Thursday, December 02, 2021

Split Florida Supreme Court upholds imposition of maximum sentence based in part on defendant's claim of innocence

Via a lengthy divided ruling, the Florida Supreme Court handed down some interesting opinion today in Davis v. Florida, No. SC19-716 (Fla. Dec. 2, 2021) (available here).  Because the various judges fight over how to characterize the case and the ruling, I will just reprint the words of the leading opinions.  First the majority, via Chief Justice Canady:

We accepted jurisdiction to answer the certified question, but because the district court did not pass upon the entirety of the question as framed, we first rephrase it based on the specific circumstances presented by this case: 

DOES A TRIAL COURT, WHEN IMPOSING A SENTENCE ON A DEFENDANT WHO HAS VOLUNTARILY CHOSEN TO ALLOCUTE AND MAINTAIN HIS INNOCENCE AT THE SENTENCING HEARING, VIOLATE THE DEFENDANT’S DUE PROCESS RIGHTS BY CONSIDERING THE DEFENDANT’S FAILURE TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR HIS ACTIONS?...

We hold that when a defendant voluntarily chooses to allocute at a sentencing hearing, the sentencing court is permitted to consider the defendant’s freely offered statements, including those indicating a failure to accept responsibility. Thus, we answer the rephrased question in the negative and approve the result in the decision on review.

Now the chief dissent via Justice Polson:

I dissent from the majority’s decision holding that a trial court can punish a defendant for his lack of remorse during a sentencing proceeding.  This result is inconsistent with our precedent interpreting article I, section 9 of the Florida Constitution, the consensus among the district courts of appeal, and has no basis in our statutory sentencing scheme. Showing remorse is admitting you did something wrong — an admission of guilt.  And increasing a defendant’s sentence based on the failure to show remorse is punishing a defendant for failing to admit guilt.  Punishing someone unless they confess guilt of a crime is a violation of due process and the right against self-incrimination.  Accordingly, I would hold that a trial court violates a defendant’s constitutional right to due process and right against self-incrimination where it penalizes a defendant for the failure to admit guilt.

Notably, more two decades ago, the US Supreme Court held Mitchell v. US, 526 U.S. 314 (1999), that it was unconstitutional to use "petitioner’s silence against her in determining the facts of the offense at the sentencing hearing."  Presumably that ruling in part explains why the majority hear makes much of the defendant voluntarily choosing to allocute and assert innocence.  

December 2, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

What might be crime and punishment echoes if Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade?

The big news of the law world yesterday was the Supreme Court hearing oral argument in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the abortion case out of Mississippi which is viewed as a vehicle for the Justices to reconsider and potentially overrule abortion rights precedents like Roe and Casey.  Based on press reports, as collected here at How Appealing, it sure sounds like a majority of the Justices are prepared to overrule Roe.  Recalling some headlines revealing how abortion laws and debates can implicate crime and punishment issues, I thought it might be useful to flag some press articles of relatively recent vintage which highlight how the overruling of Roe could become of considerable interest for those who focus on criminal justice matters. 

Interestingly, the law at issue in the Dobbs case, Mississippi's Gestational Age Act, appears to only have "Professional sanctions and civil penalties" as the enforcement tools for seeking "to restrict the practice of nontherapeutic or elective abortion to the period up to the fifteenth week of gestation."  However, as highlighted by this cursory and abridged review of some press pieces, criminal law and even extreme punishments can be part of an abortion restriction discourse and may become very dynamic if Supreme Court actually does overturn Roe v. Wade:

From Chicago Tribune from April 2018, "Who would be punished for abortion in a post-Roe America?"

From CNN in May 2019, "Alabama doctors who perform abortions could face up to 99 years in prison -- the same as rapists and murderers"

From Texas Tribune in March 2021, "Another Texas GOP lawmaker is attempting to make abortion punishable by the death penalty"

From Slate in September 2021, "Caught in the Net: Interrogated, examined, blackmailed: how law enforcement treated abortion-seeking women before Roe."

From The Guardian in November 2021, "What will US’s future look like if abortion becomes a crime again?

December 2, 2021 in Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (13)

New Senate bill to add defender ex officio position to US Sentencing Commission

As detailed in this press release from earlier this week, "U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) [have] introduced the Sentencing Commission Improvements Act, legislation that would for the first time add an ex officio member with a public defender background to the U.S. Sentencing Commission."  Here is a link to the short bill, and here is more from the press release:

Currently, the Commission consists of seven members from both political parties appointed by the President and two ex officio, nonvoting members, the Attorney General or a designee and the U.S. Parole Commission chair. However, unlike the majority of state sentencing commissions, the federal Commission lacks a representative from a public defender background who would provide an essential perspective on the criminal justice system. 

“The federal Sentencing Commission was created to be fair, impartial, and capable of providing evidence-driven improvements to our sentencing system, which is fraught with disparities,” said Senator Booker. “Adding a statutory member to the Commission with a public defender background will ensure that the Commission’s ranks include this distinct and essential perspective on our criminal justice system and, thus, bring us one step closer to a more balanced and just system.”

“The U.S. Sentencing Commission is tasked with establishing practices and policies to promote transparency and reduce sentencing disparities, but the Commission is missing a crucial perspective from the federal public defender system. If we hope to improve sentencing policies in America, we must balance the Commission’s membership by adding a nonvoting federal defender,” said Senator Durbin. “The Sentencing Commission Improvements Act will remedy the Commission’s blind spot and move us toward a fairer sentencing process.”

This new Law360 article, headlined "'No-Brainer' Bill Would Add Fed. Defender To Sentencing Body," provides some more background and details.  Here is an excerpt:

A Senate proposal Tuesday would create a new seat on the U.S. Sentencing Commission for former federal defenders, a move experts say would counterbalance the outsize influence that current and former prosecutors have over the currently dormant panel....

New York University professor and former U.S. Sentencing Commission member Rachel Barkow cheered the proposal. "The Department of Justice has a seat at the table — literally — with a DOJ rep attending all the Commission's meetings," she told Law360 in a statement Wednesday. "It would be helpful to have a defender there as well to offer that perspective.  The Commission has always had plenty of people serving as commissioners who were former prosecutors, and public defense experience is equally valuable."

Brian Jacobs, a former New York federal prosecutor who now specializes in white collar defense with Morvillo Abramowitz Grand Iason & Anello PC, called the proposed move a "no-brainer."  "Speaking as a defender — but even wearing my former prosecutor hat — it makes sense to want to have that sort of balanced input," he told Law360....

Without a quorum last year, the commission missed the chance to shape sentencing policy in response to the coronavirus pandemic — something public defenders are particularly equipped to weigh in on, according to Jacobs. "There's no reason there shouldn't be language in the guidelines addressing how much more difficult time in custody is right now," he said, referring to viral outbreaks, remote court snafus, and restrictive prison policies limiting defendants' ability to meet with counsel. "If the sentencing commission were more nimble, you can imagine there would have been a statement in the guidelines themselves."

December 2, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Calling out SCOTUS for failing to take up circuit splits over the federal sentencing guidelines

In this post last month, I noted this notable new paper by Dawinder Sidhu titled "Sentencing Guidelines Abstention," which astutely assails the US Supreme Court for its "refusal to review [circuit] splits involving federal sentencing policy."  I am now pleased to see Dawinder putting forward his important points in this new HIll commentary headlined "The Supreme Court's criminal justice blind spot."  I recommend the full piece and here are excerpts:

A primary role of the Supreme Court is to resolve differences among the federal appeals courts when those courts reach different conclusions on the same questions of law.  But for 30 years, the Supreme Court has refused to perform this essential role when the disagreements concern federal sentencing guidelines.  The court’s inaction has allowed uncertainty and disparities to fester in this critical area of criminal justice....

In [a] 1991 opinion, the court ... added extraneous language [in an early case address a conflict over a guideline that the US Sentencing Commission was in the process of amending], writing that because the commission possessed authority to amend the guidelines in response to interpretive conflicts, the court should be “more restrained and circumspect in … resolving such conflicts.”

Because this language was unnecessary to the disposition of the case, it should have no precedential weight.   At most, this case supports the unremarkable proposition that, when the commission’s amendment process is under way regarding a guideline that triggers a judicial conflict, the court should exercise restraint and allow the commission to complete its amendment process.  The court regularly abstains from interfering with parallel administrative or state proceedings.  Deferring to the commission during the course of a simultaneous amendment process would be consistent with this respect for alternative decisional bodies.

The problem, however, is that the court has refused to hear all guideline conflicts, not just those the commission is actively addressing.  In adopting this broad position, the court has ceded its role of ironing out judicial conflicts to the commission.  As then-Judge Samuel Alito recognized [in this FSR article], “No other federal agency — in any branch — has ever performed a role anything like it.”  Indeed, the court does not forgo consideration of a case when Congress or an administrative agency may one day amend a statute or regulation producing a conflict.

This anomaly has real-life consequences.  This year, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor believed that the court should not hear a sentencing guidelines case, notwithstanding the fact that it raised an “important and longstanding split” among the federal appeals courts. They reasoned that the commission should “address the issue in the first instance.”  But the justices conceded that until the commission resolves the split, “similarly situated defendants may receive substantially different sentences depending on the jurisdiction in which they are sentenced,” with the disparities ranging by a factor of “years” and spanning from a “fixed-term” to a “life sentence.”

This knowingly perpetuated uncertainty and disparity in the federal courts.  To make matters worse, the court did so knowing that the commission has been without a quorum for almost three years. As such, the court punted a conflict to an agency incapable of amending the guidelines or resolving conflicts.  This isn’t the first time the commission has lacked a quorum for a significant period.  Even when the commission is fully functional, it only has the capacity to take on some of the conflicts that exist.  This is not to disparage the commission but to call into question the Supreme Court’s hoisting the responsibility of addressing guideline conflicts onto the shoulders of a regularly shorthanded commission.

Anyone interested in coherence and consistency in criminal justice should be troubled by the court’s refusal to review conflicts involving the federal sentencing guidelines.  It is one thing to be discerning in case selection; it is another to step aside altogether from guideline cases that implicate the fair and uniform administration of justice.

December 1, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

ACLU sues Biden Administration for data on CARES home confinement cohort

This ACLU press release reports on a notable new lawsuit: "The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of the District of Columbia today filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice and the federal Bureau of Prisons under the Freedom of Information Act, seeking information about the federal government’s potential plan to force people placed on home confinement under the CARES Act back to prison after the pandemic subsides, even if they have followed all requirements of home confinement, been reunited with their families, and successfully reintegrated into society."  Here is more:  

Recognizing the dangers of COVID spread in federal prisons, Congress provided, as part of the March 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) could place incarcerated people in home confinement as a way of reducing the population of crowded prisons and mitigating the virus’ spread.  As a result, BOP has placed more than 34,000 people — including many elderly or medically vulnerable — on home confinement since March 2020.  BOP evaluated every single person and determined that none of them would pose a threat to public safety while on home confinement. While most have now completed their sentences, 7,769 are on home confinement currently. Many have found gainful employment and have reunited with spouses, children, and other loved ones.

In June 2020, the BOP director and medical director testified in the Senate that people released under the CARES Act would be on home confinement “for service of the remainder of their sentences.”  But in the last days of the Trump administration, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) issued a memorandum saying that when the pandemic ends, people on home confinement must be ordered back to prison unless they are in the final months of their sentences, even if they have been completely law-abiding.  Such an order would disrupt their lives and the lives of their loved ones and would destroy the successful efforts they have made to reintegrate into society.

The BOP has not disclosed how many of the 7,769 people currently on home confinement may be forced back to prison. Although the Biden administration has said that the president will consider granting clemency to a subset of this group so that they will not be sent back to prison, he has not yet granted any such petitions.  The ACLU has repeatedly called on President Biden to grant clemency to everyone who is on home confinement under CARES and following the rules.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU requested records providing information about people BOP moved to home confinement under the CARES Act. The ACLU also asked for any final DOJ and BOP policies implementing the OLC memorandum.  The government failed to provide the materials by the deadline.  Our lawsuit, filed today in federal court in the District of Columbia by the ACLU and the ACLU of the District of Columbia, asks the court to enforce the law against the Justice Department and the BOP and order them to immediately produce the requested records.

The full complaint is available here

November 30, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

El Chapo's wife sentenced to three years in federal prison (guidelines be damned)

This Vice article provides a thorough accounting of a notable federal sentencing with this rousing start: "Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera became infamous for daring jailbreaks in Mexico only to end up serving life in prison in the United States. Now his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, has managed to avoid a similar fate."  Here is more from the piece: 

The 32-year-old Coronel was sentenced Tuesday to just three years in prison after pleading guilty earlier this year to charges that she helped her husband run his drug trafficking empire, facilitated one of his prison escapes in Mexico, and violated U.S. sanctions by spending his illicit fortune. She also paid nearly $1.5 million to the U.S. government.

It could have ended much worse for Coronel, who faced up to 14 years for her crimes under federal sentencing guidelines.  Federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., asked her judge for leniency, calling for her to serve just four years behind bars and fueling speculation that she’d struck a deal to cooperate.

Coronel’s attorneys and federal prosecutors made the case to sentencing Judge Rudolph Contreras that she only played a minimal role in the cartel and that her crimes were committed simply because she was married to El Chapo. “The defendant was not an organizer, leader, boss, or other type of manager,” prosecutor Anthony Nardozzi said. “Rather, she was a cog in a very large wheel of a criminal organization.”

A soft-spoken Coronel addressed the court in Spanish before the judge handed down the sentence, asking for forgiveness and making a plea for leniency so that she could be free to raise her 10-year-old twin daughters, who were fathered by El Chapo....

The light sentence has raised eyebrows among ex-prosecutors who handled similar cases against high-level drug traffickers and their associates.  “Downward departure,” or a sentence below the range called for by federal guidelines, is typically reserved for individuals who agree to assist the government in some capacity, David Weinstein, a former assistant U.S. Attorney in Miami, told VICE News.  “They’re treating her like a cooperator,” said Weinstein, who now works as a defense attorney.  “These are the types of circumstances where people are involved in large-scale drug trafficking conspiracies and are benefiting the kingpin and helping the kingpin. You usually don’t get downward departure unless you’re providing substantial assistance.”

Coronel, who holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Mexico, was taken into custody by FBI agents on Feb. 22 after arriving at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.  While federal authorities announced that Coronel had been “arrested,” sources familiar with her case told VICE News she was aware of pending charges against her and came to turn herself in.

Coronel has been held since February at a jail in Alexandria, Virginia, and is now expected to be transferred into the federal prison system to serve out her sentence. She will receive credit for time served and could be released in just over two years.

If prosecutors truly believed Coronel had only played a minimal role and was merely El Chapo’s wife, it's unclear why she was even charged in the first place because her prosecution would be a waste of time and resources, according to Bonnie Klapper, a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York.  Klapper, now in private practice, said Coronel’s sentence “is a very clear demonstration of how prosecutors can manipulate the sentencing guidelines to either punish or reward a defendant.”...

In sentencing Coronel, Judge Contreras noted that putting her behind bars for a long time would do little to dissuade anyone else from joining the Sinaloa Cartel. In fact, he said, there was little indication that prosecuting El Chapo had any impact on the cartel’s operations.  “One can make a plausible argument that even the removal of Guzmán from the conspiracy has not resulted in a reduction of harm to the public,” the judge said. “There appears to be no shortage of replacements to fill the defendant’s slot in the organization.”

Contreras noted Coronel’s “impoverished” upbringing and the involvement of her family members in the drug trade, and indicated that he believed that she was a victim of her circumstances who was very young and impressionable when she married El Chapo. “I hope you raise your twins in a different environment than you’ve experienced to date,” Contreras said in his parting words to Coronel. “Good luck.”

This article is astute to note how this case highlights "manipulation" of the federal sentencing guidelines and sentencing outcomes. Indeed, the Government's sentencing memo in the case showcases how the guidelines can function more like a parlor game than as a steady guide to sensible sentencing.  According to that memo, Coronel's PSR initially "concluded that the Defendant’s applicable Guidelines range in this case was 135 months to 168 months ... [and] neither the Government nor the Defendant objected to this Guidelines calculation."  But, sometime thereafter, the Government decided "that Defendant’s applicable Guidelines range is 57 to 71 months in prison ... [and] Defendant and the Probation Office concur."

In other words, everyone in this case first determined that the guidelines recommended 11+ to 14 years in prison, but then later everyone decided the guidelines recommended less than half that length of time.  And then, guidelines be damned, the government decided to recommend a sentence of 48 months (nine months below the low end of the lower guideline range).  And then Judge Contreras decided that 36 months was a sufficient sentence. 

Of course, one might reasonably expect the guidelines to be a poor "fit" for this kind of unique case with its many unique elements.  But, then again, a quarter century ago in Koon v. US, 518 U.S. 81 (1996), the Supreme Court rightly made this closing observation: "It has been uniform and constant in the federal judicial tradition for the sentencing judge to consider every convicted person as an individual and every case as a unique study in the human failings that sometimes mitigate, sometimes magnify, the crime and the punishment to ensue."

November 30, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Prosecutorial Discretion, Justice, and Compassion: Reestablishing Balance in our Legal System"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Anna D. Vaynman and Mark Robert Fondacaro now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The criminal justice system, wherein nearly all cases are resolved through a guilty plea, is tenuously balanced on prosecutorial discretion in the context of the plea-bargaining process.  This shift in the balance of power away from judges and juries is particularly troubling given the lack of formal legal safeguards afforded to defendants engaging in plea bargaining rather than going to trial.  The main issue is not prosecutorial discretion per se or even overzealous prosecutors, but the lack of oversight of the plea-bargaining process and the imbalance of power itself, which threatens the legitimacy and stability of the criminal justice system. 

This article argues for the importance of prosecutorial discretion as a potentially valuable tool, analyzes how and why it creates potential for abuse, and provides suggestions for recreating a balance of power.  Overall, the analysis shifts away from blaming the personal characteristics of overzealous prosecutors for the imbalance and focuses on systemic, forward looking administrative and legislative solutions aimed at taking plea bargaining out of the shadows.  The article concludes with specific suggestions for recreating a balance of power, by addressing issues arising from unequal access to information throughout the plea-bargaining process and recentering a defendant’s constitutional rights within the justice system.

November 30, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Notable accounting of the "utter failure" of Massachusetts new expungement law

The Boston Globe has this great lengthy new piece about Massachusetts expungement practices headlined "‘An utter failure’: Law meant to clear old convictions, including for marijuana possession, helps few." I recommend the full piece, and here is how it starts:

When state legislators passed a criminal justice reform bill in 2018, Massachusetts residents won the ability to clear away certain criminal records — including convictions for marijuana possession and other now-legal activities — that can make it difficult to land a job, rent an apartment, and otherwise move on with life.

But three years later, only a fraction of those who are likely eligible for relief have had their records expunged. Massachusetts Probation Service data suggest that people who were previously arrested for, charged with, or convicted of a crime submitted just 2,186 petitions to expunge their records between January 2019 and July, of which 352 were eventually approved by state judges, or about 16 percent.  And of those 352, probation officials could definitively identify only 17 related to marijuana, a statistic they first began tracking (partially) in January.

While the state could not say exactly how many people are potentially eligible for expungements, advocates insist the pool runs into the tens of thousands.  For example, there were about 68,800 civil or criminal violations for marijuana possession issued in Massachusetts from 2000 through 2013, and 8,000-plus arrests for selling or possessing marijuana each year from 1995 to 2008, according to a Cannabis Control Commission research report and an ACLU analysis.  And cannabis charges are only one of a number of past incidents that can be wiped clean under the law after enough time has passed.

Critics attribute the low numbers of expungements to restrictive eligibility criteria, a lack of outreach to former defendants, disorganized state records, and a lengthy application process that ultimately gives judges wide latitude to reject even seemingly qualified requests with little explanation.

“Our expungement statute has been an utter failure,” said Katy Naples-Mitchell, an attorney at Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice who specializes in criminal justice policies.  “We could be helping people on a much grander scale, but instead we’re seeing this paltry, piecemeal effort — and even that has been almost totally frustrated, in part by a bench that is often a lot less progressive than the legislation it’s charged with carrying out.”

The 2018 law bars the expungement of violent or sexual crimes, and practically any offense committed after the age of 21.  And, importantly, it prohibits anyone with more than one entry on their record from obtaining an expungement, unless the other offenses are motor vehicle violations that resulted in a fine of less than $50.  The only exceptions are special circumstances such as mistaken identity or conduct that is no longer illegal, as with marijuana, which together accounted for just 298 attempted petitions.

It also makes former defendants responsible for learning of the expungement program, determining their eligibility, tracking down the relevant records within the state’s patchwork of police and court filing systems, and submitting them along with a petition to the state probation department.  Probation officials reject the vast majority of expungement petitions they receive (around 79 percent) as ineligible under the law, suggesting there is widespread confusion among applicants about which charges can be cleared.

If an application is cleared by the probation department to go before a judge, the office of the district attorney who originally brought the charges is then given a chance to object.  And even when prosecutors endorse a petition, judges can still reject an expungement request on the grounds it would not be in the “best interests of justice.” Attorneys for former defendants say judges have used that clause to block dozens of otherwise eligible requests.

November 28, 2021 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 26, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 22, 2021

Bipartisan call from members of Congress for Prez Biden to make US Sentencing Commission nominations

Regular reader who recall my regular advocacy for Prez Biden to make nominations to the now-dormant US Sentencing Commission will know that this new Reuters story made me smile:

Two Democratic and Republican lawmakers in a letter on Monday urged President Joe Biden to prioritize filling vacancies that have left the U.S. Sentencing Commission without a quorum, saying the situation has stalled criminal justice reform.

U.S. Representatives Kelly Armstrong, Republican of North Dakota, and Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, said the vacancies have "forestalled the important work of updating and establishing new sentencing guidelines."

A White House spokesperson had no immediate comment.

The commission lost its quorum in January 2019, a month after former Republican President Donald Trump signed into law the First Step Act, bipartisan legislation aimed at easing harsh sentencing for non-violent offenders and at reducing recidivism.

Armstrong and Raskin said the lack of quorum also meant the commission cannot update the advisory sentencing guidelines needed to help implement the law, resulting potentially in its uneven application by judges across the country. "It is imperative that the vacancies are expeditiously filled so the Commission can continue its work to improve the federal criminal justice system," the lawmakers wrote.

The seven-person panel's lone remaining member, Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, told Reuters this month he would be "surprised and dismayed" if Biden did not pick nominees by early 2022 and urged him to help restore its quorum.  Breyer's own term expired on Oct. 31 but he can remain on the commission for up to a year more unless a replacement is confirmed.  Armstrong and Raskin cited his potential departure as another reason to act.

The full letter can be found here.  I am ever hopeful that we will finally get nominations from Prez Biden no later than early 2022, though that will still be a year later than would have been ideal.  And I sincerely hope the Biden Administration will work effectively with Senate leaders to ensure his eventual nominees get a swift confirmation.  But even if this process gets going, it now seems unlikely a full USSC will be functioning before the May 1, 2022 deadline for the 2022 guideline amendment cycle, and so November 2023 could end up the earliest date for any guideline changes to become effective.

A few of many prior recent related posts:

November 22, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

California's Committee on Revision of the Penal Code recommends abolishing capital punishment in the state

During a busy week last week, I missed this notable capital news from California: "Panel recommends repealing death penalty in California: The recommendation to end capital punishment comes after California voters rejected two ballot measures to abolish executions over the last decade and voted to speed up executions in 2016."  Here are the basics from the start of the news story:

As nearly 700 condemned California prisoners wait in limbo under a death penalty process halted by the governor, a key criminal justice panel on Wednesday recommended making the state’s temporary freeze on executions permanent.  The Committee on Revision of the Penal Code, a seven-member board formed by the state Legislature last year to propose criminal justice reforms, released a 39-page report recommending that capital punishment be repealed in the Golden State.

“More than forty years of experience have shown that the death penalty is the opposite of a simple and rational scheme,” the report states. “It has become so complicated and costly that it takes decades for cases to be fully resolved and it is imposed so arbitrarily — and in such a discriminatory fashion — that it cannot be called rational, fair, or constitutional.”  

Poring through data on death sentences imposed and carried out since capital punishment was reinstated in California in 1978, the panel concluded the post-conviction litigation process has become “almost unfathomably long and costly.”  The report cites staggering racial disparities in who gets sentenced to death, with people of color making up 68% of those on death row in California.  It further notes that about a third of condemned prisoners suffer from mental illness, according to figures cited in a federal class action over mental health care in California prisons.  

Additionally, the report highlights that innocent people are sometimes executed.  It describes how 185 prisoners sentenced to death across the U.S. were later exonerated, including five formerly condemned prisoners in California.

The full report, which is available at this link, includes these passages in its executive summary:

After a thorough examination, the Committee has determined that the death penalty as created and enforced in California has not and cannot ensure justice and fairness for all Californians.

More than forty years of experience have shown that the death penalty is the opposite of a simple and rational scheme.  It has become so complicated and costly that it takes decades for cases to be fully resolved and it is imposed so arbitrarily — and in such a discriminatory fashion — that it cannot be called rational, fair, or constitutional.  Hundreds of California death sentences adjudicated in state and federal courts have been reversed or otherwise thrown out as unconstitutional while only 33 people are currently eligible for execution. 

Furthermore, recent efforts to improve, simplify and expedite California’s system of capital punishment have failed to accomplish their stated goals and may have made things even worse.

For the reasons in this report, which includes new data presented here for the first time, the Committee unanimously recommends repealing California’s death penalty.  Because we appreciate that this is a difficult goal, in the interim, the Committee unanimously recommends reducing the size of California’s death row by the following means:

  • Award clemency to commute death sentences.
  • Settle pending legal challenges to death sentences.
  • Recall death sentences under Penal Code § 1170(d)(1).
  • Limit the felony-murder special circumstance.
  • Restore judicial discretion to dismiss special circumstances.
  • Amend the Racial Justice Act of 2020 to give it retroactive application.
  • Remove from death row people who are permanently mentally incompetent.

November 22, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Prosecutorial Reform and Local Crime Rates"

The title of this post is the title of this relatively short empirical paper available via SSRN and authored by Amanda Agan, Jennifer Doleac and Anna Harvey. Here is its abstract:

Many communities across the United States have elected reform-minded, progressive prosecutors who seek to reduce the reach and burden of the criminal justice system.  Such prosecutors have implemented reforms such as scaling back the prosecution of nonviolent misdemeanors, diverting defendants to treatment programs instead of punishment, and recommending against cash bail for defendants who might otherwise be detained pretrial.  Such policies are controversial, and many worry that they could increase crime by reducing deterrent and incapacitation effects.  In this paper we use variation in the timing of when these prosecutors took office, across 35 jurisdictions, to measure the effect of their policies on reported crime rates.  While our estimates are imprecisely estimated, we find no significant effects of these reforms on local crime rates.

November 22, 2021 in National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Recent Prison Policy Initiative briefings spotlight how money matters, a lot, even in prison

I have been behind on highlighting some of the great briefings created or noted over the last month by Prison Policy Initiative.  A notable theme in all these recent reports is how economic realities and disparities do not get locked away even in with prison experience.  I recommend all this research in full:

"For the poorest people in prison, it’s a struggle to access even basic necessities: Our survey of all 50 states and the BOP reveals that prisons make it hard for people to qualify as indigent—and even those who do qualify receive limited resources."

"Show me the money: Tracking the companies that have a lock on sending funds to incarcerated people: We looked at all fifty state departments of corrections to figure out which companies hold the contracts to provide money-transfer services and what the fees are to use these services."

"The CFPB’s enforcement order against prison profiteer JPay, explained: The company was fined $6 million for exploiting people leaving prison."

"Blood from a stone: How New York prisons force people to pay for their own incarceration: A study by members of the New York University Prison Education Program Research Collective gives important first-hand accounts of the damage done when prisons shift financial costs to incarcerated people."

November 22, 2021 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Detailing "Mellowed Federal Enforcement" and other federal stories from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

In a recent post over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform, I have already noted a new essay, "How State Reforms Have Mellowed Federal Enforcement of Marijuana Prohibition" that I had the pleasure of co-authoring with my colleague Alex Fraga.  The forthcoming short piece is now up on SSRN, and here is part of its abstract:

Over [a] quarter century of state reforms, blanket federal marijuana prohibition has remained the law of the land. Indeed, though federal marijuana policies have long been criticized, federal prohibition has now been in place and unchanged for the last half century.  But while federal marijuana law has remained static amidst state-level reforms, federal marijuana prohibition enforcement has actually changed dramatically.  In fact, data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) reveals quite remarkable changes in federal enforcement patterns since certain states began fully legalizing marijuana in 2012.

This essay seeks to document and examine critically the remarkable decline in the number of federal marijuana sentences imposed over the last decade.  While noting that federal sentences imposed for marijuana offenses are down 83% from 2012 to 2020, this essay will also explore how the racial composition of persons sentenced in federal court has evolved as the caseload has declined....  The data suggest that whites are benefiting relatively more from fewer federal prosecutions.

Reports from the Drug Enforcement Administration indicate that marijuana seizures at the southern US border have dwindled as states have legalized adult use and medicinal use of marijuana, and the reduced trafficking over the southern border likely largely explain the vastly reduced number of federal prosecutions of marijuana offenses. Nonetheless, though still shrinking in relative size, there were still more than one thousand people (and mostly people of color) sentenced in federal court for marijuana trafficking in fiscal year 2020 and over 100 million dollars was committed to the incarceration of these defendants for activities not dissimilar from corporate activity in states in which marijuana has been legalized for various purposes. 

In addition to welcoming feedback on this short piece, I also figure it would be useful to highlight a few additional posts with other recent coverage of federal reform issues and dynamics over at MLP&R:

November 21, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Are more conservatives really turning away from the death penalty?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Wall Street Journal article headlined "More Conservatives Turn Away From Death Penalty."  In addition, Demetrius Minor his this new opinion piece from Newsweek, headlined "Republicans Across the Country Are Joining the Fight to End the Death Penalty," provides this accounting:

[I]n deep red Utah are considering ending the state's death penalty. Governor Spencer Cox, who has previously revealed his support for the death penalty, says he is now open to "reevaluating" his stance on the issue. He is joined by Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, another Republican who has said his office would no longer seek death penalty prosecutions....

And this isn't just occurring in Utah. There is a nationwide trend of Republican- controlled state legislatures re-thinking capital punishment driven by the fiscal, moral, and cultural conservative values that should lead us to oppose the death penalty. Virginia repealed the death penalty in March 2021 with bipartisan support. Pennsylvania, Kansas, Wyoming, Kentucky, Georgia, Montana, Washington, and Ohio all have had Republican-sponsored bills this year, with a total of 40 Republican sponsors.

In Ohio, a political bell-weather state that has become very red in recent election cycles, former Congresswoman and now State Representative Jean Schmidt and Sen. Stephen Huffman are Republican prime sponsors of bills to end the death penalty. They are clear that the death penalty is a contradiction to their conservative beliefs.

I do sense that a few more GOP leaders are a bit more comfortable expressing capital opposition, and yet I am unclear if this is a major trend or really anything all that new.  Notably, I have seen (and blogged) about stories claiming or advocating for softer support for capital punishment among those on the right, and yet polling numbers do not show any real shift.  Gallup released its latest polling on the death penalty this past week, and here is its discussion of the political dynamics:

Gallup began asking its historical death penalty trend question in its annual Crime survey beginning in 2000. During this time, there have been two notable shifts in death penalty attitudes. Between 2011 and 2016, the percentage expressing support showed a drop to 61% from 66% in the preceding decade. In the past four years, support has fallen further to an average 56%.

Both Democrats and independents show declines in their support for the death penalty, including similar drops (eight and seven percentage points, respectively) since 2016. Between the 2000-2010 and 2011-2016 time periods, Democratic support dropped more (eight points) than independent support did (three points). Now, 39% of Democrats and 54% of independents are in favor of the death penalty.

Meanwhile, Republicans' support for the death penalty has held steady, with 79% currently supporting it, unchanged since 2016 and barely lower than the 80% registered between 2000 and 2010.

Here is a sampling of some older posts on this front through the years:

November 21, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Clemency criticisms as Prez Biden's record is now turkeys 2, humans 0

More than a decade ago, it took a couple years of Thanksgiving turkey pardon rituals before Prez Obama started receiving considerable grief for only granting clemencies to birds and not humans.  But I suppose we have made some progress in the last decade, as now one can find a few year-one commentaries assailing the Prez Biden's clemency record that is just fit the the farm and not for families:

From Marijuana Moment, "Biden Pardons Turkeys, But White House Has ‘Nothing New’ On Relief For Marijuana Prisoners"

From the New York Post, "Biden laughs off question about clemency for humans before pardoning turkeys"

From the Star Tribune, "When it comes to human pardons, thanks for nothing: President Joe Biden hasn't just not pardoned anyone — he's just letting the requests sit unanswered."

Disappointingly, there is still a lot more discussion of the names and fate of the turkeys who were "pardoned" than of the broken federal clemency process and the thousands of clemency requests so far ignored by the Biden Administration.  Sigh.

November 20, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

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)

Can Oklahoma's current governor really preclude all future governors from further clemency grants for Julius Jones?

I just had a chance this morning to look at this actual executive order that Oklahoma Governor J. Kevin Stitt signed to commute the death sentence of Julius Jones to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  The document is interesting in part because it states that the Pardon and Parole Board's recommendation of a commutation to a "sentence of life with the possibility of parole" was not authorized by the Oklahoma Constitution or Oklahoma law and that the "Oklahoma Constitution and other laws of the State also do not provide the Governor authority to grant any such recommendation."  But speaking of a lack of authorization, I was especially struck by this additional part of the executive order:

The Governor has the power to grant commutations "upon such conditions and with such restrictions and limitations as the Governor may deem proper .... "  I hereby place the following conditions upon this commutation:

Julius Darius Jones shall not be eligible to apply for or be considered for a commutation, pardon, or parole for the remainder of his life.

In addition to laws prohibiting the Pardon and Parole Board from recommending and the Governor from granting to Julius Jones life with parole, now or in the future, the Pardon and Parole Board's Rules prevent Jones from re-applying for commutation.  Title 515, Chapter 15, Subchapter 15 of the Oklahoma Administrative Code states, "After receiving a favorable commutation of a sentence from the Governor, an Inmate is ineligible to apply for an additional commutation on the same sentence."

Though I strongly dislike and disfavor any policy of ever precluding a person from ever re-applying for clemency, I suppose I can see some viable legal basis for state laws or rules to preclude repeated clemency applications.  But, critically, this order seems to be trying to preclude all future Oklahoma executive officials from being able to even "consider" Jones "for a commutation, pardon, or parole for the remainder of his life."  And at the start of this order, Gov Stitt states his condition even more broadly: "I ... hereby commute the death sentence of Julius Darius Jones to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, on the conditions that he shall never again be eligible to apply for, be considered for, or receive any additional commutation, pardon, or parole."  (Emphasis added.)

Jones is likely to live in prison for many decades, and further evidence of his innocence or other changed circumstances in the years ahead might want some future governor to consider and possibly grant some other form of clemency.  I do not think there is any legal basis for a current governor to tie the hands of all future governors in the way, but I suspect Jones and his allies will be disinclined to worry or litigate about this future issue while still celebrating his removal from Oklahoma's death row.

A few prior related posts:

November 19, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Oklahoma Gov commutes death sentence of Julius Jones, who claims innocence, to life without the possibility of parole

A high-profile Oklahoma capital case involving claims of innocence took a notable turn just hours before a scheduled execution, as reported in this local press piece:

Julius Jones was scheduled to be executed at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, however, announced at noon Thursday he has commuted Jones' sentence to life without the possibility of parole.

Jones, now 41, has been on death row for more than half of his life for the murder of Paul Howell. Jones has maintained his innocence, saying he was not responsible for the fatal shooting in Edmond in 1999. Jones' family insists he was at home.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-1 on Nov. 1 to recommend Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt grant clemency to Jones and reduce his sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole....

Amanda Bass, the attorney for Julius Jones released the following statement after Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted Jones' sentence to life without the possibility of parole: "Governor Stitt took an important step today towards restoring public faith in the criminal justice system by ensuring that Oklahoma does not execute an innocent man. While we had hoped the Governor would adopt the Board's recommendation in full by commuting Julius's sentence to life with the possibility of parole in light of the overwhelming evidence of Julius's innocence, we are grateful that the Governor has prevented an irreparable mistake."...

“The governor just announced he’s going to grant clemency,” Tiffany Crutcher announced to the crowd outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. The crowd erupted in shouts of joy. Supporters broke into tears, including Paige Patton who began to praise, “Thank you, Lord.”

The celebration lessened as Crutcher announced that the Governor's decision was to commute Jones' sentence to life without parole. The fight to prove Jones' innocence is not over, and his supporters will not stop, she said. “Julius will get to see sunlight,” Crutcher said. “Julius will not be underground, he will get to hug his family.”

A few prior related posts:

November 18, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"How to be a Better Plea Bargainer"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Cynthia Alkon and Andrea Kupfer Schneider now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Preparation matters in negotiation.  While plea bargaining is a criminal lawyer’s primary activity, the value of this skill is discounted by law schools and training programs.  A systemic model can be used to improve plea bargaining skills.  This Article offers a prep sheet for both prosecutors and defense attorneys and explains how each element of the sheet specifically applies to the plea bargaining context.  The prep sheet is designed as a learning tool so that the negotiator can learn from the sheet and then make their own.  The sheet highlights important considerations such as understanding the interests and goals of the parties, the facts of the case, the law, policies behind the law, elements of an agreement, how to communicate with the other parties, and more.

The serious power imbalances and constraints inherent in the plea bargaining process make preparation crucial. Alkon and Schneider urge lawyers, scholars, and clinicians to become part of the ongoing conversation so that the practice of law can be improved for the benefit of all.

November 18, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Lamenting "Biden's do-nothing approach to clemency" as we approach holiday season

Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler have this new Hill commentary, headlined "Biden can't let Trump's DOJ legacy stifle reform," that focuses on Prez Biden's current disappointing clemency record.  I recommend the full piece, and here is a snippet:

We are almost 10 months into his administration, and all signals point to Biden giving the department free rein to set criminal justice policies that should rest with him instead.

It is no small wonder that this approach has so far resulted in the first increase in the federal prison population in years. The DOJ is poorly situated to take the lead on whether to support legislation to reform sentencing and federal charges because its prosecutors inevitably want laws that make their jobs easier — even when the public interest and Biden’s commitment to reform criminal justice points in a different direction.  Nothing Trump did challenges the urgent need to take DOJ out of its lead policymaking role on criminal law reform — in fact, criminal law reform in the form of the First Step Act was one of his very few bipartisan accomplishments and was accomplished without the imprimatur of the DOJ.

And then there is Biden’s do-nothing approach to clemency, which he seems to have delegated entirely to the DOJ.  Biden inherited 14,000 pending clemency cases when he took office, and there was widespread agreement among those who studied the issue that the solution to the logjam requires moving clemency out of DOJ.  Most of the Democratic candidates for president endorsed this change because the DOJ had proven itself incapable of handling clemency impartially and efficiently for decades.  That backlog is now 17,844.

So why doesn’t Biden take clemency away from DOJ and create the kind of advisory commission that President Ford used to aid him in processing a similar backlog of petitions from people with convictions for draft evasion during the Vietnam War?  The only apparent answer is that Biden does not want to look like he is interfering with DOJ.  But clemency should never have been in DOJ in the first place. It is there by historical accident — no state gives clemency decision-making power to the same prosecutors who bring cases in the first place because of the obvious conflict of interest problem it poses.

Prior recent related post:

November 18, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Henry Montgomery (of Montgomery v. Louisiana) finally granted parole at age 75

Henry Montgomery back in 2016 won in the US Supreme Court with his claim that the landmark Eighth Amendment decision in Miller v. Alabama must be applied retroactively. But that win only garnered him a chance to be paroled after serving more than 50 years on a murder charge as a teenager in the early 1960s.   Montgomery was in February 2018 denied parole as detailed in this post, and he was denied parole again in April 2019 as detailed in this post.  But I am pleased to now be able to report that the third time was a charm for Montgomery as reported in this UPI piece headlined "Longtime inmate and key figure in juvenile sentence reforms finally wins parole." Here are some of the details:

A Louisiana man who's spent the vast majority of his life in prison for killing a sheriff's deputy when he was a minor almost 60 years ago -- and whose case has been instrumental in freeing hundreds of inmates who were sentenced to life for crimes as juveniles -- is finally getting his chance to walk free.

Henry Montgomery on Wednesday appeared at his third hearing before a Louisiana parole board. The first two turned him down.  The third gave him his freedom after 57 years behind bars.

For years, advocates have said Montgomery is serving an unconscionably long sentence for a crime he committed as a minor, in spite of state Supreme Court rulings that determined that life sentences for juveniles amount to "cruel and unusual punishment."...

Montgomery was 17 when he shot and killed East Baton Rouge Paris Deputy Charles Hurt in 1963, after the lawman caught him skipping school. He's now 75. He was initially sentenced to death, but that sentence was overturned in 1966 when the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that he did not receive a fair trial. After a retrial, he was sentenced to life without parole.

Montgomery has been locked up in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as "Angola" after the former plantation that occupied the area. "Through his personal growth, maturity, and maintenance of an excellent record of conduct while in prison, Henry proves daily that he is no longer the 17-year-old child he was in 1963," Marshan Allen, national policy director of Represent Justice, said in a tweet before Wednesday's decision....

Montgomery's case was at the center of a legal fight that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and resulted in a ruling that's allowed nearly 1,000 people who were sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile to be freed....

At his first two parole hearings -- in 2018 and 2019 -- he was denied release. At both hearings, two of the three board members voted to grant him his release from prison and one voted to keep him imprisoned. At the time, parole decisions had to be unanimous. Earlier this year, however, Louisiana changed its law to require only a majority vote if an inmate meets certain conditions -- meaning Montgomery would be freed if he got another 2-1 vote in his favor.

The dissenting voter who voted against releasing Montgomery in 2019 said that he hadn't presented enough programs in prison. But Andrew Hundley, one of the people who was released as a result of Montgomery vs. Louisiana and director of the Louisiana Parole Project, said that Angola did not offer such programs for decades of his sentence. "It was the most violent prison in America.  There wasn't this idea of rehabilitation and that prisoners should take part in programming to rehabilitate themselves," he told The Atlantic. "That culture didn't exist and there weren't programs. You just woke up every day trying not to get killed."

Hundley added that he's felt like it's his "life's work" to get Montgomery and others like him out of prison. "Henry was in prison 18 years before I was born. And I've been home five and a half years now."

November 17, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

New OIG report assails BOP failures in implementation of FIRST STEP Act

This new Forbes article highlights key features of this detailed new memorandum from the Office of Inspector General criticizing the Bureau of Prisons on various failing that disrupted implementation of the FIRST STEP Act. Here is how the Forbes piece gets started:

On December 21, 2018, then President Donald J. Trump signed into law the First Step Act (FSA), which enacted several criminal justice reforms throughout the federal prison system. Now, nearly three years later, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has yet to implement much its central purpose which was to further reduce institutional prison populations by offering incentives to inmates to earn credits toward more halfway house through certain educational programs.  It turns out part of the holdup on the implementation is because BOP management and union staff have been unable to come up with a solution to meet to discuss how the program will be implemented.  The reason we now know this is not because of an announcement from the BOP, but from the release of a recent Office of Inspector General (OIG) report criticizing the lack of implementation along with a lack of the BOP responding to a number of OIG reports over the past 3 years.

According to the OIG report, the BOP’s national union has declined to conduct formal policy negotiations in a remote manner.  Relying on labor contractual terms providing for in-person negotiations, the national union has insisted on in-person negotiations and expressed its availability to meet in person.  This disagreement has resulted in a lack of formal policy negotiations for a period of 20 months, which has stalled the development of more than 30 BOP policies, about half of which were created or revised in response to the FSA.

November 16, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

US Senate Judiciary Chair calling for AG Garland to fire head of Bureau of Prisons

This new AP article, headlined "Durbin calls for Garland to remove federal prisons director," reports on a notable call from a notable legislator for federal criminal justice personnel change. Here are the details:

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee demanded Tuesday that Attorney General Merrick Garland immediately fire the director of the beleaguered federal Bureau of Prisons after an Associated Press investigation detailing serious misconduct involving correctional officers.

Sen. Dick Durbin’s demand came two days after the AP revealed that more than 100 Bureau of Prisons workers have been arrested, convicted or sentenced for crimes since the start of 2019.  The AP investigation also found the agency has turned a blind eye to employees accused of misconduct and has failed to suspend officers who themselves had been arrested for crimes.

Durbin took particular aim at Director Michael Carvajal, who has been at the center of the agency’s myriad crises. Under Carvajal’s leadership, the agency has experienced a multitude of crises from the rampant spread of coronavirus inside prisons and a failed response to the pandemic to dozens of escapes, deaths and critically low staffing levels that have hampered responses to emergencies.

Carvajal was appointed by then-Attorney General William Barr but Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said recently that she still had confidence in him despite the many serious issues during his tenure. The AP reported in June that senior officials in the Biden administration had been weighing whether to oust him. He is one of the few remaining holdovers from the Trump administration.

“Director Carvajal was handpicked by former Attorney General Bill Barr and has overseen a series of mounting crises, including failing to protect BOP staff and inmates from the COVID-19 pandemic, failing to address chronic understaffing, failing to implement the landmark First Step Act, and more,” Durbin said in a statement. “It is past time for Attorney General Garland to replace Director Carvajal with a reform-minded Director who is not a product of the BOP bureaucracy.”...

Separately on Tuesday, the Justice Department’s inspector general found that the Bureau of Prisons had stalled the development of more than 30 agency policies because agency officials have been refusing to meet with the union representing prison workers for in-person policy negotiations, as required under a contract.

About half of the policies that have stalled for the last 20 months were created or revised in response to the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice overhaul signed during the Trump administration and aimed at encouraging inmates to participate in programs aimed at reducing recidivism — which could let them out of prison earlier — easing mandatory minimum sentences and giving judges more discretion in sentencing.

The inspector general found that the Bureau of Prisons has not given credit to any of the about 60,000 federal inmates who have completed those programs because the agency hasn’t finalized its procedures or completed the policy negotiations with the union. The watchdog also found that the failure to negotiate has delayed the implementation of 27 recommendations from the inspector general’s office.

November 16, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Another quartet of must-read new essays in Brennan Center's "Punitive Excess" series

highlighted here back in April the terrific new essay series assembled by the Brennan Center for Justice under the title "Punitive Excess."  I have blogged about sets of new essays repeatedly (as linked below) because each new set of new essays are must reads (like all that come before).  Since my last posting a few months ago, the series has added four awesome new essays, and here are links to the latest quartet:

Prior related posts:

November 16, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 15, 2021

Noting the SCOTUS "state of capital punishment" without discussing the state of capital punishment

Adam Liptak has this notable new New York Times "Sidebar" piece headlined "In Death Penalty Cases, an Impatient Supreme Court; Recent rulings, including one turning down a death row inmate’s request supported by the prosecution, offer telling glimpses of the state of capital punishment."  Here are excerpts (with a bit of emphasis added):

Two weeks ago, on the same day it heard arguments about the future of abortion rights in Texas, the Supreme Court turned down an appeal from a federal prisoner facing execution.  The move was in one sense routine, as the court has grown increasingly hostile to arguments made by death row inmates.   This became apparent in the final months of the Trump administration, when, after a hiatus of 17 years, the federal government executed 13 inmates.  “Throughout this expedited spree of executions, this court has consistently rejected inmates’ credible claims for relief,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissent at the time.

The court’s impatience was also evident last week at an argument over whether an inmate’s pastor could pray with and touch him in the death chamber.  Several conservative justices expressed dismay at what they said was last-minute litigation gamesmanship in death penalty cases.

Still, the case the court turned down two weeks ago was exceptional, providing a telling glimpse of the state of capital punishment in the United States.  The court rejected the inmate’s petition even though the prosecution agreed that his case deserved a fresh look.  In an 11-page dissent, Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan, said the majority had crossed a new bridge. “To my knowledge, the court has never before denied” such relief “in a capital case where both parties have requested it, let alone where a new development has cast the decision below into such doubt,” Justice Sotomayor wrote.

The case concerned Wesley P. Coonce Jr., who was serving a life sentence for kidnapping and carjacking when he helped murder another prisoner in the mental health ward of a federal prison.  A murder committed by an inmate already serving a life sentence is a capital crime, and he was sentenced to death.  Lawyers for Mr. Coonce asked the justices to return his case to an appeals court for reconsideration of his argument that he could not be executed because he was intellectually disabled.  There had been, the lawyers wrote, an important new development that could alter the appeals court’s analysis....

While the majority did not explain its thinking, a 2014 dissent from Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Clarence Thomas, provided a hint. Justice Alito wrote that the meaning of the Eighth Amendment should not be determined by “positions adopted by private professional organizations.”  The majority may also have thought that the Biden administration had its own tools to address Mr. Coonce’s case, notably by granting him clemency.

As the title of this post is meant to highlight, I am struggling a bit to see how the denial of cert by SCOTUS in Coonce serves as a "glimpse of the state of capital punishment in the United States."  For starters, the state of capital punishment in the United States is largely one of modern desuetude.  As detailed in this DPIC fact sheet, in 1999 there were 279 death sentences imposed and 98 executions; in 2019 there were 24 death sentences imposed and 22 executions.  Moreover, I am pretty sure Coonce still can have his death sentence reviewed via a 2255 motion and perhaps via other means, so maybe the case really is a "glimpse" into the various means capital defendants have to get their claims reviewed.

Moreover, as highlighted by the clemency point, what this case really shows to me is that the Biden Administration would rather push for courts to take people off death row rather than do it on their own.  After all, if lawyers in the Justice Department have genuinely concluded that Coonce is intellectually disabled, their constitutional oath would seemingly call for them to ask for Prez Biden to moved him off death row since the Eighth Amendment precludes an execution of someone intellectually disabled.  That DOJ is merely urging here a "fresh look" strikes me far more as a "glimpse" into the state of the Biden Administration's actions on capital punishment.

November 15, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Sunday, November 14, 2021

New US Sentencing Commission podcast discusses new Judiciary Sentencing INformation (JSIN) Tool

In this post two monts ago, titled "USSC releases interesting (but problematic?) new JSIN platform providing data on sentencing patterns," I reported on the release by the US Sentencing Commission of a new sentencing data tool for federal sentencing judges.  Though I have flagged in prior posts a few concerns about the construction and possible use of the Judiciary Sentencing INformation (JSIN) data tool in federal sentencing (see posts linked below), I still view JSIN as quite interesting and important data work by the USSC. 

The Sentencing Commission, on this webpage introducing JSIN, has provided an FAQ that explains the tool a bit.  But now one can also find on the USSC website this new podcast (called "Commission Chats") featuring a discussion of JSIN.  The short podcast (about 12 minutes) is described this way:

In this special episode, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer, Acting Chair of the Commission, and Glenn Schmitt, Research and Data Director, discuss the origin and particulars of JSIN, the Commission's new online data tool developed specifically for sentencing judges. 

Though the podcast does not go much beyond a description of the basic elements of JSIN, it still makes for an interesting listen and Judge Breyer gives an explanation for some of the data choices reflected in JSIN.

Prior related JSIN posts:

November 14, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Racial, Gender Disparities and Prosecutorial Discretion: Evidence from Blakely v. Washington"

The title of this post is the title of this paper I just recently saw on SSRN that is authored by Andy Yuan and Spencer Cooper. Here is its abstract:

We investigate the causal effects of restricting prosecutorial discretion on racial and gender disparities.  Blakely v.Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004) exogenously introduced a significant constraint on North Carolina state prosecutors' discretion in seeking sentence enhancements by raising their burdens of proof from "preponderance of evidence" to "beyond a reasonable doubt."   Through a regression discontinuity design, we find striking evidence that restricting prosecutorial discretion eliminated the entire preexisting gender gap of men being 28% more likely to receive sentence enhancements than women.  However, we find no evidence suggesting a racial gap of sentence enhancements both pre and post Blakely.

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

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Some clemency news and notes as we enter the holiday season

Regularly readers know that I view, and advocate for, the exercise of clemency to be a regular part of the work of chief executives, and that I consider regular use of the clemency power to be all that more important in our modern era of mass incarceration and mass punishment and massive collateral consequences.  But, since it seems some chief executives seem to wait until the holiday season to think about clemency work, I will declare that the holiday season has begun. 

Of course, the holiday season often includes my annual complaints about turkey pardons getting more attention than humans with real strong clemency cases.  But, encouragingly, some of past week's news suggests advocates, and even some chief executives, are already getting into the holiday clemency spirit:

From the AP, "North Carolina man wrongfully imprisoned 24 years pardoned"

From Channel3000, "‘A pardon can be a powerful message’: Gov. Evers issues 29 more pardons, bringing total to 307"

From Marijuana Moment, "Senators Urge Biden To Grant Mass Pardon For Thousands Of Marijuana Cases"

From the News Station, "President Clinton’s Pardon Transformed Me Into A Clemency Crusader"

From PIX11, "Advocates want Hochul to use clemency powers for older inmates"

From the Tulsa World, "Five Oklahoma Republican lawmakers urge clemency for Julius Jones"

For anyone intrigued by all this attention to clemency for real people, here are a few obligatory turkey headlines:

From the Alabama News Network, "From Gov. Kay Ivey Pardons Turkeys in Time-Honored Alabama Tradition"

From the Indianapolis Star, "Indiana turkeys will travel to White House for Biden's Thanksgiving presidential pardon"

From People, "Joaquin Phoenix, Billie Eilish Petition Joe Biden to Allow Pardoned Turkey to Live at Sanctuary"

Last but certainly not least, I am pleased to be able to highlight in this context that a terrific pardon project on which I have been working here in Ohio has been officially expanded as of this past week.  This news release from the Governor of Ohio, "Governor DeWine Expands Expedited Pardon Project to Include Law Partners in Cleveland, Dayton, and Cincinnati," starts this way:

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine today announced the expansion of the Ohio Governor’s Expedited Pardon Project, which eliminates administrative hurdles and provides free one-on-one help for qualified citizens seeking legal absolution for past criminal offenses. 

Governor DeWine launched the Ohio Governor's Expedited Pardon Project in 2019 in partnership with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, and the University of Akron School of Law to fast-track the pardon applications of specific candidates who have become law-abiding and contributing members of society.

The expansion of the program enlists new law partners to reach more potential pardon candidates and to help guide candidates through the pardon process. 

A few prior posts about the Ohio "Expedited Pardon Project":

November 13, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

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)

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Feds get 41 months for one high-profile January 6 rioter and seek 51 months for another

Two new Politico articles provide updates on the latest sentencing news from the prosecution of persons involved in the January 6 Capitol riot.  Here are links and excerpts:

"N.J. man hit with toughest sentence yet in Jan. 6 attack":

A federal judge on Wednesday imposed the most serious sentence yet in connection with the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, ordering a New Jersey man to serve almost three-and-a-half years in prison for punching a police officer in the face during the melee.

Scott Fairlamb, 44, a former MMA fighter and gym owner, is the first defendant charged with assaulting an officer during the attack to face sentencing. The judge, Royce Lamberth, said he expected Fairlamb’s 41-month sentence would end up lower than others also facing charges for assaulting police that day.

That’s because Fairlamb was the first to plead guilty to such an assault and, despite initially celebrating the attack, has since expressed remorse that both prosecutors and Lamberth himself described as “genuine.”

Some of many prior related posts:

November 10, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Rounding up reviews of SCOTUS oral arguments on religious liberty in death chamber

On Tuesday morning, the US Supreme Court heard oral argument in Ramirez v. Collier to consider whether a condemned prisoner can have his pastor physically touch him and audibly pray in the execution chamber while he is being executed.  I have not yet had a chance to listen to the oral argument (which is available here), but a quick scan of a number of press reports suggests the Justices were split on the matter.  Here is a partial round-up of blog and press comment on the argument:

From NPR, "Supreme Court conservatives are skeptical on spiritual advisers in death chamber"

From SCOTUSblog, "Court debates inmate’s request for prayer and touch during execution, but a key justice remains silent"

From Slate, "The Supreme Court’s Conservatives Finally Found a Religious Objection They Don’t Like"

From USA Today, “Texas death row case: Supreme Court wrestles with religious freedom in the execution chamber.”

November 9, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Elections have consequences": Virginia criminal justice edition

I now have seen a couple of noteworthy articles related to criminal justice issues coming from Virginia in the wake of GOP candidates prevailing in last week's election.  Here are headlines and excerpts:

"What Youngkin’s parole board promise signals for Virginia’s criminal justice system":

Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin promises to fire and replace the board after an investigation last year found its members weren’t following the board’s own rules. Attorney general-elect Jason Miyares also says his office will re-investigate what happened.  Come January of next year, Virginia will have a republican governor for the first time since 2014. The new leadership is expected to bring new policies — and a new, Republican-appointed parole board.

While claiming victory last week in northern Virginia, Youngkin echoed what was one of his key campaign promises.  “We will replace the entire parole board on day one,” he said....  The promise comes during the ongoing parole board scandal.  Last year, the state’s watchdog agency found Virginia’s parole board violated the law, specifically failing to notify local prosecutors and victims’ families of some releases.  “The most that we can kind of conclude from that whole saga was that the board was not following its own rules and needed to do a better job of doing that,” said 8News Political Analyst Rich Meagher, on Monday....

Meagher said with a new, Youngkin-appointed board, we should expect changes.  “The parole board is considered more of a politicized board and it represents the interest of the party and the party’s ideology,” he said. All of the board’s five current members were appointed by Democratic governors Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam between 2014 and 2020.

The state’s new self-described “top cop” Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares doesn’t have any direct control over the board or its decisions. However, Miyares said he’s expecting Youngkin’s appointees to more heavily consider victim input when considering paroles. “I think that’s a critical component,” Miyares said last week.

This is perhaps bad news for some convicts seeking a second chance and good news for victims’ families.  “Youngkin very clearly wants to take a very tough law and order approach so we will definitely see fewer of these parole releases almost guaranteed over the next few years,” Meagher said.

Since parole was abolished in 1995, the parole board only considers eligible people convicted before then. Meagher said what will likely impact even more Virginians is Youngkin and Miyares’ approach to criminal justice. “It signals that there is a change coming,” Meagher said. “I think the democrats have been trying to push for more rehabilitation, less of a focus on incarceration in previous years, and that’s most likely going to change with Youngkin,” Meagher said.

"Virginia AG-elect Miyares seeks legal way to override 'social justice' DAs and 'do their job for them'"

Virginia Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares said that he and Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin will pursue legislation to enable the state's attorney general to circumvent "social justice" commonwealth's attorneys who refuse to vigorously prosecute crimes.

At a news conference on Thursday, Miyares laid out "one of our major legislative initiatives" which Youngkin "has already indicated that he would sign… into law."

Under current law, the AG's office can prosecute a case on behalf of a commonwealth's attorney — Virginia's version of a district attorney (DA) — so long as the DA requests it.

The new bill "would essentially say, if the chief law enforcement officer in a jurisdiction — either the chief of police or the sheriff — makes a request because a commonwealth's attorney is not doing their job, then I'm going to do their job for them," Miyares said.  "I'm thinking specifically, some of the so-called ‘social justice’ commonwealth's attorneys that have been elected particularly in Northern Virginia. We're obviously aware of some pretty horrific cases" where these DAs have not pursued justice.

November 9, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Monday, November 08, 2021

Gearing up for SCOTUS argument in Ramirez on religious liberty in death chamber

On Tuesday morning, the US Supreme Court will hear Ramirez v. Collier, which presents these issues:

(1) Whether, consistent with the free exercise clause and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, Texas’ decision to allow Ramirez’s pastor to enter the execution chamber, but forbidding the pastor from laying his hands on his parishioner as he dies, substantially burden the exercise of his religion, so as to require Texas to justify the deprivation as the least restrictive means of advancing a compelling governmental interest; and (2) whether, considering the free exercise clause and RLUIPA, Texas’ decision to allow Ramirez’s pastor to enter the execution chamber, but forbidding the pastor from singing prayers, saying prayers or scripture, or whispering prayers or scripture, substantially burden the exercise of his religion, so as to require Texas to justify the deprivation as the least restrictive means of advancing a compelling governmental interest.

Here is some of the press I have seen previewing the case:

From Bloomberg Law, "Lawyer Takes Rare Case on Religion, Executions to U.S. Top Court"

From Newsweek, "Conservatives Find Rare Common Ground With ACLU in Death Penalty Religious Freedom Case"

From SCOTUSblog, "Court to clarify the right of death-row inmates to receive spiritual guidance during execution"

From Time, "‘Why Can’t I Hold His Hand?’ The Supreme Court Will Decide What Comforts a Pastor Can Offer During an Execution"

From Vox, "The Supreme Court must decide if it loves religious liberty more than the death penalty"

From the Washington Post, "Supreme Court considers a minister’s role at the time an inmate is put to death"

Prior related posts:

November 8, 2021 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Resurrecting Arbitrariness"

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

What allows judges to sentence a child to die in prison?  For years, they did so without constitutional restriction.  That all changed in 2012’s Miller v. Alabama, which banned mandatory sentences of life without parole for children convicted of homicide crimes. Miller held that this extreme sentence was constitutional only for the worst offenders — the “permanently incorrigible.”  By embracing individualized sentencing, Miller and its progeny portended a sea change in the way juveniles would be sentenced for serious crimes. But if Miller opened the door to sentencing reform, the Court’s recent decision in Jones v. Mississippi appeared to slam it shut.

Rather than restrict the discretion of a judge to throw away the key in sentencing child defendants, the Court in Jones increased that discretion.  It recast Miller as a purely procedural decision that only required a barebones “consideration” of a defendant’s “youth and attendant circumstances” to fulfill its mandate of individualized sentencing. Jones further held that judges need not engage in any formal factfinding before sentencing a child to die in prison, which renders these sentences nearly unreviewable.  This article argues that, through these two jurisprudential moves, Jones created conditions that will maximize arbitrary and racially discriminatory sentencing outcomes nation-wide, resembling the unconstitutional death sentences of the mid-twentieth century.

This article is the first to comprehensively analyze Jones, contending that the decision represents an embrace of unfettered discretion in the sentencing of children facing life without parole.  Given the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Eighth Amendment, I contend that state solutions are the way forward.  I propose that states join the national trend of abandoning life without parole sentences for children.  Short of abolishing the sentence, I offer three procedural interventions.  First, states should enact “genuine narrowing” requirements that establish criteria designed to limit eligibility for life without parole sentences for children to the theoretical “worst of the worst.”  While inspired by the narrowing requirement in capital sentencing, “genuine narrowing” relies on meaningful and concrete criteria that seek to achieve the mandate of Miller that such sentences be uncommon.  Second, states should require jury sentencing, which ensures that sentences will be imposed by multiple, and typically more diverse, voices than what currently occurs with judicial sentencing.  Third, states should go beyond merely telling sentencers to take youth into account in their sentencing decisions, but should instead inform them that the characteristics of youth are “mitigating as a matter of law,” and when pre-sent, must weigh against an imposition of life without parole.

November 8, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 05, 2021

SCOTUS grants cert on two (consolidated) cases to consider physician criminal liability for unlawfully dispensing prescription drugs

The Supreme Court this afternoon issued this new short order list that grants certiorari in a few new cases, including a (consolidated) pair of criminal matters involving whether and when doctors can be criminal liable for unlawfully dispensing prescription drugs.  The two cases are Ruan v. US, No. 20-1410, and Kahn v. US, No. 21-5261, and here is the question presented in the first of these:

Whether a physician alleged to have prescribed controlled substances outside the usual course of professional practice may be convicted of unlawful distribution under 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) without regard to whether, in good faith, he “reasonably believed” or “subjectively intended” that his prescriptions fall within that course of professional practice.

November 5, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, November 04, 2021

Federal prison population has now grown more than 4,300 persons (almost 3%) in just last six month

Prez Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to "take bold action to reduce our prison population."  But I cannot think of a single action he has taken over his first 10 months in office, let alone any "bold action," to reduce the federal prison population.  And the latest numbers from the federal Bureau of Prisons tell a notably story of federal prison population growth, not reduction, so far in the the Biden era.

The day after Joe Biden was inaugurated, I authored this post posing a question in the title: "Anyone bold enough to make predictions about the federal prison population — which is now at 151,646 according to BOP?".  That post highlighted notable numerical realties about the the federal prison population (based on BOP data) during recent presidencies: during Prez Obama's first term in office, the federal prison population increased about 8%, climbing from 201,668 at the end of 2008 to 218,687 at the end of 2012; during Prez Trump's one term in office, this population count decreased almost 20%, dropping from 189,212 total federal inmates in January 2017 to 151,646 in January 2021.

At the 100 day mark of the Biden Administration, I noted in this post that the prison population in the first few months of the Biden era had held pretty steady.  Specifically, as of May 6, 2021, the federal prison population clocked in at 152,085, an increase of just over 500 persons in inauguration day.  But now the BOP update of the federal prison population as of Nov. 4, 2021 reports 156,428 "Total Federal Inmates."  Thus, over the last six months, the total federal prison population has grown nearly 3% with more than 4,300 additional inmates.

This prison growth, I suspect, is mostly a function of the federal criminal justice system returning to more case-processing normalcy as COVID concerns recede.  (The reduction in COVID concerns also likely is resulting in fewer grants of compassionate release and perhaps a greater willingness of some judges to order the start of prison terms.)  Increased concerns about violent crime might also be playing a role, directly or indirectly, in the flow of prisoners in and out of federal facilities.

Though a range of uncertain factors may be driving the significant uptick in federal prisoners over the last six months, I am certainly inclined to now predict that we will see continued increases in the federal prison population unless and until Prez Biden makes an effort to carry out his pledge to "take bold action to reduce our prison population."  I am not holding my breath.

November 4, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Split Sixth Circuit panel finds multiple errors in district court's reduction of LWOP sentence via 3582(c)(1)(A)

The Sixth Circuit yesterday handed down a notable split panel opinion reversing the grant of compassionate release to a defendant who had been serving a life without parole sentence in US v. Bass, No. 21-1094 (6th Cir. Nov. 3, 2021) (available here).  Here i how the majority opinion gets started:

In 2003, John Bass, a local drug kingpin in the state of Michigan, was convicted of murdering a hitman whom Bass had hired to kill Bass’s half-brother.  Though the Government sought the death penalty, Bass was ultimately sentenced to two concurrent terms of life imprisonment without the possibility of release.  In 2020, Bass moved for compassionate release due to COVID-19.  The district court granted Bass’s request in January 2021 and ordered his immediate release.  In March, a divided panel of this court granted the Government’s emergency motion to stay the release.  In this merits appeal, the Government argues that the district court abused its discretion when it granted Bass’s request for immediate release.  Because the district court’s decision rested upon legal errors, its decision to release Bass constituted an abuse of its discretion.  On remand, moreover, the district court must reevaluate the compassionate release request based on current facts and circumstances, which have materially changed.

The "legal errors" identified by the majority relate largely to how the district court framed and balanced various 3553(a) factors, but the seriousness of the crime seems to be driving much of the analysis:

The district court also reasoned that, balancing Bass’s crimes “with the circumstances under which they were committed,” his twenty-two-year incarceration was “‘sufficient, but not greater than necessary,’ to fulfill the purposes of his punishment.” Bass, 514 F. Supp. 3d at 984 (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)).  This conclusion does not fit the facts of Bass’s case.  Bass’s crimes were so severe that the Government sought the death penalty, and Bass’s own defense counsel assured the jury that Bass would never leave prison in an effort to avoid imposition of the death penalty.  Bass, 460 F.3d at 834.  The district court justified Bass’s release by repeatedly emphasizing Bass’s commitment to rehabilitation and education.  Bass, 514 F. Supp. 3d at 984-88.  But the district court failed to square this lengthy rehabilitation analysis with the fact that Bass’s original sentence was life imprisonment without the possibility of release. This sentence would have ensured that the fifty-two-year-old Bass would remain in prison for the rest of his life, which could conceivably extend for several decades.  In deciding Bass’s original sentence, the jury and the district court had already considered and rejected the possibility that Bass could be rehabilitated, or that his capacity for rehabilitation warranted the potential for an early release.  This is not to say that compassionate release is never available for a defendant sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of release.  We assume that there are circumstances that would warrant compassionate release for a defendant so sentenced.  But the nature of Bass’s life sentence calls into question the district court’s decision to afford substantial weight to Bass’s efforts at rehabilitation after only twenty-two years in prison.

Notably, as detailed here, a few months ago in US v. Hunter, 12 F. 4th 555 (6th Cir. 2021), a unanimous Sixth Circuit panel reversed a life sentence reduced to "only" 21 years in prison based on questionable conclusions that certain factors could never permit a sentence reduction via 3582(c)(1)(A).  Here the reversal is focused on the weighing of 3553(a) factors, and that reality in part drives  the dissent that Judge White penned here.  Her opinion starts and ends this way:

I would not have granted Bass’s motion for compassionate release, but under the compassionate-release jurisprudence this court has developed over the past year and a half or so, our disagreement with a district court’s exercise of its discretion is expressly excluded as a ground for reversal. We require district courts to provide only the most minimal explanation, see, e.g., United States v. Quintanilla Navarro, 986 F.3d 668, 673 (6th Cir. 2021) (affirming a district court's single-sentence order), and we must defer to their judgment in weighing the § 3553(a) factors and not substitute our own, see United States v. Ruffin, 978 F.3d 1000, 1005 (6th Cir. 2020); United States v. Hogg, 858 F. App’x 816, 818 (6th Cir. 2021); United States v. Keefer, 832 F. App'x 359, 362–65 (6th Cir. 2020)....

As I said at the outset, I would not have granted this motion.  However, the district court adequately explained its decision and did not abuse its discretion in concluding otherwise.  We must apply the same rules on review without regard to whether the government or the inmate is aggrieved by the district court’s decision.  “Our trust in the discretion of the district court must be consistent regardless of whether the district court grants or denies a [compassionate-release motion].” Bass, 843 Fed. App’x at 740.

November 4, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Oklahoma board recommends clemency for Julius Jones who claims innocence from death row

This local article reports on a notable development in a high-profile case in Oklahoma involving the next death row inmate scheduled to be executed in the coming weeks. Here are the details:

The Oklahoma State Pardon and Parole Board on Monday recommended clemency for death row inmate Julius Jones.  The board voted 3-1 in favor of granting clemency for Jones, who has been on death row for more than 20 years for the 1999 murder of Edmond businessman Paul Howell.  One board member recused themselves from the vote.

Along with clemency, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended commuting Jones' death sentence to life with the possibility of parole.

"The Pardon and Parole Board has now twice voted in favor of commuting Julius Jones’s death sentence, acknowledging the grievous errors that led to his conviction and death sentence," Jones' lawyer, Amanda Bass, said in a news release.  "We hope that Governor Stitt will exercise his authority to accept the Board’s recommendation and ensure that Oklahoma does not execute an innocent man."

"My son Julius has been on death row for over twenty years for a murder he did not commit, and every day of that has been a waking nightmare for my family," Jones' mother, Madeline Davis-Jones, said in a news release....

Gov. Kevin Stitt will now decide Jones' fate.  He has not said how he plans to decide in the case, only saying that he wouldn't decide until after the clemency hearing.  His office released the following statement to KOCO 5: "Governor Stitt is aware of the Pardon and Parole Board’s vote today. Our office will not offer further comment until the governor has made a final decision."

Jones spoke during Monday's clemency hearing, giving his account of the night Howell was killed, the days after and his trial.

The recommendation comes more than a month after the same Pardon and Parole Board recommended that Jones' sentence be commuted, which set up Monday's clemency hearing. It also came less than a week after Oklahoma resumed executions for the first time since 2015.  The state put John Grant to death last week.  Although a decision on Jones' fate is up in the air, his execution is scheduled for Nov. 18.

Jones has gained a lot of support over the past few years, especially from several high-profile celebrities, including Kim Kardashian and Baker Mayfield.  Howell's family said before the clemency hearing that they hoped the Pardon and Parole Board would vote based on facts instead of Hollywood fiction.  His daughter spoke with KOCO 5 in October, saying a lot of misinformation had spread about Jones and the case.

November 2, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, November 01, 2021

"Sentencing Guidelines Abstention"

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

A primary role of the Supreme Court is to resolve conflicts among the federal courts of appeal.  When the split concerns the federal sentencing guidelines, however, the Supreme Court has ceded this role to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, effectively allowing the Commission to act as the court of last resort in this context.  As then-Judge Alito recognized, “no other federal agency — in any branch — has ever performed a role anything like it.”

This anomaly has largely escaped academic attention because the Court’s abdication comes in the form of certiorari denials, which are buried in the Court’s long order lists.  But the consequences of the Court’s refusal to review splits involving federal sentencing policy — referred to here as “sentencing guidelines abstention” — cannot be ignored.  Sentencing guidelines abstention perpetuates uncertainty and wide-ranging sentencing disparities, meaning the length of a federal defendant’s sentence will depend on the happenstance of where the defendant is sentenced.  The principled and fair administration of justice cannot tolerate such ambiguity and randomness.

This Article argues that there is no sound basis for sentencing guidelines abstention.  It outlines reasons — grounded in precedent, congressional intent, administrative law principles, and practical considerations — why the Court should reassume its traditional role of resolving federal sentencing guideline splits, provide uniformity and consistency to the federal judiciary, and contribute thereby to the development of a reasoned and coherent federal criminal justice system.

November 1, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Some notable dissents and a statement together with SCOTUS criminal justice cert denials

The merits cases scheduled to be argued before the Supreme Court this week on topics like abortion and gun rights are rightly getting a lot of attention.  But the week has started with this order list in which Court has 5+ pages listing cases on which certiorari has been denied.  In three cases involving criminal-law related issues, some Justices penned statements concerning these denials.  Via How Appealing, here are the basics with links:

In Simmons v. United States, No. 20-1704, Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a statement, in which Justice Elena Kagan joined, respecting the denial of certiorari.

In Coonce v. United States, No. 19–7862, Justice Sotomayor issued a dissent, in which Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Kagan joined, from the denial of certiorari.

And in American Civil Liberties Union v. United States, No. 20–1499, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch issued a dissent, in which Justice Sotomayor joined, from the denial of certiorari.

The lengthiest and most notable of these separate opinions is in the Coonce case, where Justice Sotomayor starts her 11-page dissent this way:

Petitioner Wesley Paul Coonce, Jr., was convicted in federal court of murder. Facing the death penalty, he argued that his execution would violate the Eighth Amendment because he has an intellectual disability.  See Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U. S. 304 (2002).  The District Court denied Coonce’s Atkins claim without a hearing, the jury sentenced him to death, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed.

In denying Coonce relief without a hearing, the courts relied on the definition of intellectual disability by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD), which then required that an impairment manifest before age 18.  It is undisputed that Coonce’s impairments fully manifested at age 20.  After Coonce petitioned for certiorari, the AAIDD changed its definition to include impairments that, like Coonce’s, manifested before age 22.

The Government urges us to grant certiorari, vacate the judgment below, and remand (GVR), conceding that it is reasonably probable that the Eighth Circuit would reach a different result on reconsideration given the significant shift in the definition that formed the basis of its opinion. Instead, the Court denies certiorari.  Because Coonce is entitled to a hearing on his Atkins claim, and because our precedents counsel in favor of a GVR, I respectfully dissent.

One of many notable aspects of this case is highlighted by this observation in the dissent:

In light of the above, the material change in the AAIDD’s leading definition of intellectual disability plainly warrants a GVR.  To my knowledge, the Court has never before denied a GVR in a capital case where both parties have requested it, let alone where a new development has cast the decision below into such doubt.

I believe the defendant in this case will still be able to bring a 2255 motion, so the Justices voting to deny cert may be content to have these "execution competency" issues addressed in that setting. But Justice Sotomayor closes her dissent explaining why that seems to her insufficient:

I can only hope that the lower courts on collateral review will give Coonce the consideration that the Constitution demands. But this Court, too, has an obligation to protect our Constitution’s mandates. It falls short of fulfilling that obligation today. The Court should have allowed the Eighth Circuit to reconsider Coonce’s compelling claim of intellectual disability, as both he and the Government requested. I respectfully dissent.

November 1, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, October 29, 2021

Will "outcry" over ugly details of latest Oklahoma execution impact its plans to have six more in coming months?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the first word of the headline, and then the last sentence of the body, of this new Guardian piece: "Outcry after Oklahoma prisoner vomits and convulses during execution."  Here are the basics:

Oklahoma is coming under sharp criticism after witnesses to the state’s first judicial killing for six years described gruesome scenes of the dying prisoner convulsing and vomiting as he was administered the lethal injections.

John Grant, 60, was pronounced dead at 4.21pm on Thursday at McAlester state penitentiary after he was injected with a triple cocktail of midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride. Later, the department of corrections said the killing had gone “in accordance with protocols and without complication”.

But eyewitness accounts from reporters at McAlester’s supposedly state-of-the-art death chamber gave a very different account.  Dan Snyder, an anchor at the Oklahoma TV channel Fox 25, said that events went drastically off course the instant the first drug, the sedative midazolam, was injected into the prisoner.  “Almost immediately after the drug was administered, Grant began convulsing, so much so that his entire upper back repeatedly lifted off the gurney,” Snyder reported. “As the convulsions continued, Grant then began to vomit.  Multiple times over the course of the next few minutes medical staff entered the death chamber to wipe away and remove vomit from the still-breathing Grant.”

It took 15 minutes for Grant to be declared unconscious by medical staff, after which the vecuronium bromide, which paralyses the body, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart, were given. On Twitter, Snyder gave his response to the state’s official claim that all had gone according to plan. “As a witness to the execution who was in the room, I’ll say this: repeated convulsions and extensive vomiting for nearly 15 minutes would not seem to be ‘without complication’.”

Accounts of the botched execution of Grant, who was being put to death for the murder in 1998 of a prison cafeteria worker while he was already serving a sentence for armed robberies, will come as a deep embarrassment for Oklahoma. No judicial killings have taken place in the state since 2015 after a spate of botched procedures caused widespread alarm and forced the authorities to review their use of lethal injection drugs.

In 2018, officials in the state went as far as to announce they would abandon lethal injections entirely, due to the protocol’s lack of transparency and to the inhumane executions that had taken place. But in August the state reversed that decision, saying it would resume executions without giving an explanation for the U-turn or revealing critical details about how it intended to carry out the killings.

The state’s six-year hiatus was prompted in part by the execution in 2014 of Clayton Lockett, who writhed and groaned on the gurney for 43 minutes before he was declared dead after the intravenous line through which the lethal drugs were delivered was inserted improperly. The gruesome descriptions of his death by eyewitnesses in the Guardian and elsewhere caused nationwide revulsion. The following year the state used the wrong drug to kill Charles Warner. In the wake of these botched procedures a bipartisan commission reviewed the state’s death penalty system and issued a highly critical report that called for the moratorium on capital punishment to be extended....

Grant’s execution was allowed to proceed on Thursday after the US supreme court voted five to three, with the three liberal justices dissenting, to allow the judicial killing to go ahead. It is unclear whether the descriptions of his death will affect future planned executions in the state.

Oklahoma has an aggressive calendar of executions scheduled, with six set to take place by the end of March.

I put the word "outcry" in quotes because, so far, I have mostly seen opponents of the death penalty comment and assail the latest ugly Oklahoma execution.  If only the "usual subjects" are complaining about the execution, I doubt that will slow the state's current plan to execute another half-dozen people in the coming month. But it also seems possible, especially if more evidence of problems with the execution process emerges, that some death penalty supporters in Oklahoma or elsewhere will express concern and be in a position to slow future trips to the death chamber.

Prior recent related posts:

UPDATE: This local article suggests that Oklahoma officials are not troubled by the execution of John Grant. Here is how it stars:

Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Scott Crow said Friday the agency has no plans to change its execution protocol after a witness said John Marion Grant had about two dozen full body convulsions and vomited during his lethal injection on Thursday.  “Some of the information is either embellished or is not exactly on point,” the DOC director said during a virtual press conference to “clarify” issues.

Crow, who witnessed the execution, said he saw Grant dry heave fewer than 10 times, not convulse. He said Grant did vomit.  “As he started that process, I conferred with the physician we had on site monitoring the process and he advised me that regurgitation is not a completely uncommon instance or occurrence with someone that is undergoing sedation,” Crow said.

October 29, 2021 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, October 28, 2021

USSC releases "new" guideline manual as Acting Chair describes recent Commission activities

The US Sentencing Commission today published on its site this two-page letter by Acting Chair Charles R. Breyer (which is dated September 15, 2021). The letter discusses the release of a "new" Guideline Manual as well as recent work by the Commission. All federal sentencing fans will want to check out the whole letter, and here are just some of the interesting excerpts:

As many of you know, since early 2019, the United States Sentencing Commission has been operating without the quorum of four voting members required by statute to promulgate amendments to the sentencing guidelines, policy statements, and commentary. Thus, the 2018 edition of the Guidelines Manual, which incorporated amendments effective November 1, 2018, was the last version of the Guidelines Manual released.

The Commission has received feedback indicating that hard copies of the 2018 Guidelines Manual are significantly worn and that there is a limited supply of new copies available.  In addition, the Commission has identified the need to update Appendix B, the accompanying volume to the Guidelines Manual that compiles the principal statutory provisions governing sentencing, the Commission, and the drafting of sentencing guidelines.  Congress has amended several of the statutory provisions contained in Appendix B since the Commission released the 2018 Guidelines Manual.

As acting chair of the Commission, I am pleased to transmit this edition of the Guidelines Manual, which is a reprint without changes of the guidelines, policy statements, and commentary contained in the 2018 Guidelines Manual featuring a new cover in Berkeley blue....

Although lacking the quorum necessary to promulgate guideline amendments, the Commission has introduced several interactive tools and other resources to assist with guideline application over the past few years....

The Commission continues to perform other statutory duties while it awaits the appointment of new voting commissioners.  Over the past few years, the Commission has met the growing demand for the Commission’s work products, resources, and services, as evidenced by an impressive increase in the Commission’s website traffic. The Commission continues to release new and informative sentencing data, research, and training materials....

The Commission also continues to work on several important policy priorities, including examining the implementation of the First Step Act of 2018.  To inform a newly constituted Commission and to provide Congress and others a timely assessment of the First Step Act’s impact, the Commission has been collecting, analyzing, and reporting data on the five sentencing provisions contained in the Act.  In 2020, the Commission released The First Step Act of 2018: One Year of Implementation, a comprehensive report comparing data from the first full year following the enactment of the Act with data from fiscal year 2018, the last full fiscal year prior to its enactment.  More recently, the Commission published a report analyzing how courts are ruling on compassionate release motions after the First Step Act and during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The Commission is currently collecting further data on compassionate release motions, including the reasons courts are asserting for granting and denying such motions, to inform Congress and the public, as well as its own policymaking.  

October 28, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

By 5-3 order, SCOTUS vacates stays of Oklahoma executions entered by Tenth Circuit ... and one execution carried out

As set forth in this short order, the US Supreme Court this afternoon has vacated stays of execution for two death row defendants, one of whom is scheduled to be executed today.  Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan indicated they would deny Oklahoma's application to vacate the stays that had been entered by the Tenth Circuit yesterday. Justice Gorsuch took no part in matter, presumably because the case came from his old circuit.  This Hill article from yesterday provides the basics on the litigation:

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit granted a temporary motion for stay of execution for two Oklahoma death row inmates on Wednesday, just a day before one of the inmates was scheduled to die by lethal injection.

The appeals court stayed the executions of Julius Jones and John Grant on the basis that they met two criteria required for an execution to be stayed. Prisoners must show that the execution method chosen by the state — in this case a three-drug lethal injection — presents “a substantial risk of severe pain" and they must also show that the risk of severe pain is substantial when compared to other available alternatives.

Jones and Grant were part of a federal lawsuit seeking to challenge Oklahoma's three-drug lethal injection. However, Judge Stephen Friot denied a motion for a preliminary injunction that they and three other inmates sought, clearing the way for their executions in the next six months....

The appeals court wrote that though Jones and Grant did not choose an alternative method of execution, it does not mean they did not identify alternatives to lethal injection. The court also wrote that there was no law that requires a prisoner to choose their own method of execution.  The court wrote that the if the inmates are executed they "risk being unable to present what may be a viable Eighth Amendment claim." 

UPDATE: As reported in this AP piece, "Oklahoma ended a six-year moratorium on executions Thursday, administering the death penalty on a man who convulsed and vomited before dying, his sentence for the 1998 slaying of a prison cafeteria worker." Here is more:

John Marion Grant, 60, who was strapped to a gurney inside the execution chamber, began convulsing and vomiting after the first drug, the sedative midazolam, was administered. Several minutes later, two members of the execution team wiped the vomit from his face and neck.

Before the curtain was raised to allow witnesses to see into the execution chamber, Grant could be heard yelling, “Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!” He delivered a stream of profanities before the lethal injection started. He was declared unconscious about 15 minutes after the first of three drugs was administered and declared dead about six minutes after that, at 4:21 p.m.

Grant was the first inmate to be executed since a series of flawed lethal injections in 2014 and 2015. He was serving a 130-year prison sentence for several armed robberies when witnesses say he dragged prison cafeteria worker Gay Carter into a mop closet and stabbed her 16 times with a homemade shank. He was sentenced to die in 1999.

October 28, 2021 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

"Limiting the Pardon Power"

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

Although our government is said to be one of checks and balances, the president’s power “to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States” appears to be unlimited.  In granting this power, the Framers deliberately cast structural safeguards aside.  Nevertheless, the presidency of Donald Trump prompted a search for limits.  This Article examines: (1) whether a president may pardon crimes that have not yet happened (or announce his intention to do so); (2) whether he may pardon himself; (3) whether he may use pardons to obstruct justice or commit other crimes; (4) whether criminal statutes should be construed not to apply to the president when they arguably limit the pardon power; (5) whether the Take Care Clause limits the pardon power; (6) whether pardons can deprive victims of due process; (7) whether pardons ever violate the separation of powers by limiting the authority of courts; (8) whether the exception to the pardon power for impeachment cases does more than prevent the president from blocking the impeachment of federal officeholders; (9) whether pardons must specifically identify the crimes pardoned; and (10) whether pardons are invalid when issued as the result of fraud, bribery, or other unlawful conduct.  Applying common-law principles that have limited the pardon power from the start, the Article explains why the pardons President Trump granted Roger Stone and Paul Manafort are invalid and why the Justice Department could seek a declaratory judgment saying so.

October 28, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Is it foolish to hope, after now 35 years, that Congress will soon fix the crack-powder federal sentencing disparity?

My twitter feed this morning was full with folks noting that today marks officially a full 35 years(!) since Congress enacted the notorious 100-1 crack/powder cocaine ratio disparity.  The full story of 35 years of federal crack sentencing injustice and dysfunction cannot be recounted in a blog post.  But a few highlights document that a complete fix is long in the making, long overdue, and cannot come to soon. 

The US Sentencing Commission sent a report to Congress in 1995  — 26 years ago! —  highlight the myriad flaws with the crack-powder sentence scheme and proposed guidelines changes to partially fix the 100:1 crack/powder disparity by adopting a 1:1 quantity ratio at the powder cocaine level.  But Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, legislation rejecting the USSC’s proposed guideline changes (see basics here and here), thereby ensuring decades of disproportionately severe crack sentences and extreme racial inequities in cocaine offense punishments.

Barack Obama gave a 2007 campaign speech assailing the crack/powder disparity, and in 2009 the Obama Justice Department advocated for "Congress to completely eliminate the crack/powder disparity."  Despite strong DOJ advocacy for a 1:1 ratio in April 2009, it still took Congress more than a year to enact only a partial reduction in crack sentences rather than the parity advocated by the USSC in 1995 and by DOJ in 2009.  Specifically, the Fair Sentencing Act enshrined a new 18:1 crack/powder quantity disparity ratio into federal drug sentencing statutes and guidelines, and even this modest reform did not become fully retroactive until eight years later with the 2018 FIRST STEP Act.

Excitingly, as noted here, the US House voted 361-66 last month to pass the EQUAL Act to end, finally and completely, the statutory disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentences.  In this new Hill commentary, Aamra Ahmad And Jeremiah Mosteller make the case that Congress should finally get this long overdue reform to the finish line.  Here is the start and end of their piece:

Thirty-five years ago today, while the country was still reeling from the tragic death of Len Bias — a University of Maryland basketball star who, just days after being drafted by the Boston Celtics, died from a drug overdose — Congress passed and President Reagan signed into law the Anti-Drug Abuse Act.  Assuming that the drug that killed Len was crack, Congress drafted a law that would impose harsher penalties on crack offenses.  It would impose the same mandatory prison sentence for five grams of crack cocaine as 500 grams of powder cocaine.  Even after it became known that the drug that killed Len was powder cocaine, not crack, the narrative had taken off that crack is more dangerous than powder, and Congress established the 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine in federal law.

Over the years, this sentencing disparity has become emblematic of both the ineffectiveness of reactionary criminal justice policy and the racial disparities existing in our criminal justice system....

The EQUAL Act recently passed the House of Representatives with an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 361 to 66.  It is rare to see Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), a former Texas judge and nationally-recognized staunch conservative, agree with Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), one of the leading progressive voices in the leadership of the Democratic Party, on criminal justice reform, but that is just what happened on the House floor when they both spoke in support of the EQUAL Act.  It is now up to the Senate to pass this long-overdue legislation and send the EQUAL Act to President Biden’s desk for his signature.  Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are the sponsors of the Senate companion legislation (S. 79) and have taken the lead in building a coalition to pass this legislation during the 117th Congress.  The time is now for the Senate to take action and rectify this long-standing injustice in our criminal legal system.

A few prior recent related posts:

October 27, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Pathways to Success on Probation: Lessons Learned from the First Phase of the Reducing Revocations Challenge"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new research brief from Arnold Ventures and the CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance which is part of the Reducing Revocations Challenge, a national initiative on probation supervision seeking to reduce its impact on mass incarceration. Here is part of the research brief's introduction:

There has been growing agreement among practitioners, policymakers, and the general public that there are far too many people under probation supervision in the United States.  Since 1980, the number of people on probation has increased more than 215 percent, from 1.2 million to 3.5 million in 2018.  Today, approximately one in 57 adults (roughly two percent of the U.S. adult population) is under community supervision on any given day, and unnecessarily long probation terms are required by law in many states around the country.  Indeed, together with parole, probation supervision accounts for the large majority of individuals under correctional control in this country....

Probation was designed to be an alternative to incarceration, yet for many people under supervision it turns out to be a pathway that inevitably leads them there.  Although research has highlighted a range of evidence-based strategies over the years, from graduated responses to risk-needs-responsivity supervision models to reporting kiosks for low-risk individuals, success rates have not improved over time.  We still know very little about how to most effectively manage and support people on probation in a manner that reduces revocations, maximizes success, and works to achieve community safety and well-being.  This is in part because our understanding about the factors, circumstances, and behaviors that drive probation revocations to jail or prison — including the role of technical violations and new criminal activity and what is considered in decisions to violate and/or revoke — remains limited.  We also know very little about how to respond to people on probation in ways that prevent new criminal activity without over-punishing less harmful behaviors or exacerbating racial and ethnic disparities....

With this in mind, in 2019 the CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance (ISLG) launched the Reducing Revocations Challenge (Challenge), a national initiative that aims to increase the success of those on probation by identifying, piloting, and testing promising strategies grounded in a robust analysis and understanding of why revocations occur. With the support of Arnold Ventures, over the past two years, the Challenge has supported research in 10 jurisdictions around the country to explore three key questions about local probation practices:

  1. Who is most likely to have a violation of their probation filed or have their probation revoked?
  2. Which types of noncompliance most often lead to probation revocation?
  3. What factors are driving these outcomes and what are the potential solutions? In each jurisdiction, the work was carried out by an action research team composed of a probation agency and a local research partner.
This brief summarizes the findings from the research work across jurisdictions. It begins with an overview of the Challenge and participating sites.  From there, we present key themes that emerged from the research in two subsections.  The first discusses trends that reaffirm prior learnings or assumptions about supervision revocations, especially with respect to factors and circumstances that influence who has probation violations filed and/or is revoked.  The second highlights new insights that emerged in key areas that have been more difficult to explore in the past despite being critical for enhancing success on supervision.  The brief ends with a discussion of policy and practice implications.

October 27, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

"How to be a Better Plea Bargainer"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Cynthia Alkon and Andrea Kupfer Schneider recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Preparation matters in negotiation.  While plea bargaining is a criminal lawyer’s primary activity, the value of this skill is discounted by law schools and training programs.  A systemic model can be used to improve plea bargaining skills.  This Article offers a prep sheet for both prosecutors and defense attorneys and explains how each element of the sheet specifically applies to the plea bargaining context. 

The prep sheet is designed as a learning tool so that the negotiator can learn from the sheet and then make their own.  The sheet highlights important considerations such as understanding the interests and goals of the parties, the facts of the case, the law, policies behind the law, elements of an agreement, how to communicate with the other parties, and more.  The serious power imbalances and constraints inherent in the plea bargaining process make preparation crucial. Alkon and Schneider urge lawyers, scholars, and clinicians to become part of the ongoing conversation so that the practice of law can be improved for the benefit of all.

October 26, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, October 25, 2021

"Open Prosecution"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now on SSRN authored by Brandon L. Garrett, William Crozier, Elizabeth Gifford, Catherine Grodensky, Adele Quigley-McBride and Jennifer Teitcher. Here is its abstract:

The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, where the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved without a trial, that: “criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.”  While a plea, its terms, and the resulting sentence entered in court are all public, how the outcome was negotiated remains almost entirely nonpublic. Prosecutors may resolve cases for reasons that are benign, thoughtful, and well-calibrated; or discriminatory, self-interested, and arbitrary, with very little oversight or sunlight.

For years, academics and policymakers have called for meaningful plea-bargaining data to fill this crucial void.  In this Article, we describe opening the “black box” of prosecutorial discretion by tasking prosecutors with documenting detailed case-level information concerning plea bargaining.  This is not a hypothetical or conceptual exercise, but rather the product of theory, design, and implementation work by an interdisciplinary team.  We began collecting systematic data in two prosecutor’s offices, with a third to follow shortly.  We describe how the data collection system was designed, piloted, and implemented, and what insights it has generated.  The system developed can readily be adapted to other offices and jurisdictions.  We conclude by developing implications for prosecutors’ practices, defense lawyering, judicial oversight, and public policy.  Open prosecution has further constitutional and ethical implications, as well as still broader implications for democratic legitimacy.  An open prosecution approach is feasible, and, for the first time in the United States, it is in operation.

October 25, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 24, 2021

"Staying Off the Sidelines: Judges as Agents for Justice System Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Yale Law Journal Forum piece authored by Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack. I recommend the full piece and here is an excerpt from its introduction:

For two years, I co-chaired Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Jail and Pretrial Taskforce, which collected data, research, best practices, and public comments to make recommendations to reduce Michigan’s county jail populations. The legislature acted on many of these proposals, and the Governor signed nineteen bills in January 2021 that will decriminalize many low-level offenses and divert people from the criminal-justice system.  I am hardly alone.  I have lots of company in states across the country.

These developments present an important question: what is a judge’s ethical obligation to address inequities in the system over which she presides?  From one view, the answer is little or nothing.  This view holds that the judge has a limited role in the justice system.  Her job is to interpret and apply the law, not to create it, change it, or work toward its improvement.  To the contrary, the argument goes, a judge who engages in such activities is overreaching and involved in ethically questionable behavior.

In this Essay, I maintain that this line of thinking is wrong on every count.  In Part I, I argue that judges are uniquely valuable contributors to reform efforts precisely because they are exposed to the day-to-day workings of the justice system and the flaws within it.  In Part II, I contend that there is no formal ethical obstacle to judges working toward the improvement of the law and the justice system.  Although there are some ethical constraints on how judges may do so, a wide range of plainly permissible activities remain.  And in Part III, I make the case that judges are not only permitted to engage in reform efforts, but also have an ethical obligation to do so.  That is, a judge cannot ignore inequities once she becomes aware of them.  To borrow Brendan Sullivan’s phrase, in the dynamics of reforming and improving the justice system, a judge should not be a potted plant.

October 24, 2021 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)