Friday, July 01, 2022

Two different criminal justice reforms now effective in two southern states

The start of July marks the official start for two notable and notably different criminal justice reforms in Florida and Tennessee. Here are parts of press accounts:

"Florida criminal justice reform laws go into effect Friday"

Florida’s new law making reforms to the state’s criminal justice system is set to go into effect on Friday. Senate Bill 752, signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) earlier this month, will allow Floridians on probation to receive new education and workforce credits that will shorten their probation terms and help them gain a GED or other degree or vocational certification and maintain full-time employment.

Individuals under this law can earn at least 30 days off their supervision terms for each six-month period in which they work for at least an average of 30 hours per week. It also gives them the ability to earn 60 days off their probation term for each completed educational activity....

Multiple organizations and coalitions including the REFORM Alliance led the push for the Florida Legislature to pass the bill. The REFORM Alliance is a nonprofit social justice organization founded in 2019 by rapper Meek Mill, Fanatics CEO Michael Rubin and rapper and mogul Shawn “Jay Z” Carter.  “This new law will help more than 150,000 on probation in Florida by removing barriers to their success and rewarding them for doing well,” Rubin, who serves as a co-chair for the organization, said in a statement. “Not only was this unanimously supported by members of the Florida legislature, but probation officers, business owners, and community service providers all joined us in the effort to pass this new law.”

"New public safety laws to take effect on July 1 in Tennessee"

A truth in sentencing act is among a number of new criminal and public safety laws in Tennessee that are slated to go into effect on July 1.... The new law requires a person convicted of certain offenses to serve 100% of the sentence imposed before becoming eligible for release.

The new sentencing act requires felons convicted of eight different offenses to serve 100% of their sentences undiminished by any sentence reduction credits for which the person is eligible or earns.  Those eight offenses are attempted first-degree murder, second-degree murder, vehicular homicide, especially aggravated kidnapping, especially aggravated robbery, carjacking and especially aggravated burglary.

The law also identifies another 16 offenses that require 100% of the sentence to be served unless the inmate earns a satisfactory program performance.  In such cases, an inmate can receive credits for a GED or job training that can be used for parole eligibility once a person has served a minimum of 85% of their sentence.

July 1, 2022 in Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

New report claims many successes attributable to Proposition 47's sentencing reductions in California

The Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice has this notable new report on developments in California titled "Proposition 47: A $600 Million Lifeline to California Communities." Here is the 10-page report's introduction (with cites preserved):

Proposition 47 (Prop 47), one of the most significant criminal justice reforms in California history, has now been in effect for more than seven years.  The initiative, which passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote in 2014, sought to interrupt cycles of frequent incarceration and redress decades of overly punitive sentencing by reclassifying several low-level drug and property offenses from potential felonies to misdemeanors (SOS, 2014; 2014a).  The result has been a marked decline in California’s incarcerated population (Bird et al., 2016; 2018; Graves, 2020).

A key provision of Prop 47 was the reinvestment of state dollars from prisons into community-based prevention programs.  This year, as part of his Fiscal Year (FY) 2022-23 budget proposal, Governor Gavin Newsom announced an additional $150 million in prison savings attributed to Prop 47 (DOF, 2022).  This latest investment would increase total funding to nearly $600 million.

Proposition 47 has been a lifeline to vulnerable Californians. This support has proved critical as California now faces an unprecedented set of challenges.  These include significant disruption and loss of life due to COVID-19, a reckoning over police violence against people of color, sharp increases in the cost of living, and rising rates of homelessness and drug overdose.  Most recently, there are changing public narratives around crime and the impacts of justice reform.  To date, Prop 47 has:

1. Coincided with a period of record-low crime in California (CJCJ, 2020; 2020a; 2021; 2021a).

2. Reduced unconstitutional overcrowding in state prisons (Graves, 2020).

3. Offered resentencing, release, and/or record change opportunities to thousands of Californians.

4. Lessened racial disparities in California’s criminal justice system (Lofstrom et al., 2020).

5. Reinvested more than half a billion dollars into local programs that address the root causes of incarceration for as many as 40,000 people by reducing homelessness and boosting employment.

March 30, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Right on Crime highlights "Second Look for conservative justice and cost-savings"

ROC-Thumbnails-18The folks at Right on Crime has this interesting new coverage of "Second Look in Texas."  This one-pager, produced by Nikki Pressley, carries the title that is quoted in this title of this post, and here is the main text (along with the interesting graphic I have reprinted):

Texas has the harshest parole eligibility guidelines for juvenile offenders of any state, allowing some to be imprisoned without the possibility of parole for 40 years. Even worse, many of these youth are convicted through the Law of Parties, meaning they were merely an accessory to the actual crime and never pulled the trigger.  Science proves that continued brain development allows a healthy brain to mature and make more logical decisions far before someone completes a 40-year sentence, and recidivism rates for these offenders is extremely low.

Second Look legislation would lower the time until parole eligibility for juvenile offenders from 40 years to 20 years.  This change should also be retroactive, allowing adults currently serving time in prison for a crime committed as a juvenile to also have the opportunity for earlier parole.  Proving to be little or no threat to public safety and simultaneously saving hundred of thousands of taxpayer dollars, Second Look legislation is a win-win reform.

And here are "key points" stressed:

March 22, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, February 18, 2022

Minnesota judge, finding mitigating circumstances, imposes below-guideline sentence of 2 years on former officer Kim Potter convicted of manslaughter for killing Daunte Wright

As reported in this AP piece, "Kim Potter, the former suburban Minneapolis police officer who said she confused her handgun for her Taser when she fatally shot Daunte Wright, was sentenced Friday to two years in prison, a penalty below state guidelines after the judge found mitigating factors warranted a lesser sentence." Here is more:

Judge Regina Chu said the lesser sentence was warranted because Potter was “in the line of duty and doing her job in attempting to lawfully arrest Daunte Wright” when she said she mistook her gun for her Taser.  And, Chu said, Potter was trying to protect another officer who could have been dragged and seriously injured if Wright drove away.  “This is this is one of the saddest cases I’ve had on my 20 years on the bench,” said Chu, who also said she received “hundred and hundreds” of letters supporting Potter. “On the one hand, a young man was killed and on the other a respected 26-year veteran police officer, made a tragic error by pulling her hand gun instead of her Taser.”

Wright’s mother, Katie Wright, said after the sentencing that Potter “murdered my son,” adding: “Today the justice system murdered him all over again.” Speaking before the sentence was imposed, the tearful mother said she could never forgive Potter and would only refer to her as “the defendant” because Potter only referred to her 20-year-old son as “the driver” at trial....

Wright family attorney Ben Crump said they don’t understand why such consideration was given to a white officer in the killing of a young Black man when a Black officer, Mohamed Noor, got a longer sentence for the killing of a white woman, Justine Ruszczyk Damond. “What we see today is the legal system in Black and white.”

But the judge said the cases are not the same as other high-profile killings by police. “This is not a cop found guilty of murder for using his knee to pin down a person for 9 1/2 minutes as he gasped for air. This is not a cop found guilty of manslaughter for intentionally drawing his firearm and shooting across his partner and killing an unarmed woman who approached approached his squad,” Chu said. “This is a cop who made a tragic mistake.”

For someone with no criminal history, such as Potter, the state guidelines on first-degree manslaughter range from slightly more than six years to about 8 1/2 years in prison, with the presumptive sentence being just over seven years. Prosecutors said the presumptive sentence was proper, but defense attorneys asked for a sentence below the guidelines, including a sentence of probation only.

I have not previously blogged about the sentencing advocacy in this high-profile case, but this Hill piece usefully links to the written submissions. Here is an excerpt with links:

Prosecutors in a sentencing memo asked the judge to give Potter 86 months, a little more than seven years. First-degree manslaughter has a sentencing of 15 years in Minnesota, but judges can lower the sentence if a person, like Potter, has no criminal history....

Defendants argued in their filing the sentence should be lower due to Potter having no criminal record and her remorsefulness at the situation.  “To impose a prison term here sends the message that if an officer makes a mistake, the Attorney General will be quick to charge (the Complaint was filed within days), and that officer will immediately be ruined by the publicity alone. And a few in the community will try to kill you,” Potter’s lawyers wrote, noting the threats Potter has received. The lawyers believed her house would have been burned down without protection.

My understanding of Minnesota law is that Potter will serve 2/3 of her sentence in prison, so she will be released on parole after serving 16 months.

Prior related post:

February 18, 2022 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, February 09, 2022

"How 4 States Cut Their Criminal Justice Budgets Without Sacrificing Safety"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article from the  Winter 2022  edition of State Legislatures magazine produced by the National Conference of State Legislatures.   I recommend this piece in full, and here is how it begins and a few highlights:

About 5% of states’ general fund budgets go to criminal justice — just over $45 billion in fiscal year 2019 — so many lawmakers are determined to make every dollar count.  But that’s not as easy as it might sound.

“The challenge for legislators is to reduce the use of high-cost, low-return policies and shift the savings into programs that have been shown to reduce crime,” says Jake Horowitz, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project.

Lawmakers have a variety of policy options at their disposal, but what actually works? Programs in Louisiana, Michigan, Oregon and Missouri provide some answers.

Louisiana: Reducing Prison Admissions...

Michigan: Shortening Jail Stays...

Oregon: Shoring Up Short-Term Transitional Leave...

Missouri: Reducing Revocations of Community Supervision...

“When people have access to high quality behavioral health services, interactions with law enforcement go down and, in the long term, we see reductions in the number of people in the criminal justice system,” says Alison Lawrence, associate director of NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program.

Corrections research departments are another valuable resource.  Lawmakers looking for effective ways to reduce their criminal justice budgets are finding that public safety and researched-backed corrections policy go hand in hand.  Cutting a research department, Horowitz says, “You might save a fully loaded salary, but then you’re flying blind, and you don’t know what is driving your costs.”

February 9, 2022 in Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 07, 2022

Two of three defendants convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery given LWOP, other gets life with parole

This lengthy USA Today piece reports on a high-profile state sentencing that took place down in Georgia.  Here are the basics:

A judge sentenced three men to life in prison Friday for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and denied the possibility of parole for two of the defendants, father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael.  However Judge Timothy Walmsley granted the possibility of parole to William "Roddie" Bryan, the McMichaels' neighbor who joined the chase and took video of the killing. Bryan must serve at least 30 years in prison before becoming eligible....

Before the sentencing was read, Walmsley held a minute of silence to represent a fraction of the time Arbery was running before he was shot.  He called the image of Travis McMichael aiming a shotgun at Arbery "absolutely chilling." The judge also quoted the defendant's statements, saying their words gave context to the video and guided his sentencing decision. The minimum penalty required by law for the murder charges is a life sentence; Walmsley had to determine whether each defendant would have the possibility of parole....

The three men chased the Arbery, 25, in trucks while he was running through the Satilla Shores neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia, on Feb. 23, 2020.  The men weren't arrested for more than two months when Bryan's video was released, which fueled nationwide racial justice protests and later became a key piece of evidence in the murder trial. The nearly-all white jury deliberated for almost two days before finding the men guilty.  They were taken to Glynn County jail after the verdict was reached and are expected to appeal....

Walmsley said that while sentencing may not provide closure for the family, the community or the nation, it would hold the defendants accountable for their actions.  Arbery's parents, Marcus Arbery and Wanda Cooper-Jones, cried as the sentence was read.  Earlier Friday, the family asked for all three defendants to get the harshest penalty as they shared memories of him and the toll his death has taken....

The defendants all had the opportunity to speak before sentencing, a time when judges typically expect to hear remorse, but did not....

After being sentenced on the state charges, the three men will face a federal hate crimes trial for killing Arbery.  The three men are white; Arbery was Black. All three are charged with interfering with Arbery's rights and attempted kidnapping.  The McMichaels are also charged with using, carrying and brandishing — and in Travis McMichael’s case, firing — a gun during and in relation to a crime of violence.

The federal charges are punishable by death, life in prison or a shorter prison sentence and a fine, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations.  There is no parole in the federal system. Attorneys will begin selecting a jury from a wide pool of 43 counties across the Southern District of Georgia for that trial Feb. 7. The proceedings are set to take place in Glynn County.

The McMichaels and Bryan are also facing a civil lawsuit filed by Arbery’s mother. The wrongful death suit seeks $1 million in damages and also names former Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson, former Glynn County Police Chief John Powell, Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill, and several Glynn County police officers.

January 7, 2022 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (11)

Friday, December 24, 2021

Previewing sentencing facing former officer Kim Potter after manslaughter convictions for killing Daunte Wright

This extended AP article provide a helpful accounting of what we might now expect in sentencing of former Minneapolis police officer Kim Potter after a jury convicted her yesterday on two counts of manslaughter.  Here are excerpts:

The former suburban Minneapolis police officer who said she confused her handgun for her Taser when she killed Daunte Wright will be sentenced in February after a jury convicted her Thursday on two counts of manslaughter.  The most serious charge against Kim Potter — first-degree manslaughter — carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison....

Under Minnesota statutes, Potter, who is white, will be sentenced only on the most serious charge of first-degree manslaughter.  That’s because both of the charges against her stem from one act, with one victim.

The max for that charge is 15 years.  But state sentencing guidelines call for much less.  For someone with no criminal history, like Potter, the guidelines range from just more than six years to about 8 1/2 years, with the presumptive sentence being slightly over seven years.

Prosecutors have said they'd seek a sentence above the guideline range, while the defense said they would seek no prison time.  In order for Judge Regina Chu to issue a sentence that's outside the guideline range, she would first have to find either mitigating or aggravating factors.  Both sides are expected to file written arguments.

Prosecutors say aggravating factors in Potter's case include that she caused a greater-than-normal danger to the safety of other people when she fired into the car, including danger to her fellow officers, to Wright’s passenger and to the couple whose car was struck by Wright’s after the shooting.... Prosecutors also say Potter abused her authority as a police officer.

Defense attorney Paul Engh said the defense would be seeking a “dispositional departure” from sentencing guidelines. Under state statutes, a mitigated dispositional departure occurs when guidelines recommend a prison sentence, but a judge allows the sentence to be “stayed" — meaning the defendant doesn't go to prison....

In arguing that Potter should remain free on bail until she is sentenced, Engh said: "She is amenable to probation. Her remorse and regret for the incident is overwhelming.  She’s not a danger to the public whatsoever.  She’s made all her court appearances.” Chu was unmoved, and Potter was taken into custody after the verdicts were read....

The defense can also make the argument that as a police officer, Potter's confinement would likely be harsher than most because of the need to keep her safe.  The former Minneapolis police officer convicted in George Floyd's death, Derek Chauvin, has been in solitary confinement for that reason....

In determining a final sentence, Chu will consider the arguments made by both sides, as well as victim impact statements.  She has also ordered a pre-sentence investigation of Potter.  And Potter can make a statement at her sentencing hearing — a time when judges are typically looking to see if a person takes responsibility for the crime or shows remorse....

No matter what sentence Potter gets, in Minnesota it’s presumed that a defendant with good behavior will serve two-thirds of their penalty in prison and the rest on supervised release, commonly known as parole.  That means if Potter is sentenced to the presumptive seven years, she would likely serve about four years and nine months behind bars, and the rest on supervised release.  Once on supervised release, she could be sent back to prison if she violates conditions of his parole.  If she gets the maximum 15 years, she could be behind bars for 10 before being placed on parole.

December 24, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

A deep dive into extreme sentences in the Pelican State

61bbccc672eb3.imageThe Marshall Project with the Times-Picayune and The Advocate has a new series of pieces exploring extreme sentences in Louisiana.  Here are headlines, links and a few passages:

"Her Baby Died After Hurricane Katrina. Was It a Crime?: An expansive definition of murder in Louisiana leaves many behind bars forever."

Louisiana sentences people to life without parole at one of the highest rates in the nation, data shows. Nearly 4,200 men and women are serving lifetime sentences in the state, for crimes that range from homicide and rape to rarer cases of repeat purse snatchings and child neglect, an investigation by The Marshall Project and The Times-Picayune | The Advocate found.

Second-degree murder charges, like the ones Woods and Scott were found guilty of, are a big driver of life-without-parole sentences. The state has long had the highest homicide rate in the nation. But Louisiana law contains an unusually sweeping definition of second-degree murder that includes even some accidental deaths, legal experts say. And despite the wide variations in circumstances that can produce a second-degree murder conviction — from a premeditated ambush to a getaway car accident — the sentence is the same: mandatory life without parole. Judges have almost no discretion.

"‘The Only Way We Get Out of There Is in a Pine Box’: Elderly, ailing and expensive, lifetime prisoners cost Louisiana taxpayers millions a year."

Total medical spending for state corrections eclipsed $100 million last year. That’s an increase of about 25% from 2015, according to state budget figures....

Now, one in six people incarcerated in Louisiana has been sentenced to die in state custody. Nearly 1,200 lifers are over 60. Those geriatric lifers make up nearly 5% of the state prison population.

"A life sentence for $20 of weed? Louisiana stands out for its unequal use of repeat offender laws."

The crime that landed Kevin O’Brien Allen a spot among the more than 4,100 Louisianans now serving life-without-parole sentences wasn’t a bloody one: He sold $20 in marijuana to a childhood friend....

Agents booked Allen on two counts of marijuana distribution, and prosecutors in District Attorney Schuyler Marvin’s office made him an offer: a 5-year sentence if he pleaded guilty. Allen, a father of two with a steady job but a handful of drug convictions, balked....

Louisiana law affords prosecutors wide discretion to increase a repeat offender’s sentence, up to life, and Marvin’s office drew on Allen’s past convictions: possession with intent to distribute marijuana in 2004, marijuana possession in 2007 and 2011, and methamphetamine possession in 2013.

Once invoked by a prosecutor, the habitual-offender law gives little leeway to judges. They can sentence a defendant to less time if they find the minimum is so far out of line that it defies “acceptable goals of punishment” or serves as “nothing more than the purposeful imposition of pain and suffering.” But courts have described those scenarios as “exceedingly rare.”...

Allen [received a life sentence and] now works in the prison kitchen, making juice for pennies a day, serving a sentence that ends when he dies. He’s among nearly 300 people serving life without parole in Louisiana prisons based on their status as habitual offenders, an analysis of recent state corrections data show. In 40% of those cases, the incarcerated person is locked up for life on a non-violent crime....

Corrections data show wide variances in how district attorneys around the state have used the habitual offender law. Nearly two-thirds of habitual lifers in the state were sentenced in one of four large parishes: Caddo, Orleans, St. Tammany or Jefferson, according to the data. The practice is somewhat less common in East Baton Rouge Parish, the state’s most populous.

Overall, Louisiana prosecutors have mostly aimed the law at Black defendants, like Allen. Black people make up 31% of Louisiana’s population, but 66% of its state prisoners; 73% of those serving life sentences; and 83% of those serving life as habitual offenders, corrections and census data show.

December 21, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, December 17, 2021

Another crazy long sentence resulting from crazy crude mandatory minimums after deadly accident in Colorado

A very sad case turned into a very extreme sentence for a truck driver in Colorado earlier this week.  This lengthy local story, headlined "Driver gets 110 years in fiery I-70 crash that killed 4," provides lots of the details and videos from the sentencing.  Here are the basics:

The man convicted after a crash on Interstate 70 that left four people dead was sentenced to 110 years in prison Monday afternoon.

Rogel Aguilera-Mederos was 23 when his semi-truck slammed into stopped traffic on the interstate near Denver West Parkway on April 25, 2019.  Four people died instantly from the impact: Doyle Harrison, William Bailey, Miguel Angel Lamas Arellano and Stanley Politano. It is believed they all died from injuries and not the resulting fire.

Aguilera-Mederos was found guilty by a jury on 27 counts in total.  The most serious charges were four counts of vehicular manslaughter.  Other counts he was found guilty of included first-degree assault, first-degree attempt to commit assault, vehicular assault, reckless driving and careless driving. He was found not guilty on 15 counts of first-degree attempt to commit assault.

Judge A. Bruce Jones sentenced Aguilera-Mederos to the required 10-year minimum for each of the six counts of first-degree assault with extreme indifference, to be served consecutively.  He was also sentenced to the required minimum of five years for 10 additional counts of attempted first-degree assault with extreme indifference.  Those will be served consecutively as well.

The judge said the legislature required him to order those sentences be served consecutively, which was why, he said, he issued the minimum sentence for those charges.  However, he did say he may have sentenced Aguilera-Mederos to more than the minimum, if not required to issue the sentences consecutively.

"In all victim impact statements I read, I did not glean from them someone saying, 'He should be in prison for the rest of his life, and he should never, ever get out," Jones said.  "Far from it. There was forgiveness reflected in those statements, but also a desire that he be punished and serve time in prison, and I share those sentiments."

In addition to the 110 years stemming from those charges, Aguilera-Mederos was sentenced to 30 years for 11 other charges that will be served concurrently.

Aguilera-Mederos was extremely emotional as he asked for forgiveness before Jones announced the sentence. "I know it has been hard and heartbreaking for everyone involved," he said though tears. "I can't sleep, I think all the time about the victims. A part of me will be missing forever, as well." Aguilera-Mederos said he took responsibility for the crash, and said it was not intentional. "I have never thought about hurting anyone in my entire life," he said....

The judge said his hands were tied when it came to sentencing, because Colorado's violent crime statute is specific. 9NEWS Legal Expert Scott Robinson said certain violent crimes require a minimum sentence for each victim, and they have to run consecutively. But he said there is one way for violent crime sentences to be reduced.

"Colorado's violent crimes statute gives judges some discretion after 180 days have passed," Robinson said. "Here, the sentencing judge, Bruce Jones, will have an opportunity to determine whether there were unusual and extenuating circumstances which would justify a reduction in the sentences imposed." The judge said he could not assure the courtroom this would be the end of this process, giving an indication that he may consider a motion like that.

The jury had to decide whether the crash resulted from a series of bad choices by the driver or a mechanical failure that the driver had no control over. Aguilera-Mederos faced 42 counts in all. He testified for hours and tearfully recounted publicly for the first time his version of what happened on that day.

Both sides agreed that his truck lost brakes at some point, but they disagreed on how or why that happened.... After the brakes were out, prosecutors argued that Aguilera-Mederos made a series of bad choices that resulted in the crash. One of them being his failure to use a runaway truck ramp on the highway.

I do not know the particulars of Colorado sentencing law, but I sure hope there is a mechanism for the reconsideration of this crazy extreme sentence before too long. But the very possibility that an awful accident can lead to an initial mandated sentence of 100+ years suggest to me that some reform of Colorado sentencing law is still needed.

Here is some other notable recent coverage of this case:

"Trucker’s 110-year sentence in fatal I-70 crash spotlights Colorado sentencing laws, prosecutors’ charging decisions"

"He Was Sentenced To 110 Years in Prison for Causing a Fatal Traffic Accident. The Judge Isn't Happy About It."

"Truck Driver Sentenced 110 Years For Deadly Crash Stemming From Brake Failure Even Though Everyone Agrees It's Unreasonable"

December 17, 2021 in Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (15)

Thursday, December 09, 2021

Is Jussie Smollett likely to get probation after convictions on five low-level state felony counts of disorderly conduct?

Today seemed to be the day for high-profile convictions of TV stars (or maybe not-quite stars).  Not long after the federal conviction of Josh Duggar in Arkansas (basics here), a state jury in Chicago returned a guilty verdict on 5 of 6 counts brought against Jussie Smollett.  This AP piece provides the basics, as well as a sentencing forecast:

Former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett was convicted Thursday on charges he staged an anti-gay, racist attack on himself nearly three years ago and then lied to Chicago police about it....

The jury found the 39-year-old guilty on five counts of disorderly conduct — for each separate time he was charged with lying to police in the days immediately after the alleged attack. He was acquitted on a sixth count, of lying to a detective in mid-February, weeks after Smollett said he was attacked.

Outside court, special prosecutor Dan Webb called the verdict “a resounding message by the jury that Mr. Smollett did exactly what we said he did.” Smollett “wreaked havoc here in the city for weeks on end for no reason whatsoever," then compounded the problem by lying under oath to the jury, Webb said....

Judge James Linn set a post-trial hearing for Jan. 27, and said he would schedule Smollett's sentencing at a later date. Disorderly conduct is a class 4 felony that carries a prison sentence of up to three years, but experts have said if convicted, Smollett would likely be placed on probation and ordered to perform community service.

The damage to his personal and professional life may be more severe. Smollett lost his role on the TV program “Empire” after prosecutors said the alleged attack was a hoax, and he told jurors earlier this week, “I’ve lost my livelihood.”

This local article, headlined "Here's what could happen during Jussie Smollett's sentencing after his guilty verdict," also suggests incarceration time is unlikely in this case:

A jury at the Leighton Criminal Court Building decided Smollett was guilty on five of six charges relating to false statements prosecutors said he made to Chicago police.

Those charges are listed as class 4 felonies, which are among the least serious felonies in Illinois, but can still carry potential prison time of up to three years. Experts have said Smollett will likely be placed on probation and ordered to perform community service due to his lack of criminal history.

"Because Mr. Smollett does not have a criminal history, there is a presumption that he would be given a form of probation," said Attorney Anthony Burch. "So I don't suspect that he would be taken into custody."

December 9, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, December 08, 2021

The Sentencing Project releases "Successes in Criminal Legal Reforms, 2021"

Nicole Porter at The Sentencing Project has authored a short report reviewing state-level legislative criminal justice reforms under the title "Successes in Criminal Legal Reforms, 2021." This webpage has a link to the full four-page document, and it sets up the report's coverage this way:

The United States continues to lead the world in incarceration given that over 6.3 million persons are under correctional control.  More than 2.1 million are in prison or jail, and 4.4 million are under community surveillance on probation or parole.  At least 19 million persons are living with a felony conviction while an estimated 70-100 million have a criminal record. The persistence of extremely punitive sentencing laws and policies, not increases in crime rates, sustain the nation’s high rate of incarceration.

Ending mass incarceration requires a transformative change to sentencing policies and practices aligned with the scaling back of collateral consequences of conviction, and challenging racial disparities in the criminal justice system.  This briefing paper highlights key reforms undertaken in 2021 prioritized by The Sentencing Project.

December 8, 2021 in State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Notable new news reports about declining prison populations in two "New" states

I was intrigued to see two new local new reports about significant prison population declines in two states.  Here are headlined, links and excerpts (with links from the originals):

"NJ Cut Its Prison Population By 40% During 11 Months Of the Pandemic":

As the coronavirus swept through New Jersey’s prison system last year, killing inmates at the highest rate in the nation for months, state leaders took an unprecedented step: They slashed the prison population by 40%.

“No other state has been able to accomplish what New Jersey has accomplished,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, “making it the nation's leading de-carcerator and I think that's a badge that we should wear with honor.”

In October 2020, Governor Phil Murphy signed a law that allowed those within a year of release to get out up to eight months early. The first-in-the-nation measure ultimately freed nearly 5,300 adults and juveniles from state custody over the last 11 months.

“New Jersey's prison population plummeted under the law, reaching a level that it had not been in for decades and creating a much more manageable … population for the correction system,” said Todd Clear, a university professor at Rutgers who specializes in criminal justice.   He said the prison census dropped to numbers not seen since the 1980s. “New Jersey was the most aggressive [state] and it was the most expansive across the largest proportion of the population,” Clear said.

"Why is New Mexico’s prison population on the decline?"

There’s been a “dramatic” decline in the state’s prison population from summer of 2020 to summer of 2021, according to the New Mexico Sentencing Commission (NMSC). In early November, the commission, which evaluates policies related to the criminal justice system, told state legislators that the recent declines in part are likely due to ongoing criminal justice reform, increased prison diversion programs, and changes in how criminals are sentenced.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also thought to have played a role, as jury trials were suspended and the Department of Corrections worked to find elderly and at-risk prisoners who were eligible for early release, according to the NMSC. However, the decline in prison population began even before the pandemic.

For the first time in the last 10 years, the peak male prison population — the maximum number in prison in a fiscal year — has dropped below 6,000 prisoners. And the peak female prison population has dropped by a total of 24% over the last two fiscal years to 607 prisoners in 2021, according to data from the NMSC.

“Some of the decline may be attributable to a decrease in prosecutions during the pandemic,” Linda Freeman, the executive director at NMSC, told the legislature. As a result, the NMSC predicts a slight increase in prison populations in the coming years, as the effects of COVID-19 wane.

November 24, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 19, 2021

Brock Turner 2.0 in New York?: privileged teen receives surprisingly lenient sentence for multiple sex offenses (and now national attention)

Because there are literally tens of thousands of state and federal sentences imposed every month, one can always find an array of notable stories of notable leniency and notable severity in individual sentencings.  But only a handful of sentencing stories ever garner broad national attention, and a variety of predictable and unpredictable factors usually account for what gives certain sentencing stories particular salience.  The case of Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, the 20-year old given only six months in a California jail for a sexual assault, had a bunch of factors that led it to receive more attention than any single state sentence of recent vintage.  I am now wondering if the lenient sentence this week of Christopher Belter might also have similar factors.

This USA Today article provide these details under the headline, "A New York man pleaded guilty to rape and sexual abuse charges. He wasn't sentenced to prison":

A New York man who pleaded guilty to rape and sexual abuse charges will not face prison time, and instead was sentenced to probation earlier this week. Christopher Belter, 20, in 2019 pleaded guilty to felony charges including third-degree rape and attempted first-degree sexual abuse. He also pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor sexual abuse charges, according to multiple reports.

The crimes against four victims occurred when he was 16 and 17 years old. Three of the victims were 16 years old at the time, and one was 15. Belter was facing a maximum sentence of up to eight years in prison. But Niagara County Court Judge Matthew J. Murphy III on Tuesday gave the man eight years probation. The judge said a prison sentence would be "inappropriate.”

“I’m not ashamed to say that I actually prayed over what is the appropriate sentence in this case because there was great pain. There was great harm. There were multiple crimes committed in the case,” Murphy said, according to WKBW. “It seems to me that a sentence that involves incarceration or partial incarceration isn’t appropriate, so I am going to sentence you to probation,” he added.

Belter will have to register as a sex offender under his sentence, according to multiple reports.

Steven Cohen, an attorney representing one of the victims, said in a statement to USA TODAY that his client is “deeply disappointed in the sentencing.” He added that his client “threw up in the ladies room following the sentencing."

“I have been practicing law for over 30 years. If Chris Belter was not a white defendant from a rich and influential family, it is my belief he wouldn’t have received the original plea deal, and he would surely have been sentenced to prison,” Cohen said. “The greater harm, however, is that the sentencing in this matter would seem to perpetuate the insane belief that rape is not a serious crime and that its occurrence results in little consequence to the perpetrator. Our society needs to do much better,” he added.

Barry Covert, Belter's attorney, said the man “is tremendously remorseful for what he's done.” "There are clients who are never able to empathize with their victims no matter how much counseling they receive. Chris isn't one of them," he said, The Buffalo News reported....

The crimes occurred in 2017 and 2018 at Belter’s parents' home in Lewiston, New York. In 2019, judge Sara Sheldon, who has since retired, put Belter on two years’ interim probation. She said he could apply for youthful offender status, which would have lowered his maximum sentence and allowed him not to register as a sex offender.

Belter confirmed in court last month that he violated the agreement by installing software on a computer to view pornography. Murphy later denied Belter the youthful offender status, ruling that he would be sentenced as an adult.

Niagara County District Attorney Brian Seaman said in a statement obtained by USA TODAY: "Based on the seriousness of these crimes, the very powerful and emotional statements of the victims and the fact that Christopher Belter was already given a shot at interim probation and failed, my office has been very clear that we believed a prison sentence was entirely appropriate in this case.”

Here is just a sampling of some of the other national press coverage that this case is now receiving:

From ABC News, "Judge sentences admitted rapist to probation, no prison time"

From CBS News, "A judge sentenced a rapist to probation. One of his victims warns "he will offend again"

From NBC News, "Judge says prison 'inappropriate' for New York man who sexually assaulted 4 teens"

November 19, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

"Time For Justice The Urgent Need For Second Chances In Pennsylvania’s Sentencing System"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report written by Emily Bloomenthal, Director of Research at FAMM.  Here is part of how the report's executive summary gets started:

Too many people in Pennsylvania are serving long prison terms that don’t make communities safer.  People who do not pose a risk to public safety languish in prison for decades because Pennsylvania’s laws don’t give them a second chance.  This report, which focuses on people serving minimum sentences of 20 years or longer, looks at the harms and injustices of extreme sentences in Pennsylvania, as well as opportunities for reform.

Key findings:

Pennsylvania’s prison population has been shaped by some of the harshest sentencing policies in the country.

• In 2019, Pennsylvania imprisoned more than seven times the number of people that it did in 1970.  That growth was driven by punitive policy choices, not increases in crime, and it did not make Pennsylvanians safer.

• Pennsylvania is a national leader in imposing extreme sentences.  This ranking is largely driven by two laws: the mandatory minimum sentence of life imprisonment required for first- and second-degree murder, and the denial of parole eligibility to anyone serving a life sentence. In Pennsylvania prisons, 13.4% of people are serving life without parole (LWOP), compared to only 3.6% nationally.

• The population serving extreme sentences in Pennsylvania has surged over the last few decades. There were more than nine times as many people serving extreme sentences in 2019 than there were in 1980.

• Pennsylvania’s extreme sentencing practices have overwhelmingly impacted people of color, especially Black people, who make up less than 11% of Pennsylvania’s population but 65% of people serving life sentences and 58% of those serving non-life sentences of 20 years or longer.

• Pennsylvania’s extreme sentencing practices have created a large (and growing) elderly prison population, which increased thirtyfold from 1979 to 2019.

Pennsylvania’s extreme sentences are a high-cost, low-value proposition for taxpayers.

• Researchers have found no evidence that severe sentencing policies discourage people from choosing to engage in crime.

• Extreme sentences are not necessary for preventing recidivism, because the vast majority of people who commit crimes — even very serious crimes — naturally grow out of criminal behavior as they age and mature.  For example, of the 174 Philadelphia juvenile lifers — all originally convicted of homicide — who were resentenced and released following landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions, only two (1.1%) had been reconvicted of any offense as of 2020.

• Based on average incarceration costs, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) is spending $220 million per year to incarcerate 3,892 people who have already served at least 20 years.  The true cost is undoubtedly higher, because incarceration costs increase dramatically as people age and need more medical care.

• The average cost for incarcerated individuals in skilled or personal care units is $500 per day (or $182,625 per year), more than three times the cost for the general population.

November 17, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 12, 2021

"Two Strikes and You’re in Prison Forever: Why Florida leads the nation in people serving life without chance of parole."

The title of this post is the headline of this important new reporting (and accounting) from the Marshall Project. I recommend the full piece, and here is a taste:

The number of people serving life-without-parole sentences has soared across the country in the last two decades, rising to 56,000, according to The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group.  Some people received these penalties as an alternative to capital punishment, which has fallen out of favor with many prosecutors and the public.  The number of death sentences dwindled to 18 last year, and only 2,500 people are now on death row, down from almost 3,600 two decades ago.

But there’s another reason for the increase: A handful of states have embraced life-without-parole sentences to punish “repeat offenders” — even if their crimes didn’t cause physical injury, an investigation by The Marshall Project and The Tampa Bay Times found.

Washington passed the first “three strikes” law in 1993, allowing prosecutors to give life sentences to people convicted even of nonviolent felonies if they met the criteria for “persistent offenders.”  At least two dozen states followed suit, including Florida in 1995.  In many states, people sentenced to life used to become eligible for parole after 15 years. But Florida and others virtually ended parole a generation ago, so that life sentences became permanent.

Today, Florida has more than 13,600 people serving life without parole, far more than any other state and almost a quarter of the total nationwide.  Though this sentence is widely seen as an alternative to the death penalty, which is used in murder cases, 44% of the people serving it in Florida were not convicted of that crime, according to our analysis of state data.

Part of the reason Florida’s numbers are so high is that it went further than any other state in 1997 by passing an unusual “two strikes” law known as the Prison Releasee Reoffender Act. The law directs prosecutors to seek the maximum sentence for someone who commits a felony within three years of leaving prison, which often means a lifetime behind bars. The law also takes sentencing discretion away from judges.  About 2,100 of the state’s permanent lifers, or about 15%, are in prison because of the law, our investigation found.  The crimes that netted life without parole included robbing a church of a laptop, holding up motel clerks for small amounts of cash and stealing a television while waving a knife....

The two-strikes punishment has been disproportionately applied to Black men, who account for almost 75% of those serving time because of the 1997 law, our analysis found; about 55% of all prisoners in the state are Black. Their most common charge was armed robbery, not homicide. Housing its life-without-parole population, including those locked up under the two-strikes law, cost Florida at least $330 million last year, according to our analysis of state data.

“This is an incredibly punitive law that is totally arbitrary,” said Jeff Brandes, a Republican who represents St. Petersburg in the Florida Senate and is trying to repeal the two-strikes law, so far without much support from his colleagues. He said Florida wastes too much taxpayer money locking people up forever on burglary, robbery and theft. “A sentence that is too long is just as unjust as a sentence that is too short,” he said.

The Marshall Project has this companion piece headlined "He Got a Life Sentence When He Was 22 — For Robbery: Black men are most affected by Florida’s two-strikes law." Here is a snippet:

The two-strike punishment has been disproportionately applied to Black men, an analysis of state data by The Marshall Project and Tampa Bay Times found. Among all prisoners serving life in Florida, 54% are Black; but among those serving life with enhancements like two strikes, 74% are Black.

In some counties, the racial disparities regarding sentence enhancements were glaring, the analysis found: In Leon County, home to the state capital of Tallahassee, among people serving life sentences for crimes committed within three years of release from prison, 96 of 107 were Black.  In Pinellas County, where Mackeroy grew up, 75% of prisoners serving life with two-strikes sentences are Black.

November 12, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 04, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Notable (re)sentencing of another former Minnesota police officer for another notable homicide

Though not anywhere as high-profile as the conviction and sentencing of Derek Chauvin, another Minnesota police officer was just subject to state sentencing (actually a resentencing) for homicide. This local article, headlined "Judge resentences ex-officer Mohamed Noor to almost 5 years on manslaughter count," reports on an interesting sentencing process and outcome. Here are excerpts:

Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor received a new sentence of 4 3/4 years on Thursday for his manslaughter conviction after the state's high court overturned the more serious murder conviction for the 2017 shooting of an Australian woman who had called to report a possible crime.

Noor, who turned 36 Wednesday, was resentenced by Judge Kathryn Quaintance on second-degree manslaughter because the Minnesota Supreme Court set aside his third-degree murder conviction last month.  The decision vacated a prison term of 12 1/2 years Noor was already serving on the murder count for shooting Justine Ruszczyk Damond.

Quaintance, in sentencing Noor to the high end as suggested by state sentencing guidelines, said she wasn't surprised Noor has been a model prisoner, but he had fired his gun across the nose of his partner, endangering a bicyclist and others in the neighborhood on a summer evening.  "These factors of endangering the public make your crime of manslaughter appropriate for a high end sentence," she said.

Noor has served 29 1/12 months since he entered prison in May 2019.  With credit for time served, Noor would be scheduled for release after serving 2/3 of his sentence, meaning he must serve another 8 1/2 months. He is likely to be released next May.

Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy read a statement from Maryan Heffernan, the victim's mother, who was watching from Australia.  The family sought the maximum for Noor. "We should expect complete accountability from our public institutions and their staff," Heffernan's statement said.  The longest sentence would send a message to police "that we require respect for their badges," Heffernan's statement said.  "We will be outraged if the court is unwilling to respect the will of the people and demand that justice be heard, be seen and be done."

The victim's fiance Don Damond appeared via Zoom and took a different tact, saying the Supreme Court's decision, "Does not diminish the truth which was uncovered during the trial.  The truth is that Justine should be alive." Damond said his comments should not be construed that he wasn't still grieving, but his departed wife "lived a life of love, she modeled a life of joy for all and she stood for forgiveness."

"Given her example, I want you to know that I forgive you Mohamed," he said. "All I ask is that you use this experience to do good for other people.  Be the example of how to transform beyond adversity.  Be an example of honesty and contrition. This is what Justine would want."

Second-degree manslaughter is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, but state sentencing guidelines recommend a term between about 3 1/3 and 4 3/4 years in prison for defendants with no criminal history, such as Noor.  The presumptive term is four years, according to the guidelines.

In her comments, Sweasy asked for the maximum, noting this will be the only time a police officer will be sentenced for this offense.  "By every measure ... this is worse-than-typical for a second-degree manslaughter case," Sweasy said, adding that Noor wore the badge of Minneapolis police officer, a social contract that provides privilege to use deadly force to protect other civilians.

Noor's attorney, Thomas Plunkett, said Noor was young and had overreacted. "He was operating with the mistaken belief that he needed to protect his partner," Plunkett said, adding that Noor had wanted to make the world better and chose a career as a police officer to bridge the gap between the police, the justice system and the Somali-immigrant community.

In prison, he was an award-winning inmate for his commitment and respect to others.  Plunkett requested a sentence at the low end of the guidelines, 3 1/3 years.  There is little doubt that Mr. Noor's time in prison was "more punitive" than anyone could have imagined before the pandemic, Plunkett said.  In Noor's brief comments, he said he was "deeply grateful" for Damond's forgiveness and "deeply sorry" for the family's loss. Of Damond, Noor said, "I will take his advice and be a unifier."

Plunkett had asked the judge to give Noor credit for time he's already served in prison and to place him on supervised release, which typically requires regular check-ins with the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC), regular drug and alcohol testing, and restrictions on certain activities.  It can also include electronic home monitoring.  Violations of such terms can result in a defendant being sent back to prison.

Defendants in Minnesota must serve 2/3 of their prison term before becoming eligible for supervised release.  Noor entered prison on May 2, 2019 and was first sentenced in June 2019.  He originally served his time in administrative segregation at Oak Park Heights prison in Minnesota, but was transferred on July 11, 2019 to facility in North Dakota for his own safety.

October 21, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 09, 2021

California enacts new laws to reduce certain sentencing enhancements

As reported in this Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Newsom signs bills restricting sentencing enhancements for many crimes," California has now enacted another round of notable sentencing reforms.  Here are the details:

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday signed laws aimed at reducing prison sentences for people convicted of drug- and gang-related crimes, despite concerns from prosecutors that the measures will hinder their effort to protect

Legislation signed by the governor includes Senate Bill 81, which seeks to reduce the number of sentence enhancements in criminal cases that can double prison terms. More than 150 enhancements exist for aggravating factors that include prior criminal records, use of a gun in the commission of a crime and offenses involving minors.

The law by state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) would have judges dismiss enhancements in certain cases, including when they would result in “discriminatory racial impact” or a sentence of more than 20 years, or when the offense is connected to mental illness, prior victimization or childhood trauma. Skinner said enhancements disproportionately affect people of color.

“If sentence enhancements were applied fairly, this wouldn’t be an issue,” she said. “However, data shows that in California, you are much more likely to receive a sentence enhancement if you are Black. SB 81 tells our courts: Let’s stop unfair sentences and use enhancements only when necessary to protect the public.”

The California State Sheriffs’ Assn. opposes SB 81 “because it will likely result in many otherwise appropriate sentence enhancements being dismissed,” said Cory Salzillo, the group’s legislative director.

A companion measure signed by Newsom, SB 483, allows the retroactive repeal of sentence enhancements for prior prison or county jail felony terms. The governor also signed Assembly Bill 333, which restricts the use of sentence enhancements for alleged gang crimes.

Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles) said her measure aims to reduce the list of crimes allowing gang enhancements to be charged, prohibit the use of the current charge as proof of a pattern of criminal gang activity, and separate gang allegations from underlying charges at trial. The senator said that current gang enhancements have weak definitions and that 92% of people with gang enhancements in the state are people of color....

The measure was opposed by the California District Attorneys Assn., which said it shows a misunderstanding of the way street gangs operate by requiring prosecutors to show a crime was committed to advance a gang as an organization.

“Street gangs don’t operate that way,” said El Dorado County Dist. Atty. Vern Pierson, president of the association. “We are seeing crimes throughout the state of California up dramatically directly related to gangs,” Pierson said. “Unquestionably [the new law] will hamper our ability to go after criminal street gangs.”

October 9, 2021 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 30, 2021

Justice Counts officially unveils its new 50-State scan of all sorts of criminal justice data

7ee4529a-2a57-c490-a090-f44255823417I have previously blogged about the need for better national criminal justice data, and also about a new effort to fill data gaps by the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center through a project called "Justice Counts."  (Some of many posts on these topics can be found below.)  I was pleased this morning to get a new email about the CSG effort under the heading "Justice Counts Unveils a New 50-State Scan of Criminal Justice Data."  This email is available at this link, and here is some of its texts and links:

Policymakers are often forced to make critical decisions using limited or stale criminal justice data.  Over the past year, every trend from crime to revocations has shifted quickly and dramatically.  Facing significant challenges, state leaders need up-to-date information from across the justice system, presented in a digestible way.

As part of the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Justice Counts initiative, researchers from Recidiviz and The Council of State Governments Justice Center conducted a 50-state scan of publicly available, aggregate-level corrections and jails data.

The national dashboard demonstrates that while policymakers in several states have access to up-to-date information, data collection still has a long way to go. 

View the national dashboard

Each state’s data dashboard provides a central, practical resource for stakeholders to identify gaps and inconsistencies in data reporting.
 
View your state’s dashboard
 
The scan looked at the availability of eight core corrections indicators scattered across hundreds of agency reports, as well as a review of statewide and county jail confinement rates across all 50 states.  The scan shows how much — and how little — state policymakers have to work with.

Recent related posts:

August 30, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 28, 2021

Updating the Buckeye State's progress creating a needed felony sentencing database

In a few posts at the start and end of last year, I flagged the work of some Ohio jurists in advocating for the development of a statewide sentencing database. See :A notable judicial pitch for better sentencing data in the Buckeye State" (from Jan. 2020) and "Making a great case for greater data to improve sentencing decision-making and sentencing systems" (from Dec. 2020).  Since then, work on, and debates over, such a database have picked up steam and also garnered some press attention:

From the Columbus Dispatch, "Can a spreadsheet improve fairness and justice in sentencing in Ohio courts? Some judges say yes"

From the Court News Ohio, "Justice, Judges Stand By Value Of Sentencing Database"

Also from the Court News Ohio, "New Platform Provides Path to Accessible Sentencing Data"

From The Plain Dealer editorial board: "Should Cuyahoga County run a pilot to show a criminal sentencing database can work?"

Here are excerpts from the the Dispatch article, which appears in today's papers, providing an update on the efforts:

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Michael Donnelly is spearheading a project to collect criminal sentencing data in a uniform way across courts.  And Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor is backing it as well.  "I've become convinced that this isn't just a good idea, it's an absolute necessity to deal with the problem of disparate treatment and implicit bias that permeates our sentencing laws," Donnelly said....

The goal is to be able see how similar cases compare county to county, court to court.  It isn't as simple as it sounds.  The courts operate with antiquated information technology systems. There isn't a uniform way that courts collect information.  Ohio has 723 elected judges across 88 counties — some of whom may be worried about what trends the data may show, Donnelly said....

Ohio is making some progress.  The Ohio Sentencing Data Platform project now has a template so courts can collect the same information in the same fields — a crucial early step for building a common database.  

Courts in Allen and Lawrence counties are testing the project and courts in Highland, Lake and Summit counties are scheduled to join in the coming months.  Courts in 11 other counties including Hamilton, Warren, Franklin and Stark are holding meetings about joining.

 The April 2021 issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter, which is available online here, includes discussions of efforts to build out the Ohio Sentencing Data Platform.

June 28, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 25, 2021

Derek Chauvin gets 22.5 years for killing George Floyd

I am on the road, so will not have a chance to comment until probably tomorrow.  Readers should feel free to share their reactions and thoughts.

UPDATE:  Here are links to a few press pieces regarding the Chauvin sentencing:

From Law360, "Chauvin Sentenced To 22.5 Years In Prison For Floyd Murder"

From the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "Derek Chauvin's sentencing sparks relief but also resolve to keep fighting injustice"

From NBC News, "Chauvin sentence wasn't the max, but it provided some closure"

From NPR, "George Floyd's Family Says Chauvin's Sentencing Is One Step Closer To Healing"

ANOTHER UPDATE I just recently saw this reprinted version of the full sentencing order from Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill when he sentenced Derek Chauvin. Here is the short conclusion to the lengthy discussion:

Part of the mission of the Minneapolis Police Department is to give citizens “voice and respect.”  Here, Mr. Chauvin, rather than pursuing the MPD mission, treated Mr. Floyd without respect and denied him the dignity owed to all human beings and which he certainly would have extended to a friend or neighbor.  In the Court’s view, 270 months, which amounts to an additional ten years over the presumptive 150-month sentence, is the appropriate sentence.

June 25, 2021 in Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, April 26, 2021

"Handling Aggravating Facts After Blakely: Findings From Five Presumptive-Guidelines States"

The title of this post is the title of this great new paper authored by Nancy King ow available va SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This Article reveals how five states with presumptive (binding) sentencing guidelines have implemented the right announced in Blakely v. Washington to a jury finding of aggravating facts allowing upward departures from the presumptive range.  Using data provided by the sentencing commissions and courts in Kansas, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon, and Washington, as well as information from more than 2,200 docket sheets, the study discloses how upward departures are used in plea bargaining, sometimes undercutting policy goals; how often aggravating facts are tried and by whom; common types of aggravating facts; and the remarkably different, sometimes controversial interpretations of Blakely and Alleyne v. United States that frame each state’s practice.  This new information is essential for any evaluation of presumptive sentencing guidelines systems or the appropriate scope of the doctrine established in Apprendi v. New Jersey.

April 26, 2021 in Blakely in the States, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 01, 2021

"Who Controls Criminal Law? Racial Threat and the Adoption of State Sentencing Law, 1975 to 2012"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting article published in the American Sociological Review earlier this year that I just came across. This research was authored by Scott Duxbury, and here is its abstract:

Threat theory argues that states toughen criminal laws to repress the competitive power of large minority groups.  Yet, research on threat suffers from a poor understanding of why minority group size contributes to social control and a lack of evidence on whether criminal law is uniquely responsive to the political interests of majority racial groups at all.  By compiling a unique state-level dataset on 230 sentencing policy changes during mass incarceration and using data from 257,362 responses to 79 national surveys to construct new state-level measures of racial differences in punitive policy support, I evaluate whether criminal sentencing law is uniquely responsive to white public policy interests.  Pooled event history models and mediation analyses support three primary conclusions: (1) states adopted new sentencing policies as a nonlinear response to minority group size, (2) sentencing policies were adopted in response to white public, but not black public, support for punitive crime policy, and (3) minority group size and race-specific homicide victimization both indirectly affect sentencing policy by increasing white public punitive policy support.  These findings support key theoretical propositions for the threat explanation of legal change and identify white public policy opinion as a mechanism linking minority group size to variation in criminal law.

April 1, 2021 in Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Reviewing all the notable criminal justice work of the Washington Supreme Court in recent times

Regular readers have likely noticed pretty regular posts about pretty notable criminal justice rulings coming from the Supreme Court of Washington. In this Slate piece, Mark Joseph Stern tells the story of this court's recent personnel changes and reviews some of these rulings. The piece, which is fully headlined "Washington State Shows How a Truly Progressive Court Changes Everything: Joe Biden should look to the state’s diverse and courageous Supreme Court when making nominations to the federal bench," starts this way (with links from the original):

The Washington Supreme Court is on a roll.  On March 11, it took the unprecedented step of outlawing mandatory sentences of life without parole for people under the age of 21 — making Washington the first state in the nation to extend such protections to defendants who, while technically adults at the time of their crime, have greater potential for rehabilitation because of their youth. The previous month, a majority of the court struck down Washington’s drug possession law, effectively legalizing possession of controlled substances while overturning thousands of convictions going back decades.  And, in January, the court made it easier for victims of police misconduct to sue law enforcement officers who violate their rights.

This extraordinary series of decisions shows how a diverse and progressive judiciary can make the country a more just and equitable place. The Washington Supreme Court’s members exemplify the kind of judges whom Joe Biden should be looking for as he prepares to announce his first slate of judicial nominees. To counter the current dominance of conservative ideology in the federal judiciary, liberals can’t rely on moderates committed to minimalism; they need a distinct vision of the law as a force of justice that guarantees equal rights and dignity to those who are impoverished, unpopular, and powerless. To find one, they need only look to Washington state.

Because it interprets its own state constitution, the Washington Supreme Court has much more leeway than a federal court to depart from SCOTUS jurisprudence.  States’ high courts have final say over the meaning of their own state constitutions, which gives justices room to expand rights that SCOTUS has constricted under the federal Constitution. Many state constitutions, including Washington’s, provide greater protections than the federal Constitution.  That’s why, in 2018, the Washington Supreme Court has permanently banned the death penalty and prohibited sentences of life without parole for juveniles—two steps SCOTUS has refused to take.

Those decisions were a preview of things to come. In 2019 and 2020, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee appointed two new justices to the court: Raquel Montoya-Lewis, a Jewish Native American woman, and Grace Helen Whitener, a disabled Black lesbian immigrant.  (In November, the state voted overwhelmingly to keep both women on the bench.)  There, they joined Justice Mary Yu, an Asian American Latina lesbian, as well as Steven González, the current chief justice, who is Hispanic, and one of just two men on the nine-member court.  Inslee’s appointees created the most diverse high court in American history.

March 17, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 08, 2021

Prisons as first frontier of the welfare state in The Last Frontier state

The nickname of the state of Alaska is The Last Frontier, which inspired the title of this post about this local article headlined "Alaska now spends more on prisons than its university system, and the gap is widening."  Here are excerpts explaining what I mean by the post title (with my emphasis added):

Alaska is now spending more on prisons than its state university, a reversal of the state’s longtime practice, and the gap would widen under a draft budget being considered by the state legislature.

Since 2015, when adjusted for inflation, Alaska has cut by 22.4% the amount it spends on the operations of all state agencies combined.  The Alaska Department of Corrections is the only agency whose inflation-adjusted budget has grown during that period.

Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, called the current situation “sad.”  Bishop is co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which on Thursday held a hearing that questioned whether the Legislature and governor have reached the limit of budget cuts they can make without significant changes to state law.

Though state spending (not including the Permanent Fund Dividend) has declined by almost half from its peak in 2015, most reductions came early in that period.  The cuts of the past two years have been almost entirely erased by inflation and other annual cost increases....

The budgets for the University of Alaska and the state prison system illustrate the problems now faced by the Legislature and governor.  In 2019, the governor signed an agreement with the University of Alaska Board of Regents that called for three years of budget cuts.  Though the Alaska Legislature was not party to the agreement, it has followed it so far.

At the time, the university system received $327 million from the portion of the budget paid for with revenue from the Permanent Fund and taxes. In the budget under consideration now by the Legislature, the university is slated to receive just $257 million.

One month before signing the university agreement, Dunleavy signed a bill that rolled back prior prison reform legislation.  That prior legislation, known as Senate Bill 91, had encouraged alternatives to prison, such as electronic monitoring, halfway houses and supervised release.

SB 91 reduced prison costs, but many Alaskans believed it was contributing to an increase in property crime and pushed for its repeal.  Since then, the budget of the Alaska Department of Corrections has grown from $291 million in 2019 to $345 million in the plan now being considered by the Legislature.

Much of that increase is due to increases in spending on inmate healthcare and rehabilitation, budget documents show. Department officials told a legislative panel last month that 65% of Alaska’s prison inmates are mentally ill, 80% have some kind of substance abuse disorder, and 65% have reported some kind of traumatic brain injury. Almost one in four inmates is positive for Hepatitis C.

Several hundred inmates were released from custody to relieve prison crowding during COVID-19, but the department now projects a continued rise in the state’s prison population, estimating that by June 2025, more than 4,900 Alaskans will be in prison.  As of February, more than half of the state’s prison population consisted of people who were awaiting trial, not those who had been sentenced.

I share the view that this situation is "sad" with more money now to be spent by Alaskans to cage its citizens than to provide higher education. And it is especially interesting to read that the increased prison spending is mostly for "healthcare and rehabilitation," which likely includes some educational programming, and that the majority of Alaskan prison inmates are mentally ill and/or have substance abuse disorder and/or a serious brain injury.  As is likely true in many states, Alaska is spending more and more monies on prisons in order to tend to its most vulnerable populations, though only after they get involved with the criminal justice system (while other welfare programs like higher education get cut in order to provide welfare services to the incarcerated).

March 8, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Will NJ Gov veto a bill to repeal mandatory minimums for certain non-violent crimes because it repeals too many?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local story reporting on notable legislative developments our of New Jersey, headlined "Bill to end mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes in N.J. now goes to Murphy’s desk."  Here are highlights of a story with so many interesting elements (with links from the original and my emphasis added):

A landmark criminal justice bill that would end mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes in New Jersey, including non-violent drug offenses, is now heading to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk after being passed by the state Assembly on Monday.

The bill (S2586/A4369) is the major reform recommended by the state’s Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, which Murphy convened in 2018 due to the state having the worst disparity in the country for rates of incarceration between Black and white offenders.  The commission found that ending mandatory minimums for certain crimes would help to eliminate the disparity in the state’s criminal justice system, an initiative Murphy has championed as governor.

It is unclear if Murphy, a Democrat, will sign the bill into law.  “We’ll have further comment when we are ready to take action on the bill,” a spokesman for the governor said Monday afternoon.

As the bill was moving through the legislature, state Sen. Nicholas Sacco, D-Hudson, added an amendment to the bill to make the legislation also apply to official misconduct charges, which is sometimes used to prosecute politicians, police officers and other public workers.  The son of Sacco’s girlfriend is facing an official misconduct offense for allegedly submitting false timesheets in North Bergen, where Sacco is the mayor. 

Murphy has been publicly steadfast in that he does not support a bill that included ending mandatory sentences for official misconduct. “Let me say unequivocally, official misconduct was not on the list. I just want to say as clearly as I can, I do not support official misconduct being roped into this legislation,” the governor said in September.

But advocates continued to press lawmakers to move forward with the bill with or without the official misconduct charge included in it due to the number of people impacted, and the few number of people charged with official misconduct in recent years.

“Pass it for the thousands of people who will see earlier parole,” NJ Together, a non-partisan coalition of faith groups, wrote in a letter to lawmakers last week. “Pass it for the tens of thousands who will benefit in the future because they will not be subject to these unfair sentencing practices. Pass it for their families and for a more just criminal justice system here in New Jersey.”...

“This legislation, if signed by Gov. Murphy, will serve as a national model for criminal justice reform,” said Assemblyman Nick Chiaravalloti, D-Hudson. “This is an important social justice issue.”

The bill retroactively applies to inmates serving certain mandatory minimum sentences, including non-violent drug offenses, making more than 2,000 inmates immediately eligible for parole, if signed into law.  More than 80% of inmates serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses are either Black or Hispanic, Joseph Krakora, the state’s top public defender, previously said.

Assemblyman John DiMaio, R-Warren, said he recognized the “social injustice issues that would be addressed by this bill,” but added, “I just do not understand where the social justice issue comes in” when removing official misconduct from the list of mandatory minimum sentences.  “Those sections that deal with the public trust, elected officials and public officials should not be in this bill,” he said before Monday’s vote.

However, NJ Together also found that official misconduct charges overwhelming are handed down to Black New Jerseyans.  It found that Black people in New Jersey are three and a half times as likely to spend time in state prison for official misconduct than others, according to an analysis of 36,000 prison records....

A spokesman for Murphy did not immediately respond when asked when the governor may make a decision.

I am instinctually against all (prison-time) manadtory minimums, which fundamentally shift sentencing powers from judges to prosecutors and make sentencing more opaque and often less consistent.  Mandatory minimums seem especially pernicious when applied to non-violent offenses where there can be a broad array of offense conduct and offender circumstances that a judge ought be able to consider in open court (and be subject to appeal).  Against that backdrop, from the get-go I think it is problematic (and telling) that reform-minded officials are so quick to oppose the repeal of the official misconduct NJ mandatory minimums (which seem pretty severe, though do include some waiver opportunities).

Even more important, and kudos for this reporting, racial disparity would seem to be a real concern in the application of this particular mandatory minimum in New Jersey, just as there tends to be disparity in the application of so many other mandatory minimums in so many jurisdictions.  If a primary goal of this whole bill is to reduce racially disparate sentencing laws, then repealing the misconduct minimums seems very much in service to a main goal of this bill.

FInally, and perhaps most important in service to criminal justice reform generally, any vision of the best reforms cannot and should not be the enemy of good reforms.  Today, tomorrow and every day until misguided sentencing laws are reformed and made retroactive, real people and their families are subject to real excessive prison time (and taxpayers are paying the economic and other  costs of excessive and unfair sentences).  If Gov Murphy were to veto this bill, he would be denying immediate relief and hope for more than 2,000 folks now serving problematic sentences in order to .... just preserve prosecutorial sentencing powers that they seem to be using unevenly and that should be in the hands of judges.

Prior related post:

March 2, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 18, 2021

DEPC event on "Criminal Justice Reform in Ohio" and original resources on "Drug Sentencing Reform in Ohio"

SB3-Panel_for-socialI am very excited that next week the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law is hosting a virtual panel discussion, titled "Where Do We Go From Here?: Criminal Justice Reform in Ohio" at 2pm on February 24, 2021.  Here is the description and run down of the exciting event:

Ohio has a long history of criminal justice reform and drug sentencing reform, and yet few can be pleased that Ohio still has the 12th highest incarceration rate in the country and one of the highest rates of overdose deaths. With the passage of HB1 and the failure of SB3 at the end of 2020, many are left wondering what can and cannot be achieved through legislative reforms in Ohio.  Please join us for a discussion of Ohio’s recent reform history, what we might expect in the near future, and how research and experience in other states can inform reform efforts in the Buckeye State.

Panelists

Speakers:
Sara Andrews, executive director of the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission
Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist at the ACLU of Ohio
Micah Derry, state director for the Ohio chapter of Americans for Prosperity
Andrew Geisler, legal fellow at The Buckeye Institute
Kyle Strickland, deputy director of race and democracy at the Roosevelt Institute and senior legal analyst at Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity

Moderator:
Douglas A. Berman, executive director of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center

I am also quite pleased to note that the link in the above description takes folks to this original resource page titled "Drug Sentencing Reform in Ohio."  Here is some of the discussion and resources to be found at that page:

Since 2014, seven states have enacted reforms that have defelonized low-level drug offenses: Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut Oklahoma, Oregon, and Utah.  In late 2020, the Ohio House of Representatives opted not to join this growing list by declining a vote on Senate Bill 3 which sought to reclassify some low-level drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.  Its origins can be traced back to the ambitious, but ultimately failed, 2018 Issue 1 ballot initiative.  The constitutional amendment initiative included language aimed at reclassifying as misdemeanors those offenses related to drug possession and use, prohibiting courts from sending people back to prison for non-criminal probation violation, and reallocating savings created from lowering prison populations toward drug treatment services.  Like SB3, Issue 1 was vehemently opposed by judges and prosecutors around the state.

Though SB3 stalled, an array of other criminal justice reforms were enacted in the last General Assembly of 2020, including House Bill 1.  HB1 allows more wrongdoers to potentially benefit from alternative dispositions and record sealing. Some argued that the passage of HB1 addressed sufficiently some of the concerns driving support for SB3....

In addition to organizing [the Feb 24 panel] event, DEPC has gathered a variety of other resources to aid in understanding the complex evolution of criminal justice and drug sentencing reforms in Ohio, including a visualization of Ohio incarceration rates and a timeline of Ohio reforms since 2010.  Please see below for commentaries and writings on current and past drug sentencing reform efforts in Ohio, DEPC’s prior events focused on Ohio’s criminal justice reforms, and research aimed at answering some of the most important questions raised by proponents and opponents alike.

February 18, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Reviewing notable criminal justice reform developments in (red) Ohio

I have long talked up criminal justice developments in Ohio because the state has long been a considered a bellwether for national developments.  But thanks to gerrymandering of state legislative district and other recent developments, Ohio is perhaps now more properly viewed as a red state.  Stiil, the political reality that Ohio's General Assembly is now GOP-heavy arguably make recent progessive criminal justice reforms in the Buckeye state even more noteworthy.  This new local article, headlined "Ohio makes big leaps forward on criminal justice changes," effectively reports on recent significant legislative action in this area, and here are excerpts:

Advocates for criminal justice reforms scored multiple wins in the closing weeks of 2020 that they say will give thousands of Ohioans a second chance.  Gov. Mike DeWine signed half a dozen bills into laws that will take effect later this year. The potential impacts are sweeping.

Incarcerated pregnant women will no longer be shackled to hospital beds as they deliver their babies.  Poor people will be able to perform community service as a way to get their driver’s licenses back instead of paying huge fees.  Ohioans who made mistakes will have an easier time getting professional licenses to advance their careers.  People suffering from serious mental illnesses at the time of the crime will not be executed. Teens who commit terrible crimes will serve their time but will still have the hope of making parole someday. 

And House Bill 1 will allow Ohioans in the throes of addiction to get drug treatment instead of a criminal record.  DeWine called House Bill 1 the most significant among the recent criminal justice reforms.  “There is a broad consensus in this country that people who commit crimes — non-violent offenses — because of the fact that they’re an addict, we all want to see them succeed.  We want them to get clean, stay clean and be good members of society,” said DeWine, a former Greene County prosecutor and state attorney general.  “There is a broad consensus that if they can get clean and on a pathway, we don’t want to tag them with a felony conviction. So this makes sense.”...

Support for HB1 came from the right and left — Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, ACLU of Ohio, the conservative Buckeye Institute, public defenders and prosecutors.  Other bills signed into law by DeWine will reduce the “collateral sanctions” — additional punishments that were popular with tough-on-crime lawmakers over the past several decades.  Such sanctions made it more difficult to get professional licensing, housing, student financial aid, driver’s licenses and more.  “Again, we have a broad consensus that we shouldn’t be having those.  Once a person has served their time or served their probation, probably they should be able to move on with their lives,” DeWine said....

Additional reform efforts in 2021 will likely focus on Ohio’s cash bail system, the death penalty, knocking down the number of collateral sanctions people face when they’re convicted, holding the Ohio Parole Board accountable and pushing for criminal drug sentencing changes, said [Kevin] Werner of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center.

Also, while several criminal justice bills made it across the finish line, a comprehensive package of changes in Senate Bill 3 failed to win final approval.  SB3 called for reducing certain felony drug offenses to misdemeanors.  Shakyra Diaz, state director of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, which lobbied for SB3, said Ohio families still need solutions to the addiction crisis and the alliance will continue to work with lawmakers.  “Giving felony convictions to Ohioans with addictions only makes the problem worse, and inaction is not an option as more families lose loved ones to addiction and overdoses because they needlessly cycle through the criminal justice system without getting treatment,” Diaz said.

February 7, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 15, 2021

"Top Trends in State Criminal Justice Reform, 2020"

The title of this post is the title of this short paper from Nicole Porter at The Sentencing Project. Here is how it gets started and its concluding paragraph:

The United States is the world leader in incarceration and keeps nearly 7 million persons under correctional control.  More than 2 million are in prison or jail, and 4.6 million are under community surveillance on probation or parole.  At least 19 million persons are living with a felony conviction while an estimated 100 million have a criminal record.  The persistence of extremely punitive sentencing laws and policies, not increases in crime rates, sustain the nation’s high rate of incarceration.  Ending mass incarceration requires a transformative change to sentencing policies and practices aligned with the scaling back of collateral consequences of conviction, and challenging racial disparities in the criminal justice system.  In recent years most states have enacted reforms designed to reduce the scale of incarceration and the impact of the collateral consequences.  This briefing paper highlights key reforms undertaken in 2020 prioritized by The Sentencing Project....

Lawmakers advanced policy reforms to address mass incarceration and scale back collateral consequences.  Too few policy changes were adopted to address COVID-19 and its impact on the incarcerated in overcrowded congregate lock ups.  While reforms help improve criminal justice policy, most measures will have a modest impact on the scale of incarceration.  It will take substantial changes to significantly reduce the nation’s rate of incarceration.  Given the limited impact of incarceration on crime, there continues to be potential for substantial reductions in state prison populations.  Lawmakers and advocates must explore key changes that limit the use of incarceration by retroactively ending mandatory minimum sentencing, adopting universal sentencing review policies, challenging racial disparities through structural reforms, and addressing collateral consequences.

January 15, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 09, 2021

SCOTUS grants cert on four new criminal cases, including one on FIRST STEP Act retroactivity of reduced crack sentences

The Supreme Court last night issued this order list which grants review in 14 new cases that will be heard later this SCOTUS Term.  Four of the cases involve criminal issues, and one is a sentencing case concerning the reach and application of the FIRST STEP Act's provisions making the reduced crack sentences of the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.  This SCOTUSblog post has a lot more about the sentencing case and a brief review of the others:

In Terry v. United States, the justices agreed to weigh in on a technical sentencing issue that has significant implications for thousands of inmates: whether a group of defendants who were sentenced for low-level crack-cocaine offenses before Congress enacted the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 are eligible for resentencing under the First Step Act of 2018. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced (but did not eliminate) the disparity in sentences for convictions involving crack and powder cocaine, and the First Step Act made the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.  The specific question that the court agreed to decide is whether the changes made by the First Step Act extend to inmates convicted of the most minor crack-cocaine offenses.

In a “friend of the court” brief urging the justices to grant review in another case presenting the same question, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers explained that the lower courts are divided on this question; as a result, NACDL wrote, Supreme Court review is necessary “to prevent thousands of predominately Black defendants from being forced to spend years longer in prison than identically situated defendants” elsewhere in the country “and to ensure that Congress’s goal of alleviating the racial disparities in sentencing caused by the 1986 law’s harsh sentencing regime is realized.”

Other grants on Friday are:

  • Greer v. United States: Whether, when applying plain-error review based on an intervening decision of the Supreme Court, a court of appeals can look at matters outside the trial record to determine whether the error affected a defendant’s substantial rights or affected the trial’s fairness, integrity or public reputation....
  • United States v. Palomar-Santiago: Whether charges that a non-citizen illegally reentered the United States should be dismissed when the non-citizen’s removal was based on the misclassification of a prior conviction....
  • United States v. Gary: Whether a defendant who pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm is automatically entitled to plain-error relief if the district court did not advise him that one element of that offense is knowing that he is a felon.

January 9, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 04, 2021

Group of Virginia prosecutors urge state lawmakers to enact major criminal justice reforms

As detiled in this local article, headlined "‘Progressive prosecutors’ want Virginia to end the death penalty, cash bail and mandatory minimums," a group of elected prosecutors in the Commonwealth of Virginia are urging their state legislature to enact an array of criminal justice reforms.  Here are the basics:

A handful of self-described “progressive” Virginia prosecutors — including four from Hampton Roads — called Monday for state lawmakers to make dramatic changes to the state’s criminal justice system, including ending the death penalty, cash bail and mandatory minimum sentences and changing the “three strikes” law.

In a letter Monday to state leaders, the Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice group said the changes would “help keep our communities safe while producing more equitable outcomes in our courts.”

The group of 12 prosecutors includes the elected commonwealth’s attorneys from Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Portsmouth.  The prosecutors come from cities and counties that make up more than 40% of the state’s population, according to the group.

The changes are likely to meet resistance from other prosecutors and from at least some Republicans in the legislature. Though Democrats now control both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in a generation, some legislation backed by liberals has met resistance from more moderate members of the party.

The prosecutors want legislation that would allow certain criminal records to be expunged automatically — and for free — after people keep a clean record for a certain amount of time....

The prosecutors are also asking for:

  • Ending mandatory minimum sentences, which the prosecutors said lead to “irrationally lengthy” sentences that “fuel mass incarceration while exacerbating … racial and socioeconomic inequities.”
  • Eliminating cash bail. The prosecutors said cash bail creates a two-tiered justice system, “one for the rich and one for everyone else,” and the impacts of not being able to post bail disproportionately affect people of color.
  • Abolishing the death penalty.
  • Changing an aspect of the “three strikes” law that increases a misdemeanor larceny charge to a felony if a person has a prior misdemeanor larceny conviction.

The full letter from the prosecutors can be found at this link.

January 4, 2021 in State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Interesting account of folks in Washigton state having second thoughts about three-strikes sentences

This lengthy new local article, headlined "New laws lead some Washington prosecutors to rethink three-strike life sentences," is an interesting review of efforts to review extreme sentences in the Evergreen State. Here are some excerpts from the piece:

Following the law enforcement killing of George Floyd, policing has grabbed the lion’s share of attention when it comes to reforming criminal justice. Yet, statistics reveal stark racial disparities in who goes to prison, and for how long.

In Washington, there is probably no greater example than the three-strikes law approved by voters in 1993 — the nation’s first and an embodiment of the tough-on-crime era, designed to ensure “persistent offenders” would never be free to commit more crimes.  Judges are required to hand down life sentences to repeat offenders of a wide array of crimes, from murder and rape to robbery and assault, and every year, more men and women are sentenced under the law.

While a majority of three-strikes prisoners are white, ... Black people, representing about 4% of the state’s population, account for 38% of 289 current three-strikes prisoners sentenced in Washington (including eight transferred to other states), according to the most comprehensive data released to date by the Department of Corrections (DOC), provided to The Seattle Times in December.  An additional six of 16 people who died in prison while serving three-strikes sentences were Black....

Ever since three strikes was enacted, people have argued about whether those it targets deserve their fate.  And yet, it has been surprisingly hard to track what crimes they committed.  The state stopped reporting the records of three strikes prisoners after 2008 and only recently resumed.

But a Seattle Times analysis of DOC data for the 289 current three-strikes prisoners shows more than half, 155 people, received a life sentence after assault, burglary, robbery or drug-related convictions triggered the third and final strike. Some previously committed more severe crimes.  About half of current three-strikes prisoners have murder, manslaughter or sex crimes on their record.

January 3, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 28, 2020

Reviewing remarkable recent criminal justice reforms in the state of Michigan

Ohio and Michigan have a long-standing rivalry on a number of fronts, but this local article highlights why I do not think any state could rival the state of up north with regard to its recent achievements in criminal justice reform.  This piece, headlined "Michigan lawmakers made big inroads on criminal justice reform, but advocates say there’s more to be done," merits a full read, and here is how it gets started:

In a legislative session dominated by disagreements over how best to handle the COVID-19 pandemic, there was one policy arena that united conservatives and progressives alike — criminal justice reform.  Over the course of two years, lawmakers were able to see through several criminal justice policy changes that have eluded previous legislatures for years, as well as several new recommendations made by a task force that had buy-in from experts, advocates, law enforcement, business groups, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration and Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack.

Those who worked closely on the reforms are quick to say the work isn’t over.  But soon, thousands of people with old criminal convictions on their records will be able to apply to seal those records from public view — and in a couple of years, some of those records will be expunged automatically if they don’t commit any new crimes.  Others who might otherwise have served a stint in county jail may not have to in the future due to legislation decriminalizing many traffic offenses and providing alternatives to jail time for low-level crimes.

“There will be effects that we don’t see right now...we will only see decades later,” outgoing House Speaker Lee Chatfield — who has credited his father’s work in jail ministry to his longstanding interest in making changes to the criminal justice system — said in his farewell speech on the House floor.  “We gave people a second chance,” he continued. “We gave people a fresh start, we gave people the opportunity to now be contributing members of society.”

Some of the major criminal justice legislation passed by both chambers with bipartisan support this session include:

  • Civil asset forfeiture bills requiring a person be convicted of a crime prior to permanent property seizure by law enforcement in most cases. The concept was introduced as a top priority in both legislative chambers in early 2019, and Whitmer signed the legislation in May of that year.

  • Legislation to raise the age of people automatically charged as adults in Michigan’s criminal justice system from 17 to 18. Michigan was one of the few remaining states where 17-year-olds are automatically tried, sentenced and incarcerated as adults if they’re charged with or convicted of a crime.  Whitmer signed the bills in October 2019, and they take effect in October 2021.

  • “Clean Slate” legislation designed to simplify and expand expungement options for people who have gone several years without committing another offense.  The package, signed by Whitmer in October, opens up the expungement process to low-level marijuana convictions and many traffic offenses, increases the overall number of expungements a person can receive and allows consolidations of multiple convictions that occurred in the same 24-hour time period.  Lawmakers included a two-year window for the state to set up a system for processing automatic expungement, and other bills in the package are written to take effect 180 days after they’re enacted.

  • Additional expungement-related bills passed in the legislature’s “lame duck” session, including adding first-time drunken-driving convictions and certain crimes committed by minors to the list of what could be wiped from criminal records.  Another bill sent to the governor’s desk this month directs $24 million from the Marihuana Registry Fund to the Michigan Set Aside Fund.

  • A House package redefining the term “good moral character” in state law to remove barriers to obtaining many occupational licenses for people with a prior criminal conviction. Under existing law, any criminal conviction can be taken into consideration by a licensing board when determining a person’s fitness for a profession — under the bill package, only serious crimes that posed a threat to public safety or were directly related to the occupation in question could be taken into consideration.

  • House legislation reducing penalties for a number of low-level offenses from misdemeanors to civil infractions, including driving on a suspended license.  Other related bills would limit driver’s license suspensions to offenses related specifically to dangerous driving and eliminate mandatory sentencing for a variety of offenses.

  • Senate legislation expanding law enforcement discretion to issue citations for most misdemeanors in lieu of arrest and creating a presumption of a sentence other than jail for most misdemeanors and certain felonies.  Other bills would ensure summonses are used for most first-time failure to appear in court and reforms the state’s probation and parole policies, capping jail sanctions for technical probation violations and allowing more discretion to assess risks and needs.

  • A Senate bill lifting a ban on food assistance for people with more than one drug-related felony on their record.

December 28, 2020 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 18, 2020

"How States Transformed Criminal Justice in 2020, and How They Fell Short"

The title of this post is the title of this big retrospective put together masterfully by Daniel Nichanian at The Appeal: Political Report.  I highly recommend review of the whole piece, so that you can fully understand its subhealine: "This year of crises, revisited. Nearly 90 state-level bills and initiatives. 17 themes. 7 maps." And here is the lengthy piece's preamble to the issue-by-issue review of reforms:

Throughout 2020’s unprecedented challenges, criminal justice reform advocates called for sweeping changes.  But state officials and legislatures largely ducked the COVID-19 pandemic that is raging inside prisons and jails, and the protests against police brutality and racial justice that followed Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s murders.  With some exceptions, they forgoed the sort of reforms that would have significantly emptied prisons amid the public health crisis or confronted police brutality and racial injustice in law enforcement.

Still, on other issues there was headway, and states — whose laws and policies control a lot about incarceration and criminal legal systems—set new milestones: They decriminalized drug possession, expanded and automated expungement availability, repealed life without parole for minors and the death penalty, and ended prison gerrymandering, among other measures.

Throughout the year, The Appeal: Political Report tracked bills, initiatives, and reforms relevant to mass incarceration.  Just as in 2019, here’s a review of major changes states adopted in 2020.

Jump to the sections on: the death penaltydrug policyearly release and paroleyouth justicepolicingfines and feespretrial detentiontrials and sentencingvoting rightsexpungement and re-entryprison gerrymandering — and then there’s more.

December 18, 2020 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Bipartisan drug sentencing reform in Ohio thwarted by opposition from prosecutors (and former prosecutors)

As well reported in this local article, headlined "Ohio lawmakers pass one criminal justice measure, but a second, broader bill appears to be dead," a long-running effort to reform drug sentencing in Ohio failed to get completely to the finish line in the state General Assembly.  Here are the details:

The Ohio Senate passed a bill Thursday evening that urges more drug treatment and makes it easier for people to have their criminal records sealed.

But a broader criminal justice reform measure that reclassifies many smaller-level drug possession felonies to misdemeanors and requires addicts get treatment looks like it will die in these final days of the 133rd Ohio General Assembly....

“Barring a miracle, I believe it’s dead,” said the Buckeye Institute’s Greg Lawson. “Everything I’ve heard is it’s not coming to the floor.”

A large coalition that includes dozens of organizations across the ideological spectrum — from the conservative Buckeye Institute and the Ohio chapter of Americans for Prosperity to the progressive American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and Faith in Public Life — was pushing for both bills to pass. Advocates are disappointed that SB 3 appears to have failed....

SB 3 had powerful detractors in prosecutors and judges — including Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor — who felt the bill would strip judges of discretion, would neutralize the tools that drug courts can use to nudge people through rehabilitation, and would remove an incentive to overcome addiction if there was no threat of a felony conviction.

Gov. Mike DeWine, a former Ohio attorney general and county prosecutor, has said he opposed the bill.

What that ignores, argued Micah Derry, AFP Ohio director, is that felonies follow people for the rest of their lives, even when someone does recover from addiction.  These days, with the power of data mining on the Internet, sealing a record may not shut the books on one’s past.  Many companies that specialize in employment background checks can still find past crimes, thanks to capturing and saving data over time.  “There’s not a single county prosecutor who is a person of color,” Derry said. “Not to get too racial about it, but there’s a reason why people of color have the books thrown at them more than other people.”

Earlier on Thursday, Harm Reduction Ohio, the largest distributor of naloxone in the state, reported drug overdose deaths were high in 2020, with many counties reporting records for the year — especially in Central Ohio and the Appalachian part of the state.  Final data for the year isn’t expected until mid-2021 from the Ohio Department of Health.

The crux of SB 3, mandatory treatment for addicts and reclassification of many felonies to misdemeanors, will unlikely be resurrected next year, said ACLU of Ohio’s Chief Lobbyist Gary Daniels. DeWine will still be in office.  So will Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice who hasn’t brought it to a floor vote.

Especially because I know many folks who have worked so very hard for years to advance SB3, it is really disappointing that House Speaker Cupp (a former local prosecutor) would not allow a floor vote even after the bll earned committee approval.  I sense that SB3 would have passed in the Ohio House if given a floor vote, and I suspect Gov DeWine (a former local prosecutor) might have ultimately been convinced to sign the bill or allow it to become law.  Especially because House Speaker Cupp perviously served on the Ohio Supreme Court, I wonder if the consistent SB3 opposition of Chief Justice O'Conner (a former local prosecutor) contributed to his unwillingness to even allow this bill to get a vote.

Among other stories, this sad legislative tale serves as yet another reminder of how hard it will be to even slightly revamp the war on drugs no matter how clear its failures are (as well documented by Harm Reduction Ohio).  SB3 did not decriminalize anything (and I believe it increased sentences for hgh-level trafficking); the bill simply sought to reclassify the lowest level drug-possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.  But after two years of very hard work by effective advocates on both sides of the aisle, prosecutors and former prosecutors were able to keep this modest reform from even getting a full and fair vote in the Ohio General Assembly.  Sigh.

December 18, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

California voters reject ballot initiatives to roll back sentencing reforms and to eliminate cash bail among other notable votes

As reported in this AP piece, there were some notable mixed results on a number of California criminal justice ballot initiatives.  Here is the AP accounting of the two biggest items:

California has upheld several criminal justice changes, endorsing recent efforts to ease mass incarceration by reducing penalties and allowing for earlier releases. Voters also appeared likely to maintain the state’s current cash bail system as a majority opted for the status quo on both criminal justice ballot measures.

Voters on Tuesday defeated Proposition 20, rejecting supporters’ pleas to address what they called the “unintended consequences” of two previously approved ballot measures. One lowered penalties for drug and property crimes in 2014, while the second two years later allowed the earlier parole of most felons.

Voters by a 63% to 37% margin rejected proposals that would have barred criminals convicted of certain serious offenses from earlier release, increased penalties for repeated retail thefts, toughened parole standards and allowed for broader DNA collections.  Opponents said the measure would have set back reforms just as the nation focuses on a criminal justice system that has treated people of color inequitably.

Jay Jordan, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice that backed the reforms, called the proposition’s defeat “a significant milestone in California’s ongoing effort to make its criminal justice system more effective” and said it would advance national reform efforts. Former governor Jerry Brown championed the 2016 ballot measure that allowed most felons to seek earlier parole and put $1 million of his remaining campaign funds into contesting Proposition 20....

Voters were also leaning toward keeping the state’s current cash bail system, with 55% rejecting a law passed in 2018 that would substitute risk assessments to decide who should remain in jail awaiting trial. The law stalled when the bail industry went to the ballot box.

Even some prominent civil rights groups agreed the system is broken but said the proposed fix might be even worse because it relies on risk assessments that The Bail Project says “codify systemic racism and could lead to higher rates of incarceration in some jurisdictions.”

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat from Los Angeles who wrote the law, said before Election Day that ending cash bail would put California “on the path to a more fair and more safe justice system that treats everyone equally under the law.” While most states recently have altered their pretrial release laws or policies, voters’ approval of Proposition 25 would make California “the only state with a complete prohibition on fiscal conditions of release,” according to National Conference of State Legislatures criminal justice expert Amber Widgery.

Under the new system, no one would pay bail and most misdemeanor suspects would remain free. Those charged with felonies or misdemeanor domestic violence, sex offenses or driving while intoxicated would be evaluated for their perceived risk of committing another crime or not appearing in court. Most would eventually be released, unless they are accused of certain crimes like murder or arson, or if a judge finds there are no conditions like electronic monitoring that could ensure their appearance at future hearings.

All the results of the California propositions can be found on in this article, which notes that another notable criminal justice reform passes:

Proposition 17 –  Allow Felon Parolees to Vote (Yes = 59.0%, No = 41.0%)

The passage of Proposition 17 grants the right to vote to parolees with felony convictions. Imprisoned convicted felons remain disqualified from voting.

And this Los Angeles Times piece, headlined "From George Gascón to jail diversion, criminal justice reform got a big boost in California," highlights the criminal-justice-reform-minded votes in Los Angeles bringing in a new DA and a local measure requiring "that 10% of locally generated, unrestricted county money — estimated between $360 million and $900 million — be spent on a variety of social services, including housing, mental health treatment and investments in communities disproportionally harmed by racism [while] the county would be prohibited from using the money on prisons, jails or law enforcement agencies."

November 4, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 30, 2020

Will problematic definition of "violence" convictions impact Oklahoma sentencing reform initiative SQ 805?

I have highlighted in a few prior posts SQ 805, a fascinating Oklahoma ballot initiative seeking to block non-violent prior convictions from enhancing statutory punishment ranges.  This new Mother Jones story provide useful context concerning Oklahoma reforms while also noting a potential problem with how SQ 805 is drafted.  The full headline of the piece serves to summarize its coverage: "How a Domestic Violence Loophole Could Doom a Campaign to Cut Oklahoma’s Harsh Prison Sentences: A wrinkle threatens public support for the state’s progress against mass incarceration."  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

For the last four years, the fight against mass incarceration in Oklahoma has been a story of unlikely success.  In 2016, after decades of creeping prison populations, the state’s incarceration rate reached levels so astronomical that the Prison Policy Initiative would dub it the “world’s prison capital“: More than 1 in 100 Oklahomans was locked up in a prison, jail, juvenile hall, or immigration detention facility.  But that year, the same electorate that voted to send Donald Trump to the White House by a 36-point margin also approved a ballot measure softening their state’s notoriously hardline criminal code.

That measure, State Question 780, was a turning point.  It downgraded drug possession and a slate of minor property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, while a second measure ensured the money saved by downsizing prisons would go to rehabilitative programs.  In 2017, 14,000 fewer felony charges were filed by Oklahoma prosecutors; not long after, the state’s prison population began to fall. Meanwhile, politicians took note of the message the voters had sent.  In 2018, the state legislature, where Republicans hold a supermajority, passed more reforms, including streamlining the parole process.  Republican businessman Kevin Stitt made reducing the prison population part of his pitch for the governor’s seat, and won.

This year, Oklahoma voters could send another jolt to the system by voting for State Question 805 — another adjustment to the state’s harsh sentencing practices.  If it passes, SQ 805 could reduce the prison population by 8.5 percent over the next 10 years, according to a projection by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank that supports the initiative.

SQ 805 would add a provision to the state constitution prohibiting prosecutors and courts from jacking up the sentences of people convicted of nonviolent felonies if they have an earlier nonviolent felony on their record....

But there’s a significant wrinkle threatening public support for SQ 805, and in turn, Oklahoma’s slow but steady progress against mass incarceration: The measure distinguishes violent from nonviolent felonies using an outdated list from Oklahoma’s legal code.  As of January, that list of “violent” crimes did not include certain domestic violence charges, such as domestic abuse by strangulation, or domestic assault with a dangerous or deadly weapon. If SQ 805 passes, it would continue to allow courts to impose enhanced sentences for any crimes on that list as of January 1, 2020 — including assault and battery, murder, rape, child abuse, and so on — but not those domestic violence charges.  (Oklahoma lawmakers added some domestic violence charges to the violent felonies list in May, too late for SQ 805’s cutoff date.)

Prior related posts:

October 30, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Understanding Proposition 20, the latest chapter of California's experiments with sentencing reform via initiative

I have noticed more than a few recent media pieces about the notable sentencing reform measure on the ballot in California this year, Proposition 20, and here is a sample:

The start of the LA Times piece seems to provide a pretty clear account of the range of complicated state reform realities connected to Prop 20:

As much of the country weighs changes to the criminal justice system, California has had a head start, adopting a series of laws in the last decade that, among other things, helped reduce the state’s prison population by more than one-third, or 50,000 people.

Now a group of prosecutors and law enforcement leaders has placed Proposition 20 on the November statewide ballot, which would expand the list of felonies for which the convicted are ineligible for early parole; increase penalties for repeat shoplifters; and collect DNA samples from adults convicted of some misdemeanors.

Proponents argue that it is needed to fix flaws in past measures that they say are putting the public’s safety at risk, including the early release of potentially violent criminals. But opponents of the measure, who include civil rights leaders, Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Gov. Jerry Brown, say it wrongly rolls back necessary criminal justice reforms as crime has declined in recent years. “California is ahead of the game — we’ve done so many great reforms,” said Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), a retired sheriff’s captain and proponent of Proposition 20. “But there have been unintended consequences with these reforms.”

Brown, who led past reform efforts, called the initiative “very inhuman.” He said it takes away hope and incentives for prison inmates to pursue educational opportunities and demonstrate good behavior to improve their chances of getting out early. “Proposition 20 is supported by a very narrow group of people who don’t accept even the modest prison reforms that I was able to achieve,” Brown said. “It’s driven by ideology and, in some cases, by a total lack of understanding of human nature and no sense of redemption or allowing people to put their lives on track. It’s vindictive.”

Brown was governor when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that California’s prisons were overcrowded in violation of constitutional protections.  That year, he signed Assembly Bill 109 into law to reduce the state prison population by requiring that many people convicted of felonies not involving violence or sex offenses serve their sentences in county jails instead of state prison.

In 2014, California voters approved Proposition 47, which reclassified many lower-level drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.  Before then, thefts could be considered a felony if stolen merchandise was valued at $450 or more, but Proposition 47 raised the threshold to $950.

Proposition 57, which Brown developed and was approved by California voters in 2016, increased parole and good behavior opportunities for those convicted of nonviolent felonies.

The new initiative to be voted on Nov. 3 makes key changes in the previous three laws.

The measure would broaden the list of crimes that make inmates ineligible for early release from state prison through the parole program in Proposition 57, adding 22 offenses, including trafficking a child for sex and felony domestic violence.

The measure also would increase penalties for people who commit multiple thefts, including serial shoplifting, to address a spate of such crimes, and would mandate the collection of DNA samples from adults convicted of crimes newly classified as misdemeanors under AB 109, including forging checks and certain domestic violence crimes.

In addition, Proposition 20 would require the state Board of Parole Hearings to weigh an inmate’s entire criminal history when deciding parole, not just the most recent offense, which was the standard set by AB 109.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan group CalMatters has this helpful page about Prop 20 which includes a two-minute video seeking to summarize the initiative.  This Ballotpedia page on Prop 20 reveals a lot of money has been donated to both the proponents and opponents of this reform, but it does not report on any polling on the topic.  I have seen other reports on polling calling this ballot issue a "coin toss" because of so many undecideds.  In other words, as always seems to be the case, California in Nov 2020 is yet again a state to watch for those interested in the state of criminal justice reform efforts.

October 17, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 01, 2020

Lots and lots of notable (and very consequential?) new criminal justice reforms now law in California

CaliforniaflagCalifornia has long been a very big and very interesting and very complicated state when it comes to criminal justice and sentencing reform. This fascinating state story continued with a lot of new bills being signed yesterday by Gov Gavin Newsom. This local article (which somewhat tracks this official document from the Governors office) provides some of the details and provides especially helpful links to the underlying legislation.  Here are excerpts focused on criminal justice reforms with my bolding added for follow-up comments:

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed landmark bills into law on Wednesday, the last day available for the governor to sign legislation.  The docket included racial justice, criminal justice, and policing reform, as well as legislation related to cannabis, rental housing, and banning hazardous chemicals and ingredients in cosmetics. 

This long list of signed bills has my head spinning, and the title of this post highlights that I am particularly curious and particularly uncertain about how consequential all these bills are likely to be.  I have bolded the two bills that, as a sentencing fan, strike me as particularly intriguing and potentially very consequential. 

AB 1950, which caps the duration of probation terms, has been described by REFORM Alliance as the "most transformative probation reform bill in the country."  This new Fox News article, headlined "Jay-Z, Meek Mill's REFORM Alliance celebrate 'major victory' with Calif. Gov. Newsom passing probation bill," talks about this new bill and the efforts and people behind making it law.  Here is a snippet:

On Wednesday, REFORM announced on Instagram it was celebrating a "MAJOR REFORM VICTORY." Through its verified Instagram account, the alliance thanked California Gov. Gavin Newsom for signing AB 1950 into law.  "This bill will help put hundreds of thousands of Californians on probation in positions to succeed and exit the criminal justice system for good.  Thank you @GavinNewsom!" the Instagram post reads.  In a follow-up post, the organization wrote, "This is just the beginning. This is how we #fightdifferent."...

REFORM's CEO Van Jones explained in a video statement that the law will essentially "make people be on probation for much less time" and will "give people a much better shot at getting out of that system, getting what they need and getting on their way."  The premise is to reduce the number of probation violations.

AB 2542, which provides for a California Racial Justice Act, seems to be the biggest and broadest racial justice act ever passed by any state because it seems to apply to all convictions and sentences and not just death sentences as did comparable Racial Justice Act passed in Kentucky and North Carolina years ago.  Notably, Michelle Alexander wrote this op-ed last week endorsing this bill and explaining its reach this way (with my emphasis added):

The new law will make it possible for a person charged or convicted of a crime to challenge racial, ethnic, and national-origin bias in their case through relevant evidence, including: 

▪ Explicit racial bias by an attorney, judge, law enforcement officer, expert witness, or juror involved in the case.

▪ Use of racially discriminatory language in court and during the criminal proceedings, whether or not intentional.

▪ Racial bias in jury selection, such as removing all or nearly all Black, brown, Native, Indigenous and people of color from the jury.

▪ Statistical disparities in charging and convictions — that is, evidence that people of one race are disproportionately charged or convicted of a specific crime or enhancement.

▪ Statistical disparities in sentencing — that is, evidence that people of one race receive longer or more severe sentences, including the death penalty or life without parole.

I believe that the new California Racial Justice Act only applies prospectively, and so we will not see extensive litigation over past sentences as we did in North Carolina (and which led to the repeal of that state's Racial Justice Act). But even as just a prospective measure, I am inclined to predict that this new statute could prove highly consequential in all sorts of ways.

I am hopeful that smart folks who focus on the California criminal justice system might soon blog about to these bills and their potential impacts. And, of course, another wave of reform in California might not be far away: as this article highlights under the headline "Three ballot measures test attitudes on crime in California," a set of criminal justice initiatives being put to California voters next month will add to this remarkable 2020 reform chapter in the Golden State.

October 1, 2020 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 26, 2020

"The Perils of 'Old' and 'New' in Sentencing Reform"

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

The introduction of actuarial risk assessment tools into the sentencing process is a controversial, but popular trend in the states.  While tools' proliferation is debated from numerous angles, scholarship tends to emphasize why this reform is new or old, and focus on whether and how this trend may improve or undermine sentencing law and policy.  This Essay suggests that the institutionalization of actuarial risk assessments into the sentencing process in response to social and political critiques of criminal administration is both a new and old idea.  It situates the proliferation of actuarial risk assessments in the context of technical guidelines created to structure and regulate judicial sentencing discretion in the 1980s and beyond.  It then examines debates about two conceptual issues — selective incapacitation and equality — to highlight that technical sentencing reforms raise recurring questions at sentencing, even as social perspectives on resolving those questions are shifting.

Rather than using the "old" nature of these issues as evidence that actuarial risk assessments should proliferate, however, this Essay urges critical reflection on the turn toward the technical in the present day, in the face of mass incarceration.  It urges scholars to dispense of the "old" and "new" concept when reflecting on whether and why actuarial risk assessments are proliferating in the states.  It also encourages scholars to draw on the expansive methodological approaches applied to study of sentencing guidelines when considering this reform going forward.

September 26, 2020 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

"Criminal Law Update: A Survey of State Law Changes in 2019"

The title of this post is the title of this notable publication from The Federal Society authored by Robert Alt.  Here is how it gets started:

In 2019, state legislatures across the country modified rules and procedures related to every part of the criminal justice system, from pretrial detention to post-sentence re-entry.  States passed new legislation and amended their criminal codes addressing a range of criminal justice concerns.  A review of the legal landscape shows that states were most willing to adjust their criminal laws related to sentencing, record expungement and offender registries, marijuana legalization, and felon reenfranchisement.  This paper is not intended to serve as an exhaustive list of new criminal justice legislation in 2019, but rather highlights the most common reforms that fall generally among those categories.

As in 2018, criminal justice laws enacted in 2019 did not take a singular approach.  Some states, for example, significantly enhanced penalties for certain offenses, while others reduced sentences and repealed mandatory minimums.  Alaska adopted comprehensive criminal justice legislation that included repealing “catch and release” pretrial protocols, even as New York all but ended its pretrial detention and cash bail system.  Three states revised rules for offender release and re-entry, and two states continued the national trend of restricting civil asset forfeiture and making the process more transparent.  A handful of states amended their treatment of juvenile offenders, and several more stopped suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and court costs.

Support for and opposition to criminal laws and punishments do not tend to break along traditional partisan lines. Although some legislative reforms proved to be politically contentious, including New York’s bail reform and Florida’s new re-enfranchisement requirements, others were largely bipartisan efforts wherein legislatures and governors from both ends of the political spectrum reached tenable compromises. Some legislatures even passed measures unanimously.

August 26, 2020 in Offense Characteristics, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Fascinating Oklahoma initiative seeking to block non-violent prior convictions from enhancing statutory range of punishment qualifies for ballot

The COVID pandemic has derailed various ballot initiatives in various jurisdictions, but I am very pleased to see this news about the success of one criminal justice reform effort in at least making it to the ballot in Oklahoma.  Here are the details and some background:

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that enough voter signatures were collected to put a question regarding sentence enhancements for nonviolent offenders on the ballot on November 3.

More than 248,000 Oklahomans signed an initiative petition to get State Question 805 on the ballot.

Sentence enhancements allow courts to widen the range of years they can sentence a person to prison if that person has been convicted of another felony in the past.  The state question will ask voters to take that power away from courts when they’re sentencing people who have never been convicted of a violent felony.

A recent analysis from the Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs suggests ending enhancements for nonviolent offenders could cut the state’s prison population more than eight percent in 10 years and save the state up to $186 million.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections questions some of the study’s findings.

A 2017 report from a task force established by former Governor Mary Fallin found that sentence enhancements were a large contributor to Oklahoma’s disproportionately high prison population.

Because I am not an expert on Oklahoma's current politics around sentencing reforms, I do not have a keen sense of whether this initiative has a real chance of passage.  But I do sense this initiative could and should engender an important national conversation about often out-sized impact of (even minor) criminal history at sentencing.  And in light of this OCPA report stressing the fiscal savings of this reform, it will be quite interesting to see how debates over public safety and state spending play out in a very red state circa fall 2020.  The OCPA report has this summary and concluding thoughts providing its accounting of what State Question 805 might achieve:

Oklahoma criminal statutes typically provide a sentencing range for each offense. A separate law allows even longer sentences—sometimes including life in prison—for persons with prior felony convictions. People convicted of non-violent property and drug offenses are the most likely to receive enhanced penalties under this law and also receive the harshest sentence increases.

State Question 805 would limit this sentence enhancement to crimes that the legislature considers violent.  This should reduce Oklahoma’s prison population by 8.5% over the next 10 years. That would reduce state expenses between $45 million and $186 million, with expected savings of at least $142 million. Taxpayer savings of up to $27 million per year would continue indefinitely into the future.  These funds could be directed to substance abuse and mental health services, victim’s services, reentry programs, or other public safety priorities....

With all of these changes, however, SQ 805 would still only reduce Oklahoma to the fourth-most incarcerated state in the nation.  Rather than the radical reductions opponents claim, this is a common-sense, limited adjustment to drug and property sentence lengths that will make Oklahoma’s failing criminal justice system more efficient and more fair.

Prior related post:

July 30, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, July 26, 2020

A century after his birth, just a few choice quotes to celebrate Marvin Frankel, father of sentencing reform

81p9ffvBF7LA kind reader pointed out for me that exactly 100 years ago today, the late great Marvin Frankel was born.  Though he served in many roles through his career, I think of this historic figure as Judge Frankel because of his service on the US District Court and especially because he was a judge when he wrote his most famous book, Criminal Sentences: Law Without Order.  This book's criticisms of "lawless" sentencing practices played a huge role in the emergence of structured sentencing systems, and Judge Frankel has been frequently and widely described as the "father of sentencing reform."

Though there are many reasons not to love the form of certain reforms (like the federal sentencing guidelines) that Judge Frankel helped engender, there are no reasons not to love Criminal Sentences: Law Without Order.  The book is less than 125 pages, and seemingly every page is full of shrewd insights and rhetorical flourishes.  In addition to being among the most influential books of legal scholarship, Criminal Sentences: Law Without Order is simply a great (and still timely) read.  Though it is hard to put together a fitting tribute to Judge Frankel, it is easy to find quotes from his book to provide a flavor of his contributions a century after his birth. So, a taste:

at page 5: "[T]he almost wholly unchecked and sweeping powers we give to judges in the fashioning of sentences are terrifying and intolerable for a society that professes devotion to the rule of law."

at pages 17-18: "Conditioned in the direction of authoritarianism by his daily life in court, long habituated as a lawyer to the stance of the aggressive contestant, and exercising sentencing powers frequently without practical limits, the trial judge is not discouraged from venting any tendencies toward righteous arrogance. The books and the reliable folklore are filled with the resulting horror stories — of fierce sentences and denunciatory attacks upon defendants."

at page 21: "[S]weeping penalty statutes allow sentences to be 'individualized' not so much in terms of defendants but mainly in terms of the wide spectrums of character, bias, neurosis, and daily vagary encountered among occupants of the trial bench."

at page 39: "The question “Why?” states a primitive and insistent human need. The small child, punished or deprived, demands an explanation. The existence of a rationale may not make the hurt pleasant, or even just. But the absence, or refusal, of reasons is a hallmark of injustice.... The despot is not bound by rules. He need not account for what he does. Criminal sentences, as our judges commonly pronounce them, are in these vital aspects tyrannical."

at page 103: "The arbitrary cruelties perpetrated daily under our existing sentencing practices are not easy to reconcile with the cardinal principles of our Constitution.  The largely unbridled powers of judges and prison officials stir questions under the clauses promising that life and liberty will not be denied except by 'due process of law.'  The crazy quilt of disparities — the wide differences in treatment of defendants whose situations and crimes look similar and whose divergent sentences are unaccounted for — stirs doubts as to whether the guarantee of the 'equal protections of the laws' is being fulfilled."  

Final paragraphs concluding with a call for the creation of a "Commission on Sentencing":

The uses of a commission, if one is created, will warrant volumes of debate and analysis.  For this moment and for this writer, the main thing is to plead for an instrumentality, whatever its name or detailed form, to marshal full-time wisdom and power against the ignorance and the barbarities that characterize sentencing for crimes today....

Lawyers and judges, tending to be human, are not likely to greet with rampant enthusiasm demands for change in their settled ways.... So to any reader who has come to this concluding paragraph — but perhaps somewhat especially to the lay reader — I would urge that you not close the topic along with the book.  The topic has to do with monstrous evils perpetrated daily for all of us, and with our implicit or express acquiescence.  The need for change is clear.  Our justly proud awareness that "we the people" have the power should carry with it a corollary sense of duty.  It is our duty to see that the force of the state, when it is brought to bear through the sentences of our courts, is exerted with the maximum we can muster of rational thought, humanity, and compassion.

July 26, 2020 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Recommended reading, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

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

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

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

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

July 14, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, June 21, 2020

"Investing in Failure: 2020 Ballot Initiative to Repeal Justice Reform Would Come at a High Cost to Californians"

The title of this post is the title of this recent report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice making the case against a ballot initiative before California voters this year.  Here is the report's introduction:

In November 2020, Californians will vote on a ballot initiative titled Restricts Parole for Non-Violent Offenders.  Authorizes Felony Sentences for Certain Offenses Currently Treated Only as Misdemeanors.  Initiative Statute (“the initiative”), which would roll back key elements of the state’s recent justice reforms, including Public Safety Realignment, Proposition 47, and Proposition 57 (AB 109, 2011; Prop 47, 2014; Prop 57; 2016; SOS, 2018).  In recent years, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) has analyzed the effects of other major reform initiatives, including the “Three Strikes” law reform, Proposition 47, and Proposition 57 (CJCJ, 2008; 2011; 2014; 2014a; 2014b; Ridolfi et al., 2016; 2016a).  This report considers the current initiative’s effects on budgets, jail and prison populations, and crime rates.  Our analysis suggests that the initiative’s passage could siphon scarce state resources and increase populations in jails and prisons to critical levels.

June 21, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 06, 2020

New (and free) Federal Sentencing Reporter issue on "State Prosecutors: Their Impact on Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice Reform"

As mentioned in this prior post, the academic publisher of the Federal Sentencing ReporterUniversity of California Press, has responded to the impact of the coronavirus crisis by making all UC Press online journal content free to everyone through June 2020.  I continue to be grateful to UC Press for this move, as it allows me to flag the latest FSR issue and some of the articles therein. This new issue was put together by FSR editor/Prof Nora Demleitner and the title and coverage in her opening article provides an an overview:

State Prosecutors at the Center of Mass Imprisonment and Criminal Justice Reform by Nora Demleitner:

In this Issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter we turn to the role of state prosecutors in sentencing.  In recent years, both the scholarly discourse and the advocacy community have increasingly focused on the impact prosecutors have had on mass imprisonment and the expansion of the supervision regime.  A new cohort of ‘‘progressive prosecutors’’ have campaigned on the promise of less imprisonment and greater racial equality.  Some have captured the head prosecutor positions in large U.S. jurisdictions, including Chicago, Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.  They have instituted a host of often dramatic changes. To date, smaller jurisdictions and less urban areas of the country have been little impacted by this prosecutorially driven move toward criminal justice reform.

This Issue highlights the different levels of decision making that are in the hands of prosecutors throughout the criminal justice process.  From the allocation of resources and charging policies to the explicit refusal to ever ask for a death sentence, prosecutorial choices impact the sentences the criminal justice system imposes.  With the ever-growing expansion of the prosecutorial toolbox and impact, increasingly the decisions of district attorneys have repercussions for other aspects of communities, such as the mental health system.  Prosecutor elections can have a vast impact on communities, but Carissa Hessick’s study on prosecutor elections in this Issue highlights how they can be undemocratic and how their importance can be underestimated.

The ongoing crisis surrounding COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that has brought countries, including our own, virtually to a standstill, vividly displays the role prosecutors play in our communities and the impact their decisions have on the welfare and life of those involved in the criminal justice system.  There may be no more powerful indicator of prosecutors’ influence than their ability to prioritize public health concerns during this crisis in order to help thin out jail populations and thereby create greater means to ‘‘social distance’’ behind bars.  Even though local prosecutors play an active role in populating state prisons, their role in decreasing the prison population is more limited, especially when prisons preclude front-end entry through jail transfers.

Here are some of the original articles from the issue:

Reimagining a Prosecutor’s Role in Sentencing by Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Courtney M. Oliva

Local Prosecutor Elections: Results of a National Study by Carissa Byrne Hessick

Prosecutor-Driven “Second-Look” Policies Are Encouraging, but Not a Panacea by Rory Fleming

Bettering Prosecutorial Engagement to Reduce Crime, Prosecutions, and the Criminal Justice Footprint by Assistant District Attorney Sabrina Margret Bierer

A Qualitative Perspective on Alternative Sentencing Practices in Virginia by Anne Metz

June 6, 2020 in State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Can the coronoavirus finally get Ohio's bipartsan criminal justice reforms over the finish line?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Fox News piece headlined "Ohio lawmakers hope for bipartisan reform of prison system stressed by COVID-19." Here are excerpts from a long piece:

Ohio lawmakers, lobbyists and researchers of various political stripes are finding a common cause in prison reform.  Bipartisan efforts to reform the troubled system have preceded the outbreak of COVID-19, but the virus has thrown the need for change into stark relief.

Across Ohio’s prison system, more than 4,300 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 40 inmates and two staff members have died.  The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) has a current inmate population of nearly 50,000, about 10,000 above capacity.  Already cramped living conditions have been exacerbated and stressed by a virus that has forced 39,000 inmates into quarantine, according to ODRC data.

The prison system has long been scrutinized by the left for its overcrowding problem.  Now, with the system wracked by a deadly virus, conservative lawmakers are turning a critical eye to the status quo. “When you have organizations across the political and ideological spectrum saying, oftentimes, identical things about mass incarceration – it makes people take notice,” said Gary Daniels, a lobbyist with the ACLU of Ohio....

Two such displays are House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 3, which would allow for intervention in lieu of conviction and reform drug sentencing laws, respectively, The bills contain changes widely agreed upon as common-sense reforms to Ohio's criminal justice system. Both would put fewer people behind bars for minor criminal infractions, allowing for rehabilitation and community monitoring for crimes that don’t merit incarceration....

Still, bipartisan acknowledgment of a problem doesn’t always prompt bipartisan legislative action. Solutions can languish in the statehouse for months while lawmakers debate the finer points. Sometimes party lines won’t be moved....

Cooperation between think tanks and policy advocacy organizations can be a prelude to lawmakers taking up a cause in committee. Rep. Diane Grendell, a Republican lawmaker from northern Ohio and former Court of Appeals judge, sits on the Ohio House Criminal Justice committee and anticipates seeing prison reform enacted reasonably soon. “We have failed in our prison system,” Grendell said. “We have more prisoners than we have jails for, we keep passing more and more laws, we have to really clean it up. And I think all sides agree on that. We just have too many people in prisons.”...

The Buckeye Institute has long lobbied for fiscally conservative policies.  Recently, those policies have included criminal justice reform like S.B. 3. Lawson said prisons are the state’s third-largest budget item behind Medicaid and education. The Buckeye Institute has backed prison reform bills alongside liberal groups like Policy Matters Ohio and the libertarian Americans for Prosperity....

Ohio Rep. Erica Crawley, a Democrat from southeastern Columbus, isn’t as hopeful about a new era of bipartisanship in Ohio, though she does recognize the likelihood of criminal justice reform. “The pandemic has really brought those concerns and conversations to the forefront,” she said. “… We are having a really substantive conversation about rehabilitation. Obviously, we can’t lock inmates up and get out of this drug problem.”

For years, Ohio has been at the center of the nation’s opioid epidemic, with the state prison and county jail systems bearing the brunt of the resulting increase in incarceration.... Crawley said current reform efforts are good, but don’t go far enough. She said the bills under consideration wouldn’t do enough to mitigate the prison population enough to matter if the state were struck with a future pandemic.

“Right now, we have over 15,000 inmates who are considered low-level, nonviolent offenders,” Crawley said. “A lot of those are drug convictions. S.B. 3 would still allow people to be incarcerated for small amounts of drugs.  Until we have consensus and local court policy guidelines, we’re going to continue to see the same problems. If we have another pandemic, we’re going to be in the same position.”

I want to be optimistic that Ohio's General Assembly might get both House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 3 to the desk of the Governor in short order.  But these bills have been "stuck" in the Ohio GA for quite some time, and Ohio's prison population has been way over capacity for even longer.  And despite a lot of public policy groups on both sides of the aisle supporting reform, many of the anti-reform usual suspects (e.g., prosecutors and police) have so far kept these relatively modest proposed reforms from becoming law.  I sure want to believe that the COVID crisis will get the Ohio GA to finally get these reforms enacted, but I never count any sentencing reform chickens before they are fully hatched.

May 9, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Great new Politico Magazine feature on "Justice Reform: The Decarceration Issue"

The Politico Magazine has a bunch of great new articles on criminal justice reform issued collected here under the heading "Justice Reform: The Decarceration Issue."  Here are the lengthy pieces under this heading with their full headlines:

Biden vs. Trump: Who’s the Actual Criminal Justice Reformer?: Suddenly, both the Republican and Democrat promise big changes. We matched their policies head-to-head, and asked experts for a reality check.

A Republican Crusader Takes on Oklahoma’s Prison Machine: In the state that locks up more of its citizens than any other, a former politician is using the ballot box—and some surprising alliances—to nudge his own party toward change.

How Oklahoma Popped Its Prison Bubble, In Charts: In 2016, Oklahoma incarcerated more people per capita than any other state. Then it began to bring those numbers down.

New York Tried to Get Rid of Bail. Then the Backlash Came. A national movement stalled by backlash politics gets some new wind at its back.

April 23, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Recommended reading, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 23, 2020

"Criminal Justice Reform in the Fentanyl Era: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back"

Fentanylgraphic_map_0The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Drug Policy Alliance. Here is part of its executive summary:

The U.S. is in the throes of a deadly overdose crisis that claimed almost 70,000 lives in 2018. Of those, around 30,000 deaths involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl.  Policymakers have responded to the overdose crisis with a rhetorical emphasis on “treatment instead of incarceration,” leading journalists to comment that we are in the midst of a “gentler war on drugs.”  However, despite a change in discourse, draconian policies have persisted and in many cases been expanded.  This is exemplified by many lawmakers’ reaction to fentanyl and other analog drugs, both on the state and federal level.

Since 2011, 45 states have proposed legislation to increase penalties for fentanyl while 39 states and Washington DC have passed or enacted such legislation.  At this moment, some members of Congress are working to codify harsher penalties by placing fentanyl analogs permanently into Schedule 1 in both the Senate and the House with proposed legislation like the Stopping Overdoses of Fentanyl Analogues Act of 2019 (SOFA) and the FIGHT Act.  In his annual State of the State 2020 address this month, New York’s Governor Cuomo proposed banning fentanyl analogs and expanding access to medication assisted treatment in the very same sentence.

Legislators have dusted off the drug war playbook and proposed a variety of new punitive measures including new mandatory minimum sentences, homicide charges, involuntary commitment, expanded powers for prosecutors and more.  These efforts repeat the mistakes that epitomize the failed war on drugs, while undermining efforts to reform our criminal justice system and pursue a public health approach to drug use.  Indeed, such proposals risk compounding the overdose crisis.

Punitive approaches to fentanyl are particularly disturbing because they run counter to recent policy shifts that have been largely bipartisan in nature. One recent policy shift is a growing promotion of public health approaches to drug use.  There is mounting support for a number of policies and interventions -- such as increasing access to voluntary, medication-assisted treatment and naloxoneb -- as more effective responses to the current overdose crisis than the revolving door of jail or prison.  Another notable policy shift is the long-overdue recognition that decades of harsh and racially-biased drug enforcement have had devastating consequences on individuals and communities, while wasting billions of taxpayer dollars.  A recent analysis of federal fentanyl sentencing revealed that 75% of all individuals sentenced for fentanyl trafficking were people of color, suggesting that fentanyl enforcement already mirrors other disparate drug enforcement.

The criminal justice reform movement has made tremendous progress on reducing drug sentences at the local, state and federal levels.  The trend toward tougher penalties for fentanyl presents a threat to the reform movement, undercutting initiatives to reduce mass criminalization and incarceration.  To date, none of the states that enacted harsher penalties for fentanyl, nor the federal government, have demonstrated a reduction in fentanyl-involved deaths because of these new laws.

In this context, the criminal justice reform movement must do more to combat punitive proposals, putting as much energy into challenging the exceptionalism around fentanyl as other efforts to reduce sentences.  This paper aims to shine a light on the danger that harsh fentanyl penalties present to the criminal justice reform movement and efforts to end the war on drugs.

January 23, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 17, 2020

The Sentencing Project reports briefly on "Top Trends in State Criminal Justice Reform, 2019"

The folks at The Sentencing Project have this helpful new short brief reviewing "Top Trends in State Criminal Justice Reform, 2019." The four-page document starts and ends this way:

The United States is a world leader in incarceration and keeps nearly 7 million persons under criminal justice supervision.  More than 2.2 million are in prison or jail, while 4.6 million are monitored in the community on probation or parole. More punitive sentencing laws and policies, not increases in crime rates, have produced this high rate of incarceration.  Ending mass incarceration will require changing sentencing policies and practices, scaling back the collateral consequences of conviction, and addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.  In recent years most states have enacted reforms designed to reduce the scale of incarceration and the impact of the collateral consequences of a felony conviction.  This briefing paper describes key reforms undertaken in 2019 prioritized by The Sentencing Project....

During 2019, lawmakers in several states enacted legislative changes to address high levels of imprisonment. While the reforms help improve criminal justice policy, most measures will have a modest impact on the scale of incarceration.  It will take more far-reaching measures to markedly reduce the nation’s rate of incarceration, which is far above that of other western nations. Given the limited impact of incarceration on crime, there is potential for significant reductions in state prison populations.  Lawmakers and advocates should explore key changes that limit the use of incarceration, challenge racial disparity, address collateral consequences, and improve outcomes for justice-involved youth.

January 17, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)