keep the momentum going for criminal justice reform.

But the greatest sins of the First Step Act are not its modesty. The legislation nicks the edges of the carceral state while bolstering disturbing trends in criminal justice reform. CNN commentator Van Jones has claimed that the First Step Act is a “rare clean bill” that “does no harm.” Jones is wrong — it does much harm.

Grounding penal policy in the best evidence-based research is a mantra in criminal justice reform. Yet key provisions of the First Step Act are at odds with leading research on how to enhance public safety while minimizing social and economic costs and maintaining a fair criminal justice system that treats everyone — including people who are imprisoned — with dignity....

Van Jones’s claim that the First Step Act paves the way for federal prisons to “rehabilitate and heal — not just punish” rings hollow. The legislation authorizes miniscule funding for its ambitious aims. It designates $75 million annually for the next five years to develop and implement the new risk and needs assessment system for each person in the federal prison system. In doing so, the measure diverts “limited resources for programming by requiring a complex risk assessment process that would primarily benefit people deemed at a low or minimal risk of recidivating,” according to the Sentencing Project, which ultimately gave its qualified support to the First Step Act....

The fundamental problem is not that people in prison do not want to participate in programs but rather the critical shortage of those programs, let alone quality programs. Currently, 16,000 people are on the wait list for the BOP’s literacy program.

The federal prison system is currently in crisis due to overcrowding and staff cutbacks that the First Step Act will not alleviate. Many federal facilities are operating way above capacity. Nurses, counselors, and even cooks have been drafted to serve as temporary correctional officers because of severe staffing shortages. Last year a bipartisan group of legislators charged the Bureau of Prisons and the Trump administration with ignoring calls in Congress not to eliminate thousands of jobs in the federal prison system.

It is impossible to run effective prison programs when people are locked down in their cells due to staffing shortages, teachers and counselors are filling in for correctional officers, and assaults and violence are on the rise, as has been the case in the federal prisons.

Concerns about the under-funding and under-staffing of federal prisons are well founded, and the headline of this new Marshall Project report does not provide a basis for any new optimism: "First Step Act Comes Up Short in Trump’s 2020 Budget: Supporters worry because law seeks $75 million a year for five years, but president’s plan lists $14 million." But I always find these kinds of criticisms of modest improvements in criminal justice systems quite politically tone deaf given how politicians on both sides of the aisle have shown so little interest in pursuing any reforms at all until fairly recently.

This author rightly notes that "many federal facilities are operating way above capacity," but she leaves out that the federal prison population is lower now than any year while Prez Obama was in office. If Prez Obama was unwilling or unable to pursue all the big changes that progressives would like to see, there need to be even more of a political sea change to make big reforms viable.  Notably, some of the 2020 candidates are talking big about criminal justice reform on the campaign trail (most notable Cory Booker), and it is seems to me that they have the space to advocate more boldly only because the FIRST STEP Act is law and not just a bill awaiting a vote.

Ultimately, this piece serves as yet another reminder that how the FIRST STEP Act is implemented and what follows legislatively and politically will ultimately define whether this first step really is more harmful than helpful.  I am still in the optimistic camp on this front, but this commentary provides the best argument for pessimism.

March 12, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Kansas doctor gets federal LWOP sentence for abusive opioid prescribing

In the wake of Paul Manafort's sentencing, lots of folks are complaining about privileged white defendants getting a different kind of justice than others.  But this federal sentencing story from Kansas, headlined "Wichita doctor who sold pain-med prescriptions for cash sentenced to life in prison," reveals that, in some cases, even some privileged white defendant will be subject to the most severe sentences possible. Here are the details:

A Wichita doctor who illegally distributed addictive prescription drugs has been sentenced to life in federal prison.

Judge J. Thomas Marten said it is “quite clear” that Dr. Steven R. Henson, 57, wrote multiple prescriptions without a legitimate medical purpose and “abused his position of trust as a licensed physician.”

“I have sentenced people to life before,” Marten said in court Friday. “They were people who took guns and shot people.”

The investigation began after a pharmacist raised concerns that a doctor was over-prescribing controlled pain medications. One man died from an overdose after getting a prescription from the doctor.

“I want this case to send a message to physicians and the health care community,” U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister said in a statement. “Unlawfully distributing opioids and other controlled substances is a federal crime that could end a medical career and send an offender to prison. We are dealing with an epidemic. Nationwide, more than 70,000 Americans died in 2017 from drug overdoses. That is more than all the American casualties during the war in Vietnam.”

Nicholas “Nick” McGovern died in July 2015 after overdosing on a mix of alprazolam and methadone prescribed to him by Henson. It was the count relating to McGovern’s death on which Henson was sentenced to life in prison....

Defense attorney Michael Thompson contended during sentencing that Henson wasn’t writing the prescriptions “to make easy money on the side” because he didn’t need to. He said that the doctor “tried to do what he thought was best for his patients.”

“I only had one goal in life as a physician,” Henson said, “and that was to take excellent care of patients and to increase their functionality,” adding that he tried to serve the under-served in the community and worldwide through mission trips.

But the judge cited Henson’s own testimony during the trial that he raised his fee from $50 to $300 to help pay rent on his medical office.

Federal investigators discovered that Henson would give pain-med prescriptions to patients for $300 in cash at a time, with few questions asked. The investigation began in 2014 with a pharmacist’s concern that a doctor was over-prescribing controlled medications. Prosecutors said Henson falsified patient records during the federal investigation in addition to obstructing investigators....

Henson was found guilty in October of two counts of conspiracy to distribute prescription drugs outside the course of medical practice; 13 counts of unlawfully distributing oxycodone; unlawfully distributing oxycodone, methadone and alprazolam; unlawfully distributing methadone and alprazolam, the use of which resulted in the death of a victim; presenting false patient records to investigators; obstruction of justice; and six counts of money laundering....

Defense attorneys asked for a 20-year prison sentence, saying that Henson led a “model life” outside of this case. “Maybe he wasn’t the best physician,” his attorney said. “He made some very serious mistakes. He wrote these prescriptions not out of greed, malice or ill intent. He was trying to help his patients. That was his goal.”

The judge said he had only met three or four people who he thought were “filled with evil and beyond redemption.”

“In some respects, what I’ve seen from you is worse, in that you don’t seem to understand,” Marten said. “I really don’t think that you get it. I think that in some respects you were numb to what you were doing over time. ... I just wonder if your practices have had any impact on you. It seems as if you’re still thinking, ‘Why am I here, what did I do wrong?’”

Just based on this news report, I think this case could probably sustain a whole book highlighting how this sentencing intersects with our modern opioid and overdose crisis and the broader debates over mass incarceration and equity and the trial penalty in sentencing.

March 10, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Paul Manafort given (only?) 47 months in prison at first federal sentencing

I worried that my prediction this morning that Paul Manafort would get 100 months at his first federal sentencing was a little low.  Turns out, I was way too high: he got only 47 months today.   Here are some details from The Hill:

A federal judge on Thursday sentenced former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort to 47 months in prison, well below the amount recommended in sentencing guidelines. The sentence handed down by Judge T.S. Ellis III, a Reagan appointee, was significantly less than the 19.5 to 24 years advised in federal guidelines.

Ellis, in remarks from the bench, described Manafort’s financial crimes as “very serious” but said the guideline range was “not at all appropriate,” and pointed to significantly more-lenient sentences handed down in similar cases.

Manafort, who turns 70 next month, appeared in court in a wheelchair and wore a green jumpsuit. His prison sentence will include time served, meaning nine months will be knocked off for the time he has already spent in jail. As a result, he will be incarcerated for three years and two months.

He was also ordered to pay a $50,000 fine and up to $24 million in restitution.

“You’ve been convicted of serious crimes -- very serious crimes -- by a jury,” Ellis said to a packed courtroom after a lengthy sentencing hearing in federal court in Alexandria, Va., that lasted nearly three hours. However, he added, “I think that sentencing range is excessive. I don’t think that is warranted in this case.”

Manafort’s attorneys earlier this month asked for leniency, citing their client’s age, poor health, low risk of reoffending and assistance in Mueller’s probe. On Thursday, defense attorney Thomas Zehnle pointed to other cases in which defendants received much less prison time for similar crimes.

In remarks shortly before receiving his sentence, Manafort described himself as “humiliated and ashamed” of his behavior and for the pain he had caused his family. He thanked Ellis for a fair trial twice and asked him for compassion. “My life professionally and financially is in shambles,” Manafort said. “To say that I feel humiliated and ashamed would be a gross understatement,” “I intend to turn my notoriety into a positive.”

However, Manafort did not express remorse for his actions -- something Ellis noted before handing down the punishment. “I was surprised that I did not hear you express regret,” said Ellis. “That doesn’t make any difference on the judgment that I am about to make … but I hope you reflect on that.”

Manafort was convicted by a jury in August of eight criminal charges -- five counts of filing false tax returns, two counts of bank fraud and one count of failing to report foreign bank accounts. The financial crimes were uncovered during special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. His case in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia marked the first criminal trial in the Mueller probe. But as the defense noted, Manafort’s crimes had nothing to do with Russian election meddling or collusion with the Trump campaign....

To avoid a second criminal trial on separate charges in Washington, D.C., Manafort reached a plea deal with Mueller that involved his full cooperation with federal prosecutors. But the federal judge presiding over his case in D.C. found that he lied to investigators and a federal grand jury about subjects “material” to Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling and possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

Manafort was initially scheduled for sentencing in early February, but Ellis postponed the hearing to let Judge Amy Berman Jackson in D.C. determine whether Manafort’s misstatements were unintentional, as he had argued. Ellis said at the time he thought Jackson’s ruling could impact his own sentencing of Manafort.

Sentencing in the D.C. case is scheduled for Wednesday. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison for conspiracy against the U.S. and conspiracy to obstruct justice by tampering with witnesses. Jackson will decide whether he should serve those years consecutively or concurrently with the ones handed down by Ellis.

Manafort could walk free from federal punishment if President Trump decides to pardon him, but it’s unclear whether the president plans to pursue that avenue. The New York Times recently reported that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. is planning to bring state charges against Manafort regardless.

A few quick points in reaction:

1.  Though I do not know exactly when Manafort will get out, I can confidently predict he will not serve exactly 47 months for two reasons: (a) he may get consecutive time at his next sentencing next week (and I suspect he will), and (b) he will surely earn good-time credits and perhaps have others means of getting released earlier as an elderly offender. (Good-time credit alone could get him seven months off possibly resulting in his release before the end of 2021 on the sentence he received today).

2.  I have already seen lots of Twitter commentary complaining this sentence is way too lenient, but I sense many of the complaints really stem from folks rightly seeing a lot of other sentences as way too harsh.  Title 18 USC § 3553(a) calls upon a federal judge to impose a sentence "sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with" traditional sentencing purposes.  I have a hard time developing forceful arguments that a nearly four-year prison term for a nearly 70-year-old man, plus a $50,000 fine and $24 million in restitution, is not sufficient in response to a nonviolent crime.

3.  Roughly a decade ago, when Bernie Madoff got a max sentence of 150 years, I speculated in this post about prosecutors using that high number as a sentencing benchmark in all sorts of other white-collar cases.  Now I am thinking that Paul Manafort has produced a new kind of white-collar sentencing benchmark that now should be of great use to defense attorneys.  Notably, not only was Manafort facing a guideline range of 19.5 to 24 years, but he went to trial and never fully accepted responsibility or even showed remorse.  "If unremorseful Manafort only merited 47 months in prison," so the argument should go from many defense attorneys, "this white-collar defendant should get even less."

March 7, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (17)

"Proportionality Theory in Punishment Philosophy: Fated for the Dustbin of Otiosity?"

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

Proportionality theory’s influence is waning.  It is beset by challenges.  Some, such as difficulties in scaling crime seriousness and punishment severity, and linking them, are primarily analytical and of interest mostly to theorists.  Others, such as trade-offs between proportionality and crime prevention, relate to real world applications. 

The big question is whether the challenges are epiphenomenal and portend displacement of retribution as the most intellectually influential normative frame of reference for thinking about punishment.  My best guess is yes.  The lesser question is whether proportionality theory can provide satisfactory answers to core questions about crime seriousness, punishment severity, and links between them.  Alas, it cannot. 

Proportionality theory does, however, support two injunctions with which most people, citizens, scholars, and professionals alike, would say they agree.  First, no one should be punished more severely than he or she deserves.  Second, all else being equal, people who commit more serious crimes should be punished more severely than people who commit less serious ones, and vice versa.  Converting that principled agreement into real-world policies and practices is not easy.  The post-Enlightment values of fairness, equality, justice, and parsimony, however, that underlie proportionality theory are widely accepted and are likely to remain influential even if punishment paradigms once again shift.  Proportionality theory is likely to be eclipsed but not to disappear.

March 7, 2019 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Notable new materials from the Drug Policy Alliance on drug decriminalization in Portugal

There is no shortage of talk about trying to move from a criminalization approach to a public health model in response to drug use and misuse, but there often is a shortage of resources examining efforts to make this move. Thus, I am very pleased to see that the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has some terrific new resources on this topic.  This DPA press release, titled "DPA Releases New Briefing Paper & Video, Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Learning From a Health and Human-Centered Approach," provide a link, background and some details:

The Drug Policy Alliance is releasing a new video and briefing paper examining the human impact and lessons to be drawn from Portugal’s removal of criminal penalties for the possession of drugs for personal use.
 
In March 2018, DPA led a delegation of advocates from 35 racial justice, criminal justice, and harm reduction organizations across the U.S. to Portugal to learn from its health and human-centered approach to drug use.  The group included individuals and organizations representing those hit hardest by the drug war — from those who have been incarcerated for drug offenses to those who have lost loved ones to an overdose. 

Since Portugal enacted drug decriminalization in 2001, the number of people voluntarily entering treatment has increased significantly, overdose deaths and HIV infections among people who use drugs have plummeted, incarceration for drug-related offenses has decreased, and rates of problematic and adolescent drug use has fallen....

By contrast, in the United States, the dominant approach to drug use is criminalization and harsh enforcement, with 1.4 million arrests per year for drug possession for personal use — that makes drug possession the single most arrested offense in the United States. Disproportionately, those arrested are people of color: black people are three times as likely as white people to be arrested for drug possession for personal use.  In addition to possible incarceration, these arrests can create devastating barriers to access to housing, education and employment that systematically oppress entire populations.  Meanwhile, 72,000 people are dying every year of overdose in the United States....
 
While several other countries have had successful experiences with decriminalization — including the Czech Republic, Spain and the Netherlands — Portugal provides the most comprehensive and well-documented example. The success of Portugal’s policy has opened the door for other countries to rethink the practice of criminalizing people who use drugs.  Delegation participants generally agreed that it’s time for the United States to do so as well.
  
“I really would love to see the public health community step up and really demand that the criminal justice system separate themselves,” said Deon Haywood, executive director of New Orleans-based Women With A Vision, who joined DPA’s delegation.  “They need to divest from each other. Addiction should be handled as a public health issue.  Drug use should be handled as a public health issue.  The criminal justice system needs to let go.” 
  
As detailed in a recent DPA report, It’s Time For the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession, there’s an emerging public, political, and scientific consensus that otherwise-law-abiding people should not be arrested simply for possessing an illegal drug for personal use.  A broad range of stakeholders — from the American Public Health Association & World Health Organization to the Movement for Black Lives & NAACP — have taken positions in favor of drug decriminalization.

March 3, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 02, 2019

"Mitigations: The Forgotten Side of the Proportionality Principle"

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

In the first change to the Model Penal Code since its promulgation in 1962, the American Law Institute in 2017 set blameworthiness proportionality as the dominant distributive principle for criminal punishment.  Empirical studies suggest that this is in fact the principle that ordinary people use in assessing proper punishment.  Its adoption as the governing distributive principle makes good sense because it promotes not only the classic desert retributivism of moral philosophers but also crime-control utilitarianism, by enhancing the criminal law’s moral credibility with the community and thereby promoting deference, compliance, acquiescence, and internalization of its norms, rather than suffering the resistance and subversion that is provoked by perceived violations of blameworthiness proportionality.

Such a principle has been commonly used as the basis for criticizing improper aggravations, such as the doctrines of felony murder and “three strikes,” but the principle also logically requires recognizing a full range of deserved mitigations, not as a matter of grace or forgiveness but as a matter of entitlement.  And given ordinary people’s nuanced judgments about blameworthiness proportionality, maintaining moral credibility with the community requires that the criminal law adopt an equally nuanced system of mitigations.

Such a nuanced system ideally would include reform of a wide variety of current law doctrines as well as, especially in the absence of such specific reforms, adoption of a general mitigation provision that aims for blameworthiness proportionality in all cases.  Such a general mitigation ought not be limited to cases of “heat of passion” or limited to cases of murder, as today’s liability rules commonly provide.  It ought to be available whenever the offense circumstances and the offender’s situation and capacities meaningfully reduce the offender’s blameworthiness, as long as giving the mitigation does not specially undermine community norms.

March 2, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 25, 2019

Making the conceptual and statistical case for going well beyond the FIRST STEP Act

UZU3HWQVUVE2JH5FXAH56P5MMMKeith Humphreys has this notable new Washington Post piece headlined "The new criminal justice law will modestly shrink prison populations. Should we go further?".   The piece has an important little chart that speaks interestingly to the reality of federal prison populations,and I recommend this piece in full.  Here are excerpts:

The recently enacted First Step Act reduces criminal sentences and promotes rehabilitative programs within the federal justice system. Combined with earlier reforms implemented during the Obama administration, the law should return the federal imprisonment rate back to what it was a generation ago.  But that would still leave the federal prison system with about seven times as many inmates as it had in 1980.  Could the United States ever return to a federal prison population that small, or would that unleash a horrific crime wave?

Questions about how big or small the federal prison system should be are part of the ongoing debate about mass incarceration. But they also have a unique dimension because even though the Constitution assigns most law enforcement powers to states, the federal role in prosecution and incarceration expanded in recent decades (e.g., to include many white-collar crimes, carjacking, DVD piracy, street-corner drug dealing).  As a result, the federal prison system went from accounting for only 7.4 percent of all imprisonment in 1980 to 12.6 percent of all imprisonment in 2016.  Even a decade before the federal prison system reached its peak size, a bipartisan American Bar Association task force argued that the expansion of federal law enforcement and corrections were “inconsistent with the traditional notion that prevention of crime and law enforcement in this country are basically state functions.”

Sometimes it is helpful in public policy to ask questions about first principles: Why should the federal government ever imprison anyone at all?  A common fear — which some opponents of the First Step Act stoked — is that the United States would be overwhelmed with violent crime if not for federal law enforcement and incarceration.  In reality, virtually every murder, rape, assault and battery is charged under state law and results in imprisonment at the state or local level.  The federal prison system holds only 1.8 percent of U.S. inmates serving time for violent crimes.

Federal law enforcement and imprisonment thus do not serve as the nation’s primary bulwark against violence.  But they are important in three defined contexts.

Combating state and local corruption....

Battling criminal organizations that overwhelm state and local law enforcement....

Punishing crimes specifically against the federal government....

All of the above types of crimes are destructive, and those who commit them and are sent to federal prison do not deserve our sympathy.  But it is implausible that the number of and deserved sentence length for such offenses are seven times greater than they were before the federal prison population exploded.  That reality, combined with the fact that the generational cutback in the size of the federal prison system has caused no evident problems, suggest the First Step Act should be considered just that — a first step.  The extremely broad coalition that supported the First Step Act can reasonably aim higher in its next round of proposed reform, returning the federal prison system to its traditional role as an important — but small — part of the U.S. correctional system.

February 25, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 17, 2019

"Paul Manafort should not be sentenced to 20 years in prison"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Hill commentary authored by David Oscar Markus. Here are excerpts:

A jury has spoken on Paul Manafort. He was found guilty, and he should be punished. But his reported sentencing guideline range of 19.5-24.5 years is a good example of how our criminal justice system has lost its way.

Once, when trials were common, our system was the envy of the world. Now, trials almost never occur. (In the 1980s, over 20 percent of cases went to trial while less than 3 percent proceed to trial today). The reason is simple: defendants who go to trial and lose in today’s system now suffer “the trial penalty,” and receive a much more severe — sometimes decades longer — sentence simply for exercising a fundamental Constitutional right to trial.

Even innocent people plead guilty because of the risk/reward analysis that all defendants consider. The risks of going to trial have become way too high. You can plead guilty and get probation or go to jail for a manageable amount of time. But if you go to trial and lose... well, you’ll be crushed.

A jury found Manafort guilty of tax and related offenses, but suggesting that a 20 year sentence is appropriate in this case is just wrong. Twenty years! Manafort is a 69-year old, first-time offender. If the judge sentences him to anywhere in that range, he will most likely leave prison in a box.

Make no mistake, the sentencing range is that high only because Manafort had the audacity to make the government actually prove its case at a trial. Does going to trial warrant a sentence 15 years longer than his co-defendant, Rick Gates? Rick Gates hasn’t been sentenced yet, but his sentencing range is around 5 years. And he will most likely get a sentence much lower than that because of his cooperation. His lawyers will certainly ask for probation as have numerous other cooperators in the Special Counsel’s cases.

Some will respond that Gates should get less time than Manafort because he is less culpable and decided to cooperate. That’s of course true. But that doesn’t mean that Manafort should get 20 years simply because he had the temerity to go to trial.

The truth is that being less culpable becomes a minor factor when the trial penalty comes into play. There are many examples of the least culpable defendant getting the highest sentence solely because of the trial penalty. One such victim of the trial penalty was James Olis, a securities fraud defendant who worked at Dynegy Corporation in Houston, Texas. Olis was sentenced to 24 years in prison after trial, while his boss who testified against him received about a year.

Before trial, Olis had been offered 6 months in exchange for pleading guilty and cooperating. Olis’ lawyer, David Gerger, predicted: “If there’s a 20-year penalty for going to trial, then innocent as well as guilty people will simply decide they have to give up their right to a trial.” He was right. The case was ultimately reversed, and Olis was resentenced to 6 years. Until the reversal, prosecutors in Houston expressly mentioned Olis to any fraud defendant who wouldn’t plead. The line went something like this: “You can plead or risk ending up like Olis.”  Prosecutors in every district have their own “Olis line.”

Some prior related posts:

February 17, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, February 16, 2019

WWJD?: Interesting comments as Wyoming senate rejects effort to repeal the state's dormant death penalty

HutchingsLS05I mentioned in this post a few weeks ago that the Wyoming House of Representatives had voted to repeal the state's death penalty.  This past week the legislative repeal effort died, as reported in this local article headlined "Wyoming Senate defeats death penalty repeal bill."  And a notable quote from a particular senator concerning her reasons for voting against repeal has garnered some extra attention.  Here are some particulars:

The Wyoming Senate defeated a bill Thursday that would have repealed the state’s death penalty, ending the most successful legislative attempt to do away with capital punishment in recent memory. Having passed the House by a safe margin, the bill was swiftly voted down by the Wyoming Senate on its first reading. The final vote was 12-18.

“The vote was different than I expected to see from talking with people beforehand,” said the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, Brian Boner, R-Converse. “There’s a lot of different factors and, at the end of the day, everyone has to make their best determination based on the information they have.”

The death penalty repeal had passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday by a unanimous vote. Proponents of the bill argued that it would save the state money and create a more humane justice system, an argument that had gained substantial traffic in the House of Representatives....

In the Senate — which has trended more conservative than the House this session — the bill had garnered several unlikely allies. Sen. Bill Landen, a reluctant sponsor of the bill, said that after years of budget cuts and eliminating line item after line item, he could no longer go home and feel good explaining the myriad cuts he’s made to the state budget while defending annual expenses like the death penalty, which costs the state roughly $1 million a year. “Regardless of my personal thoughts — my religion doesn’t believe in the right to kill people — that’s not enough for me,” he said.

Opponents of the bill, meanwhile, argued retaining the death penalty would allow the justice system to offer closure to victims of the most heinous crimes, and could be used as a tool to coerce confessions from the state’s worst perpetrators....

Several senators had other reasons for voting against the bill.  Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, said that while the death penalty could be used as an effective tool, it was also a means to keep the state’s justice system from turning into the type seen in other states. He then noted that states like California — in some cases — have allowed inmates to undergo gender reassignment surgery. “I think we’re becoming a lot like other states, and we have something to defend,” he said.  California, however, has not repealed the death penalty.

Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, argued that without the death penalty, Jesus Christ would not have been able to die to absolve the sins of mankind, and therefore capital punishment should be maintained. “The greatest man who ever lived died via the death penalty for you and me,” she said. “I’m grateful to him for our future hope because of this. Governments were instituted to execute justice. If it wasn’t for Jesus dying via the death penalty, we would all have no hope.”

Wyoming has not executed a prisoner since 1992. According to Wyoming Department of Corrections Director Bob Lampert, the average death row inmate costs the agency 30 percent more to incarcerate than a general population prisoner, with an average stay of 17 years.

I find it more than a bit amusing that Senator Bouchard seemed to think that voting to keep an effectively dormant costly capital punishment system on the books in Wyoming would help keep the state from becoming more like California, where voters have repeatedly voted to keep an effectively dormant costly capital punishment system on the books.  But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the comment generating the most attention has been Senator Hutchings' suggestion that we can thank (and should preserve) the death penalty for giving us all hope through Jesus Christ.

I am disinclined to make too many jokes about these comments at the risk of being sacrilegious, but I cannot help imagining a new ad campaign for capital punishment: "The death penalty: hope for you and me."  I also cannot help but note that Senator Hutchings has recently garnered negative attention from some other statements on a distinct issue.

February 16, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Round three of sentencing in high-profile New Jersey deadly drunk driving case still provides no closure

Last year, I flagged in this post the notable appellate ups and downs surrounding the sentencing and resentencing of actress Amy Locane following her conviction for killing a 60-year-old woman in a 2010 car crash while driving with a blood-alcohol way over the legal limit.  This local media piece reports on the latest sentencing in the case under the headline "‘Melrose Place’ actress sentenced again for fatal drunk driving crash, but free pending another appeal," and the story seems to just get sadder (and less certain) for everyone at each additional legal proceeding.  Here are some details:

For the second time, actress Amy Locane was sentenced to prison for a 2010 drunk driving accident that killed a 60-year-old woman.  How much time she’ll actually serve behind bars, though, is unclear.

The former Hopewell Township resident who once appeared on Melrose Place was sentenced to five years in prison by Somerset County Superior Court Judge Kevin Shanahan Friday afternoon, nearly nine years after the fatal crash.  The judge said if he were imposing the original sentence, he would have sentenced Locane to six years.

Family members of her victim, Helene Seeman, smiled while walking out of court, but left the Somerset County Courthouse in Somerville without giving a statement to media.

James Wronko, Locane’s lawyer, said it was “an extremely thoughtful decision in all respect,” but will appeal on double jeopardy grounds, which was one of his main arguments why the actress shouldn’t return to prison.

Somerset County Assistant Prosecutor Matt Murphy requested a nine-year sentence from Shanahan, who said he was basing it on “the crime, not the criminal.”  Locane was originally convicted of vehicular homicide and assault by auto, which carries up to 15 years in prison, for the death of Helene Seeman and critical injuries to her husband, Fred Seeman.

Fred Seeman and his son, Ford Seeman, both gave emotional testimony, filled with tears, tissues and aggravation. “My mother should still be here, but she’s not because Amy Locane is a horrible human being driven by ego and pride,” he said, reading the notes off his phone while wiping his tears, at times his voice breaking.

Locane whispered “that’s not true” several times under her breath during Ford Seeman’s testimony, which including him saying Locane has made herself a victim and will not accept responsibility. He also lambasted Judge Robert Reed’s initial, lenient sentence, calling it a “mockery of the justice process” and referred to Locane’s request for a short sentence to care for her two young children, who she called collateral damage as “pathetic.”...

Locane stood to speak after the Seemans concluded their testimony. Ford Seeman left the room. “There is not a day that has gone by that I have no thought of the pain that my actions caused the Seeman family and of course Helene Seeman,” the 47-year-old said. “I made a mistake. I have done everything that I can do to not be that person who does what I did nine years ago.”

She also noted she regularly speaks at schools about the dangers of drinking and driving, and is committed to sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous.

The actress, who appeared in the movie “Cry-Baby” with Johnny Depp, and other Hollywood pictures, was driving home from a party on June 27, 2010 when she crash into the Seemans, who were turning into their driveway. Locane’s blood alcohol content was three times the legal limit.

He first sentence, three years in prison handed down by Judge Robert Reed in February 2013, drew immediate criticism for its apparent lenience. She served two-and-a-half-years at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Clinton Township and was paroled in June 2015. It’s unclear if Locane will receive credit now for the time she was incarcerated.

In 2016, an appeals court ruled the sentence was not harsh enough. Locane returned to court for a second sentencing in January 2017, where Judge Reed said he erred in not sentencing her to six more months. However, he declined to give Locane more prison time.

In March 2018, an appellate court ruled again the sentence was “a hair’s breath away from illegal." The decision criticized Reed’s lack of explanation for the sentence, and asked another judge to decide her Locane’s fate at a third re-sentencing.

Fred Seeman cried and yelled during his testimony. He argued a light sentence would not deter New Jerseyans from drinking and driving, and the trauma still affects his youngest son, who saw his mother dead on their front lawn. “I cry at night, for my son Curtis who is not with us today. It hurts me and pains me,” said the 69-year-old, who suffered broken ribs and a collapsed lung in the crash, and has a hole in his diaphragm as a result of blunt force trauma from the accident....

Locane will serve 85 percent of her new sentence under the No Early Release Act and was released on her own recognizance pending an appeal.

In 2017, the Seemans were awarded a $4.8 million dollar settlement in a civil lawsuit. Locane paid $1.5 million, while Rachel and Carlos Sagebien — hosts of the party where Locane left drunk — paid $3.3 million.

Prior related post:

February 16, 2019 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 14, 2019

"Justice Scalia's Eighth Amendment Jurisprudence: The Failure of Sake-of-Argument Originalism"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Craig Lerner now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

How is an originalist judge in the common law tradition to reconcile the competing demands of the Constitution’s original meaning and an accumulating body of nonoriginalist precedents?  This Article explores the dilemma of constitutional originalism through a comprehensive review of Justice Scalia’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  In this legal context the dilemma is infused with a moral dimension.  Many punishment practices common in 1791 are widely considered barbaric today.  When confronted with the choice between the Eighth Amendment’s original meaning and a clearly erroneous precedent that better aligns the Constitution with the moral tenor of the times, which is an originalist judge to choose?

In an essay published soon after joining the Supreme Court, Justice Scalia outlined an answer to this question.  He anticipated that his Eighth Amendment opinions would be framed as arguments in the alternative — first, the Constitution, properly understood, did not foreclose a punishment; and, in the alternative, even if nonorginalist precedents were followed for the sake of argument, the result would be the same, because there was “inadequate indication that any evolution in social attitudes has occurred.”  Almost all of his Eighth Amendment opinions proved to be of this character. 

As demonstrated in this Article, Justice Scalia’s hopeful expectation that he could achieve orginalist results through such a strategy was disappointed.  One problem is that the strategy presumes that there has been no meaningful “evolution in social attitudes” with respect to punishment since 1791.  The deeper problem is that it is not enough for the community’s “social attitudes” to remain durable.  The relevant question is whether the moral sentiments of the legal elites who ascertain these “social attitudes” remain durable.  In one of his final Eighth Amendment opinions, Justice Scalia conceded the defeat of sake-of-argument originalism.  He intimated a willingness to pursue a more heroic originalist agenda, potentially displacing mountains of nonoriginalist precedent.  This Article highlights the tension an originalist judge faces, more than two centuries after the Constitution’s ratification, between a principled adherence to original meaning, which can appear revolutionary, and a humbler originalism, which can appear opportunistic.

February 14, 2019 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)