Sunday, May 15, 2022

"The Prosecutor Lobby"

The title of this post is the title of this new article on SSRN authored by Carissa Byrne Hessick, Ronald Wright and Jessica Pishko. Here is its abstract:

Prosecutors shape the use of the criminal law at many points during criminal proceedings, but there is also an earlier point in the process where prosecutors have influence: during the legislative process.  The conventional wisdom in the legal literature is that prosecutors are powerful and successful lobbyists who routinely support laws that make the criminal law more punitive and oppose criminal justice reform.  In this article, we test that narrative with an empirical assessment of prosecutor lobbying in America.  Using an original dataset of four years of legislative activity from all 50 states, we analyze how often prosecutors lobbied, the issues on which they lobbied, the positions they took, and how often they succeeded.

Our data tell a complex story of partial success for the prosecutor lobby.  Prosecutors are less successful than expected when lobbying against bills, and they are most successful when lobbying in favor of criminal justice reform.  By analyzing not only national data, but also data from each state, we document that prosecutorial success is correlated with Republican control of the state legislature.  We further conclude that perceived expertise does not drive prosecutorial lobbying success, and that legislatures in some contexts respond to the prosecutor lobby much as they would to any other self-interested rent-seeking lobbyists.

May 15, 2022 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Register for "Sentencing Review and Reduction: Open Questions and Next Steps for the Commission"

In this prior post, I noted the great weekly panel series for the month of May titled "The Role of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in Decarceration: First Step Act and Beyond."  This series has been put together by the Center for Justice and Human Dignity, a nonprofit organization whose mission is explained here in terms of seeking  "to reduce prison incarceration in the United States while improving conditions for those imprisoned and working inside."

This panel series is running every Tuesdays in May at 12noon ET, which means the third panel is scheduled taking place this coming Tuesday, May 17th.  This panel is titled "Sentencing Review and Reduction: Open Questions and Next Steps for the Commission," and the discussion is especially timely given Prez Biden's nomination of seven people to the US Sentencing Commission just last week.  Everyone can and should register to attend next week's session and the entire series here.  The speakers for all the panels are terrific, and here are the folks participating in this latest panel:

Elizabeth Blackwood, Counsel & Director for the First Step Act Resource Center at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyer

Marisa Taney, Associate at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, Holloway Project

I had the honor of helping to moderate the final panel, which airs next week, and it is titled Looking Ahead: Learning from Past Commission Leadership (Tuesday, May 24 12pm ET).

Prior related posts:

May 15, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 14, 2022

"Plea Bargaining’s Uncertainty Problem"

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

While commentators roundly condemn plea bargaining, the criticism can be as muddled as the practice itself.  Critics’ primary target is the “trial penalty.”  But a differential between guilty-plea and trial sentences seems inevitable in any system that allows defendants to concede guilt.  And, as a new wave of “progressive prosecutors” is demonstrating, gaps between (unusually lenient) plea offers and long (potential) post-trial sentences are not only a strong incentive to plead guilty but also a powerful tool for reducing American penal severity.  Other critiques point to flaws that parallel those found in the broader system, overlooking that plea bargaining is typically a reflection of these flaws, not their source.

Finding the traditional critiques lacking, this Article highlights uncertainty as the core problem with plea bargaining.  It is easy to overlook uncertainty because analysis of plea bargains usually focuses on cases after they have been resolved.  Yet from the perspective of someone accused of a crime who is deciding whether to plead guilty, uncertainty is key.  And while some uncertainty is inevitable, in many scenarios, plea bargaining turns the defendant’s choice into something resembling a floor bet at a Las Vegas casino — a solemn spectacle of plea-bargaining roulette.

Identifying uncertainty as plea bargaining’s distinct contribution to American dysfunction is important for two reasons. First, it provides a realistic blueprint for improving the largely unregulated plea-bargaining process — this country’s dominant mechanism for resolving criminal cases.  Second, by suggesting that plea bargaining is not the primary source of other important problems, like excess severity or wrongful convictions, the analysis helps to redirect reform efforts targeting those important problems to areas where they may be more effective.

May 14, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, May 13, 2022

Split Second Circuit panel debates required procedures for imposing more than a year when revoking supervised release

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss the interesting and lengthy Second Circuit panel discussion in US v. Peguero, No. 20-3798 (2d Cir. May 13, 2022) (available here).  The issue generating lengthy discussion in the case concerns the required procedures for revoking his term of supervised release.  Here is portion of the majority opinion: 

Although the issue was neither raised nor briefed by either party, the dissent asserts that Section 3583(e)(3), which allows a judge to revoke supervised release based upon a finding of new criminal conduct, is unconstitutional.  In particular, the dissent contends that a revocation hearing based on new conduct punishable by more than one year in prison violates a defendant’s right to indictment, right to confront witnesses, right to a jury trial, and right to remain free unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  In support of this proposition, the dissent relies upon the “essential differences” between terms of probation or parole — which the dissent contends do not require such constitutional protections — and supervised release.  We respectfully disagree.

As an initial matter, the dissent’s proposed holding is contrary to our well-settled precedent, from which this panel is not free to deviate.  In addition to the requirement that we adhere to binding precedent, we conclude that the dissent’s approach is unsupported by the Constitution itself in light of the clear and direct connection between a supervised release term (and its accompanying conditions) and the original conviction and sentence.  Moreover, we are unpersuaded by the dissent’s contention that there are distinctive characteristics of a supervised release revocation proceeding, as compared to parole and probation, that would justify the differing constitutional protections the dissent proposes. Finally, we believe that the dissent’s proposed rule would have a drastic and devastating impact on the effective functioning of the criminal justice system.

The dissent by Judge Underhill starts this way:

Carlos Peguero was sentenced to twenty-eight months in federal prison for criminal conduct proscribed by the State of New York.  Peguero was not federally indicted for the felony crime of assault, was denied the right to confront witnesses against him, was never advised of his right to a jury trial, and was found “guilty” by a preponderance of the evidence.  In short, Peguero was imprisoned without being afforded any of the fundamental Constitutional rights that protect citizens from arbitrary imprisonment by the government.

I acknowledge that the district court acted consistently with existing precedent of this Court, and that the majority feels constrained to follow that precedent and to affirm.  Importantly, however, no decision of the Supreme Court or this Court has ever analyzed whether a person on supervised release facing violation charges punishable by more than one year in prison has a right to indictment on those charges.  Nor has either Court ever held that proceedings that require indictment do not constitute a “prosecution” and therefore can be decided without affording the accused his Sixth Amendment rights.  Because this appeal raises Confrontation Clause issues, and because I conclude that Peguero had the right to be indicted for his claimed supervised release violations, I further conclude that he had the right to confront witnesses against him.  In my view, prior decisions allowing a judge to sentence a person to prison for more than a year based on a violation of supervised release without providing such essential Constitutional protections are misguided and based on unsupportable legal fictions.  Accordingly, I respectfully dissent.

May 13, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Prez Biden finally announces a full slate of nominees to the US Sentencing Commission

As I have noted in a number of prior posts (some linked below), due to a lack of Commissioners, the US Sentencing Commission has lacked a quorum needed to fully function for well over three years, and the USSC has not had complete set of commissioners firmly in place for nearly decade.  The USSC staff has completed lots of useful research and reports in the interim; but, with the FIRST STEP Act's passage in December 2018, it has been particularly problematic for the USSC to be non-functional in terms of formal amendments or agendas in recent years.

But today, nearly 16 month into his Administration, President Joe Biden has finally announced a full slate of seven Commissioner nominations to the US Sentencing Commission.  Here is the official announcement, headlined "President Biden Nominates Bipartisan Slate for the United States Sentencing Commission," and the basics about the seven nominees (which by statute have to be bipartisan and include at least three judges):

President Biden is announcing seven experienced and qualified nominees for the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a bipartisan independent agency created during the Reagan Administration.  The Commission was created to reduce sentencing disparities and promote transparency and proportionality in criminal sentencing. 

The Commission has lacked a quorum since 2019, which has prevented it from doing critical business. Today, President Biden is pleased to announce the nominations of these individuals — a bipartisan slate including the first Black chair of the organization — whose confirmations would allow the Commission to conduct its important work. 

Judge Carlton W. Reeves: Nominee for Commissioner and Chair of the United States Sentencing Commission

Judge Carlton W. Reeves has served as a United States District Court Judge for the Southern District of Mississippi since 2010....

Laura Mate: Nominee for Commissioner and Vice Chair of the United States Sentencing Commission

Laura Mate has served as the Director of Sentencing Resource Counsel, a project of the Federal Public and Community Defenders in the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the District of Arizona, since 2021 and from 2010 to 2021 was a member of Sentencing Resource Counsel....

Claire McCusker Murray: Nominee for Commissioner and Vice Chair of the United States Sentencing Commission

Claire McCusker Murray served as the Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General of the United States Department of Justice from 2019 to 2021....

Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo: Nominee for Commissioner and Vice Chair of the United States Sentencing Commission

Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo has served as a United States Court of Appeals Judge for the Third Circuit since 2016....

Judge Claria Horn Boom: Nominee for Commissioner of the United States Sentencing Commission

Judge Claria Horn Boom has served as a United States District Court Judge for the Eastern and Western Districts of Kentucky since 2018....

Judge John Gleeson: Nominee for Commissioner of the United States Sentencing Commission

Judge John Gleeson is a partner at Debevoise and Plimpton LLP in New York, where he has practiced since 2016....

Candice C. Wong: Nominee for Commissioner of the United States Sentencing Commission

Candice C. Wong serves as an Assistant United States Attorney and Chief of the Violence Reduction and Trafficking Offenses Section in the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia....

Because these selections have surely been made in consultation with Senate leadership, I am reasonably hopeful that hearings and a confirmation of these nominees could proceed swiftly.  (But that may be wishful thinking, as was my thinking that these needed nominees would come a lot sooner.)  There is lots of work ahead for these nominees (and lots of blog posts to follow about them and their likely agenda), but for now I will be content with just a "Huzzah!"

A few of many prior recent related posts:

May 11, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Lots of notable parole stories from coast to coast

Parole is often a subject that generates headlines, and today I saw a notable number of notable stories from five states on the topic that seemed worth flagging.  In alphabetical order:

From California, "Medical Parole Got Them Out Of State Prison. Now They're In A Decertified Nursing Home"

From New Jersey, "In major reversal, N.J. Supreme Court orders parole of man convicted of murdering state trooper in 1973"

From New York, "New York’s longest serving inmate who murdered 14-year-old granted parole"

From Virginia, "Chances for Parole Go from Bad to Worse Under Virginia’s New GOP Leadership"

From Wisconsin, "Parole of killer in Wisconsin puts pressure on Evers"

May 10, 2022 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

FAMM urges feds to seek sentence reductions for all incarcerated persons subject to sexual abuse at Dublin FCI

As detailed in this local article from a few months ago, numerous staffers at the federal prison in California have been criminally charged with sexually abusing numerous incarcerated women.  (As press pieces have noted, Dublin FCI "had become known by the nickname 'Rape Club' due to rampant sexual abuse" with dozens of employees investigated for wrong-doing.)  Brining a sentencing angle to this sad story, yesterday FAMM sent this letter to Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco urging "the BOP to seek, and U.S. Attorneys to file, reduction of sentence motions for every woman whose allegations have been found credible."

I recommend the two-page FAMM letter in full, and here is an excerpt:

The Bureau of Prisons can refer compassionate release motions to the U.S. Attorney for filing when it finds extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant a reduction in sentence. While the policy statement describing extraordinary and compelling reasons does not include sexual abuse by corrections officials, it does provide the BOP the power to identify “other reasons,” that alone or in combination with recognized criteria merit compassionate release.

Sexual assault by BOP personnel of incarcerated women is an exceptional abuse of trust.  The trauma resulting from such victimization is without doubt an extraordinary and compelling reason justifying consideration for compassionate release. None of the victims was sentenced to endure such violence. It has made their incarceration degrading and terrifying.  The victims could not protect themselves or flee their abusers.  Many struggle to speak about their experience for fear of retaliation.  Sexual abuse survivors bear the emotional scars of their violation for years. Mental health care in the federal system is inadequate to help them begin to heal....

A motion filed by the U.S. Attorney on behalf of the Bureau of Prisons is the best opportunity to secure emotional and physical safety for women who endured sexual abuse by BOP personnel.  A Department-sanctioned motion carries the weight of the Department’s imprimatur, something a defendant-filed motion does not.  But, more than that, a motion filed by the United States would convey the gravity of the harm these women endured and signal your commitment to make it right.

May 10, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (11)

Monday, May 09, 2022

US Sentencing Commission releases latest detailed "Compassionate Release Data Report"

Cr-line-chart-2022_cropVia email, I got word that the US Sentencing Commission today published this updated compassionate release data report.  Here is the very brief accounting of the report from the email (as well as a reprinting of the graphic that appears as Figure 1 of the report):

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the courts received thousands of compassionate release motions, most filed by offenders.  This report provides an analysis of the compassionate release motions filed with the courts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Commission received the following information from the courts on motions decided during fiscal years 2020 and 2021 (October 1, 2019 – September 30, 2021):

  • 3,867 offenders were granted compassionate release. This represents 17.2% of motions.

  • 18,653 offenders were denied compassionate release. This represents 82.8% of motions.

There are lots and lots of interesting data points throughout this data report, including data highlighting that people sentenced long ago (and before the guidelines became advisory) had significantly higher success in getting a sentence reduction.  Also interesting is the data detailing the reasons that courts provided for granting these sentencing reduction motions, which suggests some small evolution in stated reasons from FY 2020 to FY 2021.

But most striking data are those details the dramatic variations in grant rates from various districts. As but one of many remarkable examples, consider the three districts of Georgia: the Southern District of Georgia granted only 5 out of 248 sentence reduction motions for a 2% grant rate; the Middle District of Georgia granted only 4 out of 217 sentence reduction motions for a 1.8% grant rate; but the Northern District of Georgia granted 76 out of 170 sentence reduction motions for a 44.7% grant rate.  One could also tell an island variation story, and no motions were granted (out of only six) in the Virgin Island district; but that lovely island district of Puerto Rico saw 79.2% of motions (19 of 24) granted. 

Remarkably, the District of Maryland — with a total of 211 sentencing reduction motions granted (though "only" a grant rate of 32.7% with 646 motions) — granted more of these motions that all the courts of the Fifth Circuit!  (The Fifth Circuit had the lower total circuit grant rate of 9.3% with only 204 motions granted out of 2,197 total brought.) 

May 9, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 08, 2022

Another month of highlights from among lots of new Inquest essays

I flagged a number of great pieces from Inquest in this post last month.  But Inquest, "a decarceral brainstorm," keeps churning out great new must-read essays every week. As I have said before, I am not sure how anyone can keep up with all the great content.  But I am sure I will keep spotlighting recent pieces worth checking out with an emphasis on sentencing and corrections topics:

By Jenny Rogers, "The Poverty of Access: Librarians have a responsibility to everyone in their communities — including those who are incarcerated"

By Piper French, "A Future for Susanville: This prison town is about to lose its livelihood. Its survival presents a test for abolition"

By Mon Mohapatra, "Unwell in a Cell: co-opting the language of mental health and treatment, jail expansion is taking root in several localities. But these are cages all the same."

By Leo Beletsky, Emma Rock & Sunyou Kang, "Drug-Induced Panic: Overdose mortalities and related harms require a public health response, not more criminalization and incarceration"

By Sara Mayeux, "And a Public Defender for All: We can celebrate the ascent of Ketanji Brown Jackson, while acknowledging that indigent defense remains woefully inadequate in this time of crisis"

May 8, 2022 in Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 06, 2022

Register for "State Sentencing Commissions Work Towards Decarceration"

USSC panel with state folksIn this prior post, I noted the great weekly panel series for the month of May titled "The Role of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in Decarceration: First Step Act and Beyond."  This series has been put together by the Center for Justice and Human Dignity, a nonprofit organization whose mission is explained here in terms of seeking  "to reduce prison incarceration in the United States while improving conditions for those imprisoned and working inside."

This panel series is running now every Tuesdays at 12noon ET, which means the second panel is scheduled taking place this coming Tuesday, May 10th.  This panel is titled "State Sentencing Commissions Work Towards Decarceration," and the speakers are all the leaders of state sentencing commissions who will be discussing their work towards decarceration and lessons for the US Sentencing Commission.  Everyone can and should register to attend next week's session and the entire series here.  The speakers for all the panels are terrific, and here are the folks participating in this panel:

Kelly Mitchell, Chair of the MN Sentencing Guidelines Commission

Mark Bergstrom, Executive Director of the PA Commission on Sentencing

Sara Andrews, Executive Director of the OH Sentencing Commission

 

Here is a run-down of future panels:

Sentencing Review and Reduction: Open Questions and Next Steps for the Commission (Tuesday, May 17 12pm ET)

Looking Ahead: Learning from Past Commission Leadership (Tuesday, May 24 12pm ET)

Prior related posts:

May 6, 2022 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Continuing to scratch the sentencing surface if Roe is overturned and abortions are criminalized

As mentioned in this post right after the leaked draft SCOTUS opinion suggested Roe v. Wade will soon be overturned, if abortion issues are returned entirely to elected officials, a lot more abortion-related activity will be criminalized in a lot more states raising all sorts of new issues regarding sentencing law and policy.  I flagged a few of the sentencing provisions of some of the recently-enacted criminal prohibitions of abortions in a few states in my prior post, and now Politico is on this beat with this new piece fully headlined, "Abortion bans and penalties would vary widely by state: The penalties vary widely by state, and also can include hefty fines or the suspension of a medical license."  Here are excerpts:

Abortion bans set to take effect if Roe v. Wade is overturned could mean lengthy prison sentences for people who have an abortion, the physicians who perform them or those who help people access the procedure. The penalties vary widely by state, and also can include hefty fines or the suspension of a medical license.

Even as national Republican leaders, many of whom have worked for decades to outlaw abortion, dismiss fears of prosecutions, state lawmakers have already enacted mandatory minimum sentences that would go into effect if Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion is handed down....

[I]n Texas, anyone who performs, induces or attempts an abortion where “an unborn child dies as a result of the offense” is guilty of a first-degree felony — punishable by up to life in prison and up to a $10,000 fine — under the state’s trigger ban.  In Alabama, anyone who performs an abortion, provides abortion pills or “aids, abets or prescribes for the same,” faces up to 12 months in county jail or hard labor and a fine of up to $1,000 under the state’s pre-Roe ban.  And in South Carolina, a person who ends their pregnancy either with a pill or by other means faces up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $1,000 under state law.

Bills moving in some states go even further. Legislation in Louisiana that would classify abortions as homicide and extend legal personhood to fertilized eggs was voted out of committee on Wednesday.  Homicide is punishable in the state by the death penalty or life without the possibility of parole....

And while some states — such as Idaho, Missouri and Kentucky — have legal language saying people who get an abortion can’t be charged, those patients could be forced to testify against their doctor or romantic partner who helped them access the procedure.  “Even if a bill doesn’t allow pregnant people to be charged directly, we’re concerned about the ways increased surveillance could lead to people being criminalized for an abortion or another kind of pregnancy loss,” Farah Diaz-Tello, the senior counsel and legal director of the group If/When/How, told POLITICO.

Notably, this new New York Times article discusses the growing use of "medication abortion" under the headlined "Abortion Pills Stand to Become the Next Battleground in a Post-Roe America." Here is how the lengthy article concludes:

Some abortion rights advocates said that the availability of safe and effective abortion pills has eliminated one of the greatest fears in the years before Roe — but has added a new one.  “One of the sharpest distinctions is really between the idea of hemorrhaging and the idea of handcuffs,” said Kristin Ford, a spokeswoman for NARAL Pro-Choice America.  “In the pre-Roe world, there was a legitimate concern about people bleeding out in back alleys. That’s not the reality we face. What we’re looking at now is a world of criminalization.”

The development of abortion drugs and the eagerness of some to distribute them and of others to prohibit them already has me wondering if we could be on the verge of a whole new frontier for the war on drugs. Remarkable times.

Recent related post:

May 6, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (13)

Thursday, May 05, 2022

Federal judge formally accepts below-guideline sentencing terms of Derek Chauvin's plea deal for civil rights violations

As reported in this post from back in December, Derek Chauvin pleaded guilty in federal court to civil rights violations arising from his murder of George Floyd.  He did so with a plea deal in place that would bind the federal judge to impose a sentence of between 20 and 25 years even though Chauvin's advisory guideline range is life imprisonment.  At the time, the judge deferred acceptance of the plea deal pending preparation of the presentence report.  That report is now in, as this AP piece reports that the plea deal was formally accepted by the court yesterday: 

The judge overseeing the federal civil rights cases of four former Minneapolis police officers in the killing of George Floyd said Wednesday that he has accepted the terms of Derek Chauvin's plea agreement and will sentence him to 20 to 25 years in prison.

Chauvin pleaded guilty December 15 to violating Floyd's civil rights, admitting for the first time that he kept his knee on Floyd's neck — even after he became unresponsive — resulting in the Black man's death on May 25, 2020. The White former officer admitted he willfully deprived Floyd of his right to be free from unreasonable seizure, including unreasonable force by a police officer.

Under the plea agreement, which Chauvin signed, both sides agreed Chauvin should face a sentence ranging from 20 to 25 years, with prosecutors saying they would seek 25. He could have faced life in prison on the federal count. With credit for good time in the federal system, he would serve from 17 years to 21 years and three months behind bars.

U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson deferred accepting the agreement pending the completion of a presentence investigation. He said in a one-page order Wednesday that the report had been issued, so it was now appropriate to accept the deal. He has not set a sentencing date for Chauvin.

Chauvin is already serving a 22 1/2 year sentence for his murder conviction in state court last year, though he is appealing that conviction. He would serve the federal sentence concurrently with the state sentence. The federal plea deal means Chauvin will probably spend more time in prison than he faced under his state sentence. State prisoners in Minnesota typically serve one-third of their sentence on parole, which for him would mean 15 years in prison.

I am inclined to predict that Judge Magnuson will give Chauvin the max that this plea deal permits of 25 years, which would likely mean Chauvin will be in the federal pen until the early 2040s. Based on the state murder conviction alone, he would have likely been out by the mid 2030s.

A few prior related posts:

May 5, 2022 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Notable CCJ new task force examining long prison terms

I was pleased to see this announcement of the Council of Criminal Justice's new Task Force on Long Sentences. The membership roster is very impressive, and here is how the task force is described on the CCJ site:

The Council on Criminal Justice Task Force on Long Sentences is examining how long prison terms affect public safety, crime victims and survivors, incarcerated individuals and their families, communities, and correctional staff and developing recommendations that will strengthen public safety and advance justice.

Guided by research and data, and informed by the experiences of victims and survivors of violent crimes and those who have been incarcerated, the Task Force is assessing the drivers of growth in the number of people sentenced to 10 years or more and the impact of such sentences on racial, ethnic, and gender disparities in the prison system.  It also is considering ways to improve the post-release success of people serving long prison terms, most of whom return to the community.

The Task Force is co-chaired by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who was also U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, and Trey Gowdy, a long-time federal and state prosecutor who served four terms in the House of Representatives.  Joining them are 14 other members representing a broad range of experience and perspectives, including crime victims and survivors, formerly incarcerated people, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement, courts, and corrections.

Launched in spring 2022, the Task Force on Long Sentences follows CCJ’s Violent Crime Working Group, which released a series of bulletins on strategies to address community violence and in January produced a roadmap of 10 essential actions that policymakers can take to reduce violence now. 

May 4, 2022 in Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

"Why Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee should veto mass-incarceration crime bill"

The title of this post is the headline of this commentary authored by David Louis Raybin. I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

Crime rates do not drive a state’s prison population — policy choices do.

Every year the General Assembly passes a few bills which lengthen sentences for a few crimes.  This year the flood gates opened.  Two dozen offenses have been amended to require service of 85% or even 100% of the total time before release. There are no “behavior” credits which reduce these sentences further. Some offenses now prohibit parole.

Our current sentencing scheme includes lengthy sentences that can be a mix of prison and supervised parole release on a case-by-case basis.  For example, a first offender might get a sentence of six years, but he or she would be eligible for parole supervision after service of about 30% of that time.  Now, he or she will serve the full 6 years.

There are better ways to accomplish certainly in sentencing such as by having mandatory minimums of real time behind bars but coupled with rehabilitative programs.  The sentence lengths under current law were never designed for 100% or even 85% sentences.  But now the real time in prison is doubled or even tripled with no hope and release perhaps decades later with little or no supervision.

In 1979, crime was getting out of hand. Gov. Lamar Alexander’s legal counsel and I were asked to draft a crime bill....  We came up with what was known as the Class X Felony Law of 1979.  Much like the current legislation, this law eliminated early parole and sentencing credits.

While it seemed like a good idea at the time, in a few years the prisons were filled and eventually overflowing.  There were riots in four prisons.  Correctional officers and nurses were held hostage.  A fire started at one prison caused millions in damage.  A federal court took over our prisons.  The General Assembly was called into an emergency special session.  As a result, parole and credits were restored as a reward for good behavior and to allow for supervised release of compliant inmates. We should learn the lessons of the not-too-distant past and not repeat the same mistakes.

The cost to taxpayers of this current legislation is astronomical: $95 million.  Thousands of people are convicted each year of the offenses that will now require substantially increased prison sentences.  Our prisons are already bursting at the seams with inmates backing up in the jails.  We would need to build new prisons each year to house the increase in inmates....  As part of the budget the legislature also approved funding for a covered football stadium.  We may need it to house all the extra prisoners this crime bill will generate.

With his veto pen, Governor Lee has an opportunity to give the General Assembly a chance to reconsider ill-advised, mass incarceration legislation.  This is not the kind of “criminal justice reform” the governor campaigned for and that voters resoundingly elected him to implement.

As someone who has helped draft numerous sentencing laws over the years, including a similar bill that had disastrous effects, I request Governor Lee to use his constitutional powers to let us catch our breath and work together for a long-term solution which will make us all safer.

May 3, 2022 in Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, May 02, 2022

Multiple Tennessee executions put on hold as Gov orders "third-party review" lethal injection process

Tennessee had multiple executions scheduled for 2022.  But, as reported in this post a few weeks ago, the first of these scheduled executions was postponed by the Gov at the last minute because of concerns with the state's lethal injection process.  Now, as reported in this local article, "Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has paused all executions in the state through 2022." Here are the details and context:

Lee announced the move in a news release early Monday morning, saying the pause will give time for a third-party review and a complete assessment over the lethal injection process.  “I review each death penalty case and believe it is an appropriate punishment for heinous crimes,” Lee said.  “However, the death penalty is an extremely serious matter, and I expect the Tennessee Department of Correction to leave no question that procedures are correctly followed.”...

U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton will oversee the independent review for Tennessee, the release said.  The review will include an exploration into circumstances that led to testing the lethal injection chemicals for only potency and sterility but not endotoxins ahead of the April 21 execution, clarity of the lethal injection process manual that was last updated in 2018 and adherence to testing policies since the update.

“An investigation by a respected third-party will ensure any operational failures at TDOC are thoroughly addressed,” Lee said.  “We will pause scheduled executions through the end of 2022 in order to allow for the review and corrective action to be put in place.”

Three of four executions in Tennessee have been carried out by electric chair since 2019, the release said. Death row inmates are given the choice between lethal injection and the electric chair in Tennessee.  Lethal injection is the default method for execution in the state.

Smith's execution was set to be the first since February 2020 due to COVID-19 delays.  He was one of five death row inmates set to be executed in Tennessee this year.  The Tennessee Supreme Court will set new dates for the 2022 executions, the release said.

Governor Lee's official statement is available at this link.

May 2, 2022 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 01, 2022

An (incomplete) account of the dynamic state of federal criminal justice reform politics

This new Politico article, headlined "Trump’s criminal justice reform bill becomes persona non grata among GOPers," provides an interesting (but I think incomplete) account of the current state of federal criminal justice reform politics.  I recommend the full piece, and here are some excerpts:

The First Step Act was not just hailed as a rare bipartisan achievement for the 45th president but as the beginning of a major shift in GOP politics, one that would move the party past the 1980s tough-on-crime mindset to a focus on rehabilitation, racial fairness and second chances.

Three-and-a-half years later, few Republicans — Trump included — seem not at all interested in talking about it. With spikes in crime registering as a top concern for voters, Republicans have increasingly reverted back to that 1980s mindset. Talk of additional legislation has taken a back seat to calls for enhanced policing and accusations that Democratic-led cities are veering toward lawlessness....

For some advocates, the Republican Party’s cooling to criminal justice reform confirms the belief the interest wasn’t ever sincere. But for lawmakers and advocates on the right who worked on the First Step Act, the shift has been similarly disconcerting, raising concern it freezes political momentum for further reform.

“I personally think there’s just as many people that want to do criminal justice reform as the last several years, but I think their voices are quiet now, and those that are opposed to the First Step Act are still opposed and have gotten louder,” said Brett Tolman from the conservative group Right on Crime.  Tolman added that much work continues behind the scenes. “It feels like we just have to bide our time a bit and get past when the emotion of all of the political rhetoric is at the forefront.”...

Republicans who support reforms say the party can be both in line with that vision and adopt a tough-on-crime posture — that voters will be able to differentiate between crackdowns on violent crime and accountability in the justice system. “Reform and calling out truths can coexist. It’s not a binary decision.  And there are achievable solutions available,” said Zack Roday, a Republican political strategist.

But trends aren’t helping the reformer’s cause. In the past year, violent crime rates have risen dramatically, with at least 12 major U.S. cities breaking annual homicide records in 2021.  Recent polling reflects public concerns about rising crime rates and dissatisfaction with how public leaders are addressing the problem.  Republicans pointed to the trends as evidence of a Democratic failure....

Despite the changing political winds, reform advocates still say they are optimistic that Congress will pass the EQUAL Act, which would end federal sentencing disparities between crack and cocaine offenses.  Supporters of the bill, which the House passed in September with the support of some of the most conservative members, say it would address racial disparities, noting 90 percent of those serving federal time for crack offenses are Black....

So far, the bill has the support of 11 Republican senators, the National District Attorneys Association, the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the American Civil Liberties Union.  But congressional aides warn the legislation is not a slam dunk, especially without the support of Grassley, now the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.  This week, the senator introduced a separate bill tackling crack and cocaine sentencing disparities.  And in a midterm election year when public focus is on rising crime in communities, some conservatives say they do not see a path forward for federal reforms.

“From the federal government I don’t see anything passing this year on criminal justice reform, I think they’re done. I think the politics of it are too difficult,” said Charles Stimson, a crime expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “People will probably be motivated in the fall to vote for folks who take the law and order approach and they’re not going to believe people who say they don’t have a crime problem.”

Though covering a lot of ground well, this Politico piece seem to me to fail to highlight how much crime and punishment had become a part of this era's broader culture wars.  Of particular note, I think George Floyd's murder, which brought "defund the police" to the forefront of the political arena, served to derail some of the bipartisanship that got the FIRST STEP Act to the finish line.  And thereafter with rising crime concerns, the GOPs recent affinity for a certain brand of populism makes it ever more likely for a return to the classic tough-on-crime tune.  (It also bears noting, in this context and others, that while Prez Trump leaned into prison reforms all through 2018 and actively helped get the FIRST STEP Act done, Prez Biden has made no public effort to push criminal justice reforms others than politically-fraught policing reforms.) 

And yet, adding ever more nuance to a complicated political story, there still seems to be persistent bipartisan energy for not just the EQUAL Act, but also for other smaller reforms. For example, as noted here, just six weeks ago, the US House overwhelmingly voted, by a margin of 405-12, for the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2021.  And various modest proposed marijuana reforms, such as the SAFE Banking Act and a variety of bills to enhance research or expand expungements, are garnering bipartisan support in one form or another.     

Stated differently, I share Brett Tolman's general view that there are still plenty of folks on both sides of the aisle that are considerably interested in considerable criminal justice reforms.  But, critically, as political and criminal justice realities on the ground have changed, leaders of Congress must change their vision of the possible circa May 2022.  More modest bills may have to get more attention, and the "best" cannot be the enemy of the "good enough."   Small reform victories are still victories, and I would hope that the type of criminal justice reform bills that pass by a margin of 405-12 in one chamber should be able to make some progress in the other.  But hoping for Congress to do better obviously does not mean it will anytime soon.  

May 1, 2022 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 29, 2022

GOP Senators introduce competing crack/powder sentencing reform bill tougher than EQUAL Act

Regular readers should be aware from my prior postings that Congress seems poised to pass the EQUAL Act to entirely eliminate the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity.  This disparity and its racialized impacts have been an ugly part of the federal sentencing landscape for over 35 years (when Congress first created the 100:1 disparity), and the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 only partially reduced the disparity (down to 18:1).  But after the US House voted overwhelmingly, 361-66, to pass the EQUAL Act to end disparity last year, and after the Senate version had secured 11 GOP sponsors, I was hopeful the powder and crack cocaine disparity could and would finally be ended this year.

But, this press release from Senator Chuck Grassley's office, titled "Senators Introduce Bill To Reduce Crack-Powder Sentencing Disparity, Protect Communities From Criminals Most Likely To Reoffend," now has me concerned that a competing bill might now muck up the works.  Here are the details from the release:

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) today introduced the SMART Cocaine Sentencing Act, which will reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders tried in federal courts. The legislation aims to make sentencing fairer while also preserving the ability of courts to keep those most likely to reoffend off the street.

“I’ve worked on this issue for many years. I cosponsored the 2010 legislation led by Senators Durbin and Sessions to reduce the disparity in sentencing from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.  It’s high time to do more to address this important issue and make our criminal code more just and fair.  Our legislation will significantly reduce this disparity while ensuring those more likely to reoffend face appropriate penalties.  Powder cocaine is being trafficked across the border in historic volumes, so we also need to take precautions that ensure these traffickers also face justice for spreading poison through our communities,” Grassley said....

This sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders has had a disparate impact on communities of color across the country.  Reducing this disparate impact is critical, but must be thoughtfully enacted to prevent likely reoffenders from returning to communities just to violate the law again.

Separate legislation has been introduced in the Senate to completely flatten the differences between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses.  This approach does not account for the differences in recidivism rates associated with the two types of cocaine offenses.  According to a January 2022 analysis from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), crack cocaine offenders recidivate at the highest rate of any drug type at 60.8 percent, while powder cocaine offenders recidivate at the lowest rate of any drug type at 43.8 percent.  Raising additional public safety concerns, USSC data reveals that crack cocaine offenders were the most likely among all drug offenders to carry deadly weapons during offenses. These statistics show the need for a close look at all available government data before we consider an approach to flatten sentencing for crack and powder cocaine offenses. 

The SMART [Start Making Adjustments and Require Transparency in] Cocaine Sentencing Act will reduce the current crack-to-powder cocaine sentencing disparity from 18:1 to 2.5:1. It reduces the volume required to trigger 5-year mandatory minimum sentences for powder cocaine from 500 grams to 400 grams, and from 5 kilograms to 4 kilograms for 10-year mandatory minimum sentences.  For crack cocaine, the volume triggering a 5-year mandatory sentence is increased from 28 grams to 160 grams; the volume for the 10-year mandatory sentence is lifted from 280 grams to 1,600 grams.

Critically, the SMART Cocaine Sentencing Act also requires an attorney general review and certification process for any retroactive sentencing adjustments. It provides for new federal research from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services regarding the lethality and addictiveness of these substances as well as what violence is associated with cocaine-related crimes. The legislation also requires a new report from the USSC on crack and powder cocaine offenses, including data on recidivism rates....

Full legislative text of the SMART Cocaine Sentencing Act can be found HERE.  

Kevin Ring has an effective Twitter thread here criticizing various aspects of this proposal, which he calls the "The Grassley Unequal Act."  I hope that this bill does not impede progress on the EQUAL Act, but the fact that the EQUAL Act has not become law already make me concerned about the fate and future or long-overdue efforts to end the crack/cocaine sentencing disparity.

A few of many prior posts on the EQUAL Act:

UPDATE This new New York Times article, headlined "Drug Sentencing Bill Is in Limbo as Midterm Politics Paralyze Congress," details why the EQUAL Act may not get to the finish line in this Congress.  Here are excerpts:

[W]ith control of Congress at stake and Republicans weaponizing a law-and-order message against Democrats in their midterm election campaigns, the fate of the measure is in doubt. Democrats worry that bringing it up would allow Republicans to demand a series of votes that could make them look soft on crime and lax on immigration — risks they are reluctant to take months before they face voters.

Even the measure’s Republican backers concede that bringing it to the floor could lead to an array of difficult votes.  “I assume the topic opens itself pretty wide,” said Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, who became the 11th member of his party to sign on to the Equal Act this month, giving its supporters more than the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural obstacles....

Though Mr. Schumer endorsed the legislation in April, he has not laid out a timeline for bringing it to the floor.  Democrats say he is giving backers of the bill a chance to build additional support and find a way to advance the measure without causing a floor fight that could take weeks — time that Democrats do not have if they want to continue to win approval of new judges and take care of other business before the end of the year....

Its supporters say that they recognize the difficulties but believe that it is the single piece of criminal justice legislation with a chance of reaching the president’s desk in the current political environment.  “Of all the criminal justice bills, this is the one that is set up for success right now,” said Inimai Chettiar, the federal director for the Justice Action Network. “It is not going to be easy on the floor, but I think it is doable.”

The problem is that the push comes as top Republicans have made clear that they intend to try to capitalize on public concern about increasing crime in the battle for Senate and House control in November....  Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, this week reprised his criticism of Judge Jackson and attacked Mr. Biden for having issued his first round of pardons and commutations, including for those convicted of drug crimes.  “They never miss an opportunity to send the wrong signal,” he said of Democrats.

Senator Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican who led the opposition to the First Step Act, said he was in no mood to let the Equal Act sail through. He has said that if the disparity is to be erased, penalties for powder cocaine should be increased.  “My opposition to the Equal Act will be as strong as my opposition to the First Step Act,” Mr. Cotton said.

The legislation encountered another complication on Thursday, when Senators Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah, two top Republican supporters of the previous criminal justice overhaul, introduced a competing bill that would reduce — but not eliminate — the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. They said that research showed that crack traffickers were more likely to return to crime and carry deadly weapons.  “Our legislation will significantly reduce this disparity while ensuring those more likely to reoffend face appropriate penalties,” said Mr. Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

Sponsors of the Equal Act say they intend to push forward and remain optimistic that they can overcome the difficulties.  “We’ve got an amazing bill, and we’ve got 11 Republicans and people want to get this done,” said Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey and the lead sponsor of the legislation. “My hope is that we are going to have a shot to get this done right now.”

With strong advocates of the EQUAL Act now saying that getting this to the floor of the Senate is "doable" or can "have a shot," I cannot help but think it is quite a long shot this Congress.  Sigh.

April 29, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Register for "Alternatives to Incarceration: Reducing Mass Incarceration in Federal Court"

1234 AlternativesIn this post last week, I noted the great weekly panel series for the month of may titled "The Role of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in Decarceration: First Step Act and Beyond."  This series has been put together by the Center for Justice and Human Dignity, a nonprofit organization whose mission is explained here in terms of seeking  "to reduce prison incarceration in the United States while improving conditions for those imprisoned and working inside."

This panel series is to run every Tuesdays at 12noon ET from May 3 through May 24, which means the first panel is scheduled taking place this coming Tuesday, May 3rd.  This first panel is titled " "Alternatives to Incarceration: Reducing Mass Incarceration in Federal Court," which means the speakers will focus on incarceration alternatives in the federal courts and the impact of the US Sentencing Commission in their applicability.  Everyone can and should register to attend next week's session or the entire series here.  The speakers for all the panels are terrific, and here are the folks participating in this first panel:

Judge Dolly M. Gee, United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Central District of California, CASA Program

Raul Ayala, Deputy Federal Public Defender at Office of the Federal Public Defender, CASA Program

Judge Leo Sorokin, District Court Judge, District of Massachusetts, RISE Program

Chris Dozier, NAPSA Federal Director, Retired Chief U.S. Pretrial Services Officer

And here is a run-down of the future panels:

State Sentencing Commissions Work Toward Decarceration (Tuesday, May 10 12pm ET)

Sentencing Review and Reduction: Open Questions and Next Steps for the Commission (Tuesday, May 17 12pm ET)

Looking Ahead: Learning from Past Commission Leadership (Tuesday, May 24 12pm ET)

Prior related post:

April 28, 2022 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sixth Circuit panel grants mandamus because district judge rejected a plea deal with an appeal waiver the wrong way

Earlier this week, a Sixth Circuit panel issued a notable ruling in In Re United States of America, No. 21-1318 (6th Cir. April 26, 2022) (available here).  At issue was the behavior of a District Judge who was unwilling to accept a plea agreement with an appeal waiver, and the panel was troubled the district court failed to provide a case-specific account for why a (somewhat limited) waiver was problematic:

What is particularly troubling is that the court’s reasoning would seemingly prohibit every plea agreement containing appeal waivers, regardless of the defendant’s case, the agreement’s charging or sentencing terms, or the parties’ reasons for negotiating those waivers.  We cannot credit the district court’s argument that it engaged in an individualized assessment simply because it inserted the phrase “the circumstances of this case” at various points in its opinion. Without more explanation from the court, such language is mere surplusage....

To summarize, a district court does not possess unrestrained discretion to reject a plea agreement.  It must, among other things, make an individualized assessment of the agreement and predicate its decision on the specific facts and circumstances presented.  Because the district court here failed to do that, this is the narrow circumstance in which the district court abused its discretion.  Accordingly, the United States has a clear and indisputable right to mandamus on this ground.

Some (now dated?) research has highlighted the "uneven practice of trading sentencing concessions for waivers" and that "some defendants appear to receive neither greater certainty nor leniency in return for signing wide-open and unlimited waivers of their rights to review."  More generally, I generally agree with the District Court's stated policy concerns with all appeal waivers: "The court explained its belief that appeal waivers 'embargo' trial court mistakes, 'insulate' the government’s conduct 'from judicial oversight,' effectively 'coerce' guilty pleas with offers 'too good to refuse,' and 'inhibit[] the development of the Sentencing Guidelines'.” 

But, even though I think appeal waivers should be viewed as void as against public policy, circuit courts have all regularly upheld various versions of this (government labor-saving) device.  (Early on, eager to limit appeals, many circuits claimed that an appeal waiver limited their jurisdiction to consider an appeal, but eventually they moved away from this anti-textual claim.)  Upon first seeing this Sixth Circuit opinion, I was concerned this panel might assert a judge could never reject an appeal waiver (which prosecutors argued), but the message from the opinion instead is that district judges need to provide an "individualized assessment" in order to do so. 

Prof Carissa Hessick, who has written a great book on plea bargaining, calls parts of the Sixth Circuit panel opinion "bonkers" in this Twitter thread.  She hopes the "Sixth Circuit decides to hear this case en banc and to reverse this terrible panel decision," but I am not holding my breath. 

April 28, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (12)

New timely issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter explores proposals for structural reform

I am very pleased to now be able to spotlight the latest greatest issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter, which I helped bring together.  This issues includes many great new articles on an array of federal sentencing topics, and the discussion of two notable federal bills proposing structural changes make the issues especially timely.  My Editor's Observations at the front of the issue is titled "Might Structural Changes Be the Next Step for Federal Sentencing Reform?," and here is an excerpt:

This Issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter shines a spotlight and provides context for two recent federal bills with a particular focus on criminal justice structure.  One, the Sentencing Commission Improvements Act, is relatively modest: consisting of just a few paragraphs, it provides for ‘‘a Federal Public or Community Defender designated by the Defender Services Advisory Group [to become an] ex officio, nonvoting member’’ of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.  The other bill is anything but modest: the Fair and Independent Experts in Clemency Act, or FIX Clemency Act, would create an ‘‘independent board to be known as the ‘U.S. Clemency Board,’’’ primarily tasked with reviewing and making recommendations to the president concerning clemency.  In addition to reprinting both of these bills and press releases from the members of Congress who introduced them, this Issue includes a series of original commentary discussing more broadly this particular moment in federal criminal justice reform.

Because they are full of substantive and rich insights, the original Articles in this Issue should be read in full and cannot be readily summarized here. However, having reviewed these Articles and the bills that partly inspired them, I am eager to introduce this Issue with a few musings about what I consider the important and unique symbolism that would necessarily accompany these proposed structural changes to the federal sentencing system.  Even with a change as modest as the Sentencing Commission Improvements Act, and especially with a change as notable as the FIX Clemency Act, Congress could send an important (and long overdue) message: that we need to alter the structures that have contributed to massive growth in the federal prison population.

April 28, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Prison Policy Initiative publishes report on "Executive inaction: States and the federal government fail to use commutations as a release mechanism"

PPIThe main theme of this new Prison Policy Initiative report on clemency (and the lack thereof) is captured in this subtitle data point: "Our survey of eight states found an average of one commutation for every 10,000 imprisoned people each year."  Here are a few excerpts from a new data report that should be read in full:

If Biden intends to truly deliver on his promises to enact large-scale criminal justice reform, this set of commutations should merely mark the beginning of a broader initiative. In fact, nothing is holding him back: the President has the power to grant commutations to large categories of people in federal prisons independently — without any action by Congress, the Department of Justice, or another third party. Despite this broad power, most U.S. presidents in the era of mass incarceration have been hesitant to use their powers of commutation.

In 2021, at the request of advocates working on clemency reform in the northeast, we submitted records requests to eight northeastern states seeking information about their commutation processes. As our survey of these eight states finds, state executive branches also chronically underuse their commutation powers. The states in our sample reported granting just 210 commutations from 2005 through mid-2021, for a total average of 13 grants a year across the eight states. For comparison, the average total prison population across these eight states from 2005 to 2020 was about 130,000 — meaning that each year, this group of states commuted about one out of every 10,000 sentenced and imprisoned individuals. In fact, five of the states each reported granting just five commutations or fewer over the 16.5 years for which we requested data. And concerningly, almost no states in the sample increased their rate of commutations during the pandemic, at a time when reducing prison populations is critical to save lives....

Looking past the commutations granted by President Biden and at the operation of the federal clemency process more generally — it is clear that changes to the status quo are necessary. First, there is far too great a backlog in federal clemency applications. Data released on April 1, 2022 showed that approximately 18,270 applications for federal clemency are pending, nearly 15,000 of which are for a commutation of sentence. And, until April 2022, all of the 2,415 applications for clemency that had been acted on since the President took office in January 2021 had been administratively closed. This means that Biden had taken no action to either grant or deny clemency applications....

Historically, commutations were used much more frequently. In Massachusetts, for example, 218 commutations were granted in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and 84% of them went to people serving life sentences for murder. Connecticut was still granting regular commutations even more recently: The state granted 36 commutations between 1991 and 1994.

But grants have since slowed down drastically and become exceedingly rare across the country. Massachusetts granted just 29 commutations in the 80s, 90s, 2000s, and 2010s; Connecticut reported granting five from 2016 to mid-2021. Today, commutations are often explicitly reserved for — or in practices, awarded only to — narrowly defined groups, such as people who have served at least half of their sentence or those convicted of “nonviolent” offenses.

April 27, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Modern Sentencing Mitigation"

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

"Bad Faith Prosecution"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper on SSRN authored by Ann Woolhandler, Jonathan Remy Nash and Michael G. Collins. Here is its abstract:

In our increasingly polarized society, claims that prosecutions are politically motivated, racially motivated, or just plain arbitrary are more common than ever.  The advent of “progressive” prosecutors will no doubt increase claims of bad faith prosecution.  The Supreme Court has required relatively high standards for claims of race- or speech-motivated prosecution.  Many have condemned the standards used by the Court as unduly limiting bad faith prosecution claims, and as inconsistent with ordinary standards for proving cases of unconstitutional motivation.  In this article we address these criticisms and suggest that current standards may provide an appropriate middle ground between the perils of standards that are too lax or too stringent for bad faith prosecution claims.  We also address other arguable inconsistencies between the standards for bad faith prosecutions claims and those for related areas, and offer resolutions. Finally, we show how the rise of progressive prosecutors may make proof of bad faith prosecutions easier.

April 26, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Prez Biden finally uses his clemency pen to grant three pardons and 75 commutations

Because I always am inclined to say better late than never, I was quite pleased to wake up to the news that President Joe Biden is finally starting to make good on his  campaign promise to "broadly use his clemency power for certain non-violent and drug crimes."  This USA Today piece, headlined "Biden to pardon three felons, commute sentences of 75 others, in first grants of clemency," provides these details:

The nation's first Black Secret Service agent on a presidential detail, now 86 years old living in Chicago, who has worked decades to clear his name for a crime he has said he didn't commit. A 51-year-old woman from Houston who served seven years in prison for attempting to transport drugs for her boyfriend and accomplice – neither of whom faced charges. And a 52-year-old man from Athens, Georgia, who partners with schools to employ youth at his cellphone repair company, two decades after he was charged for letting pot dealers use his pool hall to sell drugs.

Three convicted felons – Abraham Bolden Sr., Betty Jo Bogans and Dexter Eugene Jackson – are receiving presidential pardons from President Joe Biden, along with 75 others whose sentences the president is commuting Tuesday, in the first use of clemency power of the Biden presidency.  All of Biden's commutations target individuals serving sentences for low-level drug offenses, some of whom have served on home confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Many are Black or brown, and the White House said each has displayed efforts to rehabilitate themselves.

The clemency announcements, which coincide with national "Second Chance Month," come as Biden will also announce new actions aimed at improving outcomes for felons who reenter society. That includes $145 million for a federal program to train the incarcerated for future employment and the removal of criminal history in applications for Small Business Administration grants.

"America is a nation of laws and second chances, redemption, and rehabilitation," Biden said in a statement. "Elected officials on both sides of the aisle, faith leaders, civil rights advocates, and law enforcement leaders agree that our criminal justice system can and should reflect these core values that enable safer and stronger communities. During Second Chance Month, I am using my authority under the Constitution to uphold those values by pardoning and commuting the sentences of fellow Americans."...

The individuals granted clemency came at the recommendation of the Department of Justice's pardon attorney, according to senior Biden administration officials who briefed reporters about the announcement. It marks a return of a practice that was largely bypassed by former President Donald Trump, whose clemency requests often came through close aides. Biden said the three people pardoned have each "demonstrated their commitment to rehabilitation and are striving every day to give back and contribute to their communities."...

Nearly one-third of the 75 commutation recipients would have received lower sentences if they had been charged today under the Trump-era criminal justice law, the First Step Act, according to senior Biden administration officials. They have served an average of 10 years in prison and have "shown resilience" in seeking a productive path forward, a White House official said.

The official statement from Prez Biden on these grants is available at this link, and its start provides links to all those granted clemency and other executive action on the reentry front:

America is a nation of laws and second chances, redemption, and rehabilitation. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle, faith leaders, civil rights advocates, and law enforcement leaders agree that our criminal justice system can and should reflect these core values that enable safer and stronger communities.  During Second Chance Month, I am using my authority under the Constitution to uphold those values by pardoning and commuting the sentences of fellow Americans.

Today, I am pardoning three people who have demonstrated their commitment to rehabilitation and are striving every day to give back and contribute to their communities.  I am also commuting the sentences of 75 people who are serving long sentences for non-violent drug offenses, many of whom have been serving on home confinement during the COVID-pandemic — and many of whom would have received a lower sentence if they were charged with the same offense today, thanks to the bipartisan First Step Act.  

My Administration is also announcing new steps today to support those re-entering society after incarceration.  These actions include: a new collaboration between the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Labor to provide job training; new grants for workforce development programs; greater opportunities to serve in federal government; expanded access to capital for people with convictions trying to start a small business; improved reentry services for veterans; and more support for health care, housing, and educational opportunities. 

Though I am still a bit salty that it took Prez Biden 15+ months in office before using his clemency pen, I am pleasantly surprised to see a large number of grants and many commutations to persons serving lengthy terms terms for drug offenses.  From a quick scan, it looks like perhaps more than a third of those who received commutations are women, which reminded me of the statements of Prez Trump clemency recipient Alice Marie Johnson that there were thousands of persons like her in prison who deserved commutation.  (BOP data show the federal prison population is comprised of less than 7% women, though I sense that much more than 7% of the most mitigated cases involve women.)

A few of many prior recent related posts:

April 26, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Monday, April 25, 2022

"Did Mass Incarceration Leave Americans Feeling Less Afraid? A Multilevel Analysis of Cumulative Imprisonment and Individual Perceptions of Fear"

The title of this post is the title of this new research article now available online which is to be published in the journal Justice Quarterly and is authored by Andrea Corradi and Eric Baumer.  Here is its abstract:

Much of the political rhetoric that facilitated mass incarceration was predicated on the promise of reducing fear among the public.  Yet, it remains unclear whether the large increases in imprisonment experienced in many areas made residents feel less afraid.  We examine this issue by integrating geographic data on imprisonment with individual-level data on fear from the General Social Survey (GSS).  We find that people from states and counties with greater “cumulative imprisonment” rates were no less afraid than their counterparts from areas that imprisoned many fewer people.  These findings hold for the public overall and for non-Latino whites and members of the working and middle classes, who frequently were target audiences for political rhetoric linking mass incarceration era policies to fear reduction.  Our study supports growing calls to decouple crime and criminal justice policy from politics and electoral cycles, and to develop evidence-based punishment approaches organized around transparent normative principles.

April 25, 2022 in Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Arizona court rejects condemn man's petition objecting to too many law enforcement members on state Board of Clemency

This new NPR piece, headlined "In rejecting death row inmate's case, judge says law enforcement isn't a profession," reports on this interesting state court ruling from last week concerning the Arizona clemency process. Here are the details and context:

An Arizona inmate who is mere weeks away from his scheduled execution argued the state's clemency board was unfairly loaded with law enforcement. But a state judge has disagreed, saying that law enforcement does not meet the definition of a "profession."

Earlier this month, the Arizona Supreme Court issued an execution warrant – the first in eight years – for Clarence Wayne Dixon, a 66-year-old prisoner convicted of first-degree murder. But Dixon's attorneys argued Tuesday that the Arizona Board of Clemency, which is set to meet on April 28 to decide whether to stay the execution, is illegally made up of too many members who had careers in law enforcement.

This past Tuesday, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Stephen Hopkins ruled against Dixon. "Historically, law enforcement has not been thought of as a "profession," Hopkins said in his decision. "It is not regulated as other professions are, and has little of the characteristics of what is typically considered a profession."...

Arizona law prohibits "No more than two members from the same professional discipline" from serving on the clemency board at the same time. The current board is made up of: one former superior court commissioner and assistant attorney general; a former federal agent with over 30 years' experience; a retired officer who spent 30 years with the Phoenix Police Department; and a 20-plus-year detective, also with the Phoenix PD. The fifth seat on the board is currently vacant.

Dixon was serving seven life sentences for the 1985 kidnapping, rape and assault of a Northern Arizona University student, according to court documents, when investigators connected him with a murder that took place seven years earlier. In 2001, DNA evidence linked Dixon to the January 1978 murder of Deana Bowdoin, a 21-year-old student at Arizona State University. She was found dead in her apartment, having been strangled and stabbed. A jury sentenced Dixon to death in 2008....

Dixon's execution, which appears all but certain at this time, will be the first to be carried out in Arizona since the botched execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood in 2014. Wood's execution should have taken a matter of minutes, NPR previously reported, but instead, the prisoner took more than two hours to die.

Based on the ruling, it seems that Dixon also asserted a due process violation, perhaps based only on the statutory requirement or maybe independently.  The court address that issue this way: "To be sure, courts have recognized due process rights in connections with boards of parole, pardon, or clemency.  See generally Chapter Three, The Law of Probation and Parole.  However, to the Court’s knowledge no case anywhere has recognized a due process right in the particular makeup of such a board."

April 25, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Though executions are declining, questions about methods and how to litigate them persist

From 1995 to 2005, there were nearly 750 executions in the United States (747 to be exact, an average of 68 per year), almost all of which were by lethal injection, and relatively few of which were significantly delayed by uncertainty or litigation over execution methods.  But by the mid 2000s, litigation challenging the constitutionality of lethal injection began to pick up steam and the Supreme Court began to take up a number of different matters relating to this litigation.  (I blogged, somewhat cheekily, about all the lethal injection "scrummages" during this period.)

Fast forward another 16 years, and there have been "only" another 540 executions in the US from 2006 until today (an average of 34 per year), and there have been fewer executions in the last five years than in a number of single years in the 1995-2005 period.  The considerable amount of litigation over lethal injection is surely part of the reason for the modern decline, even with the Supreme Court repeatedly upholding lethal injection as a method of execution in landmark cases like Baze v. Kentucky (2008) and Glossip v. Gross (2015).

I provide all this background as a mini preview and prelude to the execution method litigation that SCOTUS will be hearing oral argument on Monday.  Nance v. Ward is about what procedural means condemned prisoners must use to challenge execution methods, and I suspect the history just recounted could impacting how various Justices approach this case.  Still, as discussed in the  SCOTUSblog preview post here authored by Lee Kovarsky, complicated procedural precedents may make this matter hard to predict.  That post concludes this way:

Nance is ultimately a case about how aggressively the Supreme Court wants to suppress method-of-execution claims, which it generally views as legalistic ploys to delay imposition of valid death sentences.  If it adopts Georgia’s preferred rule, then it will meaningfully alter the form and timing of Eighth Amendment challenges, and it will substantially reduce judicial enforcement against the states.  The court’s general disposition towards method-of-execution claims notwithstanding, the court agreed to review a lower court decision against a prisoner — which raises the very real prospect that Nance might be a case in which the court is actually prepared to rule in the prisoner’s favor.

April 24, 2022 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

US Sentencing Commission releases FY 2022 first quarter sentencing data (with notably low percentage of within-range sentences)

This weekend I noticed that the US Sentencing Commission just published here its latest quarterly data report which sets forth "1st Quarter 2022 Preliminary Cumulative Data (October 1, 2021, through December 31, 2021)."  These new data provide another official accounting of how the COVID pandemic has impacted federal sentencing.  Specifically, as reflected in Figure 2, while the three quarters prior to the pandemic averaged roughly 20,000 federal sentencings per quarter, the three quarters closing out 2020 had only between about 12,000 and 13,000 cases sentenced each quarter.  Calendar year 2021 has seen a rebounding of total cases sentenced, but this latest quarter had just over 15,000 total federal cases sentenced.  Figure 2 also shows that a steep decline in immigration cases continues to primarily accounts for the decrease in overall cases sentenced.

As I have noted before, the other big COVID era trend is a historically large number of below-guideline variances being granted, and this trend has now extended over the last six quarters (as detailed in Figures 3 and 4).  Though one possible explanation for this trend is that more federal judges are imposing lower sentences because of COVID-related concerns, other data suggest that other factors may be in play.  Specifically, Figure 5 shows that the average guideline minimum and average sentences for all cases has been historically high during the COVID era, which is likely a product of the altered case mix with fewer immigration case and perhaps also because federal prosecutors during COVID are more likely to be moving forward with the most aggravated of cases.  With the "Average Guideline Minimum" and also the "Average Sentence" higher in all COVID-era quarters, we may be seeing a higher percentage of below-guideline sentences largely because the guideline benchmarks are particularly high. 

Whatever the full explanation, in this most recent quarter the data show that only 41.6% of all federal sentences are imposed "Within Guideline Range."  I think this number around the lowest it may have ever been.  And yet, this still mean that more than two out of every five cases are imposed within the guidelines while all the others are still sentenced in the shadow of the guidelines.  (Figure 5 shows how closely the sentences actually imposed and guideline ranges track each other.)  So, even with a notably low percentage of within-range sentences, the guidelines still matter a lot (and many of them remain badly broken).  We should all hope that there will be appointments to the US Sentencing Commission soon so that the government agency tasked by Congress with establishing and improving "sentencing policies and practices for the Federal criminal justice system" can finally get back into full swing.

April 24, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Interesting example of federal judge rejecting white-collar plea deal as too lenient

A story this week out of Utah provides a reminder that federal judges can still have control over sentencing outcomes even in our plea bbargained justice system of pleas.  The headline of this local article captures the essence of the story: "Judge demands harsh sentence for ex-attorney accused of embezzling millions from Utah clients: Former Salt Lake City attorney Calvin Curtis faced about six years in prison as part of a plea agreement. The judge insisted on more prison time."  Here are some of the details:

A federal judge in Utah tossed out a sentencing proposal Tuesday for former Salt Lake City estate attorney Calvin Curtis, demanding that the man accused of defrauding his clients out of millions receive a harsher prison sentence.

The proposal of about six years in prison had been agreed upon by federal prosecutors and Curtis’ defense attorney ahead of the hearing. U.S. District Judge David Barlow was expected to take it into consideration before imposing a sentence.

Instead, rejecting the proposal altogether, Barlow said that as Curtis allegedly stole $12.7 million from 26 of his clients — all elderly, disabled or incapacitated — over about 13 years, the suspected fraud was “cold-blooded, premeditated and repeated.” Curtis “perverted” the law, Barlow continued, and “enriched himself on the backs of those who needed his help.”

Prosecutors have argued Curtis used that money to fund a “lavish lifestyle,” which included frequent travel, expensive gifts, tickets to basketball and football games, and pricey renovations and mortgage payments on his former mansion home and office on South Temple.  Assistant U.S. attorney Ruth Hackford-Peer said in Tuesday’s hearing that the proposed sentence of 73 months in prison was not a perfect resolution, “but it’s a good one.”

Several of Curtis’ victims attended the hearing, filling the courtroom along with family members and caregivers.... As the victims shared their stories of how devastating it has been to lose money that they would have used for various needs such as food, clothing, medicine and health care, a common refrain was for Barlow to impose the maximum sentence. “I don’t think Calvin is human,” one woman said quietly. “I feel that he’s the devil.”...

When it came time for Barlow to announce a decision, he said the proposed prison sentence — plus a restitution judgment of $12.7 million and supervised release for three years as part of Curtis’ plea agreement — was not harsh enough.  Since Curtis’ crimes were “so heinous,” Barlow said, he should receive a prison sentence at the higher end of the range that is customary in such a case, which is 10 years. The judge added that he is “not convinced” that Curtis — who is charged with wire fraud and money laundering — takes responsibility for his actions or feels remorse.

Barlow asked the attorneys for both sides to negotiate again and come up with a new sentencing proposal. A new hearing date was not immediately set....

Laura Milliken Gray, an attorney for a woman with Alzheimer’s disease from whom Curtis has admitted to embezzling more than $9 million, called Barlow’s decision a “surprise.”  Her client’s daughter-in-law, Sherry McConkey, said she is “excited” at the prospect of Curtis getting more time in prison than expected. But she added that it’s “hard” the case will go on longer, “because I just want it to be over and done with.”

April 21, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (44)

Ruling 6-3, SCOTUS sets out added requirements for federal habeas petitioners

The Supreme Court this morning handed down an opinion in Brown v. Davenport, No. 20–826 (S. Ct. April 21, 2022) (available here), that perhaps only a fed courts junkie could love. The opinion produced a familiar ideological split and here is how Justice Gorsuch's opinion for the Court starts:

After a state court determines that an error at trial did not prejudice a criminal defendant, may a federal court grant habeas relief based solely on its independent assessment of the error’s prejudicial effect under Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993)?  Or must a federal court also evaluate the state court’s decision under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)? The Sixth Circuit ruled that an individual who satisfies Brecht alone is entitled to habeas relief.  This was mistaken.  When a state court has ruled on the merits of a state prisoner’s claim, a federal court cannot grant relief without first applying both the test this Court outlined in Brecht and the one Congress prescribed in AEDPA.

Justice Kagan authored the dissent, which starts this way:

Twice in recent years, this Court has addressed how a federal habeas court is to evaluate whether a state trial error was harmless.  See Fry v. Pliler, 551 U.S. 112, 119–120 (2007); Davis v. Ayala, 576 U.S. 257, 267–270 (2015).  And twice, we have made clear that the habeas court need apply only the standard prescribed in Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993); it need not also run through the test set out in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). That is because, we have both times explained, the Brecht standard “obviously subsumes” the “more liberal” AEDPA one: If a defendant meets the former, he will “necessarily” meet the latter too.  Fry, 551 U.S., at 120; Ayala, 576 U.S., at 270.

Today, the Court discards those crystal-clear statements, subscribed to on each occasion by every Justice.  The majority reverses the Court of Appeals for following our prior guidance, allowing the use of the Brecht test alone.  And in declaring Brecht insufficient, the majority consigns future habeas courts to a regimen of make-work.  Now those courts will have to jump through AEDPA’s hoops as well, even though that extra analysis will never lead to a different result.  I respectfully dissent from that pointless demand.

April 21, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Firing squad execution stayed, while another execution date set, by South Carolina Supreme Court

Notable capital developments in South Carolina are covered in the CNN piece, which starts this way: "South Carolina's Supreme Court issued a temporary stay of execution Wednesday for Richard Bernard Moore, who was scheduled to be the first person executed by firing squad in the state." Here is more:

Lindsey Vann, one of Moore's attorneys, told CNN last week that they asked the state's highest court to put the execution on hold in order to give them time to appeal his conviction to the US Supreme Court.

Moore, who was sentenced to death for the 1999 murder of a convenience store clerk, was scheduled to be executed April 29. In a court filing last week, he chose firing squad over the electric chair.. He did not have the option of choosing lethal injection, as South Carolina does not have the necessary drugs, according to the filing. The state Department of Corrections previously told CNN it has not been in possession of a usable dose of lethal injection drugs since 2013.

Moore chose to die by firing squad but added in a statement he will not lose hope in two pending court challenges to the constitutionality of the state's death penalty method. "I believe this election is forcing me to choose between two unconstitutional methods of execution, and I do not intend to waive any challenges to electrocution or firing squad by making an election," he said in the statement.

He chose firing squad, as required 14 days before the date of his execution, because "I more strongly oppose death by electrocution," he wrote. Moore, 57, would be the first person executed in South Carolina in more than a decade.

Last year, the state Legislature passed a law that made electrocution the state's primary execution method, though death row prisoners have the option to choose a firing squad or lethal injection instead if the options are available....

Also Wednesday, the state set an execution date for Brad Keith Sigmon, who was sentenced in 2002 for two murders. Sigmon, who had a stay of execution last year, is scheduled to die May 13.

As I understand matters, Sigmon will now need to select between electrocution and a firing squad as his method of execution by the end of next week.  So it may still only be a matter of weeks before South Carolina conducts an "old school" execution.

April 21, 2022 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Great panel series to explore "The Role of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in Decarceration: First Step Act and Beyond"

CJHDI keep hoping and hoping that we will be getting nominations from Prez Biden to the US Sentencing Commission just about any day now. Excitingly, even while being kept waiting for long-overdue USSC nominations, I can now look forward to a weekly panel series dedicated to examining thoroughly and thoughtfully what new nominees should be doing.  Specifically, the Center for Justice and Human Dignity (CJHD) is presenting a series of panels on the "Role of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in Decarceration: First Step Act and Beyond," which will run Tuesdays at 12noon ET from May 3 through May 24.

CJHD is a nonprofit organization whose mission is explained here in terms of seeking "to reduce prison incarceration in the United States while improving conditions for those imprisoned and working inside.  We promote values of human dignity and shared safety while keeping in mind the needs of survivors, directly impacted people, and society at large. Alongside diverse partners, we collaborate with judges on alternative sentencing, correctional leaders on the conditions of confinement, and policymakers on early release strategies."

This events page provides this account of this panel series:

While the President considers the U.S. Sentencing Commission appointments, judges and judicial-focused organizations are examining how the agency might better address the myriad ways its guidelines impact mass incarceration.  The nation has an opportunity to reimagine how the Commission might use its authority to further decarceration efforts and address other system disparities through its guidelines and policy statements.

During this symposium, judges, scholars and practitioners will share their thoughts on these topics and reflect on how legislation like the First Step Act has expanded the use of compassionate release and other opportunities for decarceration.

Over the course of four weeks in May, this virtual symposium will offer weekly panels addressing how the U.S. Sentencing Commission can be supportive of federal alternative to incarceration programming, sentencing review mechanisms, promising practices from state sentencing commissions, and changes to the guidelines practitioners and other leaders in the field are interested in seeing once commissioners are appointed.

The Role of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in Decarceration: First Step Act and Beyond. A weekly panel discussion, Tuesdays at 12pm ET, May 3-24, 2022 Click here to register online

I had the pleasure of helping just a bit in planning some of the topics for these panels, as well as the great honor of moderating one part of this important discussion. The speakers involved are really great, and I am looking forward to the whole series (and I sure hope we finally have some Commissions nominees from Prez Biden before the series concludes).

April 20, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Wouldn't a few marijuana offenders be a "light lift" for Prez Biden's first clemency grants?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy New York Post article headlined "Ahead of 4/20, pot prisoners push Biden to honor campaign pledge to free them." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

On the eve of the 4/20 cannabis holiday, federal inmates again are wondering if and when President Biden will make good on his 2020 campaign pledge to free “everyone” locked up on marijuana charges.  About 2,700 inmates are behind federal bars on pot-related charges — even though 18 states and DC now allow recreational use of the drug and two-thirds of Americans support legalization.

They include Pedro Moreno, 62, who is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to distributing weed imported from Mexico from 1986 to 1996. “I will die in prison for marijuana unless I receive executive clemency,” Moreno told The Post....

Clemency advocates recently met with White House staff and believe Biden may eventually intervene.  But that it may not happen anytime soon as other initiatives take priority, such as commuting the sentences of people released temporarily from prison due to the COVID-19 pandemic....

Luke Scarmazzo, 41, has served 14 years of a 22-year sentence for running a medical marijuana operation in California and told The Post that he’s also struggling to maintain hope.  “When President Biden made those statements on the campaign trail, my family and I were very hopeful that our nightmare was finally coming to an end,” Scarmazzo said. “We are now nearly two years into President Biden’s term and we’re wondering when he will make good on his promise.”

Donald Fugitt, 37, noted how the country has changed in the decade since he was arrested in 2013.  “Another 4/20 and everybody is smoking and making money, but I’m still in a COVID-19-infested prison,” said Fugitt, a North Texas native who gets out in 2024 unless Biden reduces his sentence.  “I’ve accepted responsibility for my participation in a marijuana conspiracy. Everyone on my case is home except me. This was my first offense.”

Federal pot inmates include Lance Gloor, 43, who has two years left of a 10-year sentence for running dispensaries in Washington that he says sold state-legal medical marijuana, though federal prosecutors disagreed.  Gloor’s mother, Tracie Gloor Pike, says he had a severe case of COVID-19 last year and suffers rare complications....

Biden said on a debate stage in 2019: “I think we should decriminalize marijuana, period.  And I think everyone — anyone who has a record — should be let out of jail, their records expunged, be completely zeroed out.” But Biden hasn’t yet used his clemency powers to release anyone from prison....

Weldon Angelos, a former federal marijuana inmate and co-founder of the group Mission Green, helped craft a rubric that would ensure only non-violent prisoners are released and told The Post he has been involved in talks with the White House. “Candidate Biden promised to use his pardon power to free those still incarcerated federally for cannabis offenses, which gave a lot of hope to many,” Angelos said. “We have had a number of conversations with the White House of this topic and believe that Biden will keep his campaign promise. When that happens is another matter entirely, but we are encouraged.”...

Amy Povah, founder of the CAN-DO Foundation, which advocates for clemency for non-violent offenders, told The Post, “I’m not sure why we are still waiting for President Biden to free all the pot prisoners.” Povah said, however, that “I’m encouraged to see there is a new pardon attorney,” Elizabeth Oyer, who will vet clemency paperwork.  “[Oyer is] a former public defender. She is a refreshing choice since previous pardon attorneys have typically been prosecutors who often have a punitive mindset toward applicants,” Povah said....

In January 2021, then-President Donald Trump commuted the sentences of seven people serving life terms for marijuana — including two men who were given life without parole under the three-strikes provision of the Biden-authored 1994 crime law.

Michael Pelletier, a 65-year-old wheelchair-bound paraplegic, was among those released by Trump. He had a life sentence for smuggling Canadian pot into Maine before both legalized recreational markets.

“I thank President Trump every day that I wake up in a comfortable bed in a beautiful home in Florida surrounded by loving family, rather than the screeching sound of the PA system announcing another lock down due to violence,” Pelletier said. “It breaks my heart knowing there are still people serving life without parole for cannabis. I hope Biden will free all pot prisoners because I personally know several people who voted for him based on that campaign promise alone.”

A few on many prior recent related posts:

April 19, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Justice Department tweaking prison PATTERN risk tool "to ensure that racial disparities are reduced to the greatest extent possible"

This new NPR piece, headlined "Justice Department works to curb racial bias in deciding who's released from prison," reports on the latest steps being taken to tweak the operation of the FIRST STEP Act.  Here  are the details:

The Justice Department is moving to reduce racial disparities in a tool it uses to assess a prisoner's risk of a return to crime, after scholars and justice advocates pressed for change. Among other steps, it plans to make tweaks that would significantly increase the number of Black and Hispanic men in prison who are eligible to take educational classes or work-life programs that could lead to an earlier release.

But the tool, known as Pattern, continues to overestimate the number of Black women who will engage in recidivism, compared to white women in prison.  And in its latest effort to overhaul the troubled risk assessment algorithm, the Justice Department said it is still unable to resolve other racial disparities. The department outlined the new developments in a report sent to Congress on Tuesday and obtained by NPR, pledging that it would continue to work "to ensure that racial disparities are reduced to the greatest extent possible."

"When using factors with criminal history, prison discipline, and education, the tool is almost inevitably going to have disparities — unless they correct for systemic biases in policing, prosecution, corrections, and education," said Melissa Hamilton, a law professor at the University of Surrey who has closely followed the process.

NPR dissected problems with Pattern in a report earlier this year. It uncovered sloppy math mistakes and other flaws that put thousands of prisoners in the wrong risk category and treated them differently in part because of their ethnic backgrounds. The Justice Department will roll out the new version of Pattern early next month, which it said "will neither exacerbate nor solve these racial bias issues." But the department said it was making other adjustments that could translate into a real difference for people of color in prison.

A law called the First Step Act that passed with bipartisan majorities during the Trump administration offers people in prison a path to early release, by earning time credits for performing work and taking educational classes behind bars. Only low and minimum risk prisoners are eligible for those programs, so how the Bureau of Prisons assesses risk has major consequences for their lives and their release plans.

In its new report, DOJ said it would make no changes to how it evaluates violent recidivism risks, saying that measure provided an essential check for "public safety." Instead, the department shifted the boundaries between other risk levels for its general recidivism algorithm. DOJ estimated that 36 percent more Black men and 26 percent more Hispanic men might now qualify as minimum or low risk, with smaller increases for Black and Hispanic women in prison.

UPDATE: I am pretty sure the report referenced in this NPR piece is this one just released by the Justice Department titled simply "First Step Act Annual Report."  As stated at the start of the executive summary: "This Report reflects the ongoing efforts of the Department of Justice (the Department) to make the goals of the First Step Act a reality and summarizes the Department’s activities in that respect during the period since the publication of the last annual Report, in December 2020."

April 19, 2022 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, April 18, 2022

Notable dissent from three Justices on consideration of racial bias in capital case jury selection

This morning's SCOTUS order list had a lot of denials of cert, along with one dissent that generated a somewhat lengthy opinion.  The opinion in Love v. Texas, No. 21–5050, was technically a dissent from the denial of summary vacatur; Justice Sonia Sotomayor authored this seven-page dissent, which Justices Breyer and Kagan joined. This opinion started and ended this way:

Racial bias is “odious in all aspects,” but “especially pernicious in the administration of justice.”  Buck v. Davis, 580 U.S. ___, ___ (2017) (slip op., at 22) (internal quotation marks omitted).  When racial bias infects a jury in a capital case, it deprives a defendant of his right to an impartial tribunal in a life-or-death context, and it “‘poisons public confidence’ in the judicial process.” Ibid.  The seating of a racially biased juror, therefore, can never be harmless.  As with other forms of disqualifying bias, if even one racially biased juror is empaneled and the death penalty is imposed, “the State is disentitled to execute the sentence,” Morgan v. Illinois, 504 U.S. 719, 729 (1992).

In this case, petitioner Kristopher Love, a Black man, claims that one of the jurors in his capital trial was racially biased because the juror asserted during jury selection that “[n]on-white” races were statistically more violent than the white race.  29 Record 145.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals never considered Love’s claim on the merits.  Instead, relying on an inapposite state-law rule, the court concluded that any error was harmless because Love had been provided with two extra peremptory strikes earlier in the jury selection proceeding, which he had used before the juror at issue was questioned.  That decision was plainly erroneous.  An already-expended peremptory strike is no cure for the seating of an allegedly biased juror.  The state court thus deprived Love of any meaningful review of his federal constitutional claim.  I would summarily vacate the judgment below and remand for proper consideration....

Over time, we have endeavored to cleanse our jury system of racial bias.  One of the most important mechanisms for doing so, questioning during voir dire, was properly employed here to identify a potential claim of bias.  Safeguards like this, however, are futile if courts do not even consider claims of racial bias that litigants bring forward.  The task of reviewing the record to determine whether a juror was fair and impartial is challenging, but it must be undertaken, especially when a person’s life is on the line.  I would ensure that Love’s claim is heard by the Court of Criminal Appeals, rather than leave these questions unanswered.  I respectfully dissent.

April 18, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (15)

Friday, April 15, 2022

Condemned due to be executed in South Carolina in two weeks opts for firing squad over electric chair

As detailed in this AP article, a "South Carolina prisoner scheduled to be the first man executed in the state in more than a decade has decided to die by firing squad rather than in the electric chair later this month, according to court documents filed Friday."  Here is more:

Richard Bernard Moore, 57, is the also first state prisoner to face the choice of execution methods after a law went into effect last year making electrocution the default and giving inmates the option to face three prison workers with rifles instead.

Moore has spent more than two decades on death row after being convicted of the 1999 killing of convenience store clerk James Mahoney in Spartanburg. If executed as scheduled on April 29, he would be the first person put to death in the state since 2011 and the fourth in the country to die by firing squad in nearly half a century. The new law was prompted by the decade-long break, which corrections officials attribute to an inability to procure the drugs needed to carry out lethal injections.

In a written statement, Moore said he didn’t concede that either method was legal or constitutional, but that he more strongly opposed death by electrocution and only chose the firing squad because he was required to make a choice. “I believe this election is forcing me to choose between two unconstitutional methods of execution, and I do not intend to waive any challenges to electrocution or firing squad by making an election,” Moore said in the statement.

Moore’s attorneys have asked the state Supreme Court to delay his death while another court determines if either available method is cruel and unusual punishment. The attorneys argue prisons officials aren’t trying hard enough to get the lethal injection drugs, instead forcing prisoners to choose between two more barbaric methods. His lawyers are also asking the state Supreme Court to delay the execution so the U.S. Supreme Court can review whether his death sentence was a disproportionate punishment compared with similar crimes. The state justices denied a similar appeal last week.

South Carolina is one of eight states to still use the electric chair and one of four to allow a firing squad, according to the Washington-based nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. Only three executions in the United States have been carried out by firing squad since 1976, according to the nonprofit. Moore’s would mark the first since Ronnie Lee Gardner’s 2010 execution by a five-person firing squad in Utah....

Moore is one of 35 men on South Carolina’s death row. The state last scheduled an execution for Moore in 2020, which was then delayed after prison officials said they couldn’t obtain lethal injection drugs. During Moore’s 2001 trial, prosecutors said Moore entered the store looking for money to support his cocaine habit and got into a dispute with Mahoney, who drew a pistol that Moore wrestled away from him. Mahoney pulled a second gun, and a gunfight ensued. Mahoney shot Moore in the arm, and Moore shot Mahoney in the chest. Prosecutors said Moore left a trail of blood through the store as he looked for cash, stepping twice over Mahoney.

April 15, 2022 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Split Iowa Supreme Court finds Sixth Amendment jury trial rights apply to (unique?) state law restitution provision

A helpful reader made sure I saw the interesting ruling today from the Iowa Supreme Court in Iowa v. Davison, No. 20–0950 (Iowa Apr. 15, 2022) (available here).  The start of the majority opinion should highlight why all Apprendi fans will want to check out this notable new decision:

A jury found the defendant guilty of assault causing serious injury and conspiracy to commit murder in connection with a shooting death.  The district court later awarded restitution against the defendant under Iowa Code section 910.3B (2017).  That law mandates an award of at least $150,000 restitution when “the offender is convicted of a felony in which the act or acts committed by the offender caused the death of another person.” Id. § 910.3B(1).  The defendant now argues that the restitution was statutorily and constitutionally impermissible because the offenses of which he was convicted did not include, as an element, causing the death of another person.

We conclude that Iowa Code section 910.3B does not require a jury finding that the defendant caused the death of another person.  But the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution is a different matter.  The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Sixth Amendment requires facts that increase the defendant’s minimum or maximum punishment to be determined by a jury.  Because the $150,000 restitution is punitive in part, awards of such restitution must be based on jury findings.  No jury found that the defendant caused the death of the victim of the shooting.  Therefore, we reverse the award of restitution in this case and remand for further proceedings.

Here is part of the substantive discussion from the majority in Davison:

Courts have generally declined to apply Apprendi to restitution because restitution is usually compensatory and indeterminate. At first glance, Davison’s argument faces a steep climb. Courts considering the matter have ruled overwhelmingly that Apprendi and Southern Union do not apply to criminal restitution. See, e.g., State v. Leon, 381 P.3d 286, 289 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2016) (“Leon acknowledges that no court has applied Apprendi to restitution awards.”); State v. Arnett, 496 P.3d 928, 933 (Kan. 2021) (“[A]t least 11 of 13 federal United States Circuit Courts of Appeal have refused to extend Apprendi and its progeny to orders of restitution, not to mention the many state courts which have followed suit.”)...

Restitution under Iowa Code section 910.3B is punitive and determinate. By contrast, Iowa Code section 910.3B establishes a mandatory minimum of $150,000 awardable only if the defendant’s felonious acts caused the death of another person. It may be a low number for the nonmonetary loss attributable to a death of a human being, but it is a floor—and it is awarded only if certain facts are found to exist.  Under normal circumstances, a victim of crime in Iowa is limited to recovery of “pecuniary damages,” which exclude “damages for pain, suffering, mental anguish, and loss of consortium.” Iowa Code §§ 910.1(6), .2(1)(a).  Only when the defendant is convicted of a felony in which their acts caused the death of another person may the minimum amount of $150,000 be recovered in additionSee id. § 910.3B(1).

Like other forms of restitution, the restitution authorized by Iowa Code section 910.3B provides compensation. “It serves a remedial purpose in compensating the victim’s estate.” Klawonn, 609 N.W.2d at 520.

But section 910.3B restitution is also punitive. In our 2000 decision, Izzolena, we detected “several punitive elements” in the statute. 609 N.W.2d at 548.  Restitution under section 910.3B “is awarded in addition to separate restitution for pecuniary damages.” Id. Also, the statute “establishes a minimum threshold amount of $150,000 for all cases, with no required proof of evidence to support damages excluded from the definition of pecuniary damages.” Id. at 548–49. For this reason, we found that the $150,000 restitution was subject to the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. Id. at 549.

One concurring opinion frames the ruling in a notable way that seems worth highlighting (and which might entail that the Supreme Court would be disinclined to take this case up if there were a future cert petition):

The opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part argues that Apprendi should not be extended to restitution awards, but this merely begs the question. It is not disputed that courts almost uniformly have held that Apprendi does not apply to restitution awards....  And the court’s opinion in this case says nothing different. The question in this case is not, as the dissenting opinion frames it, whether Apprendi should be extended to restitution awards.  Instead, the question is whether section 910.3B is merely a restitution award or whether it also amounts to criminal punishment.  The dissent assumes the former, but our precedents dictate the latter.

And here is the start of the partial dissent:

I join the court’s opinion except for part III.B. I respectfully dissent from the court’s holding extending Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000) and its progeny to victim restitution awards.  Our court is the first appellate court in the nation to do so.  Only two justices of the United States Supreme Court have concluded that Apprendi should be applied to require a jury to find all the facts needed to justify a restitution order.  Hester v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 509, 509–11 (2019) (Gorsuch, J., joined by Sotomayor, J., dissenting from the denial of certiorari).  Seven justices declined to take the bait. See id. at 509 (mem.).  Every federal circuit court of appeals to reach the issue has refused to extend Apprendi to victim restitution awards.  So too has every state appellate court to reach the issue.  I would follow the wisdom of that crowd.

It is not a given that Iowa would seek SCOTUS review of this ruling, and the distinctiveness of Iowa law here might make the SCOTUS Justices disinclined to take up this case even if Iowa does seek cert. That said, it seems worth noting that any forthcoming cert petition on this issue could possible engage some of the Justices who were not on Court back in 2019 when cert was denied in the Hester case.  Back then, Justice Ginsburg and Breyer were apparently disinclined to take up this issue.  But I suspect the new Justice Jackson might be much more interested in expanding Apprendi rights than her former boss has been.  And, as I suggested in this post about Hester, if Justice Barrett is really the originalist that she claims to be, she too might be inclined to join Justice Gorsuch's call to consider this important Sixth Amendment procedural matter.

Though there is much to say about restitution and procedural rights in general (e.g., there is not discussion of burdens of proof or other due process issues in Davison), this cases has me inclined to talk up the broader question of whether the "new" Supreme Court might be somewhat more eager consider and question a lot of pro-state/pro-prosecution doctrines that seem inconsistent with the text and original public meaning of the Bill of Rights.  The Apprendi line of cases helped me to understand that lots of established sentencing doctrines and precedents ought to make real textualists and originalists blush.  If lots of precedents are going to start to be reexamined on textualist and originalist grounds, those ought also to include an array of (mostly pro-state/pro-prosecution) criminal law and procedure precedents.

April 15, 2022 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Justice Department has new Pardon Attorney who is a former public defender ... which means ...?

I was pleased last night to see this great Twitter thread from Mark Osler spotlighting that the US Department of Justice this week officially has a new Pardon Attorney.  As this new DOJ bio details, she is Elizabeth (Liz) G. Oyer who before her Justice Department appointment served as "Senior Litigation Counsel to the Office of the Federal Public Defender for Maryland, where she represented indigent defendants at all stages of proceedings in federal district court [and] handled a wide variety of criminal cases, ranging from complex fraud to drug and gun offenses, as well as violent crimes."  Professor Osler, who is a leading national expert on federal clemency, has lots of good background in his thread about the appointment, and I am hopeful he does not mind my highlighting some of his key points here:

We've had "Acting" pardon attorneys for the past five or six years, so it means something that Pres. Biden has actually filled this slot. It's also significant -- and positive -- that he has given a career defender an important job in the Department of Justice.

However, this doesn't "fix" the backlog of petitions -- or promise a future fix of the backlog -- because it appears the problem there may not have been the Pardon Attorney, but the bureaucracy that takes up the petitions after they are evaluated by the pardon attorney (DAG & WHC)....

There are over 18,000 pending petitions, many of them now years old (including unresolved petitions from the Obama administration).  It's a mess.  We just know what kind of mess, or where the mess is located.  The whole thing needs reform.

For a host of reasons, I am eager to see the federal clemency process completely removed from the Department of Justice, and so I support the FIX Clemency Act, discussed here, and other proposals to have an independent body assist the President in his exercise of his constitutional clemency authority.  But as long as the current messy structure remains in place, it is encouraging to see that an experiences defense attorney has been placed into this important role.   As ProPublica highlighted a decade ago, a DOJ Pardon Attorney eager to find reasons not to recommend clemency grants can really muck up the process in ugly ways.  I am inclined to believe a former public defender is going to be more eager to find reasons to recommend grants.

in the end, none of this means much if Prez Biden (and anyone advising him on these matters) is disinclined to make use of the constitutional clemency authority.  Of course, candidate Joe Biden promised to "broadly use his clemency power for certain non-violent and drug crimes."  But, a full 15 months into his administration, Prez Biden has not granted a single pardon and has not granted a single commutation.  With more than 18,000 applications pending, not to mention many low-risk, COVID-vulnerable persons released to home confinement by the Trump Administration, it ought not be that hard to find at least a handful of "non-violent and drug" offenders who deserving of clemency during Second Chance Month.  Whomever is in charge of the matters at DOJ, where these is a clemency will there is surely a clemency way.  As of now, though, it does not appear that Prez. Biden really has much of a clemency will. 

A few on many prior recent related posts:

April 15, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, April 14, 2022

"An Algorithmic Assessment of Parole Decisions"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now on SSRN authored by Hannah Laqueur and Ryan Copus. Here is its abstract:

Objectives: Parole is an important mechanism for alleviating the extraordinary social and financial costs of mass incarceration.  Yet parole boards can also present a major obstacle, denying parole to low-risk inmates who could safely be released from prison.  We evaluate a major parole institution, the New York State Parole Board, quantifying the costs of suboptimal decision-making.

Methods: Using ensemble Machine Learning, we predict any arrest and any violent felony arrest within three years to generate criminal risk predictions for individuals released on parole in New York from 2012–2015.  We quantify the social welfare loss of the Board’s suboptimal decisions by rank ordering inmates by their predicted risk and estimating the crime rates that could be observed with counterfactual risk-based release decisions.  We also estimate the release rates that could be achieved holding arrest rates constant.  We attend to the “selective labels” problem in several ways, including by testing the validity of the algorithm for individuals who were denied parole but later released after the expiration of their sentence.

Results: We conservatively estimate that the Board could have more than doubled the release rate without increasing the total or violent felony arrest rate, and that they could have achieved these gains while simultaneously eliminating racial disparities in release rates.

Conclusions: This study demonstrates the use of algorithms for evaluating criminal justice decision-making.  Our analyses suggest that many low risk individuals are being unnecessarily incarcerated, highlighting the need for major parole reform.

April 14, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Discouraging update on various sentencing and prison reform bills from inside the Beltway

This new Politico article, "Criminal justice reform faces political buzzsaw as GOP hones its midterm message," provides an unsurprising, but still disappointing, update on the current political realities facing a set of small but important sentencing and prison reform bills pending in Congress. I recommend the whole piece, and here are excerpts:

The Senate delivered former President Donald Trump a bipartisan criminal justice reform deal shortly after the last midterm election.  Staging a sequel for President Joe Biden this year won’t be so easy.

Dick Durbin and Chuck Grassley, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, are still in talks over finalizing a package that would serve as a more narrow follow-up to the 2018 prison and sentencing reform bill known as the First Step Act.  But both senior senators acknowledge it’s not a glide path forward, particularly given the GOP messaging on rising crime ahead of the 2022 midterms — a focus that was on full display during Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court hearings last month.

“That’s dampened the interest in doing what we call the Second Step Act, but we’re still seeing what can be worked out,” Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a brief interview.  He added that if Democrats agree to certain provisions related to law enforcement, “that might make it possible to get something done.”  Durbin (D-Ill.), meanwhile, said he’s concerned about the bill’s prospects, particularly given Republican accusations during Jackson’s confirmation hearings that the justice-in-waiting was soft on crime.  The Judiciary chair ranked criminal justice as high on his list of priorities, though he said legislation addressing crime and law enforcement “may be just as challenging as immigration” — a famously tough area of bipartisan compromise on Capitol Hill.

While both Durbin and Grassley say the sequel legislation is necessary to fully implement and expand on the sentencing updates in the First Step law, the campaign-season politics surrounding criminal justice reform threaten broader GOP support. Though 38 Republican senators backed the 2018 bill, it took Trump’s personal appeals to get many on board. And with Democrats in full control of Washington, Republicans’ emerging midterm message — that liberals are to blame for rising violent crime — could make sentencing changes that much harder.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the Judiciary Committee and a close adviser to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has yet to review the proposal but predicted a tough road ahead. “Particularly given the spike in violence in the inner cities, it would probably be controversial depending on what the specific proposal was,” Cornyn said. “The timing is not great given the closeness of the midterms and the primaries that still remain to be run.”

The Judiciary panel already passed the foundation for Durbin and Grassley’s potential criminal justice reform package last year. It would give inmates who were sentenced prior to the First Step law’s passage the ability to petition for its reduced sentencing guidelines, applying them retroactively if approved. Another bill included in it would increase eligibility for a program that allows certain elderly prisoners to serve the rest of their sentences at home. There’s also discussion around expanding the scope of a federal carjacking statute, according to a GOP Judiciary Committee aide....

A separate but related criminal justice push in the upper chamber, however, illustrates that reform advocates aren’t exactly pinning their hopes on a broader agreement this year. Supporters of eliminating the long-standing federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses originally discussed including that provision in the committee’s bigger proposal.

Now advocates for change want the Senate to move a standalone bill on the crack-cocaine disparity, citing its support from 11 Senate Republicans — enough to overcome a filibuster. “They have been working on that package for the better part of a year now, and the [standalone bill] is ready right now,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, who is urging the Senate to act shortly after the Easter recess. “My hope is obviously that we can see the [standalone bill] through to fruition here. I mean, it’s literally on the goal line.”... Backers of the legislation eliminating the crack-cocaine disparity, which passed the House overwhelmingly in September, range from conservative Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. It’s backed by law enforcement groups, including the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the National District Attorneys Association.

While Schumer hasn’t yet laid out a timeline for when he’d bring the crack-cocaine disparity bill to the floor, members of the Congressional Black Caucus earlier this month wrote to him and Durbin urging the Senate to consider the bill “without delay.” The legislation is a top priority for the caucus, which has already faced setbacks on police reform and voting rights bills. And proponents of the reform are framing it as legislation about “fairness” instead of crime, highlighting support from Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).

But Senate aides on both sides of the aisle warn that despite the disparity-closing bill’s bipartisan support, it could still face a challenging path to final passage, including a potentially arduous debate over amendments. Republicans who oppose the bill would almost certainly want to force vulnerable Senate Democrats to take tough amendment votes amid reports of rising violent crime in major cities and the approaching November election. Grassley, who is not a co-sponsor, has also outlined concerns about whether there would be enough Republican support in the Senate to get the legislation over the finish line. While the Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the crack-cocaine disparity bill last year, it has yet to schedule a markup.

Meanwhile, Durbin isn’t giving up on his broader criminal justice reform package. At least not yet. While the Jackson hearings highlighted the “extremes” of GOP opposition, he said he remains hopeful that “there are fair-minded Republicans and Democrats who can form the basis of an agreement.”

Sigh. From the very start of this Congress, many folks have been stressing (see here and here) that the criminal justice arena as presenting opportunities for bipartisan reforms.  And nearly a year ago, as noted here, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the COVID-19 Safer Detention Act of 2021, the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2021 and the First Step Implementation Act of 2021.  Since then, the House in September 2021 passed, as detailed here, the EQUAL Act by a margin of 361-66 and last month passed, as detailed here, the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2021 by a margin of 405-12.  Not sure we can expect more bipartisan agreement than these votes reflect, and so I continue to believe the relatively modest reforms in all of these bills could have and should have been low-hanging fruit for bipartisan legislative achievements in this Congress.  Instead, it now appears that none of these bills may get to the finish line in this Congress. 

I understand fully the challenging politics presented by rising homicide rates and other crime challenges now facing the nation.  But these reforms are all sound tweaks to a federal sentencing and prison system that have rightly garnered strong bipartisan support because they are modest and sensible reforms that are long-overdue and have very little to do with violent offenders.  The apparent failure of this Congress to get any of these bills enacted so far strikes me as much more a story of problematic policy priorities than of modern crime politics.  Sigh.

April 14, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Notable example of federal prosecutors and crime victims advocating for sentences way below applicable mandatory minimums

This lengthy local press piece, headlined "After pleas for leniency, mosque bombers receive 16-, 14-year sentences: Prosecution, defense agreed the two were manipulated by militia ringleader," reports on an interesting federal sentencing that took place yesterday in Minnesota.  Here are some of the details:

Following a rare display of both victims and prosecutors advocating mercy, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank sentenced two Illinois men Tuesday to 14 and 16 years in federal prison for bombing Bloomington's Dar al-Farooq Islamic Center in 2017.

Frank said the "substantial assistance" of Michael McWhorter, 33, and Joe Morris, 26 — including testifying against Emily Claire Hari, their "White Rabbits" militia leader — permitted him to render penalties that each amounted to less than half of the 35-year statutory minimums in the domestic terror case.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys described McWhorter and Morris as patsies in Hari's terror plot, manipulated to participate in a string of violent crimes that included robbing a Walmart with airsoft guns, a home invasion, attempting to extort the Canadian railroad and an unsuccessful attempt to bomb a women's health clinic.

Acknowledging that they were under Hari's influence, Frank also condemned McWhorter's and Morris' seventh-month crime spree as "contrary to everything America stands for," rejecting the 10-year sentences requested by their defense attorneys. "When all is said and done," Frank said, lesser sentences would not "promote respect for the law."

Frank sentenced Hari to 53 years in prison last year, higher than the mandatory minimum but lower than prosecutors' request for life, for civil rights and hate crime convictions.

The sentencings brought to a close a saga that began four-and-a-half years ago, when a black-powder bomb exploded in Imam Mohamed Omar's office early on Aug. 5, 2017, while several mosque members gathered for morning prayer. Throughout the trial, Dar al-Farooq leaders testified to the horror they continued to feel after that day, worried another attack could be imminent.

Still, in court Tuesday, Muslim, Jewish and Christian faith leaders asked Frank for mercy. Omar, who in Hari's trial described feeling he was in a "nightmare" when the bomb went off, told Frank he'd come with "a message of peace" in the name of "solidarity as a human family" on behalf of Dar al-Farooq. Omar said McWhorter sent him a seven-page letter from jail expressing remorse and explaining how he'd fallen into the "dark web of Hari's manipulation" and described Hari as a "cultish" figure....

McWhorter and Morris pleaded guilty in 2019 to their role in the group known as the "White Rabbits 3 Percent Illinois Patriot Freedom Fighters."  In the trial for Hari — then known as Michael Hari — the two men testified that he took advantage of their financial desperation to recruit them for the attacks. Morris, who described Hari as a father figure, said Hari told him they were taking orders from Steve Bannon and a CIA agent called "Congo Joe" to harass "untouchables."...

The day of the bombing, Hari waited until they'd driven through the night and were an hour away from Bloomington to reveal the plot to bomb the mosque. Neither McWhorter nor Morris knew what a mosque was, according to their lawyers. McWhorter said he feared Hari and Morris would kill him if he didn't go through with the plan. "I bombed a mosque. But it was not by choice," he said. "I feared for my life when I bombed the mosque. I didn't do it out of just pure hatred. I don't have any hate" for Muslims.

For their roles in helping convict Hari, Assistant U.S. Attorney Allison Ethen asked Frank for a 50% reduction from the mandatory minimum sentences for McWhorter and Morris — a request both Ethen and Frank remarked was rare. While they were not the masterminds, Ethen said, the two men still committed grave crimes that cannot be "uncommitted" and a light penalty could send the wrong message.  "We need to make sure this sentence also reaches the Haris of the world," she said. Ethen also said she was representing victims from Illinois who couldn't appear in court to speak for themselves, including "countless women" whose doctor's office became the target of a hate crime.

Frank said he calculated the sentence while balancing the need for deterrence of similar crimes, noting the men participated in "very serious premeditated behavior."

April 13, 2022 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Could a shortage of state prosecutors put a further dent in mass incarceration?

Professor John Pfaff effectively documented the important insights, discussed in this article about his 2017 book Locked In, that more prosecutors filing more felony charges was an important contributor to modern mass incarceration.  Against that backdrop, this new Reuters article has me wondering if fewer prosecutors filling fewer charges might further contribute now to declining incarceration.  The article is headlined "Prosecutors wanted: District attorneys struggle to recruit and retain lawyers," and here are excerpts:

District attorneys’ offices across the U.S. are struggling to recruit and retain lawyers, with some experiencing vacancies of up to 16% and a dearth of applicants for open jobs, according to interviews with more than a dozen top prosecutors and five state and national prosecutors’ associations.

The district attorneys said the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing concern about racial inequities in the criminal justice system — compounded by long-standing issues with relatively low pay and burnout — have made a career as a state prosecutor a tougher sell in the past several years.

“We're seeing a prosecutor shortage throughout the country; it's not limited to large jurisdictions versus small jurisdictions,” said Nelson Bunn, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, a trade group with 5,000 members....

Staffing shortages are affecting prosecutors’ decisions about whether to bring certain criminal cases to trial, according to Anthony Jordan, president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York. "We don’t get to choose the crimes that come in," said Jordan, who is the district attorney in Washington County, New York. "But if you don’t have enough people to prosecute them then you have to let certain ones go.”

Data from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office in Phoenix, Arizona illustrate that challenge.  The number of cases the office prosecuted dropped from nearly two-thirds of felonies referred by law enforcement in 2018 to under half in 2020. And the number of vacancies in the office of 338 attorneys continues to rise — increasing nearly 53% between July 2020 and April 2022.

Recent BJS data, flagged here, indicate that the national prison population has declined nearly 25% from 2010 to 2020, although a good portion (but not all) of this prison population decline has been a consequence of COVID pandemic dynamics.  Ultimately, a number of legal and extra-legal forces have been contributing to a decline in incarceration in recent years.  And Pfaff's work suggests that, if there is a sustained period of fewer prosecutors filling fewer charges nationwide, we should expect some continued declines (or at least reduced likelihood of US prison populations growing significantly in coming years).

April 12, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, April 11, 2022

"The Return of the Firing Squad?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this notable new Marshall Project piece, which gets started this way:

Six years ago, a man on death row in Nevada named Scott Dozier said he wanted to give up his legal fight and be executed, but there was a problem.  Prison officials couldn’t find lethal injection drugs.  Amid the ensuing legal turmoil, Dozier tossed off his own solution, telling me during an interview, “I’d have been just as happy if they took me out back and shot me.”

Dozier’s death, in 2019, was ruled a suicide, but now his words seem prescient. On Thursday, South Carolina scheduled the execution of Richard Moore — convicted of murder in a 2001 convenience story robbery — for April 29. Because state officials say they can’t secure lethal injection drugs, they will give him the choice between the electric chair and the firing squad.  Officials have spent $53,000, by their own estimate, to renovate part of a prison to allow a three-person firing squad to carry out executions, including adding bulletproof glass to protect witnesses.

South Carolina’s not alone: Oklahoma and Mississippi have also formally adopted the firing squad, though Utah remains the only state that has actually used the method in the last century. The U.S. Supreme Court has told death row prisoners that if they want to fight lethal injection in court, they need to propose an alternative. Following dozens of botched, evidently painful lethal injections in recent years, prisoners in at least 10 states have been making a surreal argument: They would prefer the firing squad.

So, are we really about to start shooting prisoners?  Although the method strikes many as cruel and archaic, conversations with scholars and a review of history suggest we should also ask why we have so consistently avoided the firing squad. The answers suggest that this is about more than just another execution method.  The firing squad dredges up some of the core contradictions at the heart of American capital punishment.

“It’s an almost instantaneous death, it’s the cheapest, it’s the simplest, it has the lowest ‘botch’ rate,” said Corinna Lain, a law professor at the University of Richmond.  (Federal judges have made similar points.)  At the same time, it’s “more honest,” she said.  Lain and other scholars have argued that Americans have long wanted — not always consciously — to disguise the violence of capital punishment.  “We don’t want a mess,” wrote Douglas B. Kamerow, a former assistant surgeon general, in The BMJ, a medical journal published by the British Medical Association.  “We want these evil people to disappear, to be dead, but most of us don’t want to feel bad about how they died.”

April 11, 2022 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Considering sentencing echoes of SCOTUS confirmation hearings' sentencing attacks

This lengthy new CNN article, headlined "Ambitious trial judges could be wary after GOP attacks on Judge Jackson's sentencing record," provides an effective review of how last month's SCOTUS spectacle could impact the work of federal sentencing judges.  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts (with some commentary added in spots):

The Senate Republicans who led the attacks on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's sentencing record say they hoped to send a message to other trial judges who might seek appointments to higher courts.

While some veteran judges see it as a tactic of intimidation, it hits on a longstanding tension between the lifetime tenure granted to judges to in theory shield them from politics and lawmakers' frustration that they're using that discretion to supposedly stretch beyond the instructions they've received from Congress. J

One of the most important consequences of these confirmation hearings is there are district judges across the country who may have ambitions for elevations, who are going to think twice about letting violent criminals go or giving them a slap on the wrist, rather than following the law and imposing serious sentences for those who have committed serious crimes," Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, told CNN.

Of course, as I highlighted in this prior post, Judge Jackson was "following the law" in all of her sentencing decisions; and the cases that were the focal point for attacks by GOP Senators did not generally involve "violent criminals," but on computer criminals who downloaded child pornography.  Sigh.  Now, more from the CNN article:

"It is in part meant to intimidate judges," said Ret. Judge Shira Scheindlin, who joined several other retired judges in a letter last month defending Jackson's approach to the child pornography cases that had been singled out by GOP lawmakers. "They are kind of on notice that, if that's their ambition, they better think hard about their sentencing practices," Scheindlin, a Bill Clinton appointee, told CNN. "That's a bad thing."...

"I think it's terrible for public perception for the senators to be suggesting that there are judges around the country who favor child pornography," said Ret. Judge John Martin, who served as a US Attorney under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan before his appointment by President George H.W. Bush to Manhattan's federal court....

Whether judges will change their approach out of fear they too may someday face the hostility Jackson was subjected to remains to be seen. "People in the legal profession saw it for what it was, and it wasn't a real argument based in fact," said Lisa Cylar Barrett, the director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund.

Judges take it seriously, Ret. Clinton-appointed Judge Faith Hochberg told CNN, that their job requires them "to set politics aside and apply the facts and the law to every single case that comes before them, without any overlay of what may be made of the decision politically by someone else who wasn't privy to the facts and the law that the judge was presented."

Still other former judges acknowledged it could have a conscious or subconscious effect. "I don't think judges are going to be too intimidated, but for those few who have the ambition to go to a higher court, they may think twice about leniency," Scheindlin said. "That's unfortunate. They should only be thinking about the defendant in front of them."

April 11, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, April 08, 2022

Rounding up some new commentary prompted by a new Justice Jackson

Though a few of these pieces were published before the official confirmation vote, all of these new commentaries rounded up here lean into criminal justice issues and are inspired by Judge Jackson becoming Justice Jackson: 

By Brakkton Booker, "What Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson means for the country"

By Garrett Epps, "Ketanji Brown Jackson Was a Public Defender. Here’s Why That’s a Great Thing."

By Shanteal Lake, "Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson will bring new perspectives on mass incarceration to U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence"

By Marc Levin, "It's Confirmed: The Constitution Isn't Tough or Soft on Crime"

By Andrey Spektor, "Ketanji Brown Jackson is confirmed. Our criminal justice system awaits the verdict"

April 8, 2022 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 07, 2022

South Carolina Supreme Court engages in notable debate over how it engages in capital proportionality review

This local article from South Carolina, headlined "‘Our system is broken.’ SC Supreme Court justice assails death sentence in Upstate case," reports on an interesting ruling from the top court in the Palmetto State. Here are the basics and the context from the press piece:

An associate justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court issued a rare and blunt dissent Wednesday in an Upstate death penalty case about a 1999 convenience store robbery that four of the five justices agreed to uphold.

“In the nearly 13 years I have served on this Court, I have voted to affirm eleven death sentences on direct appeal and have never dissented,” Associate Justice Kaye Hearn wrote in her 14-page dissent. But the spur-of-the moment killing committed by Richard Moore in 1999 during a convenience store robbery in Spartanburg County is so different from the usual brutal premeditated slayings for which South Carolina juries give out the death penalty that condemning Moore to death is disproportional, or so far out of line, as not to be lawful, Hearn wrote.

“The death penalty should be reserved for those who commit the most heinous crimes in our society, and I do not believe Moore’s crimes rise to that level,” Hearn wrote, calling South Carolina’s system “broken.”

In Wednesday’s majority opinion, four Supreme Court justices upheld Moore’s death sentence in a case that centered on the issue of whether the sentence was proportional, or roughly the same as, other death sentences for similar crimes. The majority, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Donald Beatty, wrote that Moore’s crime had the aggravating factors set out in the law — such as killing during an armed robbery — that qualified a person for the death penalty, Moore, now 57, has been on South Carolina’s death row 21 years.

The full ruling in Moore v. Stirling, Opinion No. 28088 (S.C. April 6, 2022), is available at this link.  Here is how the majority opinion starts:

Richard Bernard Moore ("Moore") filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus challenging the proportionality of the death sentence that was imposed for his murder conviction. The Court ordered briefing and granted Moore's motion to argue against the precedent of State v. Copeland, 278 S.C. 572, 300 S.E.2d 63 (1982).  In Copeland, the Court discussed the requirement in S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-25(C)(3) (2015) that this Court undertake a comparative proportionality review of "similar cases" in death penalty matters.  After review of the record and applicable law and consideration of the parties' arguments, we clarify Copeland and note the Court is not statutorily required to restrict its proportionality review of "similar cases" to a comparison of only cases in which a sentence of death was imposed.  We conclude, however, that Moore has not established that he is entitled to habeas relief.

And here is how the dissent begins:

This Court has never found a single death sentence disproportionate dating back to 1977, the first time comparative proportionality review was required by the General Assembly. This includes the forty-three individuals who have been executed by the State of South Carolina during this modern era of capital punishment, and all of the thirty-five inmates currently housed on death row who have exhausted their direct appeal.  The State characterizes these statistics — currently, approximately zero for seventy-seven — as proof that our capital sentencing scheme functions as it should.  I write separately to express my view that our system is broken and to disagree with that part of the majority opinion which finds Petitioner Richard Moore's sentence proportionate to his crime.

April 7, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

By vote of 53 - 47, US Senate confirms its second former US Sentencing Commissioner to serve as a Supreme Court Justice

There are many historic elements to every Supreme Court confirmations, including the one today discussed in this USA Today article starting this way:

The Senate confirmed Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court on Thursday afternoon, making her the 116th justice — and first Black woman — to serve on the nation's highest court.

The Senate's historic vote was 53-47 with three Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Mitt Romney of Utah joining every member of the Democratic caucus in voting for her confirmation.

President Joe Biden nominated Jackson in February, after Associate Justice Stephen Breyer announced he would retire at the end of the current court term.  Though confirmed, Jackson will wait months to take her seat on the bench, until Breyer officially steps down.

Of course, lots of folks are especially excited for the ways in which Judge (Justice-confirmed?) Jackson represents a first.  But I could not help but highlight in this post a notable way in which she is a second: she is now the second former US Sentencing Commissioner to be confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice.  The first, of course, is the man she will be replacing in a few months, namely outgoing Justice Stephen Breyer.

Am I showing too much of my nerdiness by saying I hope that someday there will be a Jeopardy question (or should I say Jeopardy answer) on this topic?  Does anyone else have any other fun SCOTUS (and/or USSC) trivia for the occasion?

April 7, 2022 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Remaining (overly?) upbeat about bipartisan criminal justice reform

Marc Levin has this notable new Hill commentary, headlined "Confirmation combat can’t crush bipartisan criminal justice reform," making an important case for staying bulling on the prospects for bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

The “soft on crime” critique of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has prompted obituaries for the era of bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, a détente that the country has enjoyed since Texas kicked off a wave of policy change 15 years ago.  While the coalition may be fragile, the prospects remain encouraging for continued progress on both public safety and justice.

Optimism stems in part from the fact that the primary responsibility for criminal justice policy rests at the state level, and the most significant reforms continue to occur there. Indeed, it was state-level reforms that first led to prison closures and reduced recidivism through treatment courts and other alternatives to incarceration, including in red states like Texas and Georgia. Those advancements, in turn, inspired the federal First Step Act signed by President Trump in 2018, a law that pared back mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and allowed low-risk individuals to shave time off their prison terms by completing rehabilitative programs.

Today, state legislators remain the most significant actors in this arena, given that about 90 percent of all criminal cases and incarcerated populations are at the state and local levels. In Oklahoma, which has the nation’s highest incarceration rate, a bipartisan measure that brings consistency and proportionality to sentencing for nonviolent offenses overwhelmingly passed the state’s Senate on March 23.... Another red state, Ohio, is advancing a handful of significant bipartisan criminal justice reforms in its current legislative session....

While continued momentum on the state level promises to have the most far-reaching impact on the justice system, strong possibilities remain this election year for bipartisan congressional action.  One area with potential for progress is marijuana policy. There are a variety of proposals for unwinding failed federal policy on cannabis with varying levels of bipartisan support....

Also, in recent weeks, additional Republican senators have become cosponsors of a bill that would end the pronounced disparity in penalties between crack and powder cocaine, which would affect some 1,500 new sentences every year....  Other bipartisan federal legislation that could reach President Biden’s desk this year include bills that abolish federal life without parole sentences for juveniles, prevent the use of acquitted conduct in sentencing, extend Medicaid to otherwise eligible individuals within 30 days of their release from incarceration, and invest in treatment for people with mental illness in the justice system.

Undoubtedly, the recent rise in some types of violent crime, most notably homicides, has strained bipartisan coalitions around sensible reforms. While fearmongering is unwarranted, rigorously evaluating the impact of recent justice system changes is not just desirable, but necessary....

Criminal justice policy is too important to leave to any one political party, and all Americans, regardless of ideology, rightly demand a system that protects both their lives and liberties. While hearings for both Republican and Democratic administration Supreme Court nominees have become circus-like, there is reason to believe that our political leaders can move from confirmation combat to considerable consensus on the next steps to achieve safety and justice for all.

This commentary effectively highlights that there is still continued momentum for some forms of criminal justice reforms on both sides of the aisle at both the state and federal levels. But, even before the SCOTUS confirmation hearings, a pandemic-era spike in homicides and other crimes concerns were already creating headwinds for many reform efforts. And the SCOTUS hearings served as a significant reminder that "tough/soft on crime" rhetoric can often still quickly become a central part of the modern political atmosphere. How these matters play out in our politics and policy-making in the months and years to come is going to be important and interesting to watch closely.

April 6, 2022 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)